Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature Tudor Rose Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More | Biography | Quotes | Works | Essays | Portraits | Posters | Films | Bookstore | Links | Discussion Forum



Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Book Cover of 'Broken Estate' by James Wood

Excerpted from:
Wood, James. The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief.
New York: Random House, 1999. 3-15.

Copyright ©1999 James Wood. All Rights Reserved.
Published with express written permission from Random House, Inc.

Sir Thomas More:
A Man for One Season

It may be better to be a John Knox than an
Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either.

—Mill, "On Liberty"

Thomas More, the scrupulous martyr, is the complete English saint. But no man can ever be a saint in God's eyes, and no man should be one in ours, and certainly not Thomas More. His image has been warmed by different breaths. He is seen as a Catholic martyr because he died opposing Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the king's robbery from the pope of the leadership of the English church. But he is also seen as a lawyer-layman caught in the mesh of presumptuous ecclesiology, an English Cicero of the pre-Reformation who nobly gave his head to forces beyond his control. Most absurdly, because of Robert Bolt's screenplay, this barrister of Catholic repression is widely envisioned as modernity's diapason: the clear, strong note of individual conscience, the note of the self, sounding against the authoritarian intolerance of the Early Modern state. Thomas More died in defense of an authoritarian intolerance much more powerful than a mere king's, however, for he died believing in God and in the authority of the pope and the Catholic Church. As Lord Chancellor, he had imprisoned and interrogated Lutherans, sometimes in his own house, and sent six reformers to be burned at the stake, and he had not done this just so that he might die for slender modern scruple, for anything as naked as the naked self. This drained, contemporary view of More, which admires not what he believed but how he believed-his "certainty," only-is thinly secular, and represents nothing more than the retired religious yearning of a nonreligious age.
        A dignified biography by Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, offers a picture of More which is a combination of Catholic admiration and modern scholarly determinism. Ackroyd soaked himself in late medieval history; happily, he does not pretend to conduct a historical seance, as he has in earlier work. (He does not walk down the Old Kent Road arm in arm with "cockney More.") He gives a reliable, indeed moving, account of ordinary religion in sixteenth-century England, and synthesizes a vast body of material. But his book is partial, merciful, and sentimental where it should be total, unforgiving, and grave. Ackroyd is evasive about More's evasions. He invariably gives him the benefit of the doubt in his battle with the Lutheran heretics and is dreamily naive about More's Machiavellianism at court. He is gentle with the incoherent and frantic tattoos that More beat out in the enormous anti-Lutheran tracts of the 1520s. At no point does he properly examine the justice of the Protestant case, either doctrinally or politically, preferring to see its progress deterministically, in high doom, as the inevitable "birth of the modern age." His book is mild Catholic elegy. This not only clothes More in stolen righteousness, but delays once again a truly secular judgment of More (as opposed to the drained, secular view), in which the zealous legalist might be seen for what he was, in all his itchy finesse of cruelty.
        More's life, in particular its quick, morbid promotion toward martyrdom, is as compelling here as elsewhere: Ackroyd narrates it with royal fatalism. Here is the gentle house in Bucklersbury, where Erasmus, More's "darling," wrote In Praise of Folly in 1509. We encounter again More's hair shirt, worn quietly underneath his public vestments, so that only his daughter discovered it, by chance, and the knotted straps with which he flagellated himself. His extended family, as Holbein's sketch reveals, existed as a collegium for the new humanism. More taught his children to read Greek and Latin by affixing letters to an archery board and encouraging his pupils to fire arrows at them. The prosecutor of later years could bear to chastise his children only with a peacock feather. He and his wife, Alice, played the lute together, like ideal woodcut spouses. More was one of a number of humanists who believed that the liberal arts, especially the study of Greek and Latin literature, needed renovation. With Erasmus he translated the satirical and highly irreligious writer Lucian from Greek to Latin. He wrote, in 1518, that one should "build a path to theology" through the great secular authors. He believed that the church needed to be reformed, and was not obscure about the clerical abuse that was turning the people against the priesthood. Out of this world came his beautiful lament, Utopia (1516), whose delicate ironies would come to seem self-ironies, and whose playful negatives would curdle into the mean calculations of More's later years. For in the inverted island world of Utopia, divorce is permissible, and the inhabitants can follow any religion they like; these would become the two determinants of More's later fixity. The founder of Utopia, writes More, could see that religious differences sowed discord. Thus he allowed freedom of worship. He himself "might do the best he could to bring others to his opinion, so that he did it peacably, gently, quietly and soberly. . . . If he could not by fair and gentle speech induce them unto his opinions, yet he should use no kind of violence and refrain from displeasant and seditious words." This was not, alas, portable wisdom; More would punish religious dissent not only with "displeasant" words but with state violence, and would come to say that he would rather not have written Utopia than see one heretic prosper.
