The Lesson of Thomas More

The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Volume 2: The History of King Richard III

edited by Richard S. Sylvester
Yale University Press, 312 pp., $27.59

The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Volume 3 (Part I): Translations of Lucian

edited by Craig R. Thompson
Yale University Press, 218 pp., $18.50

The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Volume 4: Utopia

edited by Edward Surtz, edited by S. J. and J. H. Hexter
Yale University Press, 629 pp., $32.50

The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Volume 5: Responsio ad Lutherum

edited by John M. Headley, translated by Sister Scholastica Mandeville
Yale University Press, 1,036 pp., 2-vol. set $52.50

The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Volume 8: The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer

edited by Louis A. Schuster, edited by Richard C. Marius, edited by James P. Lusardi, edited by Richard J. Schoeck
Yale University Press, 1,831 pp., 3-vol. set $90.00

The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Volume 12: A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation

edited by Louis L. Martz, edited by Frank Manley
Yale University Press, 720 pp., $45.00

The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Volume 13: Treatise on the Passion; Treatise on the Blessed Body; Instructions and Prayers

edited by Garry E. Haupt
Yale University Press, 544 pp., $37.50

The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Volume 14 (Parts I and I): De Tristitia Christi

edited by Clarence H. Miller
Yale University Press, 1,210 pp., 2-vol. set $65.00

Utopia

by Thomas More, translated and edited by Robert M. Adams
Norton, 239 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More; drawing by David Levine

This is the five-hundredth anniversary of Sir Thomas More’s birth. Anniversaries are traditionally a time for taking stock, so it seems an appropriate moment to ask what reasons there may be for continuing to think about More’s life and writings so many centuries after his death.

To a historian there are of course many reasons for paying attention to More. In the first place his political career is of considerable significance. More turned to politics in earnest in his early forties, after making his name and fortune as a lawyer in the city of London. He only entered the king’s service after prolonged and apparently agonized reflection—a process he describes and dramatizes in the opening book of his Utopia. But once embarked on his new career he quickly rose to the top. He became speaker of the House of Commons in 1523, served as a royal secretary and roving ambassador throughout the 1520s, and in 1529 he attained the highest office of state, the lord chancellorship.

One crucial contribution More made to the English system of government at this time has long been recognized. It was he who, in his capacity as speaker of the Commons, first secured the right of its members to enjoy complete freedom of speech in debating any issue submitted to them. In addition, Professor J.J. Scarisbrick has recently argued that More was no less innovative in his work as lord chancellor. He sees More as the moving spirit behind an ambitious series of reform proposals drawn up in 1530, which included a plan to curb the growing rate of inflation as well as a scheme for a state-financed system of poor relief, the first proposal of its kind ever put forward in England.1

More is also of interest to historians as a leading humanist, an outstanding exponent of the new classical learning associated with the Renaissance. While still in his twenties he translated four of Lucian’s satirical dialogues from Greek into Latin, publishing them in association with his friend Erasmus in 1506. And later he somehow found time in the midst of his busy legal practice to compose two of the most influential works of English humanism. First he produced, in 1516, his celebrated account of the imaginary island of Utopia, a book which has given its name to a whole genre of subsequent social criticism. And between 1514 and 1518 he completed the Latin as well as English versions of his History of King Richard III. This book has had an influence vastly beyond its actual readership, for Shakespeare is known to have studied it closely, and it forms the basis for his ineradicable portrait of Richard as a hunchbacked villain, a tyrannous usurper and the murderer of his own nephews.

Finally, More remains of interest to theologians as well as historians for his religious treatises, both his anti-Protestant polemics and…


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