Liberated by Conscience

Thomas More

Title: The One Thomas More
Author: Travis Curtright
Publish Date: 2012
Publisher / Edition: Catholic University of America Press

Who was Thomas More?  What might seem a simple question draws several conflicting answers.  To many, More was the great humanist author of Utopia, a work that has remained an essential text in the study of Western literature and political theory for 500 years.  For others, More was the heroic opponent of tyranny, who was executed as a traitor in 1535 for his refusal to swear against his conscience that Henry VIII was the “supreme head of the Church in England.”  Indeed, it was this More that inspired Robert Bolt to write the play, A Man For All Seasons, in which More—famously portrayed by Paul Scofield in the 1966 film—becomes an icon for rights of conscience and personal autonomy.  A closely related More is the martyr whose faith was such that he resigned his position as Lord Chancellor of England and accepted the loss of a loving family and friends, along with all worldly honors and possessions, rather than betray his Church.  These Mores are commemorated not only in the 1935 canonization that made him Saint Thomas More, but also in the 2000 proclamation that made him patron of statesmen and politicians.  Catholic lawyers associations across the country are named, St. Thomas More Societies.

We find a strikingly different portrait of Thomas More, the prosecutor of heretics.  Since the 1500’s, More has been denigrated for his voluminous, repetitive and sometimes vituperative anti-Lutheran apologetics, as well as vilified for his active prosecution of heretics under English law—six of whom were burned at the stake under his watch.  This dark, conflicted More was championed by 20th Century revisionist historians such as G.R. Elton and Richard Marius.  Their scholarship causes us to wonder how the same person who wrote Utopia and the humanist masterpiece History of Richard III (upon which Shakespeare based his play), and successfully petitioned Henry VIII to recognize the right of free speech in Parliament, could have also traded scatological invective with Luther and exulted over the execution of heretics.  Drawing on this line of scholarship in her Booker-Prize winning and best-selling novel Wolf Hall (2009), Hillary Mantel portrays More as a religious bigot, whose veneer of cultural sophistication and piety concealed a virulent and perverse cruelty.

In his new book, The One Thomas More, humanities professor Travis Curtright seeks to uncover the real More by eschewing the twin temptations of sentimental hagiography and ideological caricature in favor of serious engagement with More’s life and works in all their complexity.  His timing is propitious.  On the one hand, scholarship of the past 60 years has made huge strides, making it possible to speak reliably about the historical More.  On the other hand, outdated ideological and sectarian images of More persist both inside and outside the academy, tending to marginalize More’s influence as political and legal thinker.

This is a great shame, given that the issues so close to More, such as conscience rights, rule of law and the limits of state power, are of pressing concern today—even if the tyranny of our time is not that of a king with caesaro-papist pretensions, but that of an administrative state with increasingly totalitarian ambitions.  The One Thomas More goes a long way to restoring More’s reputation as a man of surpassing personal virtue and a thinker of profound moral and political insight.

Curtright is on solid ground when he points out that modern scholarship has debunked the revisionist attack on More that informs Mantel’s depiction of More as a bloody-minded torturer of suspected heretics.  Such contemporary sources include a series of groundbreaking books and articles by leading Tudor historian John Guy (Elton’s most illustrious student), Gerard B. Wegemer’s 1996 study on More’s statesmanship, and The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More (2011), edited by George M. Logan.  In addition, there are reliable biographies including those of Guy and Peter Ackroyd that make the most critical aspects of the historical record readily available to students and general readers.  Thus, anyone who wants to make the effort will discover Mantel’s depiction to be a gross distortion.

Many don’t.  For instance, a reviewer in the London Review of Books described More as a torturer based on the 1894 entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.   As UCLA’s H.A. Kelly pointed out in response, the description is highly suspect given that the current entry in the new DNB “reflects a later, more judicious consensus, and does not mention the allegation of torture,” while “Peter Ackroyd in his Life of Thomas More (1998) says that More can be believed when he invokes God to assert that the heretics he detained and interrogated suffered not so much as ‘a fillip on the forehead’.”

Yet, while the portrait of More as a cruel religious bigot has been revealed as untenable, there remains no consensus on More’s complex character.  Stephen Greenblatt, in his brilliant and highly-influential essay, “At the Table of The Great” in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago, 1980), More is portrayed as a literary genius whose deep, internal conflicts were played out in a variety of irreconcilable roles, finding transcendence or “self-cancellation” only in his martyrdom.  As late as 2000, John Guy professed that More must remain an enigma in light of the historical record.  It would therefore seem that the search for the real Thomas More is a fool’s errand:  In our post-modern age, we have no legitimate alternative but to recognize a variety of Mores, each inevitably a projection of ideological or sectarian prejudice.