        Utopia is saturnalian. It satirically turns custom upside down, so that in our own world we see the pompous altitude of custom in its arbitrariness. The inhabitants of Utopia, for instance, make their meanest objects out of gold and silver and give precious gems to their children as toys. In a fine jest, More writes that ambassadors, unaware of Utopian customs, once arrived at the island richly dressed in gold chains. The islanders took the visitors to be slaves, and assumed that their simply dressed servants were the actual emissaries. This kind of inversion is the rocker-switch of all moral satire; it is there in Lucian, in Montaigne's Utopia-like essay "On Cannibals," and in Swift. In Lucian's Menippus, which More translated, the hero travels to Hades to find that death has undone all the pointless hierarchies of life: Philip of Macedon is stitching rotten sandals to earn money, Xerxes is begging, and so on. But the point of Lucian's lesson is made clear earlier on, when Menippus tells us that on earth things have already become sadly inverted: "On observation I found these same people practicing the very opposite of what they preached. I saw those who advocated despising money clinging to it tooth and nail . . . and those who would have us reject fame doing and saying everything for just that, and again pretty well all of them speaking out against pleasure, but in private clinging to it alone." In this light, Hades corrects these inversions by reinverting them, and in the same way, the island of Utopia is the comic inversion of the uncomic inversion of rectitude we practice in life. Accordingly, Utopia is not an ideal society so much as a comic one. More did not intend us to live in Utopia so much as to be logically mocked by it: the Shakespearean Fool is the near equivalent.
        It is difficult to reconcile the author of Utopia with the heretic hunter of the mid-1520s, who personally broke into Lutherans' homes and sent men to the stake. It is true that Luther's challenge, from 1519 onward, and Henry's proposed divorce, menaced More with visions of schism, and that the literal defense of the realm became More's necessary objective as Lord Chancellor. (He likened the fight against heretics to the fight against the Ottoman Empire.) But certainly, the shift from Utopian to prosecutor, in the space of ten years, is a bewildering one. Perhaps we should read Utopia, despite its play, more tragically-not only as Lucianic satire but as a darkly ironic vision of the impossible. The Utopians are pagans and thus live without knowledge of original sin. It is impossible, so More would have thought, for Christians to get back to this Eden, and indeed we should not attempt to, because we have Christ's plan to save us, not Utopia's. Yet what would a world without the need of Christ's rescue look like? Perhaps it would resemble Utopia. The tiniest flickering of a tragic blasphemy, a yearning to be other than we are, is what enriches Utopia and gives it its air of mournful surmise. Whatever the explanation, the spirit of Utopia, whether comic or tragic, was left behind by More. At times, he seems to have known exactly what lay ahead. In his History of King Richard III (1513) he wrote that "kings' games . . . were stage plays, and for the more part played upon scaffolds." The "More part," indeed. At other times only we, in the harness of retrospect, can see how the ironies of this life buckle. Who could have invented, for instance, the irony of a line which blares at the reader from More's Responsio ad Lutherum, a tract written against Luther and in support of Henry VIII's own anti-Lutheran treatise, An Assertion of the Seven Sacraments. The sentence issues triumphantly from More as he traps Luther in argument: "The King has you cornered." As the 1520s progress, the dance of king and subject becomes emblematic, almost stagey. We watch as More and Henry circle around each other, exuding deadly perfumes: on the first day of January 1532, More presented Henry "with a walking stick inlaid in gold leaf and in turn he was given a great golden bowl." (The stick would strike, and the bowl would break.) And the final months are deeply moving; the loyal public servant, confined in the Tower for seven months, now selflessly bearded and long-haired, the body dying but also unconstrainedly living, become something natural. More was returning to spiritual childishness; his last words to his daughter are especially lovely: "God maketh me a wanton, and setteth me on His lap and dandleth me."
        The darker More eclipses the saint, however. More was drawn into the defense of the Catholic realm early in the 1520s, while still a royal counselor. He wrote the Responsio ad Lutherum in 1523, and from then until his death, in 1535, the battle against reform was his obsession. In 1526, Tyndale published his pocket-sized English translation of the New Testament. Heretical books were being imported from the Continent. An English tendency toward anticlericalism seemed in danger of fattening into the grossest Lutheranism and rebelliousness. Thomas More struck. A series of vicious arguments and counterarguments streamed from his pen. Tyndale was "the beste," and Luther and his wife were "Friar Tuck and Maid Marion." Unlike the twilit Utopia, these were written not in Latin but in brazen English: the Dialogue Concerning Heresies in 1528; The Supplication of Souls in 1529; the massive Confutation of Tyndale's Answer in 1532 and 1533, among whose half million words can be found More's promise that if anyone translated into English In Praise of Folly, or works "that I have myself written," he would burn them with his own hands "rather than folk would . . . take any harm of them, seeing them likely in these days to do."
