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More, Thomas (1478–1535) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

more’s erasmus utopia life

More lived the first English life that has become a field of study in itself. Versions of the man have ranged from William Roper’s saint, to Froude’s fanatic anti-Protestant (in the Dictionary of National Biography ), to R. W. Chambers’ hero of conscience, to the ambitious, self-divided man of Richard Marius. Born 7 February 1478 in London, More was one of six children of John More, a prominent lawyer who would rise to the King’s Bench. He learned his Latin at St. Anthony’s School, London, entered Oxford for two years (college unknown), then read for the law at New Inn and Lincoln’s Inn, where he was called to the bar in 1501. His first wife, Jane Colt, died in 1511, leaving him with three small daughters and a son. More’s parish priest later recalled that a month after her death More came to him late one night with a dispensation permitting marriage the next day without reading of banns. Alice More, then an uneducated widow six years More’s senior, learned, says Erasmus,* to sing and play the lute and virginals; she also managed the household and family expertly.

More’s life seemingly divides into the periods of the humanist, public servant, and suffering saint; but all three roles were lived simultaneously. Even while preparing for a career in law, More was considering life in the priesthood; after 1501 he even went to live with the monks at Charterhouse, the home of the austere Carthusians in London. He also gave an arresting series of lectures (now lost) on Augustine’s City of God . Probably the combined influence of his father and John Colet,* his spiritual adviser, led him to settle for marriage and secular life. Yet even after his rise in the world, his habits remained ascetic. More the humanist remains linked with Erasmus, whom he met during the elder scholar’s first visit to England in 1499 and his second in 1505. In 1509, Erasmus enjoyed More’s hospitality and at his urging undertook The Praise of Folly .

More’s commitment to the new learning is evident in his study of Greek with William Grocyn, his support of Colet’s new grammar school at St. Paul’s, and his correspondence. His household acquired a reputation as a center of learning, with children, wife, wards, servants, and grandchildren engaged in instruction and discussion. He harbored visiting statesmen and scholars; he employed musicians; interest in nature led him to gather a small animal menagerie. His prize student, his eldest daughter Margaret (1505–44), testifies to an interest in the education of women shared with other humanists like Juan Luis Vives. At sixteen, Margaret married a sometime Lutheran William Roper, barely obtaining her father’s blessing; she retained her scholarly interests and is responsible for preserving (partly through her husband’s biography) much that we know of More.

The continuity between humanist and public servant is most evident in his writing of Utopia during an embassy to the Netherlands in 1515. Two years later he joined Henry VIII’s Privy Council; he also helped quell a public riot on May Day that year. Historians do not now believe that More went into royal service unwillingly. Erasmus says that Cardinal Wolsey, even while disliking More, thought him the most capable successor to the chancellorship; by that time More had been knighted (1521), had served as speaker in Parliament (1523), and had risen to the posts of undertreasurer and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. As chancellor (1529–32) he was less effective than his great enemy and successor Thomas Cromwell, partly because of the king’s consuming interest in obtaining a divorce, partly because of his own single-minded devotion to hunting heretics. His record in this role is hardly monstrous, however. He was directly involved in three out of the six cases of heresy that led to execution during his chancellorship—though he was supported in this by both the council and an anticlerical but orthodox Parliament. He seems also to have been unusually keen in his censorship of the press. However, Guy finds that a significant contribution of More while in office was to “rejuvenate the ancient theory that judges had a personal duty in conscience to see right done by all whose business was entertained in the courts they directed.” In 1534 More found himself in the Tower of London, having refused to take the oath affirming the validity of Henry’s second marriage. He was beheaded 6 July 1535 and declared a saint by the Catholic Church 400 years later.

For recusant Catholics More became a model of faith under trial, commemorated in the Tudor biographies of Roper, Nicholas Harpsfield, Thomas Stapleton, and “Ro. Ba.” A more secular hero—defender of the poor and teller of merry tales—survives in the Elizabethan play Sir Thomas More , perhaps written, in part or whole, by Shakespeare.* Jean Anouilh and Robert Bolt brought More to the modern stage as an existential hero confronting totalitarianism. Utopia has given more than a word to the West: the Spanish colonial government embodied some Utopian practices in sixteenth-century Mexico, while modern communists like Karl Kautsky (Engels’ secretary) saw in Utopia a primitive blueprint for the socialist state.


Many rank A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation as an achievement equal to Utopia . At one level the participants in this dialogue, an uncle and his nephew in Hungary awaiting disaster at the hands of the invading Turks, represent the condition of faithful Catholics in More’s own country. In the polemical works More sometimes compared Luther with Mohammed and spoke of “heretics worse than Turks.” The Turk now symbolizes the great satanic force of unbelief, the armies of Antichrist threatening faith from within as well as without. This last of More’s dialogues serves to remind us how aptly this form suits a mind that both affirms belief and resists closure. Of special value, too, are the wit and charm that return to his writing, displayed in the older speaker’s reminiscences about politics and churchmen, husbands and wives, including a number of the “merry tales” for which More was known. The Dialogue of Comfort belongs to the long tradition of preparations for death, confronting and analyzing human fears and the temptations of despair. Transcending the narrowness of polemics to meditate on the larger question of evil in the world, it is a great work of theodicy.

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