Friday, March 27, 2009

A Fanatic for all Seasons

Thomas More

The play A Man for All Seasons,1 is a most interesting play in that it is of a man who never existed. That man is of course Thomas More. The More in the play is to be polite a lie and fabrication. The heavy handed play and its lugubrious and highly painfully earnest film version are parts of the lie that is the popular mythology about Thomas More that flourishes to this day.

Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478.2 Thomas More studied at the various Inns of Court and became a Lawyer. Thomas More wanted to be a Priest or Monk but decided reluctantly to get married to a woman named Jane Colt. When Jane Colt died in 1511, Thomas More almost immediately married a rich widow by the name of Alice Middleton who survived him. He served as advisor to the great Cardinal Wolsey and made friends with the great Humanist, Renaissance scholar Erasmus with whom he had a life long friendship.3

Of course Thomas More wrote Utopia, 4, (meaning no place), which was published in 1516. Much as been made of the religious tolerance of the Utopians. For example:
…for this is one of their most ancient laws, that no man ought to be punished for his religion. At the first constitution of their government, Utopus having understood that before his coming among them the old inhabitants had been engaged in great quarrels concerning religion, by which they were so divided among themselves, that he found it an easy thing to conquer them, since instead of uniting their forces against him, every different party in religion fought by themselves; after he had subdued them, he made a law that every man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavor to draw others to it by force of argument, and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions; but that he ought to use no other force but that of persuasion, and was neither to mix with it reproaches nor violence; and such as did otherwise were to be condemned to banishment or slavery.

This law was made by Utopus, not only for preserving the public peace, which he saw suffered much by daily contentions and irreconcilable heats, but because he thought the interest of religion itself required it. He judged it not fit to determine anything rashly, and seemed to doubt whether those different forms of religion might not all come from God, who might inspire men in a different manner, and be pleased with this variety; he therefore thought it indecent and foolish for any man to threaten and terrify another to make him believe what did not appear to him to be true. And supposing that only one religion was really true, and the rest false, he imagined that the native force of truth would at last break forth and shine bright, if supported only by the strength of argument, and attended to with a gentle and unprejudiced mind; while, on the other hand, if such debates were carried on with violence and tumults, as the most wicked are always the most obstinate, so the best and most holy religion might be choked with superstition, as corn is with briars and thorns.

He therefore left men wholly to their liberty, that they might be free to believe as they should see cause;…5
This passage and several others have been used as evidence that Thomas more was a tolerant man however it ignores that the Utopians were not tolerant of atheists:

…only he [Utopus] made a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence: for they all formerly believed that there was a state of rewards and punishments to the good and bad after this life; and they now look on those that think otherwise as scarce fit to be counted men, since they degrade so noble a being as the soul, and reckon it no better than a beast's: thus they are far from looking on such men as fit for human society, or to be citizens of a well-ordered commonwealth; since a man of such principles must needs, as oft as he dares do it, despise all their laws and customs: for there is no doubt to be made that a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites. They never raise any that hold these maxims, either to honors or offices, nor employ them in any public trust, but despise them, as men of base and sordid minds: yet they do not punish them, because they lay this down as a maxim that a man cannot make himself believe anything he pleases; nor do they drive any to dissemble their thoughts by threatenings, so that men are not tempted to lie or disguise their opinions; which being a sort of fraud, is abhorred by the Utopians. They take care indeed to prevent their disputing in defence of these opinions, especially before the common people; but they suffer, and even encourage them to dispute concerning them in private with their priests and other grave men, being confident that they will be cured of those mad opinions by having reason laid before them.6
Further it is clear from Thomas More’s comments that one of the signs of the Utopians superiority is that they are eager to listen too and be converted to Christianity. Further since the Utopians are non-Christians they would have to be religiously tolerant to be able to more easily receive Christianity.7

There is no question that Thomas More believed utterly and completely in the absolute truth of the Catholic version of Christianity

Perhaps the best indication of the “true” Thomas More is in his myriad writings about heresy.

We have for example the fate of James Bainham. Thomas More while Lord Chancellor of England was involved in his arrest, questioning and imprisonment. James Bainham was charged with heresy and had after his first arrest been given the choice of being burned or recanting. James Bainham had not surprisingly recanted. After all who wants to die? Afterwards, filled with guilt, James Bainham recanted his recantation and soon afterwards was arrested again. As a relapsed heretic he was shortly afterwards burned. Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, claimed that Thomas More, who had been involved in questioning James Bainham, had him tortured and whipped. These claims are doubted today yet Thomas More wrote about the death of Bainham and other “heretics”:

