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The Works and Days of Thomas More

with Gerard B. Wegemer  &  Stephen W. Smith,
hosted by Richard M. Reinsch II

Richard Reinsch:

Welcome to Liberty Law Talk, I’m Richard Reinsch. Today we’re talking with two wonderful scholars of the life and thought of Thomas More, about a new volume they’ve edited called The Essential Works of Thomas More. We’re visited today by Gerard Wegemer of the University of Dallas and Stephen Smith of Hillsdale College. I’ll introduce to you first Gerard Wegemer. He is professor of English and Director of the Center for Thomas More studies at the University of Dallas. He is the author of at least six books on Thomas More and a number of other essays and reviews on this thinker. And he has taught at the University of Dallas for a number of years. Gerard we’re glad to have you. Next, Stephen Smith who is Dean of the Faculty and the Temple Family Chair in English literature at Hillsdale College along with being the co-editor with Gerard of The Essential Works of Thomas More. He’s also the author of The Fire of Life: Wonder and Education in Late Shakespeare. Welcome gentlemen. Both of you.

Gerard Wegemer:

Thank you.

Stephen Smith:

Happy to be here.

Richard Reinsch:

Excellent. So thinking about this book The Essential Works of Thomas More, many of our listeners will know Thomas More through A Man For All Seasons which many say is an incomplete account or a maybe not actually true account of Thomas More, but very entertaining and dramatic. Sketch for us, Gerard. Who was Thomas More?

Gerard Wegemer:

So Thomas More is most famous for The Utopia and for holding the highest office in England under Henry the VIII. He was a poet, philosopher, historian, lawyer, judge, and a statesman who died for the rule of law and conscience and the proper autonomy of church and state. He was also, as a lawyer, a turning point in the history of liberty.

Richard Reinsch:

Talk about that.

Gerard Wegemer:

Well, More understood as a lawyer and a judge, a very experienced lawyer and judge, that liberty was justice through the rule of law ordered towards the good of the people. He as a young man learned Greek so he could understand these issues of jurisprudence from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine and Aquinas. He studied these in the original language so he could understand all the elements and the complexity of it achieving some measure of justice in an imperfect world.

Richard Reinsch:

I want to come back to that later, particularly his humanist learning and his scholarship in that regard. This volume is absolutely enormous and as I was saying to both of you before we started, I thought I understood Thomas More fairly well. I realized there’s a lot that I don’t, that I need to learn. Stephen, what does this volume reveal to us about the thought of Thomas More?

Stephen Smith:

I share your experience of the book as one of the makers of it, with Gerry, I think I speak for both of us in saying the labor of making this, bringing this book into published form, challenged us at every turn, that More was more comprehensive, more challenging, addressed more subjects and wrote in more forms. It’s hard to put into words what the experience of making a book like this is. The reader encountering it would encounter the versatile and challenging and comprehensive wit of this genius, Thomas More. The book has all of his essential Latin and English writings, he wrote in both Latin and English. It has both his poetry and his prose. A lot of people don’t know that More wrote poetry and wrote at a very high level. It has as many of his letters as we could fit in it. It has complete chronologies and timelines, appendices giving the earliest biographical writings on More from the 16th century. Really if listeners out there want to get a kind of turbo and great view of the book, they should just go to www.essentialmore.org, the supporting website, which is a beautiful supporting website and probably the best introduction to the book that I could recommend.

But really when we made the book, Richard, what we were doing was aiming at a single service, providing the readers with everything they need to encounter and study the comprehensive Thomas More. I think your experience of More is like many, which is we know of him through A Man for All Seasons, we know something of the historic and legal drama, but my goodness look at all these writings, to the tune of 1500 double spaces, double columned pages in all these different forms, on literature, on philosophy, on law, theology, poetry. It’s an extraordinary achievement and he’s the first major writer of the English Renaissance and we want everyone to know that.

Richard Reinsch:

Thinking more specifically, I want to come to you Gerry, on just the legal question that Thomas More confronted, and indeed much greater than a legal question, I think probably a regime question. What specifically is he confronted with and what does he do in response just for the clarity of our listeners?

