On Thomas More
In posing to posterity the following question, Desiderius Erasmus—the Dutch philosopher and humanist whose name, as if to inform of us, without direct reference to his works, of the gentle nature by which his spirit was constituted and the lovable benevolence of which he was made, means “Desired Beloved”—asked what, of all the bountiful creations by which nature is known, could be deemed more mild, sweet, or happy than the genius of Thomas More?
Could there, he wondered, be any such person to whom we might ascribe so endearing a list of attributes? Was there anyone, living in the world around whose circumference his own mental girth so abundantly stretched, about whom we could so exaltingly speak? Assuming that the designation of “genius” was, in fact, an intellectual attainment to which More had ascended and, in the discernment of our own modern analysis (which can be, much to its demerit, so dreadfully scrutinizing and severe), an epithet of which he was fitly deserving, we must answer the estimable Erasmus, that most humane of all humanists, that nothing for whose generation nature is liable could rival the mildness, the sweetness, nor the happiness of More’s immeasurable genius. Thus, unconstrained by the bounds of our ordinary nature and canonized in the eyes of the Catholic Church, it’s no wonder why we persist in calling More, history’s finest martyr and England’s supreme saint, a veritable man for all seasons.
That trans-national friendship of which the English More and the Dutch Erasmus partook, that intellectual fraternal link upon which we moderns, so painfully isolated yet so inextricably linked, reflect so fondly, was one of the few cordialities of what was, on the whole, a remarkably hostile age. It was, from that century’s beginning until its end, not just a tumultuous, but an openly schismatic era of which we have, in the pages of history, few other examples. Mind you, this was the dawn of the age of Luther—a hopeful morning at whose explosive dusk the Church, now unified and resplendent (with Leo X at its helm and Michelangelo on its walls), would be left in tatters and riven in two. Not since that earlier schism between Greece and Rome, between the Orthodox east and Catholic west, had Christianity’s foundation been so violently shaken. Not since then, so long ago in the eleventh century after the death of Christ, had its doctrines been so disputed and its congregants so wildly abused.
John Huss, the Bohemian heretic and proto-Protestant by whom Luther was preceded and, very likely, inspired, was killed for preaching that same cause on which Luther’s later fame would rest. That cause, of course, was the inexorable march of reform—a march by whose individual focus, pious persistence, and eventual arrival the very nature of Christianity would be forever changed. Huss’s was the same sin of which Luther, years later, would be found guilty, though the savvy German would take every precaution to avoid the wretched Bohemian’s fate. A study of his Hussite history revealed to Luther that, if he wanted to extend his days here on earth and stave off that angelic salvation (of which, one might add, he was rather confidently assured) for just a few moments longer, he’d better abstain from attending Catholic councils, however speciously welcoming they may be.
Religion, at this moment, hadn’t yet been subordinated to the peremptory concerns of the state. The former remained, albeit with a feeling of diminished self-assurance and injured pride, the absolute and unquestioned sovereign under which the latter hoped to operate. The prioritization, that of the giant Church above the fledgling state, was still uncontestably clear; the cross, inarguably, was superior to the crown. The fastening by which the two were bound, so tight and resolutely opposed to tearing, was thought to be impenetrable and their relationship, so anciently established, was not considered amenable to change. He who, in a moment of benighted conjecture, refuted the merit of this relationship, scoffed at the overt avarice of the indulgence-peddlers, or questioned the rampant cupidity of the Pope, would be vulnerable to a very unsavory end: chastisement, excommunication, imprisonment, and death.
The onslaught of time, as always it does, would be the precipitating factor that brought forth change. Time, and the stirrings of the people by whose hours it’s filled, would alter what could only be described as a frighteningly tenuous arrangement that existed between the Church and the state. The nations of the European continent, of whom we might number such actors as those neighbors of Iberia, the electorates of Prussia, the empires of Austria, Russia, and France, and the cantons of the Swiss, were beginning the slow process of recognizing themselves for themselves. No longer were they the vestigial, co-dependent organs of a corpulent belly and an inflated head at Rome. No longer were they to be the withered appendages from whose feeble grips treasure would be extracted and gold would be torn for the aggrandizement of the Pope. They were, forevermore, to be sovereign bodies all their own.
In so being, they realized, with a feeling of waning reverence and increasing disregard, the importance of the Church. They came to the conclusion that survival, not as a submissive member of a slavish flock but as a will to power all their own, was inconceivable without independence. Nor, for that matter, was growth—so long stymied by desultory decretals made by the pope—possible without territorial expansion. Boundaries, like belts, were crafted to be loosened and to give way to commodious room. And, for these gluttons, foreign territories were meant to be absorbed. The Roman Church had taught them, through the course of a sanguinary semester for which it has to account many years, the art of imperialism. Now, under the direction of the secular rulers of Europe, the moment had arrived to apply those precepts in which they’d been so thoroughly and coercively steeped.
