Thomas More for Our Season

By Bork, Robert H. | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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Thomas More for Our Season


Bork, Robert H., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


The continuing contemporary interest in Thomas More (1478-1535) is hardly to be accounted for by popular fascination with sixteenth-century English politics or even by admiration for a martyr to a religious cause no longer universally popular. It is more likely that More's memory remains fresh after almost half a millennium because his life casts light on our time. More lived, as we live today, in a time of rapid social and cultural unraveling. The meaning of his life, at least for us, is not so much his worldly success and religious piety, extraordinary as both of these were, but rather the courage and consistency with which he opposed the forces of disintegration.

The culture war of the early sixteenth century was fought over the breaking apart of Christianity, its loss of central authority, and the consequent fragmentation of European civilization. Our war rages about the collapse of traditional virtues across all of the West and the rise of moral indifference and cheerful nihilism. Many parallels between the two eras could be drawn, but a crucial similarity lies in the central role played by law in each. Though More was a profoundly religious man, it should not be forgotten that he was also a preeminent lawyer and judge. The law, quite as much as Catholicism, is crucial to an understanding of the man and the martyr. Law and its institutions were, of course, major forces of cohesion in More's age, and are perhaps tile primary symbols in ours of stability and continuity as well as justice. When moral consensus fades, as it did in More's time and does in ours, we turn to law; when law falters, as it must when morality is no longer widely shared, society and culture teeter on the brink of chaos.

That is another way of saying that law cannot be divorced from morality--and, there is reason to think, morality, at least in the long run, cannot be divorced from religion. Law and religion are alike, therefore, as reinforcements of social order. It is a subject for speculation at least, whether either can long remain healthy and self-confident without the other. Each imposes obligations, but each is subject to the therapeutic heresy, softening those obligations to accommodate individual desires. It is a sign of our distemper that Thomas More is today so often regarded as a hero of civil disobedience, a man who refused to obey law with which he was in profound moral disagreement. That is a considerable distortion of the truth, and it was not More's understanding of his motives. For him, in a very real sense, law was morality. It is equally true that for More morality was superior to law and was the standard by which law must be judged. If that seems a paradox, I do not think it truly is one.

More, as his biographers make clear, had the utmost respect for authority, hierarchy, and social discipline. He was born into an age when schooling stressed these virtues. Early education, including the study of musical harmony, as Peter Ackroyd informs us, emphasized the paramount importance of order and hierarchy. Then came the study of rhetoric, memorization of simple syllogisms and verbal formulas, by which young students were "made aware of the presence of external authority while at the same time becoming familiarized with the implicit demands of order and stability.... Beyond all this, too, was the image of God." These tendencies were confirmed in More's study of the law. "The central and important point," Ackroyd writes, "is that both [religion and law] were conceived to be visible aspects of the same spiritual reality.... The attitude More adopted towards the primacy and authority of law governed all his subsequent actions."

Contrast this with today's anarchic popular music and primary education, embodied at their extremes in rap and the self-esteem movement, which cater to and encourage the natural indiscipline of the young. It should not be surprising that similar manifestations of the disorder appear in adult fields of endeavor, including law and religion.

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