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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sir Thomas More (1478–1535)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Anna McClure Sholl (1868–1956)
SIR THOMAS MORE is conspicuous among English men of letters, not solely because of the quality of his English and Latin prose; but in the main for the humanistic spirit of his culture. In an age when his nation was not distinguished for liberality of thought nor for breadth of human view, Thomas More linked to his mediæval devoutness a passion for intellectual freedom which places him in the first rank of modern thinkers. He obtains perhaps broader recognition, as one whose public and private life was of such exalted purity and high-minded fidelity to a fixed ideal, that later generations have found in his character the essential elements of sainthood.  1
  He was born in 1478, in the morning twilight of the Renaissance. The strong new life of Italy, awakening to the beauty and wonder of the world and of man, under the inspiration of the Hellenic spirit, had not yet communicated its full warmth and vigor to the nations of the north. England was still mediæval and scholastic when Thomas More was a page in the household of Cardinal Morton. Even the great universities were under the domination of the schoolmen. Greek was neglected for the dusty Latin of scholasticism. The highly susceptible nature of Thomas More felt nevertheless the influence of the classical revival, with its accompanying revival of humanitarian sympathies. Humane in temperament, of a sweet and reasonable mind, he was drawn naturally to the study of the Greek classics. At the same time his inheritance of the simple Christian piety of an earlier day inclined him to asceticism. His soul was mediæval; his mind was modern. Self-repression and self-expansion struggled within him for the mastery. The hair shirt and the wooden pillow were placed over against the delights of the new learning. The career of Thomas More was determined by his father, a lawyer of distinction, who wished his son to be a devotee neither of religion nor of literature. In 1494, after a two-years’ residence at Oxford, More was entered at New Inn to begin the study of law. From thenceforth his career was to be more and more involved with the troubled politics of England in the reigns of Henry VII. and Henry VIII. For a time, however, he was to advance quietly in his chosen profession, maturing under the influences of life in the world, and under the enriching forces of his friendship with Erasmus. In Erasmus, the cultured and philosophical representative of the new era, More found satisfaction for needs of his own nature which neither the study of law nor the exercises of devotion could wholly meet. The author of the ‘Utopia’ would follow the leadership of love into many paths which might otherwise have offered no thoroughfare. It is in the ‘Utopia’ that the friend of Erasmus, the lover of Greek humanism, the modern thinker, escapes from the trammels of his age and environment, and gives expression to the best that is within him.  2
  As far as was possible More sought to give a practical outlet to his high and prophetic ideals. In doing so he ran contrary to the tendency of his time, and paid the last penalty of such a course—martyrdom. From the accession of Henry VIII. in 1509, to 1532, the year in which More resigned the Great Seal, his career indicated not only his moral and intellectual greatness, but the pressure of his individuality against the trammels of an age too strait for it. The justice and mercy of Sir Thomas More belong rather to the nineteenth century than to the sixteenth, despite their setting in the religious thought and feeling of the Middle Age.  3
  The landmarks of his life,—his appointment as under-sheriff of London in 1510, his embassy to Flanders in 1514 and to Calais in 1517, his admission to the Privy Council in 1518, his promotion to the Under-Treasurership in 1521 and his knighting in the same year, his election as Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523, his advancement to the Lord Chancellorship in 1529—these events were steps in an uncongenial progress towards an undesired goal. Between the author of the ‘Utopia’ and Henry VIII. there was a great gulf fixed. The monarch might walk and talk familiarly with his Lord Chancellor in the pleasant gardens of More’s home at Chelsea, but this friendship of royal imposition was the artificial linking of a modern man with a feudal tyrant. The conflict of Sir Thomas More with Henry VIII. over the divorce of Katherine of Aragon was less one of religion than of the old order with the new. The execution of More in 1535, for refusing to accept the Act of Supremacy, was but the natural outcome of this conflict.  4
  In the ‘Utopia’ More embodied his ideals of society and government, for which he had found so few mediums of expression in the actual order about him. A critic in the Quarterly Review justly says of the book that “it is an indictment of the state of society in which More found himself, and an aspiration after a fairer and juster ordering of the commonwealth. We can trace in it something vaticinatory; some forecast of the prophetic soul of the great world dreaming on things to come.” Another critic, Rudbart, finds it underlain with three great truths: that toleration should prevail in matters of religious belief; that all political power should not be vested in a single hand; that the well-being of the body politic depends upon the ethical and religious fitness of its members.  5
  ‘Utopia,’ the island of Nowhere, where labor is recreation, where want is not, where men are brothers, remains still an ideal to modern minds of a certain type. The charm of the book itself lies partly in its attractive subject—a golden age is always of interest—partly in its quaint and fragrant style.  6
  In the annals of English literature, Sir Thomas More the Lord Chancellor is less remembered than Sir Thomas More the friend of Erasmus and of Holbein, the head of the patriarchal household at Chelsea, the father of Margaret Roper. As one of the first-born of an age whose hospitality he was not destined to enjoy, he possesses a strong claim upon the interest and sympathy of modern generations.  7

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