Less More, Please

During the course of his visit to Britain next year, the Pope will be addressing the country’s parliamentarians from the spot, reports the Daily Telegraph, where Sir Thomas More was sentenced to death in 1535.

The choice of venue is, I reckon, largely a coincidence (Westminster Hall is the usual venue for addresses of this nature – it’s where Reagan spoke, for example), but it does give me an excuse to post about Thomas More, a brilliant, fascinating individual who ought also to be seen as terrible warning of the danger that one man’s spiritual (or wider philosophical) certainty can pose to others when harnessed to the power of the state. Unfortunately, that’s not how he is seen. The old boy gets a pretty good press these days. Maybe that’s because he was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint in 1935. Maybe.

I suspect that the real key to More’s shiny modern reputation is to be found in Hollywood’s hagiographic A Man For All Seasons, a highly watchable, deeply annoying film. As a mild corrective to Paul Schofield’s fine portrait of doomed nobility, it is perhaps useful to recall that, as Lord Chancellor (England’s top lawyer), More showed himself to be a savage ideological enforcer, quite pleased, for example, to support the burning alive (“the short fyre…[prior to] ye fyre eurlasting”, as he so charmingly put it) of heretics.

Was More sincere in his beliefs? Sure, but then again so was Felix Dzerzhinsky.

Having said that, it’s important not to fall into the the current all-too-common mistake of  judging historical figures solely by the standards of our own time. More’s attitudes were hardly uncommon in his era. But having conceded that point, it’s also worth remembering that the fate that ultimately befell him was not so unusual either. He defied the king. He lost. If More was no Dzerzhinsky (although there is this), then Henry VIII was no Stalin…

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5 Responses to Less More, Please

  1. Bradlaugh says:

    Interesting new site design. Be even more interesting IF THERE WAS SOME WAY FOR CONTRIBUTORS TO LOG IN.

    In re Thomas More: The movie is irresistible — one of my favorites. It leaves out a lot of More, though. His talent for scatological vituperation, for example. From Peter Ackroyd’s biography:

    And how More did rage! [i.e. against Luther] Furfuris! Pestillentissimum scurram! Pediculosus fraterculus! Potista! Simium! Improbe mendax! Martin Luther is an ape, an arse, a drunkard, a lousy little friar, a piece of scurf, a pestilential buffoon, a dishonest liar. "HA, HA, he, facete, laute, lepide Luthere, nihil supra … Hui." The unmediated demotic speech here will be of interest to anyone who wishes to know how the educated inhabitants of early sixteenth-century London actually sounded when they spoke in Latin, but More’s grasp of colloquialism went much further. Someone should shit ("incacere") into Luther’s mouth, he farts anathema, it will be right to piss("meiere") into his mouth, he is a shit-devil ("cacodemon"), he is filled with shit ("merda"), dung ("stercus"), filth ("lutum") and excrement ("coenum"); look, my own fingers are covered with shit ("digitos concacatos") when I try to clean his filthy mouth. This is not, perhaps, the normal language of a saint …

    Perhaps not. Given that More was at one point a commissioner for sewers ("covering the long stretch of Thames bank between East Greenwich and Lambeth," according to Ackroyd (p.152)), I think we can safely say that the man knew his shit.

  2. Caledonian says:

    I’m getting very tired of this “judge not, lest someone in the future judge us poorly” idea.

    I’m fairly sure that, if they knew about the modern world, the vast majority of people throughout history would be horrified. So? I have no more reason to care about the arbitrary and baseless beliefs of someone in the past than I do about those of the present, or of the future.

    If some of my beliefs are actually objectively wrong, and people in the future can demonstrate this and disapprove of my current stance, I would agree with them if I knew what they knew. This idea that can’t judge the past by any current standard is absurd.

  3. j mct says:

    I’d agree that making More a martyr to religious freedom, or multiculturalism per the brass tacks sense of the word, would be absurd and it might seem that movie sort of slyly implies that he was, given that it portrays him sympathetically and religious freedom is what we value nowadays, I don’t think it ever puts any actual words to that effect in his mouth.

    I’d think also, that saying that religious freedom is what he should have been for is being terribly unfair to him. The fact was no one was a ‘multiculturalist’ at the time, if any of the heretics More was going after, mostly Lutherans I think, succeeded at what they were trying to do, More, and any other Catholics, Henry VIII too if it came to that, would have been sent to the stake. Eventually, More was sort of taken unawares, since the heresy, per More, that eventually got him executed sort of came out of left field and he didn’t see it coming. Also, as a harbinger of things to come, though More was basically guilty of heresy, he was formally executed for treason.

    If you want a real over the top ‘putting modern notions into historical figures head’s that they did not have’ those two movies (one?) recently made about good Queen Bess would fit the bill. That the Spaniards of the Armada were definitely not for religious freedom is most certainly true, but the words the script puts in Elizabeth’s mouth, a good forthright speech that those evil papists had to be stopped because they were a threat to the religious freedom of Englishman, is far more ridiculous than anything in the movie about More.

  4. Polichinello says:

    What Andrew says about More’s treatment of the Lutherans is correct. Bradlaugh’s post about language should bear in mind, too, that Luther was hardly the model of decorum, himself. He resorted to scatalogical language a time or two, IIRC.

    The thing about More (and Luther, too, really) is that they took stands of conscience at great cost to themselves. It would have been rather easy for More to go along with the divorce, but he didn’t. He ended his career and tried to avoid having to openly contradict the King. When his back was put up against the wall, he went to the block. That sort of thing always stirs up admiration, be it a Catholic, a King Charles or even a communist, like Trotsky.

    If More was no Dzerzhinsky (although there is this), then Henry VIII was no Stalin…

    Given the way Henry would do away with his advisers to play one block off against the other, I wouldn’t be so quick to give him that kind of a pardon. Jasper Ridley’s biography of Henry VIII ascribed some pretty big numbers to the old boy. The creepy thing about him is that he had all his victims sing his praises as they went to the chopping block.

  5. Ethan says:

    From what I’ve seen of your posts this might be the sole point on which you agree with Acton about anything, but in case you haven’t run across it already, you should enjoy this:

    Most of this, I suppose, is undisputed, and calls for no enlargement. But the weight of opinion is against me when I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong. The plea in extenuation of guilt and mitigation of punishment is perpetual. At every step we are met by arguments which go to excuse, to palliate, to confound right and wrong, and reduce the just man to the level of the reprobate. The men who plot to baffle and resist us are, first of all, those who made history what it has become. They set up the principle that only a foolish Conservative judges the present time with the ideas of the past; that only a foolish Liberal judges the past with the ideas of the present.

    As for myself, I suspect my moral ideas (and yours) are “arbitrary and baseless,” in their specifics at least, if their historical context is removed. It’s an unpleasant thought but why should my moral beliefs somehow have achieved a greater permanency and footing than those of so many good and wise men?

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