Gerard Wegemer:

Well that’s where the entire career of More is important and necessary, to see how even as a young man he was grappling with the issues that deeply affect the life of peace and justice in England. So England is just come out of a civil war when More is seven years old. They are threatened to go into another civil war periodically.

Richard Reinsch:

Would this have been the War of the Roses?

Gerard Wegemer:

That’s correct. That’s correct. In fact he will write a history of Richard III, which is about the end of that tremendous war. He’s immersed as a historian in the cultural and the historical issues that face every leader of government. This is where he feels himself inadequate as a young man, and goes back to study the classics and to study medieval history and to study law. He lectures on law twice at two different law schools before he becomes a judge and a lawyer for the city of London, and then eventually under certain conditions, accepts, after a conversation about conscience with Henry VIII, to be an advisor to him, which he does very successfully for 12 years until tensions arise about constitutional issues of church and state.

Richard Reinsch:

So you’re saying because of the tumult he experienced in England as a young man, this drives him in to scholarship. This drives him into humanist learning.

Gerard Wegemer:

Yes. He’s a person who deeply is immersed in the life of London, but he’s also immersed in the best way as an intellectual in the fundamental issues that any lawyer or judge has to deal with. It’s why in our tradition, lawyers and judges have received the highest and best education available in each of their countries. Because justice is a very fraught issue with dangers and limitations and requires extraordinary prudence to know, “What can we do under these actual circumstances?”

Richard Reinsch:

Thinking about, just for a minute, More is confronted with Henry VIII who declares himself head of the church of England, which he reforms, reshapes, according to his will, and More must give his assent to that, and he refuses to and therefor is executed. Is that sort of a simple understanding of what’s happened?

Gerard Wegemer:

Yes, and along the way, clear manipulation of Parliament under Cromwell’s strategic genius. But also manipulation of convocation, the church’s legislative bodies. Two people remembered that Warham, who’s the head of the church, completely dissociates himself publicly and confronts Henry VIII in Parliament. From everything that they passed under his pressure, Henry visits Parliament personally three times and asks for a division of house. So he knows who’s on his side and who’s not, and Cromwell is going to bash into Parliament that is going to do the will of himself and the king. That’s why More, his trial and the execution, prays that God give Henry good council and refers to the Parliament such as it is.

Richard Reinsch:

Thinking about this time in England, there isn’t much resistance from my understanding, Thomas More, there’s a bishop, John Fisher, those are the only ones I can find. Is this the sort of natural human tendency towards weakness in the face of overwhelming power and fear for one’s own security and future? Or is there a lot of other things going on?

Gerard Wegemer:

That’s where there’s a lot of research that has yet to be done, and records that need to be looked at again. But what you recounted is the usual story. But there was considerable resistance and there was an anticipation that what was promised would actually be fulfilled. This is where More’s life is a drama. This is where Chesterton would talk about More as being the turning point in the history of liberty. Liberty is very hard to achieve and it requires citizens who are educated and prepared, not just intellectually, but also as citizens equipped to confront the difficulties that people who want to achieve power and money at any price will always exert. There are certain perennial issues in everyone’s life.

Richard Reinsch:

Stephen, just sort of switching gears here, you noted the collection of poetry in the volume earlier. What does the poetry reveal about More’s mind and what he loves and presents in the poetry?

Stephen Smith:

To mention before, most people don’t think of More as the poet, but not only was he a poet, but was scoffingly referred to one. But his poetry is in English and in Latin and Dr. Samuel Johnson who did that great dictionary of the English language, he gave a large sample of Thomas More’s work as poetry and some of his other writings because they were considered models of pure and elegant style. He was known for his eloquence.

In the poetry in particular he wrote a poem called “The Pageant of Life,” which imagined human life from birth to eternity, and he wrote poems on fortune and poverty. Late in the Tower of London he wrote a poem called “Lewis the Lost Lover,” which is a little ditty about this guy Lewis who rejects eye flattering fortune when it comes to him offering him help. He has all these really wonderful English poems, but perhaps with the most interest and the least well known, his Latin poetry, his epigrams. Two great critics of these poems wrote that they display More’s logical energy, muscular realism, and penetrating intelligence. These Latin poems were paired and published with Utopia. When you go and you pick up a copy of Utopia at the book store, at the library, you don’t ever see all of these Latin poems with it. One of the things we hope to do eventually is to put an edition out that puts them back together again because the Latin poetry really sheds light on Utopia in a number of startling ways. Just to give you a sense of what the Latin poetry addresses, it addresses human friendship, it addresses comedy, but a lot of the poetry on political life and political philosophy is maybe the most interesting.

