The One Thomas More

The One Thomas More

by Travis Curtright


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"Thomas More" the humanist. "Sir Thomas More" the statesman. "Saint Thomas More" the martyr. Who was Thomas More? Which characterization of him is most true? Despite these multiple images and the problems of More's true identity, Travis Curtright uncovers a continuity of interests and, through interdisciplinary contexts, presents one Thomas More.

The One Thomas More carefully studies the central humanist and polemical texts written by More to illustrate a coherent development of thought. Focusing on three major works from More's humanist phase, The Life of Pico, The History of Richard III, and Utopia, Curtright demonstrates More's idea of humanitas and his corresponding program of moderate political reform. Curtright then shows how More's later polemical theology and defense of the ecclesiastical courts were a continuation of his commitments rather than a break from them. Finally, More's prison letters are examined. His self-presentation in these letters is compared with other recent and iconic versions, such as those in Robert Bolt's Man for All Seasons and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. Instead of a divided mind emerging, Curtright ably shows More's integrity and consistency of thought.


Travis Curtright, is a fellow of the Center for Thomas More Studies at the University of Dallas, associate professor of literature at Ave Maria University, and coeditor of Shakespeare's Last Plays: Essays in Politics and Literature.


"Travis Curtright has now added to the luster of the real More's legacy with his excellent new book The One Thomas More."—Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, in Public Discourse

"Travis Curtright does a fine job fusing St. Thomas More's 'humanist credo' and 'his later polemical theology.'"—The Catholic Historical Review

"The One Thomas More is a much needed work of daring."—First Things

"Travis Curtright has realized a masterful synthesis that provides the strongest case to date for seeing More's life and writings as a consistent whole."—Moreana

"In this lucid and well-written work, Curtright restores the unity of More's life and thought against 'revisionist' critics who insist on two Mores—the humanist and the increasingly fanatical statesman and martyr. Curtright succeeds in integrating More's writings and public actions, showing that his humanist writings were informed by a Christian humanism that is perfectly consistent with his later deeds and affirmations."—Daniel J. Mahoney, Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship, Assumption College

"The One Thomas More is a convincing reappraisal of Thomas More's life and writings, coming after decades of contradictory critiques. Also of importance are Curtright's insights into aspects of More that have so far remained marginal in scholarship, such as More the moralist or More the philosopher, which here complete a portrait of the sixteenth century statesman, author and polemicist, in a particularly comprehensive study."—Marie-Claire Phélippeau, Editor of Moreana

"Thomas More's reputation has undergone a reversal of fortune in recent years. According to the late Geoffrey Elton, a prominent Tudor historian, More as saintly man of conscience, represented in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (1960), was a myth. Elton presented More as just another conniving politician, a view popularized in Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall (2009). As More's reputation declined, that of More's nemesis Thomas Cromwell ascended. Curtright (Univ. of Dallas) has taken on the daunting task of restoring More's reputation and demonstrating consistency in his life and thought. His key text is not Utopia, the usual starting point of More scholarship, but instead More's Life of Pico . C

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813221861
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 07/31/2013
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

TRAVIS CURTRIGHT, is a fellow of the Center for Thomas More Studies at the University of Dallas, associate professor of literature at Ave Maria University, and coeditor of Shakespeare's Last Plays: Essays in Politics and Literature.

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Copyright © 2012 The Catholic university of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1995-0

Chapter One

PROFITABLE LEARNING AND PIETAS The Life of Pico della Mirandola, ca. 1504–10

More's Life of Pico is a Christian guidebook, a translation of the Latin original Vita Pici, but how and in what ways more found Pico a Christian paradigm remains contested. For some, Pico represents a personal model to more as a brilliant lay scholar; others read the text for insight into More's own vocational crisis of whether or not to marry in 1504; still others find a statement of the superiority of the contemplative life to action in the world. Such interpretations, though, often pay insufficient attention to the facts that Pico neither marries nor follows a private "inspiration" from god "vnto religion" (CW 1, 73/24–25) but more lives with the Carthusians before deciding to wed Jane Colt. Pico, in short, represents choices more never makes.

Though more's translation is a gift for "Joyeuce Leigh," or Joyce Lee, of the Poor Clare Convent, his introduction states the Life will please all who have "any meane desire & loue to god" (52/12). Such a purpose is obviously not the same as the original aim of Gianfrancesco, Pico's nephew, because more's transparent educative purpose differs from Gianfrancesco's epideictic one, even if Gianfrancesco emphasizes he will provide unbiased praise of his uncle. In contrast, More's expanded sense of applicability to all who love god provokes the question of whether the Christian humanist emphasis on piety best explains the sum total of More's changes and additions to the original version. Such an emphasis upon piety, I will argue, runs throughout More's Life in a way that privileges learning for what more calls "profit" and elevates the mixed life, a combination of action and contemplation.

