Karl Kautsky

Thomas More and his Utopia


Part II.


1. More’s Religiosity

ALTHOUGH More was a satirist and of a critical turn of mind, he did not, any more than the other English and German Humanists, attain to the sceptical outlook which marked Humanism in Italy and France. The economic development of the Teutonic countries was in the main behind that of the Latin countries, and the standard of intellectual life was lower. Pagan scepticism, the highest development of Humanism, was a mixture of Contradictory elements. The scepticism of Humanism was partly defiance of traditional ecclesiastical ideas, partly the indolent indifference of a decadent class which mocked at the buoyant enthusiasm which it had felt in its own youth, but of which it had long grown incapable. Such a miserable type of scepticism was bound to repel the Northern “Barbarians,” in whom the old mode of production had maintained some primitive energy and capacity for enthusiasm.

The freest minds of the North remained believing and pious. In fact, their faith was proportionate to their enthusiasm. We see this in the case of Hutten, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and More. With all his native energy of mind, the latter’s piety sometimes verged on fanaticism and asceticism. There are indications of this in Erasmus’ letter to Hutten, and numerous examples could be quoted from the works of his Catholic biographers.

Among the Italian Humanists More was most largely influenced by Pico dells Mirandola, whose biography he translated from Latin into English, as we have seen. Pico, who was born in 1462 and died in 1494, was one of the few Italian Humanists who aimed at a moral and scientific purification of the Church and its doctrines, one of the few among them who had a certain spiritual affinity with the Reformers.

Pico regarded the Popes as hardly less dangerous than the Reformer Savonarola. The exploitation of the people was not jeopardised by the sceptical Humanists, whom the people did not understand, but by the pious who took the Church seriously, and whose ideas were in harmony with those of the people.

Pico attempted to purify the Christian doctrines by bringing them into line with the knowledge of his time. To accomplish this, he not only studied the Pagan world of Greece, but was also one of the first Christians to learn Hebrew with scientific thoroughness in order to track the secrets of Christianity through the mystical philosophy of Kabbala. The results of his studies were set out in his Nine Hundred Principles, where, among other things, he denied eternal punishment and the presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Had Pico been a proper reformer – that is, an agitator – he would have been burnt for those principles. As he was only a man of science, Pope Innocent VIII contented himself with prohibiting the work.

This semi-heretic Pico was More’s ideal.

2. More an Opponent of Clericalism

More’s interest in Pico shows that he was not so priest-ridden as both Catholic and Protestant clergy would like to make out. It is true that in his youth he entered a Carthusian monastery and passed some time there in pious exercises. The priest Stapleton is obliged to admit that More abandoned his intention of becoming a monk, as “the priests of his time had lapsed from their former discipline and lost their pious enthusiasm.”

More retracted nothing from his censure of the priesthood. He could ridicule the monks as much as any other Humanist.

Listen, for instance, to the following passage from the first book of Utopia. Raphael Hythloday is describing a meal at Cardinal Morton’s, at which a jester and a friar are present. The talk turns on what should be done with beggars who become incapable of work owing to old age or other causes. The jester says that he never gives alms to a beggar. “They now know me so well that they let me pass because they hope for nothing, no more than if I were a priest ... But I would have a law made for sending all these beggars to monasteries, the men to the Benedictines to belay brothers, and the women to be nuns.” The Cardinal smiled and treated the proposal as a jest, the others taking it seriously. But a brother theologian was so amused by the joke about priests and nuns that, although otherwise a grave man, he began to jest, and said to him: “This will not deliver you from all beggars, except you take care of us friars.” “That is done already,” answered the fool, “for the Cardinal has provided for you, by what he proposed for restraining vagabonds, and setting them to work, for I know no vagabonds like you.” A quarrel ensues between the friar and the jester, in which More makes the friar look so foolish that he draws upon himself general laughter. Of course, the friar ends by threatening the fool with the wrath of God: “For if the many mockers of Elisha, who was but one bald man, felt the effect of his zeal, what will become of one mocker of so many friars, among whom there are so many bald men? We have likewise a Bull, by which all that jeer us are excommunicated.”

The Cardinal changed the subject, and put a stop to the friar’s railing, and thus ends the episode which in a few words holds up to ridicule the stupidity, laziness, and greed of the monks.

The ridicule of our “Catholic Martyr” was not confined to the lower clergy; even the bishops came in for their share; notably the one whom More calls Posthumus is the target of his wit in his epigrams.

In one of these More expresses his delight that the said Posthumus has been made a bishop, for whereas bishops are usually appointed haphazard, without any regard for their qualifications, it would seem that this one had been chosen with special care. A worse and more stupid bishop could scarcely have been found among thousands.