He has a poem called “What’s the Best Form of Government?” Is it rule by one, or rule by a senate? He has a poem entitled “The Consent of the People” both bestows and withdraws sovereignty. He has poems about good kings, poems about tyranny, so this poetry is an important part of his legacy that’s really not well known and not studied enough, and these epigrams in particular show as much of his mind as anything he wrote. His humor as well. One of my favorite ones is kind of silly, but it’s just a short poem that goes like this: “If an untrimmed beard makes a philosopher, why could not a bearded goat be a Plato?” This is the humor of More is very, he was so serious about Henry VIII and tyranny and decapitation but this is a soul who is famous for his good humor and his good cheer and his wit. It comes out in this poetry as well.

In Richard III, for instance, he points out in the Latin edition that it’s Parliament that has the absolute political authority in England, not the king. Now he doesn’t say, “Not the king,” but More is clearly writing for ages and part of the way of overcoming poverty and civil war is to have more mature and robust political institutions. More’s the first person to write a speech in Parliament as Speaker of the House defending the need for free speech and he makes this address to Henry himself. 

Richard Reinsch:

It seems just as I read the poetry, he seemed to be concerned with the end state of man and with sort of a robust soul in approaching the problems of life, the difficulties of life. In my mind, help me understand the type of soul he was, and the largest question he would confront at the end of his life.

Stephen Smith:

I think he’s searching for a perspective on human life. For that “Pageant of Life” one of the hardest things to come by is a reliable and clear and trustworthy perspective on our human drama. We so often elude that altogether and can’t see it all. That’s why in the history of Richard III, More cries out against the blindness of our human nature.

Richard Reinsch:

Thinking along these lines about human nature, how did his thinking about human nature shape what he thought about politics? Do we have him preferring, from The Utopia, a republican form of government, and sort of a begrudging acceptance of monarchy? That makes him a very interesting thinker within England, to say the least.

Stephen Smith:

That poem, “What is the Best For of Government?” It does contrast a sure council with blind fortune when comparing an elected senate and hereditary monarch. In a similar way, Utopia introduces to England the vocabulary of Cicero in terms of the elements of republican self government. This is the dimension that is rarely referred to in that important book. On the other hand, More is extraordinarily discreet. After all, the chief spokesman in Utopia is called Raphael Hythloday, speaker of nonsense. More is not proposing any of this. It’s Raphael who’s pointing out all the serious difficulties of hereditary monarchy. Also the poverty that occurs when you don’t think about the good of the people. More never uses the word subject in his literary writings. It is always citizens and the people. He has a deep, deep assessment of England’s whole history.

In Richard III, for instance, he points out in the Latin edition that it’s Parliament that has the absolute political authority in England, not the king. Now he doesn’t say, “Not the king,” but More is clearly writing for ages and part of the way of overcoming poverty and civil war is to have more mature and robust political institutions. More’s the first person to write a speech in Parliament as Speaker of the House defending the need for free speech and he makes this address to Henry himself. In the 1523 Parliament Henry grants free speech because of More, although he will never do it again.

Richard Reinsch:

So More as a young man confronts the King of England and was briefly thrown into jail, isn’t he?

Stephen Smith:

This is where More goes back to the sources. He even writes in his letter to Oxford, in some of these humanist writings, that it’s necessary to learn these original languages because translations are so inept. These are complex issues and we need subtle writers and subtle minds. Another aspect of his poetry is you see that even from his teens how serious and committed he is to improving his writing and his thinking. Over 100 of his 300 poems are translations and imitations of Greek poems. He’s trying to understand from within the many arts that a lawyer and judge need and one of them is the art of language and being able to speak to a people in a way that is persuasive and moving to that particular group of people.

Richard Reinsch:

Talk about, Stephen if you would, I just want to switch gears here for a minute, because I want to keep on covering, I want to keep this legal track, law track, but also with a humanist track. Thomas More and Erasmus, their friendship and what does it mean?