And so, those countries most fortunately and auspiciously placed along the edges of the oceans and the seas began to flex their naval muscles. They began, as if just awakened from the slumbers of a now fully national life, to stretch their imperial tentacles, excitable appendages in whose grasp distant Edens would soon be held. The Portuguese, with implacable greed for the beckoning riches of distant lands and, with that, the unrelenting ability and competence to acquire that which they sought, sent around the southern tip of Africa first Dias and then da Gama. In successive, though not equally successful ventures, they penetrated the Indian spice markets to which, up until that time, only overland Venetians had ever seemed to have profitable and sustainable access. The swiftness of the Portuguese navy, the competence of her intrepid sailors, and the perseverance and rapacity of her merchants ensured a dominant presence in that region’s trade.
The Spaniards, understandably envious of their neighbor’s recent boon, were infected by the contagion of overseas conquest. It was, as all the nations of that age might’ve attested if asked, a most feverish and consuming bug. More than that, it was a fever to which no remedy sufficed outside of conquest all their own. They too needed a piece of the action and the distant lands without which, for lack of internal resources and the scientific ingenuity by which other nations were propelling themselves forward, they’d be rendered a second-tier state. Spain, famously proud though currently indolent, would never countenance lurking in the shadow of those impudent Portuguese—a population over whom they long wished to gain control. Late to seek uncharted routes to India and the east, they decided, with encouraging, if not copious investments from Isabella and Ferdinand, to seek their fortune in the west. To do so, uncertain of the competence of her own Iberian sons, Spain sent a couple of Italian boys—first Columbus and then Vespucci—to find for her a new kingdom and settle for her an exploitable land.
The rumblings of the continent’s oldest religious institution and the discovery of unknown and distant lands—these were but two of the permeating influences in which Thomas More, to return to the subject with which this article began, would be submerged. Another might be his education, specifically his predilection for the classics—a study for which his father had no great fondness, but one from which More simply couldn’t keep away.
He was, in most ways, a humanist—not to be confused with a humanitarian, which—judging by his later political maneuvers—he most decidedly was not. Humanism, rightly and originally understood, described not one’s elevation of this particular species (to which, I hope, everyone reading this claims membership) over another, but the Medieval mind’s preference for Greco-Roman classicism over the European scholasticism that had gained so immovable a foothold in the thinking of the age. It was, in every way, a far more academic affair than we like to think it today, but it was that form of study to which More, at the time, was most passionately attracted.
The patron saint of Scholasticism was the peripatetic Aristotle. With but one reading of Thomas Aquinas, the chef d’ecole of that school of thought, this is made immediately clear. That of humanism, then, was Aristotle’s preceptor, the dialogic Plato. Such was their division; where one existed, the other could not (their current compatibility, however, is much more liberally accepted today). Thus, being that More was a humanist, it should come as no surprise that Plato was the thinker with whom he most closely and intimately associated.
Though separated by a length of a thousand years and the width of an entire continent, the two appeared to be similar thinkers and proximate colleagues—if in neither time nor space, then certainly in thought. More, like Plato, was a fundamentally imaginative thinker—a genius of the pen to whom stories and narratives came with delightful grace and seemingly endless facility. He, like Plato, was an artist veiled in the garb of a politician—a sculpture under whose chiseled marble a flowering portrait of exuberance and sentiment sprang. Much more poetic than polemical, and much less political than might be assumed, the two shared in owning deep creative wells into which they repeatedly dived. In so doing, Plato, in seeking after justice, created his startling Republic. More, in escaping the political turmoil in which his age was becoming engulfed, fabricated for us a Utopia. The latter, it might be said, was a direct descendent of the former, by which, before the birth of Christ, it was conceived.
How did this work, Utopia—now a maxim for Marxists and an idealist’s dream—come into being? What were its constituent parts, how were they combined, and out of what oven did they finally emerge? It was, I contend, a consequence of those four converging factors listed above: the religious instability of Europe that had, at the time of More’s ascent into his political and literary life, begun its infiltration into England; the foreign exploration of unfamiliar peoples and lands that was, at last count, adding line after line of longitude to an ever-growing world; the fascination with the classics and, specifically, with Plato, from whose prescience and eternal wisdom there was, and still is, no real or desirable escape; and the imaginative force by which More’s genius was developed and propelled ahead of his and our time.
Scarcely with a toe dipped in the waters of the second decade of his life, More—having deviated from the ecclesiastical path at Oxford on which his father had set him toward a life of the law at Lincoln’s Inn and, finally, of literature—was still something of an Anglican wunderkind. Awash in the tides of the day, he was a boy, quickly becoming a man, in whose mind most ideas were welcomed, so long as they could be challenged and perhaps, with the deployment of his mental vigor and inveterate creation, changed. Compared with the breadth of learning and the frank geniality for which the elder Erasmus (of whom I made earlier mention) was so beloved, More was in possession of a slightly coarser hide. Somewhat more intolerant to conflicting creeds and evolving mores, More lacked the ease of acceptance and the brilliance of wit for which Erasmus is so fondly remembered. We might attribute these deficiencies of character to the precocity of More’s youth, the gravity of his eventual appointment to Henry VIII’s inner sanctum, and the intensity of his time.