        As Lord Chancellor, which he became in October 1529, More, though a layman, was soon the church's most eager agent. With the help of John Stokesley, the Bishop of London, More personally broke into the houses of suspected heretics, arresting them on the spot and sometimes interrogating them in his own home. He imprisoned one man in the porter's lodge of his house, and had him put in the stocks. He raided the home of a businessman called John Petyt, who was suspected of financing Tyndale; Petyt died in the Tower. Six rebellious Oxford students were kept for months in a fish cellar; three of them died in prison. More was now a spiritual detective, a policeman in a hair shirt, engaged in "what would now be called surveillance and entrapment among the leather-sellers, tailors, fishmongers and drapers of London." Six protesters were burned under More's chancellorship, and perhaps forty were imprisoned. Ackroyd is admirably detailed about these activities. But he resides in the sympathetic assumption that "it might be argued that his severe stance was a reaction to the menaces of the period," and so he barely examines the compromised intellectual foundations of More's defense, and too often treats the anti-heretical tracts as just the grapes of heady sixteenth-century rhetoric.
        Luther wanted to reorient theological certainty so that it could be grounded in Scripture. He regarded many of the practices of the church as no more than human inventions, now subject to gross abuse by clergy and laypeople alike. For example, Luther felt that the Eucharist, which commemorates Christ's last supper, had become a superstition. Early-sixteenth-century worshipers consumed the Host (the communion bread) only once or twice a year. For the rest of the time, it was sufficient simply to gaze on the Host as the priest elevated it above his head, at daily or weekly masses. To look upon the Host sufficed because the bread had become a crude visual proof of Christ's existence; it was the body of Christ, and diligent worshipers might boast that "I see my Maker once a day." This was one of the church sacraments that Luther attacked. He felt that a partial biblical truth had been humanly corrupted. He could find no evidence in the New Testament for the doctrine of the transubstantiation. He concluded that people believed such a thing only because the church told them to. Instead, Luther saw this sacrament as a divine promise, a symbol rather than a proof. Elsewhere in the church, Luther found similar reifications of the spiritual. More had been in favor of reform as a young man. But time was now drawing in. Reform was not the same in the age of Luther as in the age of Erasmus. More truly believed that Luther presaged the arrival of the Antichrist; Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ottoman hordes were grazing the edges of Europe. The king's divorce threatened the unity of the church. Now the heretics had to be crushed. More's essential defense was traditional. In the Responsio (1523), he used Augustine's argument that the church, and not only Scripture, has authority. We accept the Gospels themselves only because the church tells us to; why then, he complained to Luther, is it not "reasonable to believe certain truths only on the authority of the Church"? More's idea of the church was like his idea of the customary law, a body of continuous and exercised truths. Like the early church fathers, he appealed to "what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." He trusted in the accumulated wisdom of "the whole corps of Christendom," and it can be fairly said that he died not in blind defense of the sovereignty of the pope but in reasoned defense of the primacy of the common church and its ancient head.
        Yet into this traditional argument he squeezed tinctures of rage and untruth. Ackroyd largely ignores this, providing extracts from More's works which are too small to allow proper judgment. In fact, More was unscrupulous, greasy, quibblingly legalistic. In the Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1528) he blamed the sack of Rome, and the attendant atrocities, on Luther's followers. Ackroyd repeats this, forgetting to mention that Rome was in fact taken by mercenaries of the Catholic emperor Charles V. More was astonishingly disingenuous. Throughout the late 1520s, he claimed that anticlericalism was identical with heresy, when he, an early anticlerical, knew this to be untrue. In reply to one Simon Fish, who had argued that England's travails had to do with the greed and idleness of the clergy, More claimed that things were much the same in the country as they had always been, and then appealed to Henry VIII's vanity as defender of the faith to stamp out the unpatriotic anticlerical heretics. When More was not lying, he was dissembling. Two examples will be sufficient. (Neither is quoted by Ackroyd.) In the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, More attempted to answer the charge of the reformers that it was not Christian for the church to burn heretics. The church did not burn people, replied More; the state burned them. This was strictly true, because the ecclesiastical courts tried heretics and the state courts sentenced them. But More's language is disingenuous. The church, he writes, would never want to kill anyone. "It is not the clergy that laboreth to have them punished to death." The "spiritual law" is "good, reasonable, piteous, and charitable, and nothing desiring the death of any therein." The church asks the heretic to repent; if he does not, the church excommunicates him, at which point "the clergy giveth knowledge to the temporalty, not exhorting the prince, or any man else, either, to kill him or to punish him." The church does not urge anyone to punish the heretic; it "leaveth him to the secular hand, and forsaketh him."
