Thomas More's devotion to a higher law



By Peter Ackroyd


447 pp., $30

One of the most poignant qualities to be found in the work of certain contemporary English writers is what Tennyson called a "passion for the past." If I were asked to name the one modern writer most deeply affected by this passion, it would be Peter Ackroyd. In novels like "Hawksmoor," "Chatterton," and "The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde," and in biographies of figures like Charles Dickens and William Blake, Ackroyd summons up the savor and texture of ages past: the cadences of speech, the tenor of thought, and the rhythms of daily life.

Now, Ackroyd has turned his considerable talents to the subject of the Roman Catholic statesman, writer, and martyr beheaded for his defiance of King Henry VIII. The story of Thomas More (1478-1535) is well known to many of us, thanks to Robert Bolt's dramatization of it in "A Man for All Seasons."

He was born in London, not far from the birthplace of Thomas Becket, the 12th century English saint who had also defied and been killed at the instigation of his king. Both men were caught up in the continuing struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the emerging nation-state. Both paid for their principles with their lives.

Even if he had not become a martyr for his beliefs, More would still be remembered as the author of "Utopia" (1516), his widely read, highly influential speculative account of what might constitute a just society. More's Utopia featured education for both men and women, religious toleration, and a communist system abolishing private property.

Part of a circle of distinguished English humanists, More was also a close friend of the Dutch humanist Erasmus, whose famous essay, "In Praise of Folly," contains in its Latin title, "Moriae encomium," a punning tribute to More. A brilliant, learned