And for heretics as they be, the clergy both denounce them. And they be well worthy, the temporalty doth burn them. After the fire of Smithfield, hell doth receive them where the wretches burn forever.8
Another example of Thomas More’s victims was Thomas Hitton a priest who was sympathetic to various aspects of Protestantism. Thomas More writes that Thomas Hitton was:
…an apostle, sent to and fro betwene our Englysshe heretykes beyonde the see and such as were here at home. The spirit of errour and lyenge hath taken his wretched soul with him strayte from the shorte fyre to ye fyre ever lastyng. And this is lo sir Thomas Hitton, the dyuyls [devil's] stynkyng martyr, of whose burnynge Tyndale maketh boste.9
When a man named John Twekesbury was burned Thomas More stated:
burned as there was never wretche I wene better worthy.10
While he was Lord Chancellor Thomas More violated rules of English law to get at heretics and he continued to rejoice until his own death in the destruction of heretics.11 He carried out until his death a vicious vendetta against William Tyndale the translator of the New Testament into English. Thomas More described William Tyndale as:
beste oute of whose brutyshe bestely mouth cometh a fylthy fome.12
Eventually Thomas More played a role, even though Thomas More was in the tower at the time awaiting his own execution in William Tyndale’s horrible death by fire.13.
The Execution of William Tyndale

Thus does Thomas More crow in hateful joy at the hideous death of other human beings judicially murdered for their opinions.

Thomas More in 1529 published a book called A Dialogue Concerning Heresies,14 In it we find such good words as:
The Author showeth his opinion concerning the burning of Heretics and that it is lawful, necessary, and well done.15
In A Dialogue concerning Heresies, we get such bon mots as this concerning Martin Luther.

…a fond friar, to an apostate, to an open incestuous lecher, a plain limb of the devil, and a manifest messenger of hell.16
For in More’s eyes regarding heresy:

there is no fault that more offendeth God.17
Finally Thomas More wrote in a letter to Erasmus as follows:
...with deep feeling. I find that breed of men [heretics] absolutely loathsome, so much so that, unless they regain their senses, I want to be as hateful to them as anyone can possibly be for my increasing experience with these men frightens me with the thought that the whole world will suffer at their hands.18
Richard Marius says this about Thomas More and his campaign against heresy:
To stand before a man at an inquisition, knowing that he will rejoice when we die, knowing that he will commit us to the stake and its horrors without a moment’s hesitation or remorse if we do not satisfy him, is not an experience much less cruel because our inquisitor does not whip us or rack us or shout at us.


But in the same work, [More’s, Apology, 1533] More - by then out of office – exhorted the bishops not to falter in their zeal to suppress heretics by any measures at their command.

His own labour was utterly single-minded and not mitigated by any flash of mercy or tolerance. Heretics were enemies of God, servants of Satan, minions of hell, and beyond all that, they were usually lower-class, people without roots resolved to root out the grand old faith which was the only guarantee of meaning in the universe. More believed that they should be exterminated, and while he was in office he did everything in his power to bring that extermination to pass. That he did not succeed in becoming England’s Torquemada was a consequence of the king’s quarrel with the pope and not a result of any quality of mercy that stirred through More’s own heart.19
Thomas More as a man of tolerance is a myth. The tolerance in his ideal society described in Utopia is a function of the fact that the Utopians are non Christians that More wants to become Christians so of course they are tolerant,; but not of atheism which More abominated. The tolerance of the Utopians tells us zero about More’s own attitudes in this matter. Instead his large corpus of written writings is full of hatred against so-called heretics and zealous in calls for their violent suppression by terror and painful death right to the end of More’s life. All this makes an interesting contrast with More’s friend Erasmus whose tolerance and dislike of violence make it manifest that he would almost certainly have never have overseen the judicial murder of individuals for so-called heresy.

It is ironic that Thomas More who believed it was right to murder men, and had in fact done so, for their opinions was murdered for his own.20

1. Bolt, Robert, A Man for all Seasons, Vintage, New York, 1990, see the following critique, O'Connell, Marvin, A Man for all Seasons: an Historian's Demur, at Here

2. Marius, Richard, Thomas More, Fount Paperbacks, New York, 1984, p. 3.

3. IBID. pp.14-83.

4. A copy of Utopia can be found at the Oregon State website Here.

5. IBID. Utopia, in Book II: Of the Religions Of the Utopians, at Here

6. IBID.

7. IBID. also Marius, pp. 152-183.

8. IBID. Marius quoting Thomas More p. 406.

9. Moynahan, Brian, Thomas More: Zero Tolerance, Part II, at Here, quoting Thomas More.

10. IBID.

11. IBID.

12. IBID. and Moynahan, Brian, Thomas More: Zero Tolerance, Part I, at Here

13. IBID.

14. See More, Thomas, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More; volume 6: A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, ed. Louis A. Schuster, Richard C. Marius, James P. Lusardi and Richard J. Shoeck, Yale University Press, New Haven CT., 1973.
15. Quoted in Marius, p. 347.

16. See More, Dialogue..., p. 346.

17. IBID. p. 407.

18. More, Thomas, St. Thomas More: Selected Letters, ed. by Elizabeth Frances Rogers. Yale University Press, New Haven CT., 1961, pp.180.

19. Marius, p. 406.

20. For more about Thomas More has fanatic see Marius and Ridley, Jasper, The Statesman and the Fanatic, Constable, London, 1982.

Pierre Cloutier

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