        Ackroyd remarks at one point, fairly perhaps, that More was "no different from most of his contemporaries" in supporting burning. But More's wriggling in this passage is unseemly. First, if he is so keen to absolve the church of this punishment, then he cannot hold the practice in very high moral esteem, and it is simply legalistic to argue that it ceases to be repulsive once the state performs it. But moreover, More knew perfectly well that though formally church and state dealt separately with the heretic, practically both sides worked together. He knew this because this was his own working experience. The church, said More, never "exhorted" a prince to burn anyone. Perhaps not in so many words, except that the church performed the equivalent of exhortation every time it excommunicated and "forsook" heretics. (Three hundred years later, in The Idea of a University [1852], Cardinal Newman would employ a similar argument, that the Spanish Inquisition "in no proper sense belonged to the Church. It was simply and entirely a State institution.") And it should be remembered that the defender of the church in this passage was not a clergyman but a politician-a representative of the very "temporalty" to which he neutrally transfers the blame of burning. This is More the lawyer, truthful only in letter. It is the same More who told Thomas Cromwell in 1534 that he had "written nothing" since 1527 against the king's divorce; again, precisely true perhaps, except that More was one of the leaders, behind the scenes, of Catherine of Aragon's faction. Ackroyd rather meaninglessly comments, on More's duplicity at court, that it was "a difficult as well as an ambiguous role and More was the only man in the kingdom who could have played it." But a more cold-eyed scholar, Alistair Fox, has written that it "gives evidence of a political endeavour in More so subtle and devious as to set not only Machiavelli, but also Richard III and Iago to school."
        When More could not win an argument, he slid into puerility. For example, in his tract The Supplication of Souls (1529), More tries to beat the reformers ("this lewd sect") with a flurry of numbers: "if ye consider how late this lewd sect began . . . and how few always" they have been, "and then if ye consider on the other side how full and whole the great corps of all Christian countries." And not only numbers are on our side, continues More, but quality: "match them man for man, then have we . . . Saint Austin against Friar Luther, Saint Jerome against Friar Lambert, Saint Ambrose against Friar Huskin, Saint Gregory against priest Pomerane, Saint Chrysostom against Tyndale." If these heretics include their wives in the battle, then they might seem to have an advantage; but we have "blessed women against these friars' wives." For we have "Saint Anastasia against Friar Luther's wife, Saint Hildegaarde against Friar Huskin's wife," and so on.
        Ackroyd reads the tracts as rhetorical dressage rather than as doctrinal ordnance. For him, More is a Londoner, a man of the people defending popular tradition, who used vernacular English and earthy taunts to defeat his opponents. Of one tract, he writes warmly: "He uses the language of London as a way of refuting the more impersonal objections of his opponent." Of the Dialogue, he comments: "The whole theme and purpose of his Dialogue Concerning Heresies had been to celebrate that common culture which was under threat." And near the end of his book, he provides us with a mournful reminder of that "common culture" which was about to pass: "a time, soon to come, when there would be no more lights and images, no more pilgrimages and processions, no guild plays and no ringing for the dead, no maypoles or Masses or holy water, no birch at midsummer and no roses at Corpus Christi." This is very hazy. To begin with, in what sense was More a man of the people? His very defense of Catholicism rested on the rejection, in part, of the politics of the people. The so-called new humanism had always espoused a somewhat stoppered radicalism, in which elites reformed elites. Luther, by contrast, wanted to aerate the elite. Erasmus complained to Justus Jonus in 1521 that Luther "is making even cobblers aware of things which used to be discussed only amongst the learned, as mysteries and forbidden knowledge. . . . above all I would urge that one avoid disorder." Like Erasmus, the More of the 1520s and 1530s was against disorder. In 1533, in his Apology, he wrote that it would be better to have no reform at all, even "though the change might be to the better," if it involved public complaint against the law. Although in 1528 he wrote in favor of translating the Bible into English, by 1530 he had decided against it. And even in 1528, in the Dialogue, he warned that an English Bible must not get into the wrong hands. It is especially dangerous when "men unlearned . . . ensearch and dispute the secret mysteries of Scripture." Things should be as they were in the book of Exodus, writes More, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and talked to God. The people, unlike Moses, "ought to be content to tarry beneath, and meddle none higher than is meet for them." The priest on the hill, privy to mysteries, and the people beneath, coddled in obscurity-there might be no better image of the old Catholic curtain, the antique Scholastic protectorate.
