06 December 2011

Please, sir, I want some More

I have covered in this blog a number of historical English thinkers, authors and public intellectuals whose work I believe reflects a subtle, traditionalist and Platonic strain of socialist political-economic thought in the Anglosphere: Laud, Astell, Johnson, Swift, Oastler, Porteus, Ruskin, Morris, Chesterton, Grant, Lewis. Not long ago I did a brief not-quite-hagiography of Fürst Metternich. Yet, I have neglected – to my everlasting shame – one of the very giants upon whose shoulders all of these proto-, Christian and Tory socialists have stood. As the Chinese would have it, ‘I have eyes, yet I did not recognise Mount Tai’. This giant, of course, was the Tudor-era classicist, lawyer, parliamentarian, polemicist, philosopher, poet, Lord Chancellor, martyr and saint, the matchless Sir Thomas More.

Probably best known for his opposition to the annulment of the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon which cost him his life and gained him the Beatific Vision, and perhaps only slightly less well-known for his fantastical treatise Utopia, which set out his communistic political ideals (borrowed quite heavily from Plato) as well as skewering various European practices and institutions (including the injustices of the creeping enclosures movement, the burden and bane of many an English peasant) upon a rapier wit, there was yet a good deal (if you will pardon me) more to Sir Thomas than first meets the eye. A precocious teen, he very early caught the eye and ear of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Morton, and was made his page as well as being recommended to Oxford University at the age of fourteen. He became proficient in Greek and Latin and versed himself in the early Church Fathers, and went on to become a lawyer and a parliamentarian for Norfolk – where he promptly drew the ire of Henry VII for his outspoken opposition to new levies for personal royal use. This same outspokenness and frankness of temperament would serve him well in his later career, though it would prove often to be to his own detriment, and ultimately his death. As a lawyer, though, he was very scrupulous in the types of cases he took, and he never demanded fees from the poor or widows or orphans for his legal services.

He married twice – the first time to his younger pupil Jane Colt in 1505 and the second time after her death in 1511 to an older widow, Alice Middleton. Both marriages (toward which his attitudes were blessedly insular) were by all accounts happy. Sir Thomas proved a faithful and devoted husband, as well as a doting father both to his own daughters by Jane and to Alice’s by her first marriage. His advocacy for women’s education (later shared by his contemporary humanists Erasmus and Elyot) would later prove an inspiration for Mary Astell’s own.

From all appearances, the young Henry VIII took as quick a liking to More as his father took a dislike to him. He rose quickly in the ranks of Henry’s service, was knighted and appointed a member of the Privy Council. He eagerly joined Cardinal Wolsey’s sadly-abortive legal crusade against enclosures (up until Wolsey fell out of favour with the King) and very quickly took up his pen in jousts of letters with Protestant thinkers both on the continent and in England, including Martin Luther, William Tyndale and Simon Fish. He was able and more than willing to respond to the particularly acerbic prose of Luther in kind. Given that many of these Protestant missives were aimed as much at the King as at the Church, More proved his loyalty to Henry as well. In his later career it is arguable to what degree power changed him, and led him to alter his humanistic principles, but the fatal epilogue of his story shows clearly where his loyalties lay… even if, as long as he could, he attempted to reconcile his friendship with the King with the radical departure the same King was making from communion with the Church in Rome.

Sir Thomas More is yet another case study in how one should not easily dismiss saints, for they have a tendency to be unruly, troublous, inconvenient and generally obnoxious to those seated on the highest thrones of worldly power. The saint is a friend neither to tyranny nor to capital. And one can quite readily see how his influence – or at least his idealism – long outlasted him. He is remembered as a saint both in the Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion. William Morris modelled much of his own political economic thought on Sir Thomas More’s work. Fr Jonathan Swift hailed him as ‘the person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced’ (and Dr Johnson concurred!). GK Chesterton likewise declaimed that he ‘may come to be counted the greatest Englishman’… though perhaps the most surreal testament to his memory is the stele in Moscow which lists him among eighteen other thinkers who ‘promoted the liberation of humanity from oppression, arbitrary rule and exploitation’.

Count me with Swift and Johnson and Chesterton, though. I likewise see Sir Thomas as a great (and a good) Englishman, both profound and humane. Would there were more like him.

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