Stephen Smith:

This is an incredible relationship that lasted much of More’s professional life. We actually have a letter that survived from Erasmus that described his friend Thomas More in detail and it’s one of the best introductions you could have, I think, to Thomas More and to Erasmus and to what they valued as humanists. I won’t get bogged down in all the details of the letter but one of the famous things Erasmus says is that Thomas More was born for friendship and that if you needed a perfect example of friendship and action, you could see it in More. That letter identifies so many things that are important to More but the friendship that is the emphasis there. Both Erasmus’s adages begins with friends share all things in common. In general the subject of human friendship is at the heart of More’s project, that the human being needs friends. He has epigrams about this, a statesman exercises something like civic friendship, there should be civic friendship between citizens, but that emphasis on friendship is crystal clear and it’s really the key to this relationship.

Stephen Smith:

After More died, there’s a beautiful line from Erasmus in August, More died in July, so in August Erasmus wrote someone and said, “When More died, I seem to have died myself. We were a single soul.” This close relationship between these two great humanists. The key thing I think for us is their common commitment to an understanding of friendship and for listeners, some of the great sources on friendship that More knew and that we can return to ourselves, are Aristotle’s ethics, Cicero on friendship, and there are scriptural texts on friendship. Aquinas has written on friendship. It’s one of the most important parts of his legacy. When he was A Man for All Seasons, he had these different titles, but I really like that, “born for friendship.” I’m sure Gerry has more to say about Erasmus.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah, please do Gerry.

Gerard Wegemer:

One of the things we included in this book was the play written in Queen Elizabeth’s time called Sir Thomas More. It’s by five different playwrights. Of course it was never performed. The first time that More is introduced in this play to Erasmus, the noble and poet Surrey says this about More: “This little island holds not a truer friend unto the arts, nor doth his greatness add a fainted flourish to his worthy parts. He is great in study, that’s the statesman’s grace, that gains more reverence than the outward place. That study is the general watch of England and it the Prince’s safety and the peace that shines upon our commonwealth are forged by loyal industry.” Now the words that the playwright uses are fascinating. “Friend,” “Statesman,” “Study,” as a way of achieving commonwealth, the common good and peace. But it’s forged by loyal industry. That’s another term that is associated by anyone who knows More well. It’s part of his mystery. Here is a genius who works harder than anybody else.

Richard Reinsch:

Thinking about Humanism, we keep using that term, the Humanists are about the study of classical literature, philosophy, politics, poetry, to the displacement, or ignoring the Christian contribution and Christian tradition. But that wasn’t More and Erasmus. How do they understand their Humanism?

Stephen Smith:

Well they shared that common Renaissance spirit of wanting to return to the sources, to those great sources of wisdom in Latin and Greek writings, but they certainly didn’t see those as, or didn’t put their Christianity aside when they did so. These things can go two ways, you can look at the integration that they achieved between Christianity and the best of classical wisdom, but you can also look at it in terms of that spirit of going back to these key sources, ad fontes. In famous letters that we include from More to Oxford University in which he actually addresses secular learning on the one hand and the liberal arts and theology on the other. He says in this letter to Oxford University, which I would probably put on the short list for listeners to look up, he says, “Secular learning prepares the soul for virtue, and it fosters prudence in human affairs, a thing that’s not useless to theologians.”

Richard Reinsch:

That’s very true.

Stephen Smith:

I thought that, to me, a real important sentence. They understood learning as having this preparatory role, preparing the soul for virtue, and in particular, histories and literature fostering prudence in human affairs. It’s not so much an either or, in terms of the classical Christian or Humanism but the both and that’s the one sentence that comes to mind from that letter to Oxford University.

Gerard Wegemer:

Another letter to put on the short list is the letter to Gunnell, that’s the tutor to More’s children, and in that he insists that if we put virtue in the first place and learning in the second-now he had a daughter who’s a genius like himself, but he clearly understood Aristotle’s point that as a person is, so does the person judge. The character makes an enormous difference on what you see, and if you’re able to see what is actually there. This is where harmony that was traditionally understood between the classical and the Christian became so important for More and Erasmus. When Erasmus goes to England, there he’s actually convinced by More in the circle to take up and master Greek himself. He will spend the next several years doing that and that’s where More challenges him to dispute translated content and More chooses a classical author that’s not usually on people’s short list. That comic philosopher Lucian.