        On one issue More was right: Luther's belief that faith alone, without good works, justified one in the eyes of God was a cruelty that not only demanded an inhuman mental loyalty, but that, brought to its logical end, abolished the purpose of Christian conduct on earth. Yet because More had so sternly set himself against the essential plea of Lutheranism, he could never see that Luther's type of fideism did not arrive out of nothing, but owed its hard extremity to the church's superstitions of corporeality. Luther was opposing gray with white, in overreaction. For although the Reformation did indeed end a common calendar of feast days and processions, as Ackroyd charges, the religious share of that calendar had become a bullied almanac of rote and rite, the codification of mass ignorance. The evil lay not just in the pagan animism of certain corruptions-of believing that a pardon from the pope might speed a soul from purgatory to heaven, or that the sprinkle of holy water, like that of salt, banished demons. It lay in the systematic withdrawal of Scripture from the people: psalms had been reduced to one- or two-verse extracts; at the Eucharist, the canticles had been starved to only one; priests were preaching fewer sermons; the amount of Scripture read publicly was in decline. More would not admit this. He refused to examine the proposition that if the church acts merely humanly, then its authority is merely human, not divine. Despite the thousands of words he wrote against Luther, he turned his eyes from the awful challenge of Luther, which was to move God back from the visible while simultaneously expanding our invisible encounter with God. It was this challenge of absence, an admittedly cold challenge, which received its formal English statement when Hugh Latimer, in 1536, ordained that religious images were "only to represent things absent." But More also turned his eyes from the political petition of the reformers, which was that the church, again in Latimer's words, had "deluded the people." (The 1549 Book of Common Prayer stated, as one of its expressed aims, the edification of the people.)
        Yet the Protestant case against More, for all its power, is too easily made in the late twentieth century, and represents a rather blank triumph. One should avoid sounding like such propagandists of the Renaissance as Jacob Burckhardt, who writes, in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: "That religion should again become an affair of the individual and of his own personal feeling was inevitable when the Church became corrupt in doctrine and tyrannous in practice, and is a proof that the European mind was still alive." One will make Protestantism sound like a modern secret that More was simply too old to catch, and thus make More a doomed historical villain, because he could not have acted differently-or a hero, if one is approaching this inevitability from the side of Peter Ackroyd's velvet reaction. This idea of More's entrapment by history or by the inevitable forward march of "the European mind" must then represent the point at which Catholic admiration joins hands both with Protestant excoriation and with modern, secular admiration. Indeed, it represents the point at which Protestant criticism of More becomes identical with Protestant admiration. For if More is doomed, then he is always something of a hero, from any vantage.
        But More could have acted differently, and it is on this presumption that a secular case against him should be made. Yet what does it mean to say that he could have acted differently? What are these belated assizes that could possibly convict More almost five hundred years after the time? Would that not be meaningless? The secular case is not acutely an argument with More the historical actor so much as with the category of sainthood. To argue that Napoleon could have acted differently at Borodino is a meaningless wrestle with a fait accompli, and was properly mocked by Tolstoy. But to argue that a saint could have acted differently is always to argue that he should have acted differently; it is to argue with the church that blesses his actions as deeds outside history and beyond the fait accompli. The Catholic claim for More as a saint is transhistorical and universal; More was saintly then, and is saintly now and for all time; for the church, it is calendrically trivial that More happened to be canonized only in 1935. The secular argument against More can match the religious argument for More only if it too deploys transhistorical and universal categories. The church says, in effect: this is how More should have acted, and we are well pleased with him, and we can pronounce this blessing at any moment in providential history because our values do not shift. The secularist must parry: this is not how he should have acted, and we must be able to say this at any moment in profane history because the only ground on which we can denounce More is on the ground that he betrayed certain universal ideals of secular human conduct. That is to say, the religious defense of More issues from