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 his devotional works. As a young man More was a sharp critic—no less than Erasmus—of the vices and follies of the Catholic Church. But he was deeply shocked when the opposition of the humanists to the Church’s shortcomings passed over into heresy and schism with Luther’s epochmaking outburst against the papacy in 1517. Soon after this More’s religious outlook began to undergo a marked change. In 1516, in Utopia, he had pleaded for a remarkably wide measure of religious toleration. But by the end of the 1520s, acting as lord chancellor, he was calling for a fierce campaign of persecution against England’s earliest Protestants, several of whom he caused to be burned. At the same time he began to publish a series of diatribes against Luther and his English disciples, all of which are unfortunately distinguished by exhausting prolixity as well as a brutal violence of tone. The first to appear was his Dialogue Concerning Heresies in 1528, while the fullest attack was mounted in his Confutation of 1532-1533, a work which runs in its modern edition to over a thousand pages.

More spent the last year of his life as a prisoner in the Tower of London, awaiting trial and execution on a charge of high treason. At this point his religious writings took on a different and more reflective tone, bringing back into the foreground many of the most sympathetic aspects of his complex personality. As well as a treatise on the Passion of Christ, he wrote a poignant Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, a work of consolation in which he even succeeds in viewing his own desperate predicament with the detached humor that never deserted him. He also wrote a meditation in Latin on The Sadness of Christ, using the story of Christ’s agony in the garden to help him reach the last and most important decision of his own life: that a martyr’s death is not to be evaded if one feels it to be required by faith.


All these scholarly interests in More’s life and writings are currently being splendidly served by the Yale University Press, which has so far issued eight of the proposed sixteen volumes of its Complete Works of St. Thomas More. The series already stands as a monument of exemplary book production as well as dedicated scholarship. An exceptional degree of organizational and editorial skill has gone into the planning of the whole project. And the volumes so far published have been definitive in their presentation of More’s texts. All the known manuscripts have been consulted, all the variants in all the early editions have been collated, and in each case the original format—including even the most tortured spelling and punctuation—has been reproduced with scrupulous exactitude.

When the Yale edition first began to appear in the early 1960s, the editors wisely chose to concentrate on the appealing figure of More the humanist. The first volume to be issued was Professor Richard Sylvester’s edition of The History of King Richard III in 1963. This was followed in 1965 by Professors Edward Surtz and J.H. Hexter’s edition of Utopia, which has already been reprinted. And in 1974 came Professor Craig Thompson’s volume of More’s youthful translations from Lucian.

Recently the editors have shifted the focus of their attention to More the champion of the Catholic Church. We still await the edition (now promised for next year) of More’s first and greatest denunciation of the Protestants, his Dialogue Concerning Heresies. But the volume containing his Latin Response to Luther appeared in 1969, while the huge edition of his Confutation (requiring three volumes to itself) came out in 1973. Finally, last year saw the almost simultaneous publication of all the major devotional treatises More composed while awaiting his death in the Tower.

It must of course be admitted that a project on this scale can scarcely hope to be free from editorial blemishes. It is unfortunate, for example, that the edition of the Confutation has appeared before the Dialogue. Much of Professor Louis Schuster’s admirable introduction to the former work would have served much better as an introduction to the latter, and much of what he says will presumably have to be repeated if the editors of the Dialogue are to place it in its appropriate intellectual context. It is even more unfortunate that the translation of Utopia, as originally issued, contained such a large number of mistakes, especially since the paperback edition of 1964 appears to have gone into extensive use as a school and college text. Sometimes the translator leaves out whole sentences, and even when he only mistranslates a single word this occasionally affects the sense of a whole passage—for example, when he renders felicitas as “philosophy” instead of “happiness” or charitas as “freedom” instead of “charity.”

It is true that all translators of Utopia begin with an unfortunate disadvantage. The first English version of More’s text—issued by Ralph Robinson in 1551—is a work of art in its own right, a remarkably close rendering of the original with a beauty of cadence which has left its mark on many generations of readers. For those who want something more up-to-date, however, it is arguable that the best answer is to turn not to the Yale edition, but rather to the version produced by Professor Robert M. Adams for the Norton Critical Edition of Utopia in 1975. This is naturally far more idiomatic than Robinson’s archaic prose, but it is also far more readable than the Yale translation, which is based on a scholarly but labored attempt to reproduce as much as possible of More’s winding and elaborate Latin syntax.

Whatever criticisms one may have of the Yale edition, however, most of them become mere quibbles when compared with the immense scholarly achievement represented by these volumes as a whole. They not only present More’s texts with unrivaled precision, but in each case surround them with explanatory notes and introductions of a consistently impressive quality. Furthermore, several editors are able to report important discoveries about individual texts for the first time. In his introduction to Richard III, Professor Sylvester has finally been able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the work is indeed by More, and not by his early patron Cardinal Morton as had often been alleged. In his introduction to the Dialogue of Comfort, Professor Louis Martz has succeeded in showing that the earliest known manuscripts are actually copies taken from More’s own holograph, corrected by his original editor William Rastell. He is thus able to furnish the first fully authentic text of this most attractive of More’s so-called “Tower works.” Most dramatically of all, Professor Miller has been able to base his superb edition of The Sadness of Christ on More’s own autograph manuscript, the unique copy of which was deposited during the sixteenth century in a reliquary closet in Valencia, and only came to light again in 1963. Once more, the result is a wholly new and definitive edition of More’s text.