More tells us why he chooses Lucian and he says that Lucian has this capacity because of his humor to probe more deeply that anyone else without upsetting the readers’ equanimity, calmness of soul. Lucian can get people to think without stirring up those emotions that impede thinking. This is a worldly wisdom that can be lost. This is what Erasmus and More were trying to recapture. This is the fullness of human life in which there is no opposition between their best nature and of revelation.

Richard Reinsch:

How would he have related revelation and nature to one another, Thomas More?

Gerard Wegemer:

I think most by his example. As a young man, he quotes, and he quotes this throughout his life, the biblical passage that God loves a cheerful giver. This explains, for instance, but scandalizes people at his death, when More mocks his own death, making jokes on the scaffold and on his way up. How could a person mock at his own death? Well, God loves a cheerful giver. We see this in More at the very end.

Richard Reinsch:

So he would understand himself, he is giving his life for the truth and he should do so cheerfully.

Gerard Wegemer:

And also for the country. That here again he gives his life for the rule of law, liberty, and the common good. You actually have an example of an extraordinarily free person, even in prison, even going to his death. This is what makes his death so shocking to those who are trying to intimidate and to bend him to their will. They had no power over this person. Here was a person with true liberty.

Richard Reinsch:

True freedom. Talk about the theme then, of tyranny and Thomas More’s writings. Either one of you, maybe we’ll start with Gerry and then move with you Stephen.

Gerard Wegemer:

It’s surprising that More’s very first published work, which no one knows about, you can find anybody wanting to do the full span of More’s writing, is on the nature of journey and the grave problems that republic faces when a tyrant takes over. That is included in his book of translations on Lucian that he proposes to Erasmus. They both address this topic. Then of course, his most famous book on tyranny is Richard III. But he has at least 10 poems on this topic which he appends to The Utopia. Of course, Richard III is the work that profoundly influences Shakespeare, and Shakespeare bases his first four places on More’s Richard III.

Richard Reinsch:

So Stephen, you thinking about, your thoughts on tyranny and More’s writings and what he thinks is the depth of tyranny.

Stephen Smith:

You know in that letter I mentioned that Erasmus wrote on Thomas More, he not only said he was born for friendship, but he told us what his friend loved and hated. He loved equality, actually, and he hated tyranny in particular. One of the things that comes out of that letter is not just born for friendship, but this particular interest in tyranny. To Gerry’s point about his first published writing being on tyrannicide and then history of Richard III addressing Richard’s rise, how it happened, how England failed to prevent his tyranny, and in the poem what you have is a kind of glimpse into something that’s at the core of More’s understanding that this is a possibility in politics and if we’re going to be educating citizens and educating leaders, we need them to understand this phenomenon, understand this possibility.

How does a tyrant come into being? What is a tyrant? And then of course, why do cultures fail to resist them? How do they take root? How do they maintain themselves, how do they succeed? This interest in tyranny links More back to, of course, earlier thinkers like Cicero and Aristotle and Plato on the subject. So much of his early writing is revealing and educating on this crucial subject.

One of the poems, for example, says, it’s kind of a funny poem about death and tyrants. More presents death as the only tyrannicide when you really get down to it, that tyrants can’t live forever. Shucks. Death ends up conquering them. But then Richard III, this spectacular, incredible English and Latin text on Richard’s rise. Why did England fail? They were of course dominated by fear. The narrator points out several times, they also didn’t have enough wit to resist tyranny. They didn’t understand what a tyrant was willing to do to secure his rule. It’s a powerful text and Gerry mentioned a Shakespeare connection as well. Shakespeare’s breakthrough tragedy is History of Richard III and More is his major source. I like to think of the young Shakespeare who is so keenly interested in England, so much aware of the problem with civil war in that country and culture. I imagine that young man, that young brilliant dramatist, sitting at the foot of Thomas More and reading his history. Wow. The things that happen in that play and afterwards in Shakespeare are legendary.

