Thomas More and the Politics of Conscience

In 1515, as he wrestled with his decision to join the court of King Henry VIII, Thomas More penned his most famous work, Utopia (“No-place”). The book opens with a debate between More (then chief legal officer of London) and the fictional philosopher Raphael Hythloday (“Spreader of Nonsense”), occasioned by the latter’s refusal to apply what he regards as his Platonic wisdom to the betterment of an actual society. A genuinely “philosophical nature” would be generous and dutiful enough to “enter some king’s service” and attempt to promote the happiness of the commonwealth, More argues. Against Raphael’s protest that kings and their courts are too corrupt to listen to the truth, More insists that a tactful, “indirect approach” allows the wise advisor to influence policy and render political affairs, if not “good,” at least “as little bad as possible.”

Hythloday’s response is chilling in light of what was to happen to More twenty years later: “In a council,” he warns, “you must openly approve … the most vicious policies.” Halfhearted cooperation with “the worst decisions” will not suffice to avoid being branded “a spy and perhaps a traitor.” In 1535, after two decades of unimpeachable service to his king (and three to his country), More was tried and executed for “high treason” on the basis of his refusal to affirm the king’s unprecedented claim to be “Supreme Head of the Church in England.”

Long considered a saint and an inspiration to men of practical affairs, Thomas More was canonized in 1935 and declared patron of statesmen in 2000. As Louis Karlin and David Oakley point out in their compact and masterful study of his career, Inside the Mind of Thomas More, More’s life as well as his martyrdom is held up by the Church as a model vindicating “the inalienable dignity of the human conscience,” “the primacy of truth over power,” and the importance of “moral integrity.”

If we are to follow More’s example today, applying his wisdom to the betterment of contemporary political societies, we must understand his mind when it comes to the complex question of how citizens of conscience can hope to navigate the ever-stormy seas of power politics, where the ideal is rarely possible, compromise is often necessary, and one’s reputation, position, freedom, or life may at any time be threatened. Relying on their intimate knowledge of More’s life and writings, and drawing from the best recent scholarship (including their own), Karlin and Oakley provide a lucid account of More’s lifelong struggle to practice the “indirect approach” to philosophic statesmanship amidst the turmoil of Tudor politics. Along the way, they offer valuable suggestions about how to apply More’s thinking to a changed political, moral, and intellectual landscape.

In recent decades, popular literature has vacillated between depicting More as a “hero of conscience” (Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons), or as “a religious bigot and an aloof sadist” (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall). While the former portrait is truer to More’s motives and actions, Karlin and Oakley argue, More’s modern slanderers have grasped something about him that many of his admirers do not fully realize. While Bolt’s More insists that “What matters is not that [my cause is] true, but that I believe it,” More’s actual understanding of conscience was rooted in a notion of objective truth without which his martyrdom would have been pointless.

Indeed, as the authors ably demonstrate, More’s approach to politics was the opposite of modern self-assertion, requiring him to adhere to a rigorous moral code while minimizing direct opposition to the vices of those in power. In his response to Henry’s illegitimate demands, for example, More limited himself to gentle persuasion as long as the king was willing to listen, and maintained complete silence once the king’s decision was clear (though he also penned numerous works attacking the novel doctrines by which Henry’s revolution was being rationalized—without implicating the king). At no point did More assert a right to publish dissenting views or demand an exemption from promulgated laws or established procedures. Rather, he saw himself as duty-bound to influence public policy in the direction of justice and the common good where possible, to respect and obey lawful authority even when its means and motives were decidedly imperfect, and to resist public authority only when (and to the extent that) its directives were contrary to positive law or directly repugnant to the dictates of a higher law equally binding on both rulers and subjects.