The next epigram says of the same bishop: “He is fond of quoting the text, ‘The letter kills, but the spirit maketh to live,’ but Posthumus is much too ignorant for any letter to kill him, and had it done so, he had no spirit to be quickened.”

Even the Pope only seemed an ordinary mortal to More.

In More’s house, and under his encouragement, Erasmus wrote The Praise of Folly, in which More took great delight. The manuscript was secretly taken away by one of its author’s friends, probably by More himself, and sent to Paris, where it was printed in 1511, and seven editions appeared in a few months.

This book was an extremely bold and flippant satire on the whole of contemporary society, especially on monkery and the Papacy. It was therefore put on the index of prohibited books. There is no reason for thinking that More ever regretted his share in the work.

But we do not need such indirect proofs of More’s attitude towards the Papacy. We have some of his utterances during the time when the Reformation was beginning and the struggle against Protestantism should have drawn him closer to the Papacy. Yet he wrote, in his Confutation of Tyndall’s Answer (1532), that a general council is above the Pope, whom it exhorts and punishes, and can even depose if he prove incorrigible.

When the Reformation began, Henry VIII declared emphatically against it and in favour of the Pope. He even published a book against Luther, which was published under his name in 1521, but, as often happens in such cases, it was written by other people.

Although More was regarded as its author, he had only a small share in the book. When Henry VIII broke away from the Papacy, this book was a source of annoyance. The author of his book had now become a traitor.

Amongst other charges brought against More when he resigned his position as Lord Chancellor in 1532, was that “by his subtle sinister slights most unnaturally procuring and provoking the King to set forth a book of the Assertion of the Seven Sacraments and maintenance of the Pope’s authority had caused him, to his dishonour, throughout all Christendom, to put a sword in the Pope’s hand to fight against himself.”

The comical aspect of the moral indignation of the poor misguided King is that for ten years he had passed as the author of the book, accepting all the praise bestowed upon it. Now the book was turned against More, and he must take the punishment. More answered, as Roper tells us

“My Lords, these terrors be arguments for children and not for me. But to answer to that wherewith you do chiefly burden me, I believe the King’s highness of his honour will never lay to my charge, for none is there that can in that point say in my excuse more than his highness himself, who right well knoweth that I was never procurer or Counsellor of his Majesty thereunto; but after it was finished, by his Grace’s appointment and consent of the makers of the same, I was only a sorter out and placer of the principal matters therein contained. Wherein when I found the Pope’s authority highly advanced and with strong arguments mightily defended, I said unto his Grace, I must put your Highness in remembrance of one thing, and that is this the Pope, as your Grace knoweth, is a prince as you are, and in league with all other Christian princes. It may hereafter so fallout that your Grace and he may vary upon some points of the league, whereupon may grow breach of amity and war between you both. I think it best therefore that the place be amended and his authority more slenderly touched. Nay, quoth his Grace, that shall it not; we are so much bounden unto the See of Rome that we cannot do too much honour to it. Then did I further put him in remembrance of the Statute of Premunire, whereby a good part of the Pope’s pastoral care here was wasted away. To that answered his Highness: Whatsoever impediment be to the contrary, we will set forth the authority to the uttermost; for we received from that See of Rome our crown imperial, which till his Grace with his own mouth told it to me, I never heard of before.”

The charge broke down. Neither Henry himself nor anyone else could contest the accuracy of More’s statement. We may therefore accept them. It is evident from them that More was far from cherishing a slavish reverence for the Papacy. He regarded it, as we shall how in the next chapter, as an international cohesive force without which Christendom would dissolve into a chaos of mutually hostile nations. Nevertheless he defended the rights of single nations, as of the whole Church, against the Pope, who in his eye was nothing more than the removable president of Christianity.

3. More’s Religious Toleration

How freely More thought about religious matters may be inferred from the ideal religion which he ascribed to his Utopians. We shall become acquainted with them in the third part of our book. Here we would mention a characteristic which placed More far above the Catholicism as well as the Protestantism of his time, and which he shared with few of his contemporaries: his religious tolerance. He proclaimed it not only before the Reformation in his Utopia, but also in the midst of the fiercest struggles between Protestants and Catholics, when the fires of the stake were everywhere reddening the sky.

Stapleton finds it very strange that a Catholic saint should receive a Lutheran in his house. Simon Grynaeus, a pupil and disciple of Melanchthon, came to England to collect materials for his translations of the works of the Greek Neo-platonic philosopher Proclus. In this undertaking he received so much support from More, then Lord Chancellor, that he dedicated the translation to More’s son, John, as More was dead before the book was ready. This dedication, which throws a strong light on More’s character, read as follows:

“Your glorious father, who by virtue of his position as of his distinguished talents, was then the first man in the kingdom, procured me, an unknown individual, access to many public and private institutions and found a place for me at his table. But more than this; he observed with all good nature that my religious opinions deviated in not a few points from his. Yet his solicitude remained the same, and he arranged to meet all my expenses out of his own pocket.”