Gerard Wegemer:

I think he’s his best student, frankly.

Stephen Smith:

And tyranny also has a personal dimension. So yes, well understand political tyranny, but many of More’s epigrams and poems show how ridiculous each person is by being a tyrant to those around them. We all can by tyrants. This is where, again, More’s comprehensiveness as a thinker that you need citizen education if you’re going to have a free country. You need human beings who aren’t slaves to their own passions, who are slaves to ideologies that they haven’t thought about and made their own and we find through conversation with good friends. The tyranny issue, one of the most important things in classical literature, Xenophon’s famous book on tyranny, one couldn’t be a liberally educated person unless one understood the perennial possibility of tyranny in a country and tyranny in oneself.

Richard Reinsch:

That should lead us to shudder then about our own country’s fate, given the overall lack of civic education and the overall lack of awareness of how passions destroy freedom and how ideologies destroy freedom. Thinking here, Brad Birzer recently said on Law & Liberty that those who love the liberal arts the most suffer the most. He referenced several figures, Socrates, Cicero, but also Thomas More. As I’m listening to you two gentleman describe his thought and his humanism, it’s almost as if were he not to have done what he did in regard to Henry VIII, he would have repudiated his entire life and what he had been about.

More does talk about the duty of integrity and the duty of protecting one’s integrity. Of the harmony between what one says and thinks and what one does, and that is the greatest challenge to every human being.

Gerard Wegemer:

One thing, again, More is convinced that there is such a thing as providence. This is one reason why one has to reflect on his own calm of mind even in the Tower. Also on the short list of things to read to get to know More as More would be his two Tower writings. One is the Dialogue on Comfort. It is a Socratic dialogue, which deals with how to overcome a passion that’s taken control of the soul. The passion of course is fear at this point and it’s a really depth study of how difficult it is to rule oneself. It’s a conversation between and old person on his deathbed who’s gone through terrors throughout his life and the young person who’s just about to face the worst terrors possible and imaginable, is overcome by fears of what’s going to happen. We wouldn’t have that conversation, we wouldn’t have that book if More were not imprisoned. The second is his Sadness of Christ, which is his last work, and it’s probably his most accessible work. It’s short, he has to write it in a hurry. He knows he’s only got a few weeks to live. But it gives his last lessons on what one must do to be a free person.

Richard Reinsch:

Which is?

Gerard Wegemer:

Understand your soul and have a good friend to help you see your own self contradictions. Also to form what he calls a right imagination, not one dominated by fears and false imaginings. It actually shows the importance of Socratic conversation, that is, Socrates is most famous for raising questions about the nature of virtue and getting people to come to know themselves at least in a beginning way. Self knowledge is the beginning of wisdom, but you can’t really know yourself unless you’ve been put in dire situations you don’t expect. You might be surprised at how fearful or imprudent or rash or cowardly you can actually be. But once you know that, well then this is where one becomes open to put virtue in the first place and learning in the second. This is part of the interest of More’s writings on education, but the masterpiece is going to be his Dialogue on Comfort. It’s a book longer than The Republic, but is a book that is designed to be over nature of the soul and how one can train oneself to overcome fears. It’s interesting if you read the prison letters, More confesses to his daughter that he’d always considered himself a fearful person. Now that’s not the persona anyone sees, but he had overcome that. He says in one of his letters that he scandalizes himself before being imprisoned about his fear.

Richard Reinsch:

Thinking about More though, his conscience, he would have had clearly this conception of conscience being a window of his soul that God spoke to. I’ve read both of those that you referenced and it’s clear to me that his courage, conviction, strength, comes through his belief that he’s participating in God’s will.

Gerard Wegemer:

That’s very well put. This is where the playwrights are so perceptive by singling out More’s commitment to study. Finding out the truth and then habituating themself to live in the truth. More does talk about the duty of integrity and the duty of protecting one’s integrity. Of the harmony between what one says and thinks and what one does, and that is the greatest challenge to every human being.

Richard Reinsch:

Did More ever comment on through the overall political condition of England at this time as he reflected on what had happened and how it had come to pass that basically, something like a complete change in its laws and constitution was worked by the king, Henry VIII?

