A Memento Mori for Today: Lessons from Thomas More

 
 

Thomas More’s dying words teach us that zeal for God is compatible with loving, even zealous, service to less than utopian political rulers and realms.

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Today, on the anniversary of Thomas More’s death on July 6, 1535, we might benefit from a short reconsideration of his often-misquoted last words: “I die the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”

The only reports of that morning at Tower Hill, when More joked and jested his way up to the block, have it “and,” not “but.” Yet the “but” version of More’s famous dying declaration remains a sticky error in the minds of many, who perhaps think zeal for God translates to a kind of rejection of earthly duties and earthly loves. It’s an honest mistake. One could easily misread More’s last letter, to his dearest daughter Meg, written the day before, wherein he says that he’d prefer to die “tomorrow, for it is [the eve of] Saint Thomas [à Becket] and the [Octave] of St. Peter and therefore I long to go to God.” One Thomas died upholding the rights and duties of the Church against King Henry II; another Thomas now upholds the authority of St. Peter’s successor, the pope in Rome, against King Henry VIII. Moreover (forgive me), More wants to leave the world.

One can see how a mistaken notion could take hold of an earnest believer’s imagination; he or she might think that religious zeal demands that we must stand athwart the world—against it—and cry “but!” The “and” that More supplies points instead to a different mode of witness. More’s dying words teach us that zeal for God is compatible with loving, even zealous, service to less than utopian political rulers and realms.

Holy Zeal, Civic Service, and Conscience

Thomas More informed his conscience about these matters of holy zeal and civic service through a life of piety and study. And while a man’s conscience is only ever known completely by God himself, More spent a lifetime understanding both how to form and how to nurture a good conscience. He also understood very well that the conscience needs protecting, from forces without and forces within.

More himself wrote to the wavering prisoner of the Tower, Dr. Wilson (King Henry’s former confessor, who also refused the oath declaring Henry head of the Church): “what my own [conscience] shall be tomorrow myself cannot be sure and whether I shall have finally the grace to do according to mine own conscience or not hangs in God’s goodness and not in mine . . .” One’s conscience, More knew, is precious and in need of protection and support from God and man—subject, as we are, to the blinding power of our own passions. Indeed and alas, Dr. Wilson eventually took the oath under pressure.

More, however, also spoke, while in the Tower, of his own conscience: “I can in no [way take the oath], and that for the instruction of my conscience in the matter, I have not slightly looked, but by many years studied and advisedly considered, and never could yet see nor hear that thing, nor I think I never shall, that could induce my own mind to think otherwise than I do.” Reading More on conscience can be tricky, in part because conscience takes work to see rightly in ourselves, let alone others. And like a man’s conscience, so too a man’s life is hard to interpret, especially one as manifold as More’s. To fully understand the subtleties of More’s various poems, dialogues, histories, speeches, deeds, digressions, letters, and dying declarations requires both great zeal and great study.

Both/And: More’s Worldly Wit and Divine Wisdom

In fact, that sort of combination of goods, that both/and way of considering More has been both the pious and the secular custom of those who honor him. Erasmus famously called him “a man for all seasons” in The Praise of Folly.

After King Henry’s death and under Queen Mary, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Reginald Pole, offered an account of More as both civic and religious martyr. In his work On the Unity of the Church, he argues that More opposed Henry’s claim to be head of the Church because it was “in contradiction to all human and divine laws.” In the same exhortation, the Cardinal exclaims, “Oh! England! This very son of yours, this man who so loved you and who from childhood always was so zealous, above all other things, for your dignity and security . . .” More knew, Pole writes, that Henry was sowing “seeds not only of a civil war, but also of a much more horrible war with God and the higher powers.” Pole sees the civic and the religious, the sacred and the secular aspects of More’s martyrdom: “Oh! Christ! You are the only Consoler of souls greatly oppressed! You are the Leader and most perfect Model for our life! Has not your disciple followed you in your footsteps?” More died “the king’s good servant,” indeed England’s good servant, “and God’s first.”

Shakespeare, too, emphasizes the “and” nature of More’s life. In his collaborative play, Sir Thomas More, Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights depict Thomas More living out what they figuratively call “The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom.” In the play, as in his life, More combines worldly Wit and divine Wisdom—the practical prudence and wit of a citizen-statesman-poet and the heavenly wisdom of a prayerful philosopher-theologian-saint.

