In my preceding post on the BP – Gulf of Mexico mess, I had some critical things to say about impractical Ivy League lawyers.
It is only fitting then, that this post sing the praises of a very practical lawyer, St. Thomas More (1477-1535), in honor of his feast day, June 22, in the Catholic calendar. He was executed on July 6, 1535.
Rowland Lockey after Hans Holbein the Younger, The Family of Sir Thomas More, c. 1594
Of More another very clever Englishman, G. K. Chesterton, wrote:
“Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time. He may come to be counted the greatest Englishman, or at least the greatest historical character in English history. For he was above all things historic; he represented at once a type, a turning point and an ultimate destiny. If there had not happened to be that particular man at the particular moment, the whole of history would have been different.” (Chesterton, A Turning Point in History, 1929).
Reading More’s Utopia again 42 years after my first serious encounter with it, I am amazed at More’s prescience and and clever intelligence, his combination of book smarts with street smarts. He was what we today call “scary smart.”
More was among the earliest critics of punitive criminal codes, and was one of the first to champion the education of women. He understood how to lay out a city to reduce contagion and disease, negotiated an important peace treaty, was a critic of indolent and corrupt clergy, and himself personified the bridge, as many have written, between the medieval and the Renaissance. His history of Richard III influenced Shakespeare’s play, and his description of “Shore’s Wife” has sparked over 200 works of art, literature, poetry, and drama. His Utopia taught civilization to put imagination to work in conceiving better forms of government and human ecology.
(In an earlier post I dealt with the question of More’s involvement in the burning of heretics.)
When More’s Utopian chronicler Raphael Hythloday stated, “There is no place for philosophers among kings,” More’s own persona within Utopia responded:
“‘Yes there is,’ I answered, ‘but not for that academic philosophy which fits everything neatly into place. There is, however, another more sophisticated philosophy which accommodates itself to the scene at hand, and acts its part with polish and finesse. It is this philosophy that you should use. Otherwise, it would be as if, while a comedy by Plautus were being acted, and the slaves were joking among themselves, you were suddenly to appear in a philosopher’s garb, and recite the passage from the Octavia where Seneca debates with Nero. Would it not be better to take a part without lines than confuse tragedy with comedy? You ruin and subvert a play when you introduce irrelevant material, even though the lines you brought be better. Give your best to whatever play is on stage, and do not ruin it merely because something better leaps to mind.'”
“‘The same advice holds for the commonwealth and the councils of kings. You do not, simply because you are unable to uproot mistaken opinions and correct long-established ills, abandon the state altogether. In a storm you do not desert the ship because you are unable to control the winds. Nor should you, on the other hand, impose unwelcome advice on people you know to be of opposite mind. You must try to use subtle and indirect means, insofar as it lies in your power. And what you cannot turn to good, you must make as little evil as possible. To have everything turn out well assumes that all men are good, and this is a situation I do not expect to come about for many years.'” Utopia, Book I, translated by John P. Dolan, from The Essential Thomas More, James J. Greene and John P. Dolan, editors, Mentor-Omega, 1967.
Also notable is More’s own advice to his sometime nemesis, Thomas Cromwell, who followed More not only in office, but in being decapitated by Henry VIII:
“Master Cromwell, you are now entered upon the service of a most noble, wise, and liberal prince. If you will you will follow my poor advice, you shall, in your counsel giving unto his Grace, ever tell him what he ought to do, but never what he is able to do. So shall you show yourself a true faithful servant and a right worthy councillor. For if a lion knew his own strength, hard were it for any man to rule him.”
If you are looking for a good biography of More, Peter Ackroyd’s (1998) is among the best, both in terms of scholarship, historical depth, and style (see my earlier review). Richard Marius’s (1983) biography, while fact-filled, and often cited by critics of More, is dated in its now rather strained, if quaint, Freudian bon mots, and is marred by repetition.
By the way, someone with a good magnifying glass has apparently ascertained that all of the women in the More household depicted in the replica of the Hans Holbein picture featured above were reading Seneca.
The extended More family household prayed together, and among their fondest prayers of consolation were the “Seven Psalms,” a medieval practice that might well be worthy of a rebirth.
June 22 is also the feast day of St. John Fisher, late bishop of Rochester, who joined More in martyrdom near the Tower of London. Of him it was memorably said, “The head was off before the (cardinal’s) hat was on.”
© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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