Although the Yale edition is greatly to be welcomed as well as admired, the fact is that for most of us the “new learning” of the Renaissance and the interminable polemics of the Reformation are somewhat remote subjects. Are there no more immediate lessons to be learned from a study of More’s life and works? I think there undoubtedly are, and that two of them at least deserve our most serious attention.

First there is the matter of More’s death, a death for which he is venerated as a saint and martyr by the Catholic Church. More was beheaded in 1535, having refused to swear the oath attached to the Act of Succession which Thomas Cromwell had piloted through Parliament in the previous year. The purpose of this act was to establish that the infant princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) should be regarded as Henry VIII’s legitimate heir. Since Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, however, this presupposed accepting the validity of the king’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. But this divorce had been refused by the pope, and had only been granted by a special court presided over by the schismatic archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. To accept the divorce and Elizabeth’s legitimacy was thus to repudiate the authority of the pope. And for More this was an impossibility. As he told the judges at his trial, he believed the indictment against him to be “grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and his Holy Church.”2

These may still seem very remote issues, but in fact a general principle of enduring importance lies behind More’s confrontation with Thomas Cromwell and his other judges. On one side of the debate stands the view that if a given enactment passes all the legal tests of validity—if it is promulgated in due form by a recognized legislative authority—then it is the law and must be obeyed, even if it seems to offend against some moral or religious principle we may happen to cherish. This thesis, generally known as legal positivism, is classically stated in Book II of Hobbes’s Leviathan, where it is roundly declared that “no law can be unjust,” because the law itself acts as “the public conscience,” and in this way serves to establish and guarantee “the rules of just and unjust” in society. The same concept of law clearly underpins the legislation used by Thomas Cromwell to bring More and his friend Bishop John Fisher to the block in 1535. As Cromwell expresses it in a letter sent to Fisher before his trial, “the law must define whether you ought to utter” any reflections on such high matters as the relationship of the king to the Church. If the law says you may not speak, it follows that you must remain silent.

Against this view stands the claim that even if a given enactment passes all the legal tests of validity, we can still refuse to accept it as legal and binding if it seems to us, when we consult our conscience, to violate some higher principle of religion or morality. One way of defending this position—influentially revived by Ronald Dworkin in Taking Rights Seriously—is based on treating each citizen as the bearer of certain “background” rights against the state which are claimed to be prior to any rights conferred by the state itself. The same conclusion can also be reached by a different route—as Michael Walzer has argued in Obligations—if we begin by assuming that each of us, at least potentially, has a range of duties higher than our duty to obey the law. We may for example feel an overriding obligation to help a certain person, or to further a particular cause. And we may take these obligations so seriously that, if they come into conflict with our obligation to obey the law, we may feel that we not only have a right but a positive duty to disregard the law in their name.

Which of these opposing views about law and obligation ought we to accept? The significance of Sir Thomas More’s trial is that he aims to leave us in no conceivable doubt about the right answer. Facing his accusers after the indictment against him had been read, he told them that “ye must understand that, in things touching conscience, every true and good subject is more bound to have respect to his said conscience” than “to any other thing in all the world.” After judgment had been pronounced against him, he continued to insist that “very and pure necessity, for the discharge of my conscience” served to justify his stand. His basic argument was that, since no one has a duty to obey an “unlawful law”—even though it may have been sanctioned by the highest council in the realm—each citizen may be said in such a case to have a right of disobedience. “Therefore am I not bounden,” he assured the lord chancellor, “to conform my conscience to the Council of one Realm against the General Council of Christendom.” At an earlier stage, however, he had also hinted at the more stringent doctrine that in such circumstances a citizen not only has a right but a positive duty to disobey. When Archbishop Cranmer asked him during his first interrogation why he would not swear the oath required of him, he answered that he felt this to be “one of the causes in which he was bound not to obey his Prince.”

There is a sense in which one can still witness the confrontation between More and his leading judge, Thomas Cromwell. If one visits the Frick collection in New York, one comes upon two magnificent portraits by Holbein, one of Cromwell, the other of More. They face each other across the fireplace, with More looking somewhat apprehensive, as well he might from the expression on Cromwell’s face. Conceptually as well as aesthetically, the effect is an intensely dramatic one. What we are seeing is not merely a confrontation between two great statesmen, but something far more: a confrontation between two incompatible views about the duties of citizens and the rights of governments.

More’s other main claim on our attention is, I think, as the author of Utopia. Although the book is so brief, it offers an analysis of the relationship between private property and the public interest which is no less challenging today than when it was first written.

What then is More’s view about this relationship? Admittedly it is extremely difficult to say. Utopia is not only presented in a deliberately evasive style as the description of an imaginary island, but it is also a work so suffused with irony that over the centuries it has acquired almost as many interpreters as readers.

If we turn to the modern critical literature which has grown up around the book, we encounter two main answers to the question of what More may have meant by his apparent satire on the rich and aristocratic leaders of his own society. (Both these approaches are usefully discussed, with extracts from the relevant authorities, in Professor Adams’s Norton edition of the text.) According to one school of thought—represented, for example, by Professor Russell Ames—More’s intention in attacking the landowning aristocracy was to indicate his support for the eventual inheritors of their power, the new bourgeoisie. For Ames, an understanding of Utopia thus depends on seeing it as “a product of capitalism’s attack on feudalism.” By contrast, R.W. Chambers and a number of Catholic scholars have insisted that More’s polemics against his contemporaries derive from an essentially “medieval” perspective. As Chambers puts it in his classic biography of More, Utopia must be seen as a “reaction” against the “progressive” elements in More’s society, a last attempt to breathe life into the dying ideal of “medieval collectivism.”

There are obvious difficulties with both these approaches to More’s text. Although Chambers certainly captures much of its spirit, he hardly does justice to the significance of More’s humanism, the relevance of his attachment to an intellectual movement which was far more confident and fashionable than backward-looking in character. As for Ames’s interpretation, this appears to be based, as Professor Hexter points out in his brilliant introduction to the Yale edition of Utopia, on a rather simple non sequitur. It scarcely follows from the fact that More saw himself as an enemy of the hereditary aristocracy that he must have seen himself as a friend of the lawyers and merchants who often opposed them, especially as these allegedly “bourgeois” groups are treated with unrelieved irony and disdain throughout his book.

In the face of these difficulties it seems worth asking what alternative approaches might be tried in an attempt to recover More’s meaning. One possible answer, as Professor Hexter has already suggested, might take the form of laying a far greater stress on More’s essentially humanist allegiances. One theme that all Renaissance moralists were greatly concerned to emphasize was the importance of honor, especially the need to give honor only where honor is due. And when they asked what members of society are in fact deserving of honor, respect, and status from their fellow citizens, they invariably answered that honor should only be accorded to those who possess virtue—by which they chiefly meant a sense of public spirit, a willingness to devote oneself to the good of the community as a whole. It is arguable that More is basically concerned to point out in Utopia the very radical implications of taking this doctrine seriously.3

More begins with the sad but undoubted fact that in his own society the rewards of status and respect were normally not paid to those who cared about the welfare of the community, but rather to those who happened to be nobly born or rich. He observes with great bitterness that nowadays “the only nobility” and merit are taken to reside in lineage and wealth. This means that people “believe some extra worth attaches to them” merely because they happen “to be born of certain ancestors” who were “rich in landed estates.”The outcome of this “strange and sweet madness” is that such people are treated with “almost divine honors” simply because of their social position and their wealth.

More is fiercely insistent, however, that the rich are usually the least rather than the most deserving of our respect, since their anxiety to protect and add to their possessions generally means that they worry only about their own self-interest, not about the interests of society as a whole. The rich can thus be relied upon, he thinks, to be “greedy, unscrupulous, and useless,” while the poor are generally “well-behaved, simple” people whose labor is essential to the community, but whose habits of deference serve to ensure that they are always cheated of their just deserts.

For More the main question of social justice is thus a very simple one: what enables the rich and selfish to dominate society, thereby preventing the best and most public-spirited citizens form receiving the honor and respect which is their due? He thinks the answer is obvious: it is the grossly unequal distribution of money and private property which serves to sustain this lamentable state of affairs. As the traveler to the island of Utopia is made to declare at the beginning of his narrative,

It appears to me that wherever you have private property and all men measure all things by cash values, there it is scarcely possible for a commonwealth to have justice or prosperity—unless you think justice exists where all the best things flow into the hands of the worst citizens or prosperity prevails where all is divided among very few.

If this is the sickness, then the cure according to More is no less obvious. Having stated the problem, the traveler Having stated the problem, the traveler is made to state the solution with equal force. “I am fully persuaded,” he goes on,

that no just and even distribution of goods can be made and that no happiness can be found in human affairs unless private property is utterly abolished. While it lasts, there will always remain a heavy and inescapable burden of poverty and misfortunes for by far the greatest and by far the best part of mankind.

The solution More proposes to the evil consequences of an uncaring individualism is of course the one the “extremely wise and holy” Utopians on their remote island have already adopted. They have seen that the root cause of social injustice lies in our failure to concern ourselves directly with the public good. They have also seen that the reason for this lack of concern derives from our selfish desire to protect our own private interests and goods. And they have fearlessly drawn the obvious moral: they have outlawed the use of money and the institution of private property altogether.

In describing this imaginary community, More speaks of it as “the best state of a commonwealth.” However, most of his commentators have been anxious to show that this must be taken as a further instance of his irony, or else that he is merely dramatizing the rival claims of public and private ownership without taking sides himself. This latter interpretation is the one put forward by Professor Surtz in his introduction to the Yale edition of Utopia. It is a comforting thought, of course, but it is not what More says. And it may be that what more intended to leave us with was a very different thought, and one which is naught for our comfort. For it may be that what he said at this crucial moment was precisely what he meant.

This Issue

October 12, 1978