the imaginative conservative logo

thomas more

Thomas More on Statesmanship, by Gerard Wegemer.

If there is one historical figure whose life and work most closely resembled that of Sir Thomas More, it would likely be the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. As some scholars have noted, Cicero, like More, was a statesman highly honored by Renaissance humanists for his many admirable qualities. He was a successful barrister, a highly skilled rhetorician, a serious student of philosophy, and a political martyr who died in defense of republican government and the rule of law (205).

More admired Cicero’s writings and learned much from reading them. Other figures, such as Plato and Aristotle, Thucydides, and the Church fathers, helped form More’s political vision. Resting upon this solid intellectual foundation was a thorough familiarity with medieval and English traditions of common law and political custom (40). From his study he came to view the role of the statesman as one of discerning the proper means to achieve some measure of justice in the face of constant social unrest and political upheaval. According to Gerard Wegemer, More believed civil peace could be achieved when statesmen employ and advance “[r]hetoric, political free speech, and the wide-ranging consultation and study encouraged by education” (4).

In Thomas More on Statesmanship, Wegemer, who teaches English literature at the University of Dallas, portrays a man who successfully synthesized the Christian humanism of his time with a deep appreciation of the broader legal and political traditions of England. In 1523, he advocated free speech rights for Parliament because he knew that without them the wisest members would be unwilling to speak their mind for fear of retribution from the king if their words caused him displeasure (65). More understood the power of reason and prudently employed it in speech and in writing, particularly in his efforts to resist what he saw as revolutionary ideas entering England from Protestant Europe. Yet he was not against the proper use of force as in the case of enforcement of executions prescribed under just law or instances of just war, particularly armed resistance against Turkish invaders of Christian Europe (73).

More was quite aware of the potential abuse of political power, which was why he favored parliamentary democracy over monarchy. More believed that elected officials were more receptive to reasonable advice than most kings and could be held more accountable. Kings were more susceptible to tyranny than members of Parliament because the vice of pride is more likely to distort their judgment, and thus cause them to misuse their authority. Even while in the service of Henry VIII, More distrusted the power of the king. As he wrote to his son Roper, “I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France …it should not fail to go” (67). More was aware of human weakness and the evil wrought by kings who exercise power without restraint: “Unlimited power has a tendency to weaken good minds, and that even in the case of very gifted men” (67). As a result, the king’s servants, intimidated by his power and eager to secure their position and safety, are often less inclined to offer honest advice and more likely to tell the king what he wants to hear (192).

If a statesman, whether a king or a counselor, is to administer justly, he must first rule himself well. Good government requires virtuous governors. More argued that, when virtue is absent, reason is corrupted by pride. Pride flourishes because we are free to reject the good and the true and take pleasure in our own false desires and passions. Because free will permits self-deception, men are free to rebel against human intellect and right reason. As Wegemer writes, “Without virtue, one will not submit to laws and authorities outside of oneself, a submission that is, paradoxically, needed for the freedom that comes from self-rule” (50). This is why More viewed education—of both boys and girls—primarily as a means to inculcate virtue and only secondarily to advance learning. Only a well-ordered soul can resist the seduction of blindness or folly that originates from disordered passions like pride.

Isola_di_Utopia_MoroWe have seen in this century how political leaders exercised tyrannical power for mad utopian ends that resulted in widespread human suffering. In contrast, Thomas More embodied a clear-sighted realism and prudence aimed at serving the common good qualities lacking in many of our modern political leaders. The rule of law is the surest safeguard against injustice since laws generally reflect the collective wisdom of tradition. It is unsuitable for statesmen to preoccupy themselves with the question of what form of government is best. Several centuries before Burke, More warned against theorizing about the perfect society and advised statesmen to do their best with the form of government their people have passed on to them. Though he himself favored one form of government over another, he admitted that we rarely have the power to create the government we want. A statesman must do his best with the institutions and customs at hand. Of the statesman’s charge, More in Utopia says: “What you cannot turn to the good, you must at least make as little bad as you can” (69).

Laws must be respected, even bad ones. Unjust laws should be overturned, but in the proper time and place most conducive to that end. He disapproved of “open reproof and refutation” (210). More practiced what he preached: he kept respectful silence by not speaking out against unjust law, while at the same time refusing to take Parliament’s illegal oaths. And he was willing to suffer persecution even when prudent resistance proved to be insufficient. Fallible human beings uphold unjust law. How judges and statesmen enforce law cannot be ignored. Even with good laws, it is incumbent upon the politician to administer these laws properly; justice will be accomplished to the extent that the individual applying the law exercises prudence, courage, and temperance (70).

