Thomas More

Lesson 16:  Thomas More

Scope:  Many today know Thomas More from Robert Bolt’s wonderful play, A Man for All Seasons, later made into a film. More is considered by Catholics to be a martyr at the hands of King Henry VIII, whom More had once faithfully served as chancellor.  More’s most widely known book, Utopia, is often read as a work of Renaissance Humanism rather than for its Christian context.  In this lesson, however, we will reflect on that work, as well as More’s more straightforward Christian writings.  Although a harsh critic of Martin Luther, More was ultimately a man who believed that Christians were called to love and to do good deeds in an imperfect world.  Like his friend Erasmus, he deeply believed in the need for a proper education of Christians.  He was, indeed, a man for all seasons.

  1. Thomas More is one of the best known saints of the Catholic Church from the 16th century.
    1. He was virtually a contemporary of the great founder of the Protestant tradition, Martin Luther, and criticized him harshly.
    2. He was beheaded in 1535 for refusing to accept Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church in England, making him a martyr in the eyes of Catholics.
    3. His best known work, Utopia, appears to have very little to do with Christianity.
    4. More was not canonized until 1935.
  2. More grew up in a privileged environment near the centers of political and religious power.
    1. As a teenager, he lived at the court of Cardinal Morton, who was both archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England under King Henry VII.
    2. He studied at Oxford and later studied in London.
    3. He became acquainted with Erasmus, the greatest Humanist outside of Italy in the early 16th century.
    4. More served in Parliament, including one term as speaker of the House of Commons; was widowed, and married a second time to a widow named Alice, who helped him to raise his children.
  3. In addition to More’s own writings, many other sources are available for the life of Thomas More.
    1. Erasmus wrote not only to but also about Thomas More.
      1. Erasmus describes More as one who despised absolute rule and had a great love of liberty.
      2. No one was ever less swayed than More by public opinion.
      3. More encouraged the education of his wife and daughters.
      4. He was content with what he had and was not tempted by bribes.
      5. He was a man of genuine piety.
    2. More’s son-in-law William Roper wrote a famous life of More.
    3. We have several fine portraits of More, most notably one by Hans Holbein the Younger, now in the Frick Collection in New York.
  4. More was a great believer in the study of the classics.
    1. He kept a close eye on the education of his daughters.
    2. He wrote a famous letter to Oxford University, criticizing a group called the Trojans, who were determined to suppress the teaching of much of the newly rediscovered literature and even the language of ancient Greece.
      1. More argued that although no one needs Greek (or Latin) literature to achieve salvation, it fosters a life of virtue.
      2. He criticized many of the professors of theology at Oxford for a narrow and academic theology.
      3. He pointed out that not just the work of Homer and other pagan Greek writers was available but also the writings of Greek fathers, such as Basil and Chrysotom.
      4. He believed that it is important to study the New Testament in its original language, Greek.
    3. More’s great work Utopia consciously imitates Plato both in form (a dialogue) and content (a discussion of an ideal society).
      1. He presents an internal debate about whether to live a life of leisure or to speak the truth no matter the consequences.
      2. He makes the case for a life of “rolling up one’s sleeves” and trying to make the world a little better.
      3. More reminds Christians just how radical Christ’s and the apostles’ teachings are.
        1. In More’s day, there had been an attempt to fit Christianity into the prevailing culture instead of critiquing the culture by Christian standards.
        2. The earliest Christian community held property in common.
        3. More invokes Isaiah’s call to defend widows and orphans, even if doing so means attacking absolute ownership of private property.
        4. More, in describing the fictional Utopia, creates a place based on reason alone because Christianity was not known when the institutions of Utopia were established.
          1. When Christianity does become known in Utopia, many people convert because Utopia’s values in general coincide with those of Christianity.
          2. It is clear that Utopia is, in many ways, a more just society than Europe in More’s day.
          3. Certain practices in Utopia appear to make sense on the surface but are ultimately silly, suggesting that reason alone is insufficient.
          4. Ultimately, More challenges the readers in Europe to use the advantage they have over Utopia – they have both reason and revelation – in order to make society just.
  5. More’s specifically religious thought is found in a variety of his writings.
    1. More wrote lots of specifically religious works, including prayers and treatises.
    2. More was involved in the polemic involving the Protestant Reformation and wrote some severe criticisms of Martin Luther.
  6. More’s career in the service of Henry VII reached the highest office available to a commoner but also led to his execution in 1535.
    1. More became chancellor of England in 1529, finally resigning in 1532 because of his dispute with Henry VIII over Henry’s claim to be supreme hhead of the Church in England.
    2. In something of a mockery of a trial, More was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.
    3. Some of More’s greatest writings, especially concerning conscience, were written as he waited his trial and execution.
    4. His last words were:  “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
  7. Thomas More is indeed a man for all seasons, a phrase that Erasmus used to describe him.

Suggested Reading: 

  1. Thomas More, Utopia.
  2. Alistair Fox, Thomas More: History and Providence.

Questions to consider:

1.  How is “a man for all seasons” an apt term to describe Thomas More?

The 20th-century agnostic playwright Robert Bolt portrayed Thomas More as the tragic hero of his 1960 play A Man for All Seasons. The title is drawn from what Robert Whittington in 1520 wrote of More:

More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.

In 1966, the play was made into the successful film A Man for All Seasons directed by Fred Zinnemann, adapted for the screen by the playwright himself, and starring Paul Scofield in an Oscar-winning performance. Scofield, an actor known for many acclaimed performances in Classical theatre, later called Sir Thomas More, "The most difficult part I played."

The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture for that year. In 1988, Charlton Heston starred in and directed a made-for-television film that followed Bolt's original play almost verbatim, restoring for example the commentaries of "the common man".

Next Week’s Lesson:  Martin Luther