A shortsighted analysis of paradoxical Thomas More; Thomas More, by Richard Marius. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 562 pp. $22.95.

-30 For a man who forsook the contemplative life for active service under Henry VII and Henry VIII, playing important roles in diplomatic missions, in Parliament, and in the court, St. Thomas More is still often best known as the author of ''Utopia'' and ''A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation.''

Mention of the ''Dialogue'' reminds one that, at least at one point in his life, More enjoyed much leisure time. Until, in an effort to break his refusal to assent to the remarriages of Henry VIII, those who had him imprisoned in the Tower of London took away his books and papers, Thomas More discovered in the narrow space of his tower room an environment conducive to hard thinking and good writing. It is there that he came to terms with the significance of his situation and the situation of Christendom on the eve of the Reformation.

During his years at court, More had witnessed with great concern a gradual breakdown of the medieval order of things, which was based on the sovereignty of the church. In his eyes, the nation-state existed, in part, to protect the church. Christendom included every nation-state that did so.

And in the tower More underwent rigorous and repeated interrogation as to his position regarding the legitimacy of Henry's claim to be supreme head of the Church of England. With a career of law behind him and a fully tempered self-discipline, More refused to give Henry reason to believe More intended him harm. More simply stuck to the fact that the Pope's power was recognized throughout the Christian world, whereas the laws of any separate nation were not.

More believed that unconditional monarchy could only lead to tyranny. Christian liberty was at risk.

It is in the tower, as well, that More's conception of his own place in history became clear to him.

Drawing not only on his familiarity with More's writings but also on the work of independent scholars such as Stephen Greenblatt of the University of California at Berkeley, Marius explains in this long, patient, occasionally inspired biography the way More treated various situations as scenes, as occasions for presenting himself in a certain light. More's sometimes paradoxical behavior and the tensions between this world and the next that, according to Marius, typify More's point of view also point toward his self-consciousness as an actor in history.

Marius concludes that a full awareness of More's inner conflicts and the contradictions arising from them make him at times ''a disappointing hero.''

Fair enough.

Anyone who reads ''Thomas More'' will have a fully rounded image of More as he, no doubt, would have appeared to his contemporaries, were it possible for them to think like Richard Marius.

In short, Marius's portrait of More is one of a ''painfully rational mind'' in conflict with not only the ways of the world but the ways of God. According to Marius, inner peace eluded More. His mental struggles in the tower brought him to no stable conclusion. His inability to share his views on ecclesiastical liberty when it mattered - from the scaffold, for instance - suggest to Marius that after being confined to the tower More turned away from the fate of his country and enjoyed ''the intense psychic freedom from care given him by his captivity.''

That's 1980s talk, it seems to me. In his eloquent epilogue, Marius writes, ''No one can sit, as I have done at times, in the New England twilight looking at that strong, sad face and believe that Thomas More will ever be anything but a stranger to those who study him. . . .''

I suggest that the identity of Thomas More is to be found not in an image but in a direction, a spiritual orientation. Alistair Fox in ''Thomas More: History & Providence'' (Yale, 1983) demonstrates that More finally ''discovered that his own experience adumbrates the pattern of all human experience. . . .'' In his tower works, More sees ''the crucifixion as the central event in human history.'' More's final calm came from his perception that his ''own death would not fail in some way to work to God's greater glory according to the providential disposition of the divine will. . . .''

So when Marius speaks of More as an ''indispensable ideal,'' it is not necessarily his More we find indespensable. I myself cherish the More who resisted the confusion of secular and religious realms at a time when it was very unhealthy to do so. More's life has a final meaning that has more to do with the ''courage with which he staked everything on his end'' (Fox) than with the paradoxes that enthrall Marius. The meaning of history is beyond history: More knew this, his most recent biographer does not.

Marius has failed to take the measure of Thomas More, but he has entertained us mightily in not doing so. As it is, ''Thomas More'' is a kind of book for a long winter's night.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.