Excerpts from an essay by Julia R. Nelson
While we may ask many questions about Sir Thomas More, his writings and his life, those that look to his role in the Renaissance and the Reformation are some of the most intriguing. This essay will examine More’s rhetoric prior to the Protestant Reformation and will study the influence of Christian humanism on his classic, Utopia.
An intellectual movement led by More’s friend Desiderius Erasmus, Christian
humanism was a philosophy that touched on contemporary social, political, and religious concerns.
In turn, these political and religious events and the influences they created shaped the Catholicism that More tried to save first through reform and then through defense of the Church’s orthodox beliefs and practices. The goal of Catholic Christian humanism was to improve Europe by focusing on the value of what Erasmus called the philosophia Christi, the “philosophy of Christ.” The philosophia Christi was born out of the drive for reform in both the Catholic Church and lay society and the rediscovery of the literature of classical antiquity.
Humanists believed that the study of these ancient texts and original languages
could restore to Europe long-forgotten skills, and, “applied to the texts of the Bible and of ancient Christian writers, would help Christendom to a purer and more authentic understanding of Christian truths.” Erasmus and the humanists believed that these essential truths were embodied in the philosophia Christi.
Not only the leader of the humanists, Erasmus was also by far the most brilliant scholar of the Northern Renaissance. In a lifetime of effort, he too sought to reform Catholicism first by exhorting people towards a life of piety in works like the Enchiridion Militis Christiani (The Handbook of a Christian Soldier) and then through satiric attack, as in the Encomium Moriae (The Praise of Folly). I will discuss the significance of both The Praise of Folly and Sileni Alcibiadis (a selection from Erasmus’ Adagia, or Adages) to give examples of the humanists’ rhetoric and to illustrate the principles of humanism itself. Sileni Alcibiadis in particular serves as a guide to reading More’s Utopia and its message correctly.
Erasmus and More believed that Christianity ought to be both a way of truly living in the imitation of Christ and the goal of every good man.
Religion, Political and Social Activism
For nearly twenty years, the two worked together to forward this philosophy of life, religion, and political and social activism. Understanding these concepts is vital to reading and interpreting Utopia.
In Utopia, More expresses his firm faith in the potential reforms that could better all of Europe if only men embraced humanist education, service for one another, and the philosophia Christi.
Following in the spirit of The Praise of Folly, More wrote Utopia when it was not yet so dangerous to criticize the faults of the clergy and the Church hierarchy, and when criticism did not yet mean absolute schism. He attacked the many faults of his fellow Europeans, and also specifically involved his native England in the dialogue, remarking through the main character, Raphael Hythloday, on everything from capital punishment to the corruption and parasitic qualities of courtiers and political advisors.
At the heart of Utopia Sir Thomas More, Christian Humanism and Utopia is the humanist message, personalized by Thomas More:
He believed that through the wisdom and examples of the Holy Scriptures, specifically by serving one another in the active Christian love found in the
Gospels, and the guidance by the universal Church and its doctrines, society could better itself until the time that Christ returned to earth.
One of the key questions addressed in Utopia toward this end is whether or not a wise man should enter into public service, even if he does not believe that he will make a genuine difference through that service.1 The answer is yes, because if even one king or cardinal can be brought into the philosophia Christi, the people around him will inevitably receive this reformed grace and be enhanced by it, “like water flowing in an uninterrupted stream”.
The bulk of the other issues in Utopia mainly involve the Utopian customs and institutions as reported by Hythloday. Superficially, these practices seem to be equal, if not superior, to that of the European nations. On closer inspection, however, the reader finds that the Utopians are faulted and even corrupted, much like their European counterparts. The Utopians have taken their society as far as possible using the powers of reason, but More believes that without the Scriptures and the assistance of Christ and his Catholic Church, no society can be truly good. [SH: Note "as far as possible" i.e, showing the limits and dangers of naturalist conceptions of "reason" apart from the Gospel and natural law to guide it]
Many interpretations have not taken into account or have outright ignored More’s instructions of how to read his work...
First published in March 1516, it was only available for a short time before the Reformation of October 1517, when Martin Luther thrust himself and the Ninety-Five Theses into the center of religious consciousness by way of a church door in Wittenberg. Sir Thomas More’s life and works ultimately demonstrate a substantial transformation in his emphasis on the role of the Catholic Church, its clergy, orthodox texts and doctrines, and his acceptance of certain reforming techniques.
Utopia is the clearest possible expression of More’s pre-Reformation work and rhetoric, a hope-filled exhortation for improvement and a work of personal devotion and faith. In the remainder of this essay, I will show that the role of Utopia in the body of More’s work was to evoke a sense of duty in his fellow humanists and statesmen, and to encourage reform from within before the faults of corruption grew deeper...
A man of principle
Sermon on the Mount
In this essay, I have detailed some of the basic principles of Christian humanism, which were exemplified in the work of Erasmus and of More himself. More’s vision of the philosophia Christi was at the beginning of his career much the same as Erasmus’, that men should live up to the Great Commandment from the Sermon on the Mount, to love both God and each other with their whole selves.
I have demonstrated that one of Thomas More’s goals for Utopia was to lead the learned and virtuous in society, the humanists, not only to continue urging the reform of society and man, but also to take an active role in that renovation...
More believes that it is Christianity, as Erasmus says in The Sileni of Alcibiades, “which alone of all the others really does bring what everyone is trying to get, in some way or another---happiness...More goes to great lengths to show that in order for humanity to be improved to the point of goodness, the discovery of truth envisioned by the Scholastic Thomists and that such pagans as the Utopians were capable of had to be combined with the revelation of Christianity, supplemented by aspects of the faith such as the clergy, guidance, and teaching of the Church, the ancient texts, and the humanists themselves” ...More’s life and works remain significant for us today because they comprise the broad wealth of historical, political, literary, and religious thought which has passed to the world we live in.
Roles In Context
He always argued in support of service and meeting one’s personal and public obligations, first by serving as a royal counselor in Utopia, and later by serving as a good Catholic leader and elder in his Reformation-period works. These transferences in stress and the rejection of a specific reforming technique do not add up to what some historians have accused More of--inconsistency and contradiction on the one hand and a violent obsession on the other...
By evaluating the relationship between his religious beliefs, political role, and personal philosophies, we are led to clearer conclusions about the circumstances surrounding More’s death and to new perspectives about his place in the development of the early modern political state. ...Read it all
Note: It seems to me that St. Thomas More was, while showing the limits of naturalistic Utopian currents, seeking peaceful, Christian-humanist reforms of the state and law and Church through many decades, but was not permitted by circumstances to see them through. Europe was soon thrown into cyclones; and so while the old jurisprudence (theory and philosophy of law) remained the law, St. Thomas served and obeyed that law (as we must also as far as conscience permits, Rom. 13), even to the point of making no exception for the king---or for himself. Here indeed was a man of principle, a man for all seasons.