Friday, June 1, 2007


In his biography of Thomas More, Peter Ackroyd tells how the Lord Chancellor of England was once asked to right a particular wrong. A beggar-woman lost her dog, which was then adopted by More’s wife, Alice, who became fond of it. The woman discovered where the dog was and claimed it back. More was not sure she really was the owner, so he told his wife and the beggar to stand at opposite ends of his great hall. The dog was placed between them. When it was released, it immediately ran to the beggar, whereupon Alice agreed that the woman was the rightful owner, but offered to buy the dog for a piece of gold. The offer was accepted, ‘so all parties were agreed; every one smiling to see [More’s] manner of enquiring out the truth’. (The Life of Thomas More, London: Chatto and Windus, 1998, p. 290) Would that all disputes, you may be thinking, could be resolved to such general satisfaction and by such a judgment of Solomon – even if it might be a bit risky to bring the cause of the dispute before the court!

More had, with typical homespun creativity, found a way of applying equity, which was his professional task as Lord Chancellor. The situation could not be resolved by recourse to the common law; what was needed was the application of prudential judgment in such a way that it went to the heart of the situation and enabled the dispute to be decisively resolved. You might even, following the reading we have just heard, say his judgment was inspired: ‘For the Lord gives wisdom… he stores up sound wisdom for the upright.’

Nothing is prised in the Scriptures above wisdom, for in wisdom there is ‘righteousness and justice and equity’, all of which are qualities of God. You can’t buy wisdom. It is, as we say of chocolate cake, ‘something to die for’. It comes from God and, together with righteousness, justice and equity, it is simply God’s gift. [from ]


I attended a scholarly lecture last night on this great man, and learned that:

* Apart from Shakespeare, he's the most-remembered English non-royal from the 16th century (and introduced as many words into the language as did the great bard). We know very little about Shakespeare, but a lot about More.

* His complete works - now available in print - fill a shelf 2 metres wide.

* His most famous work was, of course, Utopia.

* For most people More's death defined his life.

* He believed Scripture was compatible with Plato and Aristotle.

* He was not on a 'suicide mission': his 'refusal to sign' was not so that he would be venerated as a martyr, but to avoid being eternally damned.

* Some trivia: More may have been the first person to describe the 'death rattle'. He was fascinated by death and dying.


And here's a brief summary of his life:

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)

Sir Thomas More (later canonized St. Thomas More) is famous for his book Utopia (1515) and for his martyrdom. As Chancellor to Henry VIII he refused to sanction Henry's divorce of Queen Catherine. More was imprisoned, tried and executed. This drama was made into a play and an excellent (though not historically accurate) film - A Man of for All Seasons.

More is an excellent example of the early English Renaissance. He was friends with such humanists as Erasmus, John Colet, Thomas Linacre and others. Renaisance thinkers were mainly concerned with four ancient schools -- Aristotelianism, Platonism, Stoicism and Epicureanism. The alliance between Platonism and Christianity was as old as Saint Augustine, but had been revived in the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino. Aristotle had been Christianized by St Thoma Aquinas. Christianity and Stoicism had many close connections from early on. Epicureanism was being Christianized by Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus. This process was to be continued by Pierre Gassendi.

More coined the term "utopia" which is a pun meaning both "good place" and "no place." More's Utopia is discovered on a voyage to the newly discovered Americas. It is thus one of the first books to invoke the analogy between the great voyages of discovery and discoveries of the mind. Plato's Republic and the Laws provide models for More's reflections on the good citizen and the good state, but More's Utopia is significantly different from these models and blends a variety of philosophical influences. In contrast to the Platonic Republic, More's society is a communistic democracy and not an aristocracy with communism confined to the ruling elite. The new emphasis on the philosophy of pleasure comes from More's understanding of Epicureanism. From the Stoics More gets the notions that mankind form a natural commnnity and the assumed existance of natural law.

More's Utopia established the genre of philosophical utopias much the way in which Montaigne and Bacon established the essay as a philosophical form.

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