More?

by Andrew Stuttaford

John, Thomas More was an intriguing and brilliant figure, but I’ll choose someone else as a defender of liberty. Churchill may have indeed admired the stand More took (in defense of his conscience) in his last years, but previously More  had shown rather less interest in defense of the freedom of conscience of others (not least that of  the heretics whose burning he supported, or for that matter, that of William Tyndale, a translator of the Bible of genius).

Here’s an extract from the largely sympathetic biography of More by the British writer (and Roman Catholic) Peter Ackroyd:

“[More] epitomized, in modern terms, the apparatus of the state using its power to crush those attempting to subvert it. His opponents were genuinely following their consciences, while More considered them the harbinger of the devil’s reign on earth. How could there be moderation in any confrontation between them? He was, in large part, successful; he managed to check the more open expression of heretical opinion and thereby prevented it from being accepted piece by piece or gradually condoned. He also disrupted the community of ‘newe men’ in Antwerp and helped to diminish the flow of banned books into England.”

It’s important, of course, to understand More’s behavior from the perspective of his time (his own ‘season’ if you like), but it’s interesting to see how the intellectual and political issues that surrounded his fall still resonate in the modern world.

In that light, more of what Churchill has to say is worth mulling:

The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a noble and heroic stand. They realised the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom. [...] More stood as the defender of all that was finest in the medieval outlook. He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values and its instinctive sense of other-worldliness. Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counsellor, but a system, which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams.

But such bright dreams can also be the stuff of nightmares. When the new Soviet regime put up a monument to nineteen “outstanding thinkers and fighters for the emancipation of the working people”,  by the Kremlin wall Thomas More came in at  ninth place (Marx was, surprise, number one). Somewhat more benignly, you can see traces of More’s belief in a united Christendom in the EU’s insistence that its project represents the necessary “reunification” of Europe.

For myself, I’ll stick with the local, the nation and, for that matter, Tyndale’s translation and its mighty contribution to the King James Version of the Bible. But each to his own, as Thomas More didn’t really believe.