The Great Dissembler

James Wood

  • The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd
    Chatto, 435 pp, £20.00, March 1998, ISBN 1 85619 711 5

Thomas More, the scrupulous martyr, is the complete English saint. But no man can be a saint in God’s eyes, and no man should be one in ours; and certainly not Thomas More. He is seen as a Catholic martyr because he died opposing Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the King’s robbery from the Pope of the leadership of the English Church. But he is also seen as a lawyer-layman caught in the mesh of presumptuous ecclesiology, an English Cicero of the pre-Reformation who nobly gave his head to forces beyond his control. Most absurdly, because of Robert Bolt’s screenplay, this barrister of Catholic repression is widely envisioned as modernity’s diapason: the clear, strong note of individual conscience, sounding against the authoritarian intolerance of the Early Modern state.

Thomas More died in defence of an authoritarian intolerance much more powerful than a mere king’s, however, for he died believing in God and in the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church. He had not, as Lord Chancellor, imprisoned and interrogated Lutherans and sent six reformers to be burned at the stake, just so that he might die for slender modern scruple. The drained, contemporary view of More, which admires not what he believed but how he believed – his ‘certainty’, only – is necessarily a secular one, and represents nothing more than the religious yearning of a non-religious age.

Peter Ackroyd’s dignified, often eloquent biography offers a picture of More which is a combination of Catholic admiration and scholarly determinism. Ackroyd has soaked himself in late medieval history; happily, he does not pretend to conduct a historical séance, as he has in earlier work. (He does not walk down the Old Kent Road arm in arm with ‘cockney More’.) He gives a reliable, indeed moving, account of ordinary religion in 16th-century England, and synthesises a vast body of material. But his book is partial, merciful and sentimental where it should be total, unforgiving and grave. Ackroyd is evasive about More’s evasions. He invariably gives him the benefit of the doubt in his battle with the Lutheran heretics, and is dreamily naive about More’s Machiavellianism at court. He is gentle with the incoherent and frantic tattoos that More beat out in the anti-Lutheran tracts of the 1520s. At no point does he properly examine the justice of the Protestant case, either doctrinally or politically, preferring to see its progress deterministically, as the inevitable ‘birth of the modern age’. His book is a mild Catholic elegy. This is a pity, not only because it clothes More in stolen righteousness, but because it delays once again a truly secular judgment, in which the zealous legalist might be seen for what he was, in all his itchy finesse of cruelty.

More’s life, in particular its quick, morbid promotion towards martyrdom, is as compelling here as elsewhere: Ackroyd narrates it with royal fatalism. Here is the house in Bucklersbury, where Erasmus, More’s ‘darling’, wrote In Praise of Folly. Or More’s hair-shirt, worn quietly underneath his public vestments so that only his daughter discovered it by chance, and the knotted straps with which he flagellated himself. His extended family, as Holbein’s sketch reveals, existed as a collegium for the new humanism. More taught his children to read Greek and Latin by affixing letters to an archery-board and encouraging his pupils to fire arrows at them. The prosecutor of later years could bear to chastise his children only with a peacock-feather. He and his wife, Alice, played the lute together, like ideal woodcut spouses. More was one of a number of humanists who believed that the liberal arts, especially the study of Greek and Latin literature, needed renovation. With Erasmus, he translated the satirical and highly irreligious writer, Lucian, from Greek into Latin. He wrote, in 1518, that one should ‘build a path to theology’ through the great secular authors. He believed that the Church needed to be reformed, and spoke out against the clerical abuse that was turning the people against the priesthood.

Out of this world came his beautiful lament, Utopia (1516), whose ironies would come to seem self-ironies, and whose playful negatives would curdle into the mean calculations of More’s later years. For in the inverted island world of Utopia, divorce is permissible and the inhabitants can follow any religion they like; these would become the two determinants of More’s later fixity. The founder of Utopia, More writes, could see that religious differences sowed discord; thus he allowed freedom of worship. He himself ‘might do the best he could to bring others to his opinion, so that he did it peaceably, gently, quietly and soberly ... If he could not by fair and gentle speech induce them unto his opinions, yet he should use no kind of violence and refrain from displeasant and seditious words.’ This was not, alas, portable wisdom; More would punish religious dissent with state violence, and come to say that he would rather never have written Utopia than see one heretic prosper.

Utopia is saturnalian. It turns arbitrary custom, in all its pompous altitude, upside down. The inhabitants of Utopia, for instance, make their meanest objects out of gold and silver, and give precious gems to their children as toys. In a nice jest, More writes that ambassadors, unaware of Utopian customs, once arrived at the island finely dressed in gold chains. The islanders took the visitors to be slaves, and assumed that their simply-dressed servants were the emissaries. This kind of inversion is the rocker switch of all moral satire; in Lucian’s Menippus, which More translated, the hero travels to Hades to find that death has undone all the pointless hierarchies of life: Philip of Macedon is stitching rotten sandals to earn money, Xerxes is begging, and so on. But the point is made clear earlier on, when Menippus tells us that, on earth, things have become sadly inverted: ‘On observation I found these same people practising the very opposite of what they preached. I saw those who advocated despising money clinging to it tooth and nail ... and those who would have us reject fame doing and saying everything for just that, and again pretty well all of them speaking out against pleasure, but in private clinging to it alone.’ Hades corrects these inversions by reinverting them, and in the same way, the island of Utopia is the comic inversion of the uncomic inversion of rectitude we practice in life. Accordingly, Utopia is not an ideal society so much as a comic one. More did not intend us to live there, so much as to be mocked by it.

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