Sir Thomas More

26 Thomas More pic
(1478 – 1535)
By Karl Williams

“The increase of pasture by which your sheep …. may be said now to devour men, and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men the abbots, not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.”

“(After eviction after enclosure of the commons, ordinary people) are put in prison as idle vagabonds; while they would willingly work, but can find none that will hire them; for there is no more occasion for country labor, to which they have been bred, when there is no arable ground left. One shepherd can look after a flock which will stock an extent of ground that would require many hands if it were to be ploughed and reaped. This likewise in many places raises the price of corn.”

There can’t be too many more soul-stirring episodes in history than Thomas More’s struggle with Henry VIII, in which the classic idealist is bound to fail in the power struggle with a ruthless ruler and an unjust world, but holds firm to his principles as the course of events lead to his inevitable execution. G.K. Chesterton said that More was the “greatest historical character in English history”, and playwright Robert Bolt portrayed More as the ultimate man of conscience in his play A Man for All Seasons which in 1966 was made into a successful film and won the Academy Award for best picture for that year.

Sir Thomas More was an English lawyer, writer, and politician. During his lifetime he earned a reputation as a leading humanist scholar and occupied many high public offices. Born in London, Thomas More was the eldest son of a successful lawyer and attended the University of Oxford for two years, where he studied Latin and logic. He then returned to London where he studied law with his father and became a barrister.

To his father’s great displeasure, More seriously contemplated abandoning his legal career in order to become a Franciscan monk. Perhaps because he judged himself incapable of celibacy (as they say, there’s nothing worse than a horny celibate), he married at age 27 and went on to have 4 children. However, for the rest of his life he continued to observe many ascetical practices, including self-punishment in the form of wearing a hair shirt and occasional flagellation – another victim of the Catholic guilt trip?

He soon attained a position of considerable responsibility in which he earned a reputation as an honest and effective public servant and entered the king’s service as councilor and “master of requests”. More commanded Henry VIII’s friendship and trust, serving primarily as his personal secretary, but with many other important administrative and diplomatic responsibilities.
More combined his busy political career with a rich scholarly and literary production. His writing and scholarship earned him a considerable reputation as a Christian humanist in continental Europe as More sought to reexamine and revitalize Christian theology.

In 1515 More wrote his most famous and controversial work, Utopia (he actually coined the word), in which he contrasted the contentious social life of Christian European states with the perfectly orderly and reasonable social arrangements of the non-Christian Utopia. But it has also been argued that Utopia was a shrewd critique of economic and social exploitation in pre-modern Europe. In any case, it’s a work considered by some to be one of the finest Socratic dialogues of all time, and has long been recognized as his masterpiece.

But what of More’s economics? “Merrie England” was actually then a surprisingly fair and prosperous society, with feudal dues being based on land productivity and with most having free access to the Commons. However the Commons were then beginning to be enclosed, which brought strong condemnation by More, which is why geoists can cautiously claim him as one of ours. It’s also said that More discovered the Pareto compensation principle, which aims to prohibit many practices with heavy fines, especially those that are contrary to the public interest. His Utopia is full of moral values and criticisms of the land-owning nobility, but in it More didn’t properly discriminate between land and capital – a major blunder which moves More over into the socialist camp.

Meanwhile, back at the biog, in 1523 More became the Speaker of the House of Commons. He then became Chancellor in 1529 but resigned in 1532, the day after Henry VIII and Cromwell manipulated the Parliament to take away the traditional freedom of the Church, a freedom that had been written into English law since the Magna Carta. Imprisoned in the Tower of London for 15 months before his execution, More was heavily pressured by his family and friends to sign the oath accepting Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. More unwaveringly refused but never expressed animosity towards those who complied.

The steadfastness with which More held on to his religious convictions in the face of ruin and death, and the dignity with which he conducted himself during his imprisonment, trial, and execution, contributed much to More’s posthumous reputation, particularly among Roman Catholics. More was beatified and canonized by the Pope in 1886. Thomas More, patron saint of geoists? – not quite, but we’ll give him a koala stamp for his burning social conscience.