Karlin and Oakley are right to caution against “recruiting More for the cause of modern religious liberty” and “our contemporary notion of conscience,” ideas grounded in “the understanding that religious faith, and the individual’s conscientious choices on such matters, cannot or should not be judged in terms of truth.” In a fascinating chapter, they examine More’s reasons for supporting laws criminalizing the obstinate preaching of seditious heresy, which he regarded as a threat to public order as well as to the salvation of souls. For More, human authority (political and ecclesial) exists to promote and defend a moral order made evident to us through natural and divine law—a view placing strict limits on just occasions for or legitimate means of “civil disobedience.”

Attention to this aspect of More’s thinking helps us to understand Mantel’s hostility to More, whose life and death bear witness to a truth capable of imposing limits on “the self” as well as the state. As scholars such as James Schall and Brad Gregory have argued, a relativistic notion of rights has gradually insinuated itself into the apparatus of the modern state, producing an administrative and juridical regime startlingly similar to Henry’s Ceasaropapist system. In both cases, the state upholds the subjectively grounded desires of favored political actors by suppressing the rights of those adhering to objective moral principles. Whether it be Henry demanding affirmation of his bigamous marriage and spurious spiritual authority, or government officials forcing nuns to cooperate in the distribution of contraceptives or bakers and florists to participate in the celebration of same-sex ceremonies, power unhinged from sound ethical standards becomes a deadly threat to those seeking to live with moral integrity.

This is not to say, of course, that More should not be associated with the cause of contemporary liberty. Rather, as the authors insist, “More’s writings and lived statesmanship yield deep insights into the nature of [genuine] personal liberty and illuminate the necessary limitations on the state’s authority to bind individual consciences and determine or define religious orthodoxy.” Though space does not permit a thorough review of these insights here, three aspects of More’s statesmanship stand out in this account, each of which has important applications today.

First, More’s statesmanship was founded on a devotion to personal virtue, including a profound detachment from wealth, status, and human respect, accompanied by a diligent promotion of the genuine happiness of those he influenced. When More had to oppose the wrongful desires of others, the reservoir of goodwill and admiration he had thus secured was of great help to him; and when this reservoir failed to protect him, his virtues (including a reliance upon God’s grace) were able to sustain him through the suffering he endured. As St. Paul says, there is no law against the virtues (Gal. 5:23), and justice is our breastplate in that “evil day” when we find ourselves in conflict with “the rulers of the world of this darkness” (Eph. 6:13-14).

Second, like St. Paul appealing to his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:27), More made maximum use of the legitimate political privileges and liberties available in his day—as when he counselled Parliament to ignore Cardinal Wolsey’s illegal interrogation of legislators, petitioned the king for Parliamentary freedom of speech, or exercised his right to remain silent in response to illicit questions about his private thoughts. Despite attempts to link modern rights to ethical relativism, most if not all of our contemporary civil rights and liberties can be defined and defended in light of sound moral principles. In the spirit of Thomas More, we should so expound them and bring them to bear in the cause of truth.

Finally, though in the pursuit of personal virtue and the public good More often ran into opposition, he never ceased to respond with charity and good humor, knowing that both are necessary not only for the conversion of others, but also for the maintenance of the self-control without which one’s own cause may cease to be just. Even the travesty of justice by which he was condemned to death failed to shake his composure: comparing his judges to St. Paul when he “consented to the death of St. Stephen,” he simultaneously implies that they are guilty of the gravest of sins, while holding out the hope that, after a future conversion, they “may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together, to our everlasting salvation.”

May we seek the same for ourselves and for those who oppose us, and all meet one day in the court of the eternal King, where More awaits us, merrier than ever!

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene from A Man for All Seasons featuring Robert Shaw as Henry VIII (left) and Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More.

L. Joseph Hebert

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L. Joseph Hebert is Professor of Political Science and Leadership Studies and Director of Pre-Law Studies at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA. He is former Editor in Chief of The Catholic Social Science Review published by the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. Dr. Hebert is the President of Una Voce Quad Cities and author of More Than Kings and Less Than Men (2010).

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