Synopsis Thomas More “Sir Thomas More was one of the most scintillating and contradictory examples of the Renaissance Man: lawyer, statesman, humanist, ascetic, author of Utopia, advocate for equal rights for women, enlightened teacher, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and finally, the role which was high-lighted in the Robert Bolt play A Man for All Seasons: Roman Catholic martyr” … Francis Gilbert (The Guardian, 26 February 1998).
Born in 1478 into a respectable and well-to-do family, Thomas More was educated in Oxford and later studied law. He entered Parliament in 1504 when he was only 26, and in the same year was appointed Under-sheriff of London. In the decade that followed he was sent on several diplomatic missions by King Henry VIII and became a member of the Privy Council in 1518. He was knighted in 1521 and two years later was made Speaker of the House of Commons. In 1529 he became the Lord Chancellor, the most powerful man in England under the King.
Then his life took a dramatic turn. For refusing to swear an oath under the Act of Succession because it was against his conscience to do so, he gave up his power and glory, all worldly possessions, his freedom, and finally even his own life. Right up to the end, he could have saved his life by saying a few words with his hand on the Bible, but he wouldn’t and so he died.
For ages past, More’s ultimate sacrifice has been looked upon as an act of supreme moral courage and his life an example for men in public office. In 1935, the Roman Catholic Church made him a saint and in 2000 proclaimed him the patron and role model for politicians and statesman worldwide.
Some biographers, notably those in the last 20 years, were not so sure of More’s saintly virtues and stature. Richard Marius in his book Thomas More (published in 1984) describes More as “a complex, haunted, and not altogether admirable man”, and says that he was “ambitious, but did not want people to know that he was”; that he “hated criticism and responded furiously whenever attacked”. Generally, his reading of Thomas More was harsh and critical.
Peter Ackroyd, the acclaimed biographer of T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens and William Blake wrote The Life of Thomas More (published in 1998). Like Marius before him, he seeks to examine the darker side, the human imperfection of More. He disagrees with the Oscar winning movie A Man for All Seasons which portraits More as a modern hero, as a man of individual conscience. In his interpretation, More was a man who believed in tradition, order and authority, a lawyer who spent all his life maintaining the orthodox world of law which, as far as he was concerned, represented the spirit of God on earth.
What kind of man was More who lived and died some 500 years ago? Whatever the answer, how can we be sure it is true and accurate? How do biographers reconstruct a man and interpret what happened to him physically, mentally and spiritually? Utopia To the literary public, Thomas More is best known as the author of the treatise Utopia, which is an account of life on the fictitious island of Utopia.
We, in the 21st century, would hardly want to live in Utopia which was a state-controlled society dominated by men over women, where every town and every house looked the same, where everyone dressed like everyone else: rough garments of the same colour which were to last for at least 7 years. Work was compulsory and supervised, and eating was a communal affair. However, it was ahead of its time. Lawyers were got rid of because they were “useless”. No one would be conscripted for military service abroad since Utopians paid mercenaries to fight for them. Divorce and euthanasia were both permissible. Silver and gold were looked down upon and were materials for domestic appliances, such as chamber pots!
John Ruskin described Utopia as “perhaps the most mischievous book ever written”, and it is easily arguable that at least a significant part of the book was written in jest. Yet on a philosophical level, Utopia has its idealistic appeals. It must be quite futuristic at the time it was written to imagine a place where the government was elected (by secret ballot), the people were free to practise different religions, where education was universal and the elderly and the sick were given special care and attention.
The Talk and Discussion It is proposed that the talk will focus on the circumstances in which More was charged, his trial and death. They will form the basis of discussions on how a person such as More who considered himself “the King’s good servant but God’s first” should and/or could conduct himself honourably. It will be interesting to ponder how pragmatic the modern man can be in weighing up More’s daughter’s suggestion (as scripted in Robert Bolt’s play) that since God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth, why couldn’t Thomas More just say the words of the oath and in his heart think otherwise.
The talk will also discuss Utopia and books on imaginary places where things are orderly and people live in harmony and contentment.