one belief system, and the secular argument against him issues from another, and these two systems of thought are still at war. There is hardly any need to describe these two systems; a detail is offered by two books which appeared within five years of each other: Cardinal Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864) and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859). Newman's position is hardly different from More's, three hundred years earlier. Newman argues that the church should control what is known and discussed, because the church has final authority over truth. Earlier, Newman wrote in The Idea of a University that "Liberal Knowledge" can be allowed slightly to prosper precisely because religious truth can never be assailed: "Truth never can really be contrary to truth . . . error may flourish for a time, but Truth will prevail in the end." Mill's essay, which wrestles incessantly with Christianity, argues that truth is tested, and is actually constituted and proved, only by its "collision with error," and that all opinions must thus be admissible. In a sense, Mill had already "won" politically at the time of writing, and Newman never had the political power that More possessed. But the struggle between Newman's idea of sanctioned truth and Mill's idea of released error has not finished, and is never finished as long as Christianity, or any other system of sanctioned truth, exists.
        The secular argument against More, then, is premised on the infinity of this battle and is another episode in it. To this end, the secularist is bound to remark that a system of sanctioned truth has three chief defects germane to a criticism of Thomas More's conduct. First, it tends to deprive people of the means by which they might censure, and then adjust, their own behavior, because it does not believe in correction by error; it is a circular system-"If we would solve new questions, it must be by consulting old answers," writes Newman, adding that the notion of new doctrinal knowledge "is intolerable to Catholic ears." Second, and flowing from this, if error is neither extended the possibility of occasionally being true, nor allowed to express itself when merely untrue, then a system of sanctioned truth must inevitably produce a category of punishable heresy, a category which might as easily imprison Jesus or Thomas More as Tyndale or Cranmer. Third, sanctioned truth must imply the dominance of the church's truths over the state's, and the church's struggle to maintain its authority over the state. These three characteristics of Catholic belief, and not merely More's "integrity," imprisoned him; just as, three hundred years later, that same circularity mentally imprisoned Cardinal Newman. Later in the Apologia pro Vita Sua Newman writes icily, in defense of sanctioned truth, that there is a correct time for everything, and that sometimes a protester against the church who might seem to a later age "a bold champion for the truth and a martyr to free opinion" is in fact "just one of those persons whom the competent authority ought to silence." Newman meant people like Luther, of course; but those who believe in the forceful silencing of dissent, as More did, may well be silenced themselves, and we should shed no tears that they have been circularly revenged upon by their own beliefs.
        So it is enough for secular criticism to argue that More should have acted differently, and in asserting only this, secular criticism gives birth to itself. It is enough for the secularist to say that there are categories and modes of being which possess a transhistorical and universal status equivalent to sainthood's, and by which it is therefore permissible to judge More's actions. This is surely what Mill meant, though he was not discussing More, when he wrote: "There is a different type of human excellence from the Calvinistic; a conception of humanity as having its nature bestowed on it for other purposes than merely to be abnegated. 'Pagan self-assertion' is one of the elements of human worth, as well as 'Christian self-denial.' There is a Greek ideal of self-development, which the Platonic and Christian ideal of self-government blends with, but does not supersede. It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either." We do not have to be as sublimely wild as Nietzsche (though it is tempting), and condemn More's obedience to God as the typical product of "slave-morality." We can simply observe that in all of history other men have believed as strongly as More in God or in gods without sending people of differing opinions to the stake. More was nothing like his supposed example, the gently latitudinarian Cicero, for instance: Cicero's philosophical and religious dialogues (as opposed to his legal and political speeches, of course) often read as if he delighted in being contradicted, while More's are spittingly conclusive. Closer to More, Erasmus, though slippery and haughty and decidedly anti-Lutheran, was not touched with More's love of power, and shrank from his legalistic bombardments. Erasmus's "humane middle ground," writes Euan Cameron in The European Reformation, "opposed alike to scholastic obscurities, vulgar superstitions, protestant dogmatics, and popular disorder, was steadily deserted by both sides." On one of those sides was Sir Thomas More, cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics. He betrayed Christianity when he led it so violently into court politics, and he betrayed politics when he surrendered it so meekly to the defense of Catholicism. Above all, he betrayed his humanity when he surrendered it to the alarms of God.