Curtright believes otherwise.  In The One Thomas More, he engages in careful, insightful readings of More’s most important works, presented against the backdrop of an up-to-the-minute survey of More scholarship, to show that the essentials of More’s thought remained consistent.  As Curtright demonstrates, More’s life was a model of hard-won integrity in which humanistic ideals were always tempered by a Ciceronian understanding of personal and civic virtue, to be lived out in the service of traditional, orthodox Christian faith.  It is important to point out, however, that Curtright is no polemicist and his interpretations are neither simple nor reductionist.  Readers seeking an easy defense of More the saint will be just as disappointed as those hoping to find a study that they can dismiss as mere Catholic partisanship.  Instead, Curtright strives for an objective perspective and provides his readers with an integrated set of insights from which they can appreciate, ponder but ultimately reconcile the complexities of More’s life and thought.

As it turns out, Curtright would likely relish the characterization of his project as a fool’s errand.  His introduction draws its title from a phrase in one of More’s final letters, sent to his beloved daughter Margaret Roper from the Tower of London, in which he explains (with no little irony) why he cannot accept her subtle reasons for swearing the oath of succession:  “Non sum Oedipus, sed Morus.”  Punning on the Greek meaning of his surname, More [μωρός, “fool”] distinguishes himself from the ancient hero who solved the riddle of the Sphinx and endorses the title of fool.  As Curtright repeatedly demonstrates, More typically uses irony not to make himself enigmatic, but rather to challenge his readers to delve beneath the surface to uncover his intended meaning.

In the tradition of More’s best interpreters, Curtright pays close attention to More’s subtle and often subversive uses of irony and other rhetorical devices.  As early as the humanist works from the first part of his career, Life of Pico della Mirandola, Utopia and the History of Richard III, and as late as his final letters from the Tower (which More assumed would be read by his captors), More employed irony to force his readers to ask whether a given statement was intended to be taken at face value.  Perhaps the most famous example is when he wrote in a persona named “Thomas More” in Utopia.  Near the end of his life, in a key instance from one of his letters to Margaret, More repeatedly (and accurately) insists that he has never revealed his reasons for refusing to swear the Oath of Succession against his conscience.  Nevertheless, by subtle use of hypothetical reasoning and unstated inferences, the careful reader—his daughter and Cromwell included—would understand the unstated reason:  More believed the English king was arrogating to himself an authority over souls in violation of the common consensus of Christendom.  In this way, More justified himself to his friends and future readers, while withholding substantive evidence of treason from his enemies.

For readers unfamiliar with classical rhetoric and early-modern literary conventions and spelling, Curtright’s approach will at times prove hard sledding.  But the payoff is considerable.  As we proceed through the book’s arguments, we gradually attune our eyes, ears and minds to pick up the kinds of resonances that More intended to convey to the readers of his time.

Curtright’s first chapter, an interpretation of More’s Life of Pico della Mirandola, sets the stage for his analysis and conclusions, for it demonstrates that in one of his earliest works, More’s understanding of humanism was not the secular, individualist version, but rather one inspired by his study of St. Augustine’s City of God, and infused with the orthodox Christian piety of More’s great friend Erasmus and his mentor John Colet.  As Curtright’s analysis will underscore, if More’s humanism was subject to accepted Christian teaching from the start, we can discern an essential continuity in More the humanist author of Utopia and defender of Erasmus in his Letter to Dorp, as well as in More the Catholic apologist of the Dialogue Concerning Heresies and the polemics against Martin Luther and William Tyndale.

The Life of Pico was no straightforward translation from Latin to English.  More subtly and even subversively reworked his model to create a new and original work.  Despite an introduction that seems to advance Pico as a model of virtue, More’s version ends up doubting Pico’s character and ideals.  A careful reading of the Life of Pico not only justifies a mixed life of action and contemplation, but also recognizes honor as the reward for a distinctly Christian understanding of virtue—a life of humility in God’s service.  Those ideals are nowhere to be found in the original version, a laudatory biography of the controversial neoplatonist by Pico’s nephew, celebrating Pico for his unmatched intellectual prowess and devotion to philosophy at the expense of worldly responsibility.  As reconfigured by More, the honor arising from Pico’s unfettered philosophical flights is undercut by his culpable neglect of household responsibilities and refusal to accept a call to religious vocation.

Curtright’s interpretations consistently open up new vistas for reaching comprehensive understandings of complex works.  With the Life of Pico, Curtright confronts a unique puzzle.  In addition to the biography itself, More includes a selection of Pico’s letters, an example of biblical exegesis, and one of Pico’s prayers (all subtly edited), along with two sets of didactic poems, one inspired by Pico and one entirely original to More.

