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The Myth of More

Thomas More: History and Providence

by Alistair Fox
Yale University Press, 271 pp., $19.95

Everybody, surely, knows Thomas More—gentle friend to all right-thinking people and enemy to all wickedness, the fairest of judges, modest, witty, done to death by tyrants. A saint, in fact, and so formally declared by the papacy in 1935. That figure, familiar from the stage and the movies (not to mention the standard biographies), bears as much relation to the real Thomas More as hagiography commonly does to the reality of history. A smaller number of people treasure Utopia as a brilliant analysis of the evils of European society and an exciting description of a community freed from sinful temptation by the abolition of private property. That appraisal rides smoothly over a host of unsolved ambiguities revealed by any half-careful reading of the book. Very few have ventured to become acquainted with the relentless persecutor of religious dissidents, the savage polemicist, the teller of rather nasty tales about invariably shrewish women, the authoritarian servant of a dictatorial Church. Thomas More, so regularly treated as transparently understandable, is in fact one of the most complex and difficult characters in history.

The conventional More was created out of one event, and by two special endeavors designed to exploit that event. His death on the scaffold, a martyr for the Church of Rome and a victim of Henry VIII, has come to dominate the story of his life, and twice self-chosen partisans set about making the most of that martyrdom. During the reign of Mary Tudor, his family preserved his memory by collecting his writings in print and by producing biographies designed to secure his canonization; and during the nineteenth century the Anglo-Catholic reaction against the Reformation chose him for a champion, and worked hard at the completion of the task. Hence the saint. The evidence for this conventional figure consisted essentially of those lives produced in the 1550s, but it found support in much earlier appraisals recorded by his good friends, especially by Erasmus.

Confining themselves carefully to such one-sided testimony, the inventors of St. Thomas then solved all problems and possible contradictions by either ignoring them or by simply assuming More’s unfailing righteousness. Thus, for instance, they always believed all he said even when evidence existed to the contrary: More’s truthfulness became axiomatic. The pointed criticism uttered by John Foxe in the 1560s—that More had “cracked his credit so often and may almost be bankrupt”—was readily forgotten, even though he demonstrably told quite a few lies about the victims of his Church. The More of convention, enshrined in R. W. Chambers’s famous and in retrospect rather awful biography (1935), does little credit to the science of history.

It is only in the last twenty years or so that this unreal (and incidentally not very interesting) image has come under review. By an inadvertent act of restitution, the effort was made much easier by an enterprise originally planned as the ultimate consummation of the myth—the great Yale edition of More’s complete works, which is now nearing completion. Inspired by devotion, the Yale editors nevertheless played fair; by making the whole of More’s vast output readily available, and in spite of the tendencies often displayed in their introductions and notes, they have smoothed the path for doubt.

In addition, some historians of the age, reading the records, familiar and unfamiliar, without the blinkers imposed by devotion, have discovered things about More’s life which do not fit the image. They have dug out More the politician, demythologized More the judge in Chancery, and removed the bigoted partisanship which used to condemn the makers of the early English Reformation as villains. Nevertheless, while the inconsistencies and ambiguities of More’s life and thought have thus become apparent, the fact that the earlier view also had some genuine evidence to support it has weakened the impact of revision and left things in some confusion. Worshipers have felt little difficulty in shrugging off the critics, and critics have been reluctant to follow through on their doubts.

All this makes Alistair Fox’s book a genuine landmark. Neither worshiper nor detractor, he has sought the truth, and in order to find it he has made the unprecedented effort of reading all that More left behind with an open mind and a clear eye. Unlike most students of More he has not confined himself to the great works—Utopia, The History of Richard III, A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, the famous and marvelous letters from the Tower. He has read and pondered also the juvenilia (including some dreadful but revealing doggerel verse traditionally described as poetry), the bitterly dark Four Last Things, the endless and mostly tedious works of controversy—all the hundreds of thousands of words in English (More’s English suffered from lack of control) and Latin (More wrote an exceptionally difficult Latin). These labors, which no one can fairly judge who has never tried to tangle with the total More, have brought forth remarkable fruit. Dr. Fox has found an answer to the enigma that rests on secure grounds of proof, makes convincing sense, and sums up the transformation in evaluation that has been coming for a generation without discarding those parts of the traditional More which also rest on evidence and are true.

