Politics & Policy

Getting to Know Thomas More

A more seasoned Man for All Seasons.

Dead nearly five hundred years, Sir Thomas More pops up all over the place. He is in the Frick Collection in Manhattan as painted by Hans Holbein. More’s bust sits in the Tower of London where he was imprisoned and executed, and his statue is at the Inns of Court, the center and source of Anglo-Saxon law, where he was recently named in a British lawyers’ poll the “Lawyer of the [last] Millennium.” You can find him in Rome where he was canonized a saint in 1935 and named the patron of statesmen in 2000. You can find him on stage and on film in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. You can find him in bookstores the world over, still posthumously pedaling his hotly debated and famous philosophic dialogue Utopia. So hotly debated was that book that you can even find More’s name engraved on a Leninist monument near the Kremlin, erected in 1918, celebrating him as one of that handful “who promoted the liberation of humankind from oppression, arbitrariness, and exploitation.” Less but still surprising, you can find him in the Anglican Church calendar celebrated yearly as a martyr. When Lenin, the pope, and the Church of England all lay claim to the same man’s legacy, you have to assume the following: This man is worth knowing, and no one knows this man.

The biographers of Sir Thomas More also conflict. Richard Marius paints him as a repressed sexual deviant; Alistair Fox paints him as England’s Machiavelli, while Peter Ackroyd says he “embodied the law of England”; and Gerard Wegemer–one of the editors of a new book and others on Thomas More–shows him to be a citizen, scholar, husband, father and saint. Scholars debate how More could be known as a champion of the freedom of conscience and a burner of heretics, as a prayerful, contemplative man and the highest officer in England under the king. How could the man who coined the term “integrity” appear so checkered? A lack of knowledge of Sir Thomas More himself, perhaps?

The Internet is riddled with false quotes attributed to More, or quotes from A Man for All Seasons claiming to be the real More’s words. Even More’s carefully chosen dying words are often misquoted by his advocates, the Honorable Robert Bork for instance. Judge Bork, with the great majority of educated mankind, misquoted Thomas More as having said at the scaffold, “I die the King’s good servant but God’s first.” What he actually said is “I die the King’s good servant and God’s first.” More’s final words were ones not of conflict or tragedy, but of hopefulness and harmony between God and man, church and state, the individual and the collective.

Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith, from the University of Dallas and Hillsdale College respectively, have edited together into a manageable and highly readable volume, a collection of documents that form an impressive mosaic of the life–political, intellectual, personal, spiritual, and historical–of Sir Thomas More. The book–A Thomas More Sourcebook is not, as you might think, simply famous selections from his voluminous tracts, letters, poems, speeches, and philosophic dialogues. Rather, it is something more clever and nimble, which turns out to give a far clearer picture of More than has been heretofore drawn–excepting Holbein’s portrait of course.

Although not always true of a Supreme Court nominee, much can be learned from a man’s reputation. The first section of A Thomas More Source Book treats us to an account of More’s life by scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the contemporary of More who first referred to him as “a man for all seasons.” Taken together with More’s son-in-law Roper’s biography and the delightful play Sir Thomas More, written in large part by William Shakespeare, one begins to see More with the eyes of his contemporaries and those who came immediately after him. The editors explain each source document thoroughly, and certainly arouse curiosity as to why Shakespeare, under the Tudor reign of Elizabeth, risked co-writing a play about “Merry More, the friend of the poor.”

So often depictions of Thomas More rely on analyzing what he did in his public life, applying conventional moral principles of the biographer’s day, then rendering a confused judgment of More’s life. The joy of this book is the reasonable presumption made by the editors that a man who has written so voluminously, and who was regarded as the preeminent philosopher and statesman of Europe throughout his life, must have had a thoughtful and nuanced understanding of the world and his place in it. Thus, instead of a play-by-play account of his life with muddled color commentary, A Thomas More Source Book gives us the coach’s secret playbook.

Granted, previous biographers and More scholars have done excellent and yeoman work prior to Wegemer and Smith, Giorgio Melchiori to name one. And the two editors must have had an easier time clearly anthologizing Thomas More’s work now that the behemoth 15-volume Yale edition of the complete works has been published. Nonetheless, the book organizes More and some of his contemporaries’ letters, poems, dialogues, and speeches under headings designed to reveal his political philosophy and understanding of the law, his views on religion and government, love and friendship, even pain and suffering. But the editors do not balk at including details of Sir Thomas More’s education as well: One of More’s favorite ancient works, Plutarch’s “How to Tell a Flatter from a Friend” finds its way into the book. Also included are letters to his wife, his children, dear friends, and a tutor for his children, for whom More outlines his educational philosophy. Even political prudence in the form of Latin epigrams as well as feelingly written love poems serve to round out More’s character and personality.

The editors pay an artful compliment to Thomas More, who wrote so very often on conscience, by putting together a book designed to elucidate More’s own. The book’s tone is scholarly, but clear and simple, designed for scholars and statesmen alike. An opening introduction reads as a historical primer, but the source documents are treasures of the Western world. The footnotes throughout are lucid and complete. The volume is replete with pithy marginal summaries and an exhaustive index, which make it handy for reference. Regarding accuracy and thoroughness, the book properly reflects its subject: Thomas More coined the word “fact,” after all. The entire collection is an aid to anyone who takes life seriously.

During the Clinton impeachment trials, the bookstores in Washington D.C. saw a sudden run on editions of The Federalist Papers, as streams of interns (ironically) were sent by legislators of every sort to buy a volume which should have been on their shelves in the first place. I am not sure what specific event, if any, would spur the same desire for A Thomas More Source Book, but they should all have this on their shelves as well. It’s relevant to all they do. We’d all benefit from them reading it.

Matthew T. Mehan writes, teaches, and meddles in the affairs of the world, all from Maryland.

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