Gerard Wegemer:

Stephen can comment on this also, but two elements come right to mind for me is his comment just before going into the Tower and his last work he’s writing on before going into the Tower where institutionally, kings had changed the process of selecting bishops. Where they had done it sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for favor, and sometimes for money too. Institutionally this is the great problem that England faced. Half of the House of Lords were habits and bishops whose work often was more for the king than for any spiritual project. More clearly identifies that as an institutional problem but no surprise, Beckett, the long centuries controversy of what the church-state role is going to be in terms of what are actually tremendously powerful cultural courses. Emperors wanted the church on their side because the church serves the people and good people in the church know the people. That’s one, and the second is that the bishops themselves, that’s on the side of the state, the bishops themselves did not reform themselves. They had the laws on the books. They knew what they should do. But they didn’t do it.

Richard Reinsch:

Stephen, your thoughts on this?

Stephen Smith:

I think that on that last point, in The Sadness of Christ, this is a nice link between Sadness of Christ and Utopia, More describes how there is a shameful ship captain, a cowardly captain, who relinquishes the ship in the storm and hides away in some cranny in the ships hold and just sort of consigns the ship to the waves. That does seem to be a critique like you’re suggesting, Gerard, where it’s like in The History of Richard III as well where we can never underestimate the failure of will, of sheer fortitude, and courage. In that famous passage in Sadness of Christ, which links back to the text in Utopia about never giving up the ship in a storm, there was a storm of the first order in these years and I think what More indicates in that last writing is many, many, gave up the ship in the storm and hid away in the ship’s hold out of fear, out of the desire to preserve their life, to their own benefit. Any number of motives like that, but it was really a failure of captains.

Richard Reinsch:

What becomes of Thomas More’s place in English life after this? How is he regarded? He loses and of course England will become a protestant empire after that. Is there sort of a look back within English intellectual life at his greatness or is he sort of, they don’t know what to do with him?

Stephen Smith:

Well he’s very good at inspiring wonder in onlookers. Gerry mentioned the historian Hall who said, “I don’t know whether to call him a wise foolish man, or a foolish wise man when I consider how he went to his death.” In the 16th century at least, the answer is mixed verdict, but there does seem to be an admiration, even wonder over his wit and then either happiness that he stood with the church or lament that in that matter he just went the wrong way, depending on the historian or the writer. That capacity to inspire wonder in people is really at the heart of Thomas More. Who was he, how did he prepare himself and educate himself, how did he play the part he played on the English stage unto death? It’s really wonder inspiring and it makes you want to learn and to study him. Later in the 16th century he’s still known in London as the best friend that the poor ever had, for example, so you had this whole complicated legacy. I know one reason we wanted to put this book out there, to gather these works together, to make them available, is to not only help people wonder over Thomas More again but really to study him and to learn from his life and writings.

I would direct the attention to that conscience that is the whole fruit of learning according to More. If you at the end of your education don’t have a rightly functioning conscience, and if you haven’t learned the need for the courage to follow, you’ve gained the whole world but you’ve gained nothing. 

Richard Reinsch:

Gerry, your thoughts here?

Gerard Wegemer:

Well the 16th century play Sir Thomas More is completely favorable to Thomas More and despite five London playwrights who had completely different religious and political convictions, they’re the most unusual group you would expect to be together. But even for A Man for All Seasons, when that came out in ’66, it was immediately translated into 10 languages. It became part of the reading list for English prep schools for the next 20 years. This model of conscience is something the world needs.

Richard Reinsch:

That’s very true. Thinking maybe we can end with this, and you both take this on, Gerry I’ll start with you, Thomas More, because you started talking at the beginning of our interview, More and his regard for liberty under law. How did he approach the duties of being a lawyer?