Dr. Fox starts from the recognition, which is vital, that More, so far from being a genuine humanist (and therefore an optimist about mankind), held fervently to the Augustinian view of man as the product of the Fall. From the first, he was torn between his genuine faith in God and his equally genuine horror at God’s decree that condemned man to suffering and death. Like Luther, he struggled to find God’s mercy and love in a world that was ruled by God’s punishment for sin, though unlike Luther he did not regard himself as so hopelessly and helplessly lost a sinner that only unassisted and undeserved grace could save him. More was willing to suppose that man could contribute to his salvation, but confronted with experience—with the evils and miseries of existence and the certainty of death—he wrestled to find an answer that would explain the state of mankind without involving despairing of God. The medieval remedy of retreat into the cloister failed one who (as both he and Erasmus testified) could not do without those pleasures which a vow of chastity would bar; indifferent to wealth and ostentation, More was, to put it mildly, not indifferent to sex. So it would have to be in the world that he would fight his demons, and this included the ultimate temptation for the Christian, namely that he might cease to believe in God’s love for mankind.

As Dr. Fox shows, he found the answer in a personal elaboration of the Christian tenet that treats human history as exemplifying the plan and purpose of God. After a time More came to accept that man cannot be made perfect in this earthly life, and that this is part of the plan. He can, however, be led toward deserving the life eternal which only grace can bestow by accepting the promise contained in Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. More therefore concluded (and this is very convincingly worked out in Dr. Fox’s book) that history showed God training (so to speak) humankind for this race for salvation by subjecting his creation to tribulations that tested steadfastness and submission, but then showing his mercy when the testing time gave way to reassuring proofs of grace. The history of the world consisted of a series of troubles leading to resolution; it was a scheme of ever-renewed difficulties capable of inspiring despair, terminating every time for those capable of reading in ever-renewed hope.

This highly original interpretation is the more convincing because it allows for More’s characteristically concrete, unmystical, even unphilosophical temperament. Psychologically complex, he was intellectually always rather downright—though it is not clear whether Dr. Fox would agree with this.

In yet another reading of Utopia, distinguished from the rest by carrying conviction, Dr. Fox finds proof that by 1517 More had resolved his earlier struggles and discovered his synthesis. In the same year, however, that other Augustinian, Martin Luther, began to offer another answer, which seemed to deny the need for men’s efforts to meet tribulation with resolution in order to earn the right to hope; it also offended against More’s reliance on the visible Church as proof of God’s ultimate love and mercy. Thus when More began seriously to encounter the new heresy he discovered that it undermined his vision of human history; and when in the course of Henry VIII’s break with Rome he came to think that this devastating contradiction of the only means he had found for escaping from nihilist despair looked like triumphing, he understandably lost all balance, all sense of proportion, all regard for little things like truthful reporting or respect for people who differed from him—indeed lost most of his humanity.

Hence the unbridled violence of his polemical writings; hence his determined and merciless persecution of individual heretics in England. Yet just at the point when the devil seemed to have won his victory over More by allowing his enemies to succeed despite all his efforts to arrest disaster from a position of power and influence, at the time when More fell into personal danger, was imprisoned and threatened with death, he pulled himself together and succeeded in recovering the understanding of God’s purpose which he had worked out for himself in less troubled times. His new-found peace, expressed in his last writings as well as in his merrily stoical behavior in the Tower, arose from a renewed confidence in the promise of redemption which he achieved by intensive meditation on the Passion of Christ. At the end, More did acquire some attributes of sanctity, though to this day it is not clear whether he really believed in the divinely ordained supremacy of the pope over the Church on earth, for the defense of which, that Church maintains, he died.

This remarkable analysis of a very difficult man, rendered more difficult by the accretion of hagiographical nonsense, is worked out with great subtlety and perfect honesty. Dr. Fox does not hide the dark side of this demon-ridden man, but he feels no need to deny his nobler side either. He copes with the all-pervasive irony which More invariably uses to obscure his meaning before the reader, and which reflects his essential unwillingness to expose his inner thoughts to anyone but God. Along the way, Dr. Fox uncovers much unsuspected and very illuminating detail. The echoes of Chaucer found especially in the earlier writings are striking. No one has before this shown up an apocalyptic phase in More, but Dr. Fox persuades me that at the height of the controversies More came to believe that the world was about to end and developed his own version of the millenarian fantasies so commonplace in the century of the Reformation.