To situate More's understanding of profitable learning, this chapter begins with More's letter to Thomas Ruthall and his translation of Lucian's Cynicus in hopes of showing the moral nature of learning and the compatibility of pagan authors with Christian revelation. With such a background, more's alterations and additions to the original text of Vita Pici indicate much about his own sense of the proper place of liberal arts study. Likewise, the poetry more appends to his version of the Life deserves special attention because it is either wholly original or a significant elaboration upon the brief prose apothegms of Pico; there is nothing in the original to compare to the rhyme royal stanzas more writes. As Mary Edith Willow observes, "Thomas More's approach to this work was literary and creative."

More's creative approach I find not in any one particular alteration or through the poetry alone, but in his overall theme, which teaches that virtus, whether natural or supernatural, cardinal or theological, includes learning or knowledge, what more calls "cunning." most important, virtue and learning have pietas as their end. righteous conduct, virtuous action, or piety configured as an unfolding of a Christian's love for god mirrors the teaching of John Colet and Erasmus, illustrating how more may have first encountered the notion that amor Dei in nobis energizes a life of virtue.

So, too, defining more's early writings on the liberal arts in terms of pietas carries ramifications beyond any local reading of one early text. Because more's turn to religious polemics is viewed as an abandonment of humanist principles, a revised understanding of those principles creates the potential for coherence between more's humanist writings and his later polemical tracts against Protestant reform.


More's translations of Lucian are composed from 1505 to 1506, but in an undated letter to Thomas Ruthall more explains the close relationship between Christian teaching and pagan authors. For More, the value of Lucian may be found in his depiction of the frailties of human nature. Lucian gives the same kind of insights that, if Richard Pace is right, more himself provides by acting as another "Democritus," a laughing philosopher who appreciates human folly. Indeed, more writes to Ruthall that Lucian instructs and delights; everywhere Lucian "reprimands and censures" with honest and entertaining wit. More is especially attracted to Lucian because "no one pricks more deeply," showing "our human frailties," a frailty occasioned by a human tendency to overestimate our importance. Lucian shows "fruitless contentions of philosophers" and, more generally, the "inordinate passion for lying" people seem to possess (CW 3.1, 2–5). Contentiousness, lying, bragging, and exaggerating one's importance, all have the same cause: the desire to appear knowledgeable or privileged by the gods.

The didactic purpose of More's letter would seem apparent, even conventional. In fact, David Marsh shows the language of moral wisdom that More employs to be a customary point of emphasis. Humanists of the Quattrocento enjoy not just the rhetoric of Lucian but also, as marsh's review of manuscript evidence illustrates, Lucian as "a moral philosopher." A codex in Padua containing texts from 1400 to 1440, for example, couples Lucian with St. Basil's On Reading Pagan Literature, along with other entries emphasizing liberal education and moral development. Accordingly, the specific historical and thematic connections between More's and Erasmus's translations of Lucian are examined as combining literary and moral concerns. With regard to how more portrays Lucianic cynicism in the Menippus, for instance, R. Bracht Branham remarks that More's "serious idealism" and "moral commitment" sometimes appear like a vast divergence from the pagan author more translates.

It is this kind of ostensible contrast between more and Lucian, though, that leads Alistair Fox to claim more's defense of Lucian constitutes a "provocatively disingenuous" presentation. Lucian, at least, is a subtler author than More's defense of him indicates. The letter to Ruthall should be read esoterically as a result. In citing St. John Chrysostom's approval of Lucian, for example, more writes that the Cynicus defends a disciplined life and denounces a luxurious one; such lessons edify Christians about leading a life of moderation and frugality (CW 3.1, 2–5). For Branham, the actual point of the original Cynicus is not directed at luxuria but at the "comic inability of either speaker [from the dialogue] to grasp fully the other's point of view." hence, more bends Lucian's "ironic presentation of Cynic asceticism" into an example of Christian simplicity and moderation. Fox, however, argues this dialogue could be read for moral content only by a "pious Christian-humanist moralist" who seeks "reassurance" in it. Instead, Lucian's dialogues help more forge an idea of truth that is ambiguous and allows for an ironic detachment from "all aspects of human experience." more presents such an outlook to justify his entry into active life because he had just left the Charterhouse monastery, but this mindset supports Fox's overall assessment of the Life as oscillating between contrary impulses.