This took place more than a decade after Luther’s declaration of war against Rome.

Yet Protestant and Liberal writers have, sought to brand More as a persecutor of heretics. The proof of More’s alleged intolerance, apart from unfounded assertions, lies in his self-composed epitaph: Furibus, homicidis heereticis molestus. This juxtaposition is not very flattering for the heretic, but the molestus does not necessarily imply that heresy is to be put down by force. By tolerance More meant that an opponent was not to be silenced by force. But he did not regard it as intolerance to exert his whole intellectual strength to impose his own convictions and shatter those of his opponent. He was far too combative in his nature to ask for quarter from an opponent, nor did he feel called upon to blunt his own weapons.

To what extent More persecuted heretics he tells us himself in his Apology, written in 1533, after resigning his position as Lord Chancellor. His statements bear the impress of truth, and are confirmed by independent testimony, so far as this is available. They therefore deserve to be believed, because More had no interest in hiding the truth, and a deliberate lie was foreign to his nature.

Soon after composing his Apology he went to his death because he would utter no lie.

We quote the following passage: “When I was first of the King’s Council and after his under treasurer, and in the time while I was Chancellor of his Duchy of Lancaster of this realm, it was mightily meetly well known what manner of favour I bare toward the clergy and that as I loved and honoured the good, so was not remiss nor slack in providing for the correction of those that were nought noxious to good people and to slanderous to their own order. Which sort of priests and religious running out of religion and falling to theft and murder had at my hands so little favour that there was no man that had any meddling with them into whose hands they were more loth to come.” He then proceeds to discuss the assertion that he was a persecutor of heretics. “Divers of them (the Lutherans) have said that of such as were in my house while I was Chancellor I used to examine them with torments, causing them to be bounden to a tree in my garden and there piteously beaten. And this tale had some of those good brethren so caused to be blown about that a right worshipful friend of mine did of late tell that he had heard much speaking thereof. What can not these brethren say that can be so shameless to say thus. For of very truth, albeit that for a great robbery, or a heinous murder, or sacrilege in a church, with carrying away the pire with the blessed sacrament, or villainously casting it out, I caused sometime such things to be done by some officers of the Marshalsea or of some other prisons. Yet though I so did in thieves, murderers and robbers of churches, notwithstanding also that heretics be yet much worse, I never did cause any such thing to be done to any of them in all my life, except only twain.” These two cases were described in detail. One case related to a youth in More’s service who tried to teach another youth in his house to make fun of the sacrament. More dealt with him as boys are usually dealt with. The other case related to a mad fellow who had once been in an asylum and whose chief pleasure consisted in attending mass and raising shouts to the scandal of the congregation. More once had him arrested by, a constable, as he was passing the house. He was tied to a tree and whipped. These two cases were tolerably harmless according to the standards of the time, when witches and heretics were burnt out of hand.

More continues: “And of all that ever came in my hand for heresy, saving as I said the sure keeping of them, as help me God, had never any of them any stripe or stroke given them so much as a fillip on the forehead ... Touching heretics, I hate that vice of theirs and not their persons, and very far would I that the one were destroyed and the other saved.”

More also referred to the complaint of his opponents that he could not forbear to raise a laugh when treating of serious things. That is so: More was no preacher on the lines of the newer Catholicism. However he tried to keep a straight face in his polemical religious writings, cheerfulness would come breaking through. Most amusing are some of the passages in his Supplication of Souls (1529), a reply to the pamphlet Supplication of Beggars, which called on Henry VIII to confiscate the pious endowments for the benefit of the workless proletariat.

Fiske, the author, demanded that the monks should be driven from their monasteries, set to work under the lash, and married, thus increasing the production and population of the country at the same time. “Think of it,” says More, “requesting the King to have the monks robbed, chained, whipped, and – married. What the author thinks of marriage may be inferred from his putting it last in the category of evils.”

This is the style of More’s “theological” treatises. It is true that towards the end of his life they became less serene and sometimes bore an ecstatic and fanatical character, and that he said in them things which contradict his former principles, as expressed, for instance, in Utopia.

An investigation as to how much a change came about belongs rather to the realm of psychology than of history. For us they have merely a pathological interest, as we are concerned only with More the thinker and socialist. Once we understand it, Mores theological literature explains clearly enough why he elected to take the Catholic and not the Protestant side

Having made this decision, all that followed was the natural consequence of this step. The reasons, however, which induced him to oppose Protestantism were not of a dogmatic or theological, but of a political and economic nature; partly the same reasons which moved Humanism generally to fight on the Catholic side, and which we have already discussed.

But owing to local and personal influences these reasons assumed a peculiar character in the case of More.


Last updated on 22.11.2003