Though still, at least in the mind of Erasmus, More’s genius, in consideration of the totality of all of nature’s produce, was of the most mild, sweet, and happy flavor, his friend’s temperament could be slightly less toothsome. His comportment was stormier and his passions less inclined toward submission. His determination was resolute, his fidelity unfazed, and his obstinacy—even in the face of imminent political doom—was preternatural in such a way that it’s persisted, from his day until ours, as a subject to which our greatest and most inventive writers continually return.
But we dally not, though perhaps we should, to reflect upon his refusal to sign King Henry VIII’s Act of Succession. The Act was, we now acknowledge with the guiding hand of hindsight, a revolutionary fiat by its very intent. It was that corpulent monarch’s attempt to prioritize the English state over the Roman Church—an act of which there was little previous example in Christendom and the European world. And we stop here not to comment on the pertinacity More displayed in discountenancing the king’s illicit marriage to the lovely Anne Boleyn. Insatiable for an heir and exasperated by the stubbornness of his first wife’s infertility, the virile Tudor, eighth of his name, sought through every feasible channel the annulment of his marriage with that maltreated daughter of Aragon and Castile. And while he succeeded in breaking his fruitless marriage vow to Catherine, he broke his country from what was the suffocating embrace of Rome.
These, perhaps, were the cruel realities of life from which the adventurous, idealistic, and unflappably Catholic More wanted to escape. What better way to do so, he thought, than to create out of the fecundity of his own brain a foreign and inconceivable land? At first, he called this clever terra incognita, this undiscovered place of quintessential bliss, Nusquama. When translated into the English with which we’re all generally familiar from the Latin of which he was so fluently a master, we come to know of his land as “Nowhere”—a hint toward the unlikeliness of its discovery, if ever pursued. Indeed, the entire work—conceived, one might add, in the year 1516 as a private amusement without the intention of being made public—was written in Latin. It was only after More’s death, a full decade and a half later, before this great and inestimable piece of Anglican art would be made legible to an exclusively English eye. Happily, for the purposes of both euphony and time, the name Nusquama was tossed aside in preference for that of Utopia—the title by which we know the work today. The latter, one might guess, was Greek, and while retaining the same meaning of the former, it was undoubtedly the more memorable of the two.
So ingenious was More’s conception of this “No-Place”, so descriptive was his foreign mise en scene, that—once set before the eyes of a parochial and credulous reader—his Utopia was thought truly to exist. Most considered its history purely authentic, albeit only recently received. The verisimilitude to what might be cognizable lands (the “New World” and the supposed “Antipodes”, mind you, were only discovered a mere decade prior) with which he colored its lines fascinated even the most highly trained of cartographers. The manners and associations by which he described the Utopians’ unique culture piqued the curiosity of even the subtlest anthropologists. And clerics, eager not to lose out on what seemed a missionary opportunity laid out before them, planned ventures to convert those heathen Utopians of whose existence they were, just minutes before, entirely unconscious.
Perhaps with the exceptions of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, and, as previously mentioned, Plato’s Republic, no other utopia conceived by man has inspired such fascination and induced such scrutiny as has the Utopia of More. Surely, no other work has awakened in the hearts of Marxists and Communists and, by another, slightly less repulsive name, radical social democrats, the spirit of imitation of which More’s Utopia is an original source. His work is a looking glass out of whose reflection nearly every radical reformer, from Marx to Trotsky and Castro to Mao, has extracted his idealized state—a state from whose visionary boundaries inequality is to be excluded and where money is to have no practical use.
That More, as Erasmus proclaimed with so laudatory a sense of glee, was a genius, there can be but little doubt. And who knows, considering the years by which his life was cut short, what further intellectual summits he might’ve climbed had he been given the chance. The advantage of a long and productive life was something of which, for obvious political reasons, he was prematurely dispossessed. That, I think, is a pity for which time will offer us little consolation. One can only imagine the works to which we might’ve been treated.
That said, the consequences of his genius, seen from a perspective at an altitude higher than his or Erasmus’ own, can be called neither happy, mild, nor sweet—as Erasmus characterized them. His Utopia, his harrowingly egalitarian and non-existent place, is the very concept upon which Marxism and Communism based themselves. These, we well know but too readily forget, are the political philosophies and the idealized states of whose specters of mildness, sweetness, and happiness we must continually be disabused. Yet still, for reasons unknown to the modern mind, we persist in seeking them. We navigate our ship of state in hopes of anchoring upon their shore, failing, ultimately, to remember that this destination is Utopia—a land that is, literally, no place.