Backto Luminarium Main
Backto Renaissance English Literature
Backto Essays and Articles on Sir Thomas More
Backto Sir Thomas More
Backto Luminarium Encyclopedia

Text copyright ©1999 James Wood. All Rights Reserved. Published with express written permission from Random House, Inc.
Background and HTML code copyright ©1996-2018 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on September 13, 1999. Last updated December 12, 2018.


The Tudors

King Henry VII
Elizabeth of York

King Henry VIII
Queen Catherine of Aragon
Queen Anne Boleyn
Queen Jane Seymour
Queen Anne of Cleves
Queen Catherine Howard
Queen Katherine Parr

King Edward VI
Queen Mary I
Queen Elizabeth I
Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond

Renaissance English Writers
Bishop John Fisher
William Tyndale
Sir Thomas More
John Heywood
Thomas Sackville
Nicholas Udall
John Skelton
Sir Thomas Wyatt
Henry Howard
Hugh Latimer
Thomas Cranmer
Roger Ascham
Sir Thomas Hoby
John Foxe
George Gascoigne
John Lyly
Thomas Nashe
Sir Philip Sidney
Edmund Spenser
Richard Hooker
Robert Southwell
Robert Greene
George Peele
Thomas Kyd
Edward de Vere
Christopher Marlowe
Anthony Munday
Sir Walter Ralegh
Thomas Hariot
Thomas Campion
Mary Sidney Herbert
Sir John Davies
Samuel Daniel
Michael Drayton
Fulke Greville
Emilia Lanyer
William Shakespeare

Persons of Interest
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cromwell
John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester
Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio
Cardinal Reginald Pole
Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester
William Tyndale
Pico della Mirandola
Desiderius Erasmus
Christopher Saint-German
Thomas Linacre
William Grocyn
Hugh Latimer
Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent
For more, visit Encyclopedia

Historical Events
Field of the Cloth of Gold, 1520
Pilgrimage of Grace, 1536
The Babington Plot, 1586
The Spanish Armada, 1588

Oath of Supremacy
The Act of Supremacy, 1534
The First Act of Succession, 1534
The Third Act of Succession, 1544
The Ten Articles, 1536
The Six Articles, 1539
The Second Statute of Repeal, 1555

Images of London:
London in the time of Henry VII. MS. Roy. 16 F. ii.
London, 1510, earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's Panoramic View of London, 1616. COLOR

For more, visit Encyclopedia

Luminarium | Encyclopedia | What's New | Letter from the Editor | Bookstore | Poster Store | Discussion Forums | Search