The importance More placed in lawful respect for authority to bring about social reform can be seen in his response to Luther and his English allies. More, his associate Erasmus, and the other humanists saw the need for reform in the Church and society years before Luther came to prominence. The humanist project sought to bring about change through education, gradual improvements in the law, and through international diplomacy. The humanists believed Luther and his followers threatened their efforts by instigating violence and unrest. According to Wegemer, Erasmus proposed a dialogue with Luther so that differences could be debated and joint efforts at peaceful reform could be launched. Luther ‘s belligerent responses convinced Erasmus that the reformers endangered the peaceful social order and should be restrained by law (164).

martin lutherMore strongly opposed Luther for what he regarded as his dangerous disregard for law, authority, and tradition. He believed that, by denying free will, by emphasizing the corruption of human reason, and by limiting the Church to a few “pure and spotless” individuals who claimed nonrational access to the truth (in traditional Gnostic fashion), Luther, Tyndale, and other reformers undermined the traditional foundations of law and authority (13). More’s prediction that violence would result was vindicated soon after with, most notably, the Peasants Revolt in 1525. More foresaw Europe engulfed in war ripping Christendom apart. This horrific prospect drove More to devote much of his latter years, even while in prison, to writing books intended to counter Luther’s influence in England.

More’s view of statesmanship is in many respects an outline of conservative thought inasmuch as conservatism can be seen as a reflection of the accumulated wisdom of ancient and medieval (Christian) political philosophy. More’s thought, as Wegemer points out, is an alternative to the social contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (12). It is a culmination of classical political thought, biblical theology, and English common law which one can find echoed in the writings of Burke and his predecessors inEngland and America. It is tempting to draw parallels between More’s criticisms of the Reformers and Burke’s response to the French Revolution. One can easily find criticisms of views adopted by modern ideologues, particularly collectivist ones, in the writings of this sixteenth century English statesman.

One cannot say, and Wegemer does not, that More is an original thinker who changed in any significant way how we view politics. However, he was in some respects ahead of his time in his preference for parliamentary democracy where free and open debate is guaranteed, in his insight into the power of the written word, and in the justice he saw in co-education. In his personal life, More practiced the virtues and responsibilities he insisted all good statesmen should embody; and he can be viewed as an honorable figure whose courageous resistance to political tyranny should be recognized as a model for our contemporary leaders to imitate. It is easy to recognize how starkly More’s words contrast with current political discourse in America (and perhaps in England, too) where it is said that the moral character of our political leaders does not matter. Perhaps here, as elsewhere, More can offer some much-needed clarity of thought and moral guidance.

The author, who published Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage in 1995, knows his subject and has accurately explicated More’s views on law and politics while defending More against recent attacks by revisionist historians and literary critics eager to psychoanalyze another member of the Western literary canon. Wegemer’s book is clearly written, well documented, and thoughtfully argued. It is perhaps the most thorough treatment of More’s political thought available, and it cannot be recommended highly enough.

Some readers may criticize the author for not allowing More’s opponents greater opportunity to defend themselves. However, Wegemer could justly respond by saying that his objective was to focus on the political views of his subject, not on the views of his subject’s detractors. Thomas More on Statesmanship is not intended to be a detailed history of the religious and political public debates of More’s contemporaries. That, we might hope, will be Gerard Wegemer’s next contribution to scholarship.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with the gracious permission of Humanitas.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
6 replies to this post
  1. That is a good observation, that More and Cicero shared similar lives and work. I had never thought about it. Thanks for this excellent article.

  2. I take issue with the false statement that St. Thomas More was a political martyr who died in defense of republican government and the rule of law. St. Thomas More was a catholic martyr who died for Jesus Christ and his holy Church.

    I love St. Thomas More. on Statesmanship is one of my favorites, George Wegemer is great. However, I think it is misleading to say St. Thomas More favored parliamentary democracy over monarchy. If I recall correctly, even Wegemer never says that he was against monarchy, just that he appears to favor a more robust constitutional element within the body politic. As far as I can tell St. Thomas More was more about checking the power of the monarch with a more robust parliament. The current British Monarchy has certainly achieved a more robust parliament, perhaps too robust. I imagine St. Thomas More would appreciate a parliamentary monarchy over a US style government.

  3. I must agree that this review, and perhaps the work it is reviewing (?), overstate More’s belief in parliamentary democracy.

    Indeed, I have always found this site was a little too enthusiastic about republicanism and democracy instead of monarchy. Surely, many traditionalist conservatives have defended monarchy, of various kinds. I suppose as it is an American orientated site that is some excuse.

  4. ”More’s prediction that violence would result was vindicated soon after with, most notably, the Peasants Revolt in 1525” … are we talking about Wat Tyler’s Rebellion (?)…it was actually 1381…

    • Mr. Muir,
      Are you not familiar with the famous Peasant Revolt in Germany inspired by the writings of Martin Luther?

Leave a Reply