Earlier today, Andrew Stuttaford celebrated Henry VIII at the expense of Thomas More. As an act of penance, “The Corner” looks to More some more.
Richard W. Garnett
St. Thomas More wrote his History of the Passion while imprisoned in the Tower, expecting execution. This work, like the Dialogue of Comfort, is a powerful and moving effort by an ardent and committed controversialist to bring his life, cares, hopes, and disappointments into the presence of Christ, to the foot of the cross. It is easy — for me, anyway — to imagine that the give-and-take of political debate is more important than it really is; far harder — for me, anyway — to appreciate that “the passion of Christ and mine own passage out of this world” is as important as it really is.
– Richard W. Garnett is a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame Law School.
The best explanation of why these are great — why St. Thomas More is great — is from Fr. George Rutler. Fr. Rutler preached in New York City at his parish, Church of Our Saviour, before the congregation which included the president of the United States, referring to a picture of More in the church sanctuary:
There is a picture of Saint Thomas More, the “Man for All Seasons.” There is a picture of courage. He coined two words: Utopia and Anarchy. There can be no Utopia in the storms of this world, and yet if the winds that blow are not rebuked there will be anarchy. Pope John Paul II declared Saint Thomas the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. Harry Truman said that a statesman is a politician who has been dead ten or fifteen years. That is not quite what the Pope meant. He said that Thomas More teaches that “government is above all an exercise of virtue. Unwavering in this rigorous moral stance, this English statesman placed his own public activity at the service of the person, especially if that person was weak or poor; he dealt with social controversies with a superb sense of fairness; he was vigorously committed to favoring and defending the family; he supported the all-round education of the young.” With such courage, Thomas More joyfully declared at his execution: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
— Wendy Long is legal counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network.
Matthew J. Franck
The only one of Thomas More’s books with which I have a more than passing familiarity is Utopia, which I have read with students several times over the last decade. Although it introduced the word “utopia” into the English language, its own utopianism is more than a little suspect, as careful readers quickly discover. A kind of homage to Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia is — like Plato’s work — complex, multilayered, ironic, and often rippingly funny. Is an obsession with wealth and property bad for a nation’s character? Yes, but the elimination of private property would be still worse. Can a people, believing they have achieved perfect political justice, withdraw from the world and contemplate their isolated perfection? No, for they will be driven by their own internal imperatives to exploit their neighbors as low, subhuman means to their own ends. Can religious faith be plucked from the heart of a country and turned into a matter of purely private “commitment” on the part of each citizen? Maybe, but only by creating a civil religion of such barrenness, such banality, that we end up with a country for which no one could reasonably risk his life. Don’t wait for the quincentenary of the publication of More’s Utopia in 2016; read it (or reread it) soon.
– Matthew J. Franck is professor and chairman of political science at Radford University, and a visiting fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
While The Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation may be his greatest work, and while my choice may be a cliché, my favorite work of Thomas More is the joint publication of his Latin epigrams together with the famed Utopia. The Epigrammata are as subtle as Horace, as wise as Augustine, and as whimsically serious as Chaucer. Its companion, the Utopia, employs the irony of Socrates and the moral and legal thinking of Cicero and Aquinas. In a time of fattening monarchical power, More’s Utopia is a nimble defense of private property, moral education, ordered liberty, and republican government. That “truly golden handbook” — the 270 poems and the Utopia together — remains my favorite (. . . for now).
— Matthew Mehan is assistant director of the Center for Thomas More Studies.