Dr. Fox also shows how these unreal dreams vanished again as More recovered his balance under tribulation: at the very stage at which ordinary chiliasts would be sure of the truth of their fears, More dropped them. Even to those of us who have before this emphasized More’s special hatred of heresy (a hatred which Erasmus evidently thought a bit unhealthy) Dr. Fox opens a new line of thought by pointing out that More began in 1533 to attack nonheretical doubts about the clergy because he regarded them as political moves dangerous to the orthodoxy they ostensibly accepted. The controversies are skillfully placed within the context of Henry VIII’s developing policy; we see More reacting to the event, not just repeatedly restating a single obsessional conviction. In this way his prevarications and polemical tricks assume direct political significance. The importance of Dr. Fox’s book extends beyond Thomas More to the history of his times. Indeed, for a man who started as a student of English and still teaches in an English department, Dr. Fox has turned himself into a notably successful historian.

Is there nothing to say by way of criticism of this book—nothing that would make praise less unalloyed and therefore more convincing? For this reviewer the answer must really be no, though the idolators may very possibly yet come to set about it. The only reservation that I might feel moved to make would charge Dr. Fox with still being too kind to More. He makes no bones of the young More’s pessimistic despair, which shows so little of the trusting acceptance of God’s will to be expected in aspiring saints; he fully reveals the fury of his battle with the heretics which so ill fits the man “never in a fume” created for the worshipers by his son-in-law William Roper. Even so, Dr. Fox seems to me to have held back from some of the implications hidden in his clear-eyed analysis.

The young More’s despair, in the first place, has about it strong elements of a disturbed adolescence; it reeks (especially in those dubious poems) of that sentimental Weltschmerz in which the romantics of the nineteenth century liked to wallow. More’s addiction to plays and acting, together with some of his jests and ironies, also resembles an adolescent striking of poses. Most people outgrow their adolescence: when did More do so? Dr. Fox would seemingly answer: when in Utopia he resolved the struggle between his two selves, in the victory won over the unyielding idealist Hythloday by the better-sighted Morus, who understands that the human condition can be improved without being made perfect. He thus, in an adult fashion, saved the chances of a better life from the destructive instincts of those true radicals for whom only the unattainable best is good enough. (Dr. Fox rightly discerns More rediscovering the same arrogant perfectionism that had beset his own younger self in the heresies of Luther and Tyndale.)

To terminate one’s adolescence in one’s late thirties argues a serious psychological hang-up. Even so, two very adolescent characteristics remained manifest in More until he finally ran into his tribulation and the end of his struggles: a superior self-righteousness expressing itself in severe and often vicious triumphing over lesser beings, and a preoccupation with sexual sniggers displayed, for instance, in the constant charge of lechery against marrying priests, in the horror stories he told about the Sack of Rome, and also in many of his supposedly “merry tales.” In this respect, mankind can be divided into the prudish and the prurient: More belongs to the latter. Oddly enough, his great opponent, Thomas Cromwell, was something of a prude. I think that More took an unconscionable time to grow up, and this is a detail which we must not overlook in trying to understand him.

As for the hunt of heretics, however understandable in the light of Dr. Fox’s analysis of More’s deepest beliefs, it should not be passed over in silence that More employed in it a mixture of rejoicing and unctuousness which must surely affect one’s judgment of his character. Instructed by Dr. Fox, one can readily grasp why More grew so suddenly and completely violent: his whole understanding of the will of God in relation to mankind was being attacked, and his hard-won peace of mind was being destroyed. But the man who reacted to the experience by saying that the heretics had nothing to complain of except perhaps that they had not been burned sooner, and who approved of the execution of recanting heretics on the grounds that this saved them from losing their souls by depriving them of the opportunity to revert to heresy, seems to me to forfeit at least some of the sympathy that his own fate evokes.

There is another question touching More’s honesty which has never so far been raised. In his controversial writings he engaged a group of English reformers whose works he had certainly read, but in them he also constantly attacked others—Luther, Zwingli, Oecolampadius—whom there is no evidence he ever studied at first hand, with the exception of the little book in which Luther answered Henry VIII’s attack upon himself. How much did he really know from his own experience about the reformers, those demonic figures pilloried in his writings, apart from the endlessly reiterated fact that they had broken their vows by marrying? His misunderstanding of Luther’s message is notoriously pretty well complete; but was this so because he had never troubled to read him?

Thomas More remains an ambiguous and immensely complex personality, perhaps in part because we can learn so much about him, but largely because he was excessively complicated and used ambiguity to hide that fact from the observer. He will continue to attract study and involvement, especially now that the simplicities of hagiography and devout admiration have lost their appeal to all but the deaf and the blind. Meanwhile this excellent book, which adds to the virtues of its substance a lucidity and readability not commonly found among either literary or historical studies, provides the first solid basis on which further work can be undertaken. It will not surprise me if that further work will do little more than demonstrate the value of Dr. Fox’s remarkable insights.

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