More's point that pagan asceticism offers a corrective model to luxuriant Christians, however, agrees with the teaching of his epigram 260 and with Erasmus's teaching on similar points. In the dialogue, Cynic tells his interlocutor, Lycinus, that a simple life means associating with those of superior intellect (scitissimi), modesty (modestissimi), and in general with people who desire virtue (uirtutem cupiunt) (CW 3.1, 23/22–23). Others, more luxurious, are like those who through greed or incontinence wish to use up everything (15/27–33). More makes the same distinction between those with an appetite for virtue and others who are generally appetitive in his Latin poem, "To a certain fat priest whose habit it was to say 'learning puffs up'" (scientia inflat): "according to you, though others are puffed up with learning, as Paul teaches, you avoid it. How is it then, o substantial father, that you are so swollen? You can hardly manage your bloated belly with its flabby paunch, and your mind is puffed up with empty folly" (CW 3.2, 273). As the lines from the above dialogue address intelligence and moderation against desire, More's poem attacks a cleric for not valuing scientia and for living immoderately. So, too, More's verses suggest that Christian virtue and learning are not mutually exclusive of one another but concomitant, mirroring the position more advocates to Ruthall.

Though More's epigram above appears impossible to date with precision, Erasmus writes in 1520 that most of more's epigrams were written twenty years before, and the theme and lines of more above specifically agree with Erasmus's Antibarbari, a draft of which John Colet peruses in 1499.17 Citing the same maxim from Paul, scientia inflat, charitas aedificat (1 Cor 8:1), erasmus claims that "it is ignorance, not knowledge, which puffs them up," turning the accusation of pride against those who attack learning in the name of piety. For Erasmus, ignorance is the mother of pride, but from learning modesty is born. As erudition grows, the scholar becomes more acutely aware of all that he or she does not know, whereas "the less a person's mind is worth," Erasmus cites here from Quintilian, "the more he tries to aggrandize himself and increase his importance." returning to Paul's words, Erasmus's Batt observes that Paul says he himself possesses knowledge and studied under Gamaliel. Batt then interprets 1 Corinthians 8:1 in light of Paul's subsequent lines: it does not matter if we eat food sacrificed to idols except when the matter becomes one in which a brother of the faith may be scandalized. "Knowledge puffs up" only where Christians deliberately offend one another over a minor matter. More's poem suggests virtus with scientia; Erasmus's dialogue illustrates the converse, describing ignorance as the mother of vice. Charity demands concessions in minor matters but candor in defining true pietas. With a common understanding, more and Erasmus address a typical humanist theme of learning in regard to Christian wisdom, providing different yet complementary points of emphasis.

In noting that Lucian differs from More's reading of him, though, Fox is correct. More could find a pagan writer imparting Christian teaching only because he ignores contexts such as Lucian's polytheism. More reads Lucian not despite Christian faith but in light of it. In this way, there is no contradiction between Christianity and reading Lucian. As more asks Ruthall: "For what difference does it make to me what a pagan thinks about those articles contained in the principal mysteries of the Christian faith?" Erasmus makes a similar point in his Antibarbari: "None of the liberal disciplines is Christian because they neither treat of Christ nor were invented by Christians, but they all concern Christ." On this point, Erasmus and More follow what Augustine recommends in his On Christian Doctrine: "any statements by those who are called philosophers ... which happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them." More's statement shows exclusion, for Lucian will not be read for theology, and Erasmus's and Augustine's statements indicate inclusion, for any truth of natural or moral philosophy will not contradict Christianity. Yet the principle remains the same: that of reading pagan texts selectively in order to teach lessons appropriate for leading a Christian life. Such a hermeneutic More shares with Erasmus and represents a similar understanding of Augustine or, perhaps, of St. Basil's Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, which instructs Christians to use "spiritual perceptions upon profane writings" so that they may grasp the truth through the "shadows and mirrors" of pagan texts. The principle of reading selectively to emphasize Christian pietas, however, is best illustrated by the additions and changes more made in his version of the Life.