Gerard Wegemer:

Wit and good cheer. For 10 years he was elected every year as under sheriff, under 10 different sheriffs of London. This meant that he was the presiding legal officer at the court of the sheriff of London that heard all kinds of cases. More became famous for befriending the city, being someone who would give a fair hearing to everyone and often needed the money and recommend that they not pursue this because it wouldn’t work or that it would be less expensive not to go through the law courts. But he was seen as a person who would give honest council and who was genuinely committed to the good of the whole city. That’s where, again, you can see the benefits of his learning. He knew Cicero’s On Duty very, very well and two of the principles that Cicero gives on core justice is that you have to think in terms of the good of the whole of the body of politics. You can’t favor one part. This More understood clearly. So his book called Utopia, the actual title in Latin is De Rei Publicae Statu Respublica. Republic. Commonwealth. Good of the people. That horizon people need in terms of thinking about justice. That’s where he’s particularly important in our own time where we’ve become so divisive and uncivil and the lack of the sense of look we are all in this body of politic together, let’s do the best we can together.

Richard Reinsch:

Yeah. Stephen your thoughts on Thomas More as a lawyer?

Stephen Smith:

You know, on that short list reading, the letter to Gunnell, the one that’s addressed to his children’s teacher says, “I prefer virtue joined with learning to all the treasures of kings.” He also says, “The whole fruit of learning is a right conscience.” A rightly working conscience. I think that’s really at the heart of his legal success is that he indeed enjoyed the fruit of that particular fruit of learning. He not only understood his education as forming his conscience to work rightly, and to set up a lasting friend throughout the whole of life. He brought his education, his formation, his commitment to virtue, his right conscience into his work. He had the courage to follow the judgments of conscience right to that scaffold. To me, Thomas More, the lawyer Thomas More professional, it’s really Thomas More the man and I would direct the attention to that conscience that is the whole fruit of learning according to More. If you at the end of your education don’t have a rightly functioning conscience, and if you haven’t learned the need for the courage to follow, you’ve gained the whole world but you’ve gained nothing. That right conscience is what stands out in my mind and answer to your question. The lawyer is a man of conscience.

Gerard Wegemer:

And we see that in More’s very last words, he says “I die the king’s good servant and God’s first.” When he said those words, he was reminding Henry VIII of the two most important conversations they ever had, and they were both about conscience. Before he agreed to work for him as a councilor, and before he agreed to become Lord Chancellor of England. Henry said to him on both occasions, “Look first to God and your conscience and then to your king.” This is where for More, there’s no conflict between good law and conscience. Probably the most famous line of Man for All Seasons, the letter that Roper, his lawyer son in law writes about More, is that he would give even the devil his right, and he would follow the law, because law is the work of good reason and conscience is the judgment of good reason. That’s where you need lawyers and judges who actually do have a command of both-of the law and of the principles that undergird the law.

Richard Reinsch:

I think that’s very well said and I think that’s a wonderful way for us to end. Gerard Wegemer and Stephen Smith, thank you so much for discussing this volume you’ve edited for Yale University Press, The Essential Works of Thomas More.

Gerard Wegemer:

Thank you Richard.

Stephen Smith:

Thank you Richard.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on August 03, 2020 at 08:25:08 am

And William Tyndale, the 'morning star' of the English Reformation? The legal/political significance of his 'Obedience of the Christian man' in relation to the thought of More? Now? It wasn't only about Parliament, it was about individual right. There is no virtue in viewing history in a vacuum of other significance, particularly given a 'progress' clearly articulated at higher level long before. See Hebrews. Self governance comes to mind.

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gdp
on August 03, 2020 at 11:19:11 am

A nice hagiography of More, but with no word about his persecution of Robert Barnes and other Lutherans. Or of his condemning other "heretics" to death for the crime of distributing Bibles. Though he did not own slaves, these are severe blemishes on his character.

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L. Hunter Kevil
on August 04, 2020 at 17:43:44 pm

Long discussion re: Thomas More --- not a word about his happily sending thoughtful citizens to prison and/or the scaffold ! The Bolt play deliberately avoids this major part of his official life. As do these 'expert's. Correction or explanation , please. DB

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David Braun
on August 06, 2020 at 13:49:41 pm

More was a great man, a literary and intellectual genius and a moral giant. His enemies have contaminated his legacy by seeking to distort his record of integrity, virtue and principled courage, some distortion for the cause of anti-Catholicism, others to elevate the lowly Cromwell, still others to minimize the enormity of Henry VIII's crimes against God and England.

This valuable compilation of More's writing should be considered res ipsa loquitor on More's contributions to religious humanism.

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paladin

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.