That fear of zeal divorced from study, of Wisdom unmarried to Wit, of theoretical knowledge uncoupled from practical prudence, is no small matter for our own time, which is an era far less religiously unified and far less zealous than More’s own. Today, we must account for a staggering diversity of beliefs, held by individual humans with their individual consciences. And this presents problems for anyone with even a tiny flame of holy zeal like that of Thomas More. Indeed, More’s zeal and prudence are needed. More’s studious and prayerful consideration of the proper and prudential application of religious zeal to imperfect human society has never been more prescient. G.K. Chesterton said the following just over 100 years ago: “Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.” This is true both of More’s willingness to stand firm in Faith and of his prudent willingness to defend freedom of conscience and religious liberty.

Religious Liberty and the Love of Peace

“But what about the man-burning?” This question comes from some thoughtful Protestants who think More a strange icon for religious liberty, and from some Catholics who interpret More’s record as a clear sign of his zeal to the exclusion of any practical prudence that might recommend religious liberty. Leaving aside the complexities of More’s very selective use of heresy laws, which laws he was oath-bound to enforce, leaving aside his very correct concern that zealous religious dissenters might incite fiery contention to the point of mass violence like that on the continent, and all this in an era without police departments, S.W.A.T., or prison systems, we should nevertheless consider More’s foresight on the looming futility of such measures. More’s first biographer, his son-in-law William Roper, writes:

I, in talk with Sir Thomas More, of a certain joy commended unto him the happy estate of this realm, that had so catholic a Prince, that no heretic durst show his face, so virtuous and learned a clergy, so grave and sound a nobility, so loving and obedient subjects, all in one faith agreeing together: “True it is indeed (son Roper),” quoth he, and in commending all degrees and estates of the same went far beyond me, “and yet (son Roper) I pray God,” said he, “that some of us, as high as we seem to sit upon the mountains, treading heretics under our feet like ants, live not the day, that we gladly would wish to be at league and composition with them, to let them have their churches quietly to themselves; so that they would be content to let us have ours quietly to ourselves.”

Roper goes on to report his alarm at such a notion, and More waves the thought away as something he hopes never to see. And yet he did, in fact, see it. Before the end, he lived it. More knew better than any the great losses to international unity and peace, to religious clarity and zeal, that Henry’s caesaropapism would bring upon Europe and the world. He struggled mightily to maintain a united Christendom with its hundreds of years of Church councils (great and small) that patiently settled differences and enlightened consciences to hold truth in common without resort to war and indifference. And yet, he could also understand the need for a different political order given different, less unified religious circumstances.

How could such zeal countenance such imperfection? More’s answer, in a word, is Peace. For More, the avoidance of war, faction, civil strife, and tumult was fundamentally important to friendship and unity in England and in Christendom. And these, More knew, were the grounds for the increase of zealous and true religion, transmitted to one’s children, to one’s friends, and to one’s society. In typically Morean fashion, he even commissioned his friend and fellow Christian Humanist Erasmus to publicize his own epitaph, a key part of which More indented, using the early modern equivalent of ALL CAPS (and so reproduced below in caps):

[More] served as the King's ambassador at various times and in various places, last of all at Cambrai. . . . In that place he witnessed, in the capacity of ambassador, to his great joy, the renewal of a peace treaty between the supreme monarchs of Christendom, and the restoration of a long-desired peace to the world.

MAY HEAVEN CONFIRM THIS PEACE AND MAKE IT A LASTING ONE.

Thomas More remained peaceful, in friendship and in service to his king and country and his Church and God, even unto death. More lived out one of the first and most prominent witnesses of that vision he foresaw and prophetically described to son Roper. His peaceful resistance and profound friendship make Thomas More a truly excellent model of Christian Humanist friendship. Like him, we should strive to make a love of peace the ground for shared lives of conscience and conversion, despite religious divisions and disagreements.

Matthew Mehan is a Fellow of the Center for Thomas More Studies, the Worsham Teaching Fellow at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, DC, and Director of the Jackson Scholars Program at The Heights School. He is also the author of the forthcoming Christian Humanist book of illustrated poetry, Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals, or M5 for short. He tweets more or less peaceably from his perch, @MTMehan.

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