The Life begins with More's largest addition to the original text, a section on honor. Rather than a function of heritage, honor properly belongs to virtue, "as a shadow folowith a bodi" (CW 1, 53/16–17). That general teaching on the right relationship of honor to virtue, the Yale editors gloss as common or "proverbial," an interpretation Quentin skinner explains further, adding that the "appropriate goal for a man of virtus, and the fundamental reason for devoting oneself to a life of the highest excellence, is the hope of acquiring the greatest possible amount of honour, glory and worldly fame." Though more inherits the formula—honor as a reward for virtue—from italian humanists, his use of it, like Petrarch's own later statements, follows a more augustinian course of thought than more's editors imagine. Whether more writes the Life in 1504 or closer to its date of publication in 1510, his early acquaintance with augustine's City of God is certain: more lectures on that text as early as 1501, and its influence, though not specifically named, might be found in the Life.

Indeed, more defines noble or excellent or marvelous "cunnyng" as intelligence in pursuit of pious purpose and in contradistinction to pride. He writes that "sume man hath sought connying as well as philosophi as diuinitie for praise and vayneglory and not for any profet or encreace of christis church" (62/14–16, my emphasis). Thus, profit for the Church juxtaposes learning as a function of "vayneglory," a term more uses to translate humanae gloriae from the original and one that turns the passage into an object lesson against seeking human praise for scholarship (318/29–30). So, too, More's verses clarify "vayneglory" as pride. In the twelve rules of Pico, the devil tempts one to pride by "secretly" proposing laudable deeds:

    Some tyme he secretly castith in thi mynde
    Some lawdable dede to stere the to pride
    As vainglorie makith many a man blynde
    But let humilite be thi sure guide (106/22–25)

in the same sequence, Paul's visions procure him a thorn as protection against "vainglorie," which more defines as "the mother of reprefe" in a rhyme with "the very crop and rote of all mischefe" (109/4–5). "Vainglorie" as the root of mischief here translates radix omnium malorum superbia est (376/2), glossing superbia as pride.

Given more's interpolation and verses, Pico's learning may be a "lawdable dede," but without profit for the Church, his scholarship could be a temptation of the devil to inspire feelings of pride, even as Paul's mystical visions require a thorn. Laudable deeds, like the substitution of "vayneglorie" for humanae gloriae, invite the Augustinian condemnation against seeking praises, even for praiseworthy action or study. Such a quest for honor remains a "vice" because subordinating virtue to glory undermines the rule of justice, which entails that all glory belongs to God.

Augustine's teaching about honor becomes a clearer context for the Life by comparing its account of Pico's fame with More's 1518 letter to Gonell. Rather than recapitulate commonplaces inherited from Italian humanism, more stresses Christian virtue for his children instead of honor, contradicting, in fact, such teachings as those found in Alberti's famous dialogues, I Libri Della Famiglia (ca. 1434). In Alberti's text, love of honor is to be encouraged so that young people will practice virtue and, eventually, achieve renown. Alberti writes: "one must surpass entirely that obscure and forgotten crowd behind. One must struggle with all the force and cunning at his disposal for a certain fame and measure of glory." Even choosing an occupation should be made in terms of not just the "reward and profit" that may be gained, but also and especially in how much "honor and fame" may be achieved. Here honor becomes the goal and virtue the means, but more intends the reverse. In the letter to Gonell, More urges virtue in the first place and learning in the second, which is to say, only learning that may be conducive to virtue should be pursued. More's letter also echoes the same metaphor about shadows and a body from the Life, but more specifies distinctly Christian rewards of wisdom. He characterizes learning in terms of use (usum) rather than praise (non laudem), but utility especially with reference to Christian virtues such as piety, charity toward all, modesty, and humility. The "reward of wisdom" depends upon "the inner knowledge of what is right [recti conscientia]." After stressing the Christian uses of learning, more adds: "such has been the teaching of the most learned men, especially of philosophers, who are the guides of human life, although some may have abused learning, like other good things, simply to court empty glory and popular renown." The echo of metaphors and identity of teaching between the letter and the Life illustrate an early consistency of thought.


Excerpted from The One THOMAS MORE by TRAVIS CURTRIGHT Copyright © 2012 by The Catholic university of America Press. Excerpted by permission of THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Abbreviations xi

Introduction: Non Sum Oedipus, sed Morus 1

1 Profitable Learning and Pietas: The Life of Pico delta Mirandola, ca. 1504-10 15

2 Humanist Realism and The History of Richard III, ca. 1514-18 42

3 Si Moro Credimus: The "Dialogue of Counsel" in Utopia, ca. 1516 72

4 Humanism, Heresy, and the One Thomas More, ca. 1523-33 105

5 Inquisition, Equity, and the "Battle of the Books," ca. 1532-33 140

Conclusion: Iconic Thomas Mores on Trial 174

Bibliography 201

Index 217

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