Greetings, my fellow port swillers!
So which is it: More the saint or More the sinner? Was he the ruthless, sexually repressed rage addict suggested by historians like G.R. Elton, fearful of change and driven by helpless fury? Or was he the humble and generous “man for all seasons” praised by his friend Robert Whittinton and so many others among his contemporaries? Were there really two Thomas Mores: the young, open-minded humanist, and the older royal courtier, gripped by religious fanaticism?
The moral integrity of More’s life has been argued with persuasive skill in the various works of Gerard Wegemer, among many others. And Peter Ackroyd’s fine biography, The Life of Thomas More, vividly captures the whole extraordinary man–his virtues, his flaws, and the decisive nature of his moment in history. Travis Curtright has now added to the luster of the real More’s legacy with his excellent new book The One Thomas More.
As the title suggests, Curtright sees Thomas More’s life as a consistent, organic record of Christian witness, start to finish; a thoroughly logical integration of humanism, piety, politics and polemical theology. There is only “one” Thomas More–a man of tender nobility, subtle intellect, and forceful conviction, all rooted in profound fidelity to the larger commonwealth of Christendom outside and above Tudor England. For Curtright, More embodied “the Erasmian ideal of wedding learning with virtue,” lived through a vigorous engagement with temporal affairs. He treats More’s scholarly critics with proper respect while methodically dismantling their arguments; and he does it by carefully unpacking and applying three of More’s most important written works: The Life of Pico Mirandola, The History of Richard III, and Utopia.
Curtright correctly sees that More’s real source of annoyance for many modern revisionist critics is his faith. If revisionists like Elton implicitly define “humanism” as excluding religious faith, then a man like Thomas More and the whole vast Christian tradition of integrating faith and reason become serious irritants. As Curtright observes:
The entire structures of the two Mores and real More theories congeal around [critics'] notions of a “true” humanism that excludes the possibility of faith and reason working together, a position transparently stated by [G.R.] Elton and one that influences contemporary condemnations of More as a “fanatic.”
Bickering over the “real” Thomas More has importance beyond the scholarly community. Why? Because just as the nutty premises of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code confused millions by reinventing the backstory of Christian belief, so too the novel Wolf Hall offers a revisionist Thomas More wrapped in popular melodrama. The author, Hilary Mantel, a lapsed Catholic whose disgust for the Church is a matter of public record, drew her portrait of More in part from the work of Elton. The “hero” of her novel is Thomas Cromwell–More’s tormentor, and in reality, a man widely loathed by his contemporaries as an administratively gifted but scheming and vindictive bully. Unlike the widespread European shock that greeted More’s judicial murder, few wept for Cromwell when he finally followed More to the scaffold.
I quote all this at length because the Mothe has been pestering me for some time to read Wolf Hall. I might, too, just by way of exposure, but I think I’ll try Curtright’s book, too. Indeed, I believe I’m ready to go right back and tackle More’s own works cited above. Like many modern liberal arts students, my sole exposure to date has been to bits and pieces of Utopia, and that was a good 25 years ago.
I was chatting with a fellow believer last evening, stating only half in jest my belief that given my…attitudes (I, too, see faith and reason as complimentary, not exclusive of each other), at some point I am likely to be hauled off and either put in a reeducation camp or else stood up against the wall. I don’t know whether I’d be able to crack jokes with my executioners like More, but I’d at least keep him in mind.
UPDATE: Lawks! I checked over at the devil’s website and found that Curtright’s tome is going for about sixty bucks, which is somewhat beyond what the Port Swiller CFO is likely to approve. Guess I’ll have to save my pennies and wait a bit…..