Curtright explains how prior readings that understood the Life as depicting a positive model of a brilliant scholar or as More’s own attempt to work through his personal vocational dilemma of whether to marry are hard to square with More’s implicit criticism of Pico.  Additionally, such readings fail to account for More’s stated purpose in writing the Life.  More presented this unique biographical meditation as a New Year’s gift, offered in friendship to Joyce Lee, a sister of the Poor Clare Convent, with the direction that it would reward careful study and lead to the “gracious increase of virtue” in her soul.  Following Curtright’s approach, with the Life understood as an inquiry into how the contrasting lives of contemplation and action should both draw their inspiration from a humble love of God, we can see how reflection on the work would serve as a bridge for mutual understanding between Lee and her friend More who had decided against a religious vocation in favor of marriage and a legal career.

The One Thomas More, while scholarly in presentation, does not lack for relevance to serious students of political theory, law and literature.  The chapter on The History of Richard III offers a fascinating discussion of how More maintains a careful balance between the necessity of upholding legal protections to preserve political liberty, and the justification for an almost Machiavellian pragmatism in the use of deception and dissimulation in the event that political order has been perverted by tyrannical rule.

A particularly important aspect of Curtright’s study is his focus on More as a lawyer and jurist, demonstrating how More integrated his formative humanistic studies in classical literature with his professional career.  Contemporary legal practitioners and scholars will find much to ponder in Curtright’s extended analysis of the organic connection between rhetoric and jurisprudence in More’s thought, as it is developed in readings of Richard III and Utopia.  More believed that an education in the liberal arts, especially when combined with the study of law, informed and strengthened the practical judgment.

Curtright detects in More’s Utopia the foundations of a unique humanist jurisprudence.  By cultivating one’s practical judgment through careful study of poetry, history and law, a would be lawyer or legislator can discern the highest ideals for human flourishing, while simultaneously recognizing the inherent limitations in human nature that militate against radical reform.  More’s humanist jurisprudence reached its fruition in the expansion of equity jurisdiction that he championed and applied as a judge in the Chancery and Star Chamber courts to ameliorate the unfairness arising from strict application of legal rules under common law.  For More, equity, as the application of practical reason according to conscience, did not give a judge license to ignore the law in favor or his own understanding of justice. Rather, equity provided a moderating, ameliorative function to be exercised to better the law’s intent.

The notion that a young humanist champion of utopian reform gave way to a conservative statesman is to mistake the voice of Utopia’s Raphael Hythloday for the author’s.  As Curtright persuasively argues, the “real” More’s voice heard in The Life of Pico and Utopia is distrustful of “[s]ystematic answers to political problems,” advocating instead “engagement and accommodation applied toward modest goals” (86).  Thus, in his jurisprudence, it is the “rigor of the law, not the law itself, that should be reformed.”  As a judge and statesman, More distrusted radical reform in the manner of “sweeping Utopian legislation because More’s ideas of reform, such as they were, deal with the application of equity through conscience” (99).  This did not reflect “‘an Augustinian belief in the total and helpless depravity of fallen man,’” as Elton thought (7).  Rather, it follows from the same realization that inspired Dr. Johnson’s compassionate conservatism:  “The Cure for the greatest part of human Miseries is not radical, but palliative.”  (The Rambler, No. 32, July 7, 1750.)

The most controversial aspect of Curtright’s study is like to prove his reassessment of More’s “battle of the books” with Christopher St. German concerning the role and functioning of ecclesiastical courts, especially with regard to heresy trials.  For years, the best point of entry into this thorny debate has been Guy’s lucid studies, especially his indispensible introduction to Volume 10 of More’s Complete Works, The Debellation of Salem and Bizance.  According to the generally accepted evaluation of More’s protracted and often arcane exchanges with St. German, More comes off the loser when his blustery polemics are compared to the careful, if plodding, reasoning of the brilliant, mild-mannered legal scholar, St. German.

In challenging Guy’s view, Curtright draws on recent scholarship by H.A. Kelly, who has shown that St. German’s indictment of canon law as applied in heresy proceedings was premised on fundamental misunderstandings of the ex officio procedure.  Simply stated, far from showing a deep understanding of the legal dispute, St. German “‘was making a fool of himself by insisting upon reforms to a system that already contained the procedures and safeguards that he required’” (173).  Curtright argues that St. German’s understanding of equity was no better, as it rested on an incoherent account of the role of conscience in relation to positive, natural and eternal law:  St. German accepted the traditional understanding that conscience was the means by which persons recognized the first principles of natural law and applied them to specific, concrete actions; at the same time, however, St. German insisted that each individual’s conscience is bound by, and subordinate to, positive law.

