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About Sir Thomas More


About Sir Thomas More

There are some writers who are chiefly interesting in themselves, and
some whom chance and the agreement of men have picked out as symbols and
convenient indications of some particular group or temperament of
opinions. To the latter it is that Sir Thomas More belongs. An age and a
type of mind have found in him and his Utopia a figurehead and a token;
and pleasant and honourable as his personality and household present
themselves to the modern reader, it is doubtful if they would by this
time have retained any peculiar distinction among the many other
contemporaries of whom we have chance glimpses in letters and suchlike
documents, were it not that he happened to be the first man of affairs
in England to imitate the "Republic" of Plato. By that chance it fell to
him to give the world a noun and an adjective of abuse, "Utopian," and
to record how under the stimulus of Plato's releasing influence the
opening problems of our modern world presented themselves to the English
mind of his time. For the most part the problems that exercised him are
the problems that exercise us to-day, some of them, it may be, have
grown up and intermarried, new ones have joined their company, but few,
if any, have disappeared, and it is alike in his resemblances to and
differences from the modern speculative mind that his essential interest

The portrait presented by contemporary mention and his own intentional
and unintentional admissions, is of an active-minded and
agreeable-mannered man, a hard worker, very markedly prone to quips and
whimsical sayings and plays upon words, and aware of a double reputation
as a man of erudition and a wit. This latter quality it was that won him
advancement at court, and it may have been his too clearly confessed
reluctance to play the part of an informal table jester to his king that
laid the grounds of that deepening royal resentment that ended only with
his execution. But he was also valued by the king for more solid merits,
he was needed by the king, and it was more than a table scorned or a
clash of opinion upon the validity of divorce; it was a more general
estrangement and avoidance of service that caused that fit of regal
petulance by which he died.

It would seem that he began and ended his career in the orthodox
religion and a general acquiescence in the ideas and customs of his
time, and he played an honourable and acceptable part in that time; but
his permanent interest lies not in his general conformity but in his
incidental scepticism, in the fact that underlying the observances and
recognised rules and limitations that give the texture of his life were
the profoundest doubts, and that, stirred and disturbed by Plato, he saw
fit to write them down. One may question if such scepticism is in itself
unusual, whether any large proportion of great statesmen, great
ecclesiastics and administrators have escaped phases of destructive
self-criticism of destructive criticism of the principles upon which
their general careers were framed. But few have made so public an
admission as Sir Thomas More. A good Catholic undoubtedly he was, and
yet we find him capable of conceiving a non-Christian community
excelling all Christendom in wisdom and virtue; in practice his sense
of conformity and orthodoxy was manifest enough, but in his "Utopia" he
ventures to contemplate, and that not merely wistfully, but with some
confidence, the possibility of an absolute religious toleration.

The "Utopia" is none the less interesting because it is one of the most
inconsistent of books. Never were the forms of Socialism and Communism
animated by so entirely an Individualist soul. The hands are the hands
of Plato, the wide-thinking Greek, but the voice is the voice of a
humane, public-spirited, but limited and very practical English
gentleman who takes the inferiority of his inferiors for granted,
dislikes friars and tramps and loafers and all undisciplined and
unproductive people, and is ruler in his own household. He abounds in
sound practical ideas, for the migration of harvesters, for the
universality of gardens and the artificial incubation of eggs, and he
sweeps aside all Plato's suggestion of the citizen woman as though it
had never entered his mind. He had indeed the Whig temperament, and it
manifested itself down even to the practice of reading aloud in company,
which still prevails among the more representative survivors of the Whig
tradition. He argues ably against private property, but no thought of
any such radicalism as the admission of those poor peons of his, with
head half-shaved and glaring uniform against escape, to participation in
ownership appears in his proposals. His communism is all for the
convenience of his Syphogrants and Tranibores, those gentlemen of
gravity and experience, lest one should swell up above the others. So
too is the essential Whiggery of the limitation of the Prince's
revenues. It is the very spirit of eighteenth century Constitutionalism.
And his Whiggery bears Utilitarianism instead of the vanity of a
flower. Among his cities, all of a size, so that "he that knoweth one
knoweth all," the Benthamite would have revised his sceptical theology
and admitted the possibility of heaven.

Like any Whig, More exalted reason above the imagination at every point,
and so he fails to understand the magic prestige of gold, making that
beautiful metal into vessels of dishonour to urge his case against it,
nor had he any perception of the charm of extravagance, for example, or
the desirability of various clothing. The Utopians went all in coarse
linen and undyed wool--why should the world be coloured?--and all the
economy of labour and shortening of the working day was to no other end
than to prolong the years of study and the joys of reading aloud, the
simple satisfactions of the good boy at his lessons, to the very end of
life. "In the institution of that weal publique this end is only and
chiefly pretended and minded, that what time may possibly be spared from
the necessary occupations and affairs of the commonwealth, all that the
citizens should withdraw from the bodily service to the free liberty of
the mind and garnishing of the same. For herein they suppose the
felicity of this life to consist."

Indeed, it is no paradox to say that "Utopia," which has by a conspiracy
of accidents become a proverb for undisciplined fancifulness in social
and political matters, is in reality a very unimaginative work. In that,
next to the accident of its priority, lies the secret of its continuing
interest. In some respects it is like one of those precious and
delightful scrapbooks people disinter in old country houses; its very
poverty of synthetic power leaves its ingredients, the cuttings from and
imitations of Plato, the recipe for the hatching of eggs, the stern
resolutions against scoundrels and rough fellows, all the sharper and
brighter. There will always be found people to read in it, over and
above the countless multitudes who will continue ignorantly to use its
name for everything most alien to More's essential quality.