With virtually no screen time in the evenings this Lent, I’ve been blessed to finish two short books connected to St. Thomas More (1478-1535).
So I’ve “reviewed” two More books…get it? I’m a dad; it’s a joke.
The first was a play, A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt. Hopefully most Catholics have some familiarity with the story: Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, refuses to endorse his King’s divorce and remarriage or his sovereignty over the Church of England and separation from the Roman pontiff. He is imprisoned in the Tower of London (above), convicted of treason and executed rather than compromise his faith in the Catholic Church.
The initial thing that struck me was in the playwright’s preface to his work: Bolt, an agnostic with no particular love of the Church, chooses Thomas More as his exemplar of a man of conscience. But he also apologizes for the fact that More is Catholic and a saint:
This brings me to something for which I feel the need to explain, perhaps apologize. More was a very orthodox Catholic and for him an oath was something perfectly specific; it was an invitation to God, an invitation God would not refuse, to act as a witness, and to judge; the consequence of perjury was damnation, for More another perfectly specific concept. … [W]hy do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie? … I think the paramount gift our thinkers, artists, and for all I know, our men of science, should labor to get for us is sense of selfhood without resort to magic.
It is remarkable that such an author could see the good, the true, and the beautiful in More’s last stand and martyrdom. The play itself is even better: with few characters and just two acts, Bolt shows us the type of man More was, how he strove to serve his country and king without compromising his soul, and—because of how well regarded he was—why it became critical to the king to have either his support or his head. I don’t read many plays, but I highly recommend this one.
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The second book is More’s own work, Utopia, published in 1516. It’s a slim volume divided into two “books,” chronicling More’s fictitious encounter with world traveler Raphael Hythlodaeus. The first half is presented primarily as a dialogue between the two men, in which More encourages his new friend to become an advisor to a king and share the treasure of his knowledge and experience to benefit the common good. Hythlodaeus counters that, in the current world’s state, a man of conscience cannot serve in this way without jeopardizing his freedom, his soul, or both. (Given More’s own story many years later, this book seemed prophetic.)
The second book is essentially a monologue by Hythlodaeus, describing the one ideal society he encountered in his travels, the island of Utopia. The nation, according to our speaker, is completely self-contained and self-sufficient, operating without money or private property, to the benefit of its own citizens. Its systems of governance and justice, production and distribution, and more, are described in great detail. This makes for an interesting read, but I admit I struggled a bit to understand what, if anything, from the fictional Utopian society that More actually supported. Some Utopian practices are definitely contrary to Catholic teaching today—at the end, More raises questions about specific aspects of this “ideal” commonwealth, most especially its communism, but his objections are neither fleshed out nor answered.
To me, Utopia presents a great deal of theoretical food for thought within the framework of a story. I went back and read the Introduction to my copy, by Fr. Edward Surtz, S.J. He suggests that More’s primary audience for this work were other other humanist thinkers of the day, who would have understood in relatively few words what he was advocating and what he wasn’t, so perhaps food for thought was precisely the point.
As I said, it’s an interesting read, but not necessarily a recommendation, unless…well, if you’ve read this far, you know who you are.