If Curtright’s analysis is correct, we encounter another example of how More’s insights remain keenly relevant today.  For More, only divine law could legitimately constrain a citizen’s conscience.  At his trial, More rejected the argument a “faithful subject,” when asked, was obliged to answer categorically that a statute “was good”:  “I say that the faithful subject is more bound to his conscience and his soul than to anything else in the world, provided his conscience, like mine, does not raise scandal or sedition ….”[1]  Even if the individual’s right to dissent can be limited by statute, a just state must not force its citizens to swear allegiance to human laws in violation of their consciences.

Here, the question of hypocrisy arises.  What about heretics?  Don’t they have conscience rights too?  It turns out that this is another situation in which More maintained his integrity, at least under the accepted understanding of his time.  Not only had Parliament made heresy a capital offense in 1401, but under the canon law, a suspected heretic could not be charged to swear his belief unless there was prior determination based on reliable evidence that the suspect had previously made heretical statements or taken affirmative steps to advance heresy.  Of course, for More, heresy prosecutions only made sense if the state was aligned with the true Church.  If that unity were to be splintered, More argued to his son-in-law, the best alternative would be a system of peaceful coexistence in which Catholics would “be at league and composition with [heretics], to let them have their churches quietly to themselves, so that they would be content to let us have ours quietly to ourselves.”[2]

When assessing this issue, it is essential to remember that neither More nor his opponents recognized anything like a post-Enlightenment understanding of religious toleration.  To the contrary, both sides believed that the propagation of heterodox beliefs was potentially worse than murder because it could lead to eternal perdition.  In addition, the well ordered state was thought impossible absent common assent to the true church, whether Catholic or Protestant.  The dispute was not over toleration (a value neither side recognized), but which beliefs commanded adherence.  Indeed, in his contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Thomas More, “Thomas More and the heretics:  Statesman or fanatic?” Richard Rex comes down firmly on the former characterization.

Curtright concludes his study with a reflection on More’s character as depicted in his trial.  The More of Wolf Hall is revealed as an unhistorical fiction.  In Mantel’s eyes, More was undone by an obstinacy bred of religious intolerance and intellectual pride.  In this way, he functions as an effective foil for her equally fictionalized hero, Cromwell, who embodies modern liberal notions of moderation, political pragmatism and religious tolerance.  However, there is little in the historical record to support such a picture of Cromwell.  This is especially true with regard to his prosecution of More (along with Bishop John Fisher, three Carthusian priors and a Brigettine monk) under the 1534 Act of Treasons, which was passed after More was jailed for refusing the Oath of Succession and which, for the first time in England, made it possible to commit treason by words alone.  Although Curtright carefully corrects Mantel’s historical inaccuracies, he does not mention a telling example of Cromwell’s impatience with, and contempt for, the rule of law.  According to William Rastell, when the jury apparently accepted the four religious men’s defense that they denied the king’s supremacy, but without malice, an enraged Cromwell “went unto the jury and threatened them, if they condemned them not.”[3]  His threats were effective.

By the same token, Curtright agrees with Guy that Bolt’s characterization of More as a “hero of self-hood” is anachronistic and incompatible with More’s understanding of conscience as being integrally bound to a truth that exists outside, and independent of, the self (175-176).  More was at pains to explain that his “obstinacy” was not driven by any desire to cling to a personal, idiosyncratic judgment.  His refusal of the oath was not motivated by a modern sense of remaining true to one’s self, but from his refusal to commit a mortal sin and thereby exclude himself from communion with the God he loved.

Curtright’s analysis is correct.  However, it does not exclude the possibility that Bolt also captured an essential truth.  Bolt explained in the introduction to A Man for all Seasons that he consciously modernized More and his dilemma, deemphasizing the religious context so as to make More relevant to his post-Christian audience.  In Bolt’s view, for believer and non-believer alike, swearing against one’s conscience must be devastating to any serious notion of personal authenticity.  The refusal to do so in the face of state coercion remains an act of true courage and strikes a blow against tyranny.  To my mind, the one Thomas More would agree.


[1] The Paris Newsletter’s Account of More’s trial (8 Aug. 1535), A Thomas More Sourcebook, eds. G.B. Wegemer & S.W. Smith (2004), 353 [TMSB].

[2] Roper’s Life of More, TMSB 33-34.

[3] W. Rastell, Life of More, quoted in H.A. Kelly, “A Procedural Review of Thomas More’s Trial,” Thomas More’s Trial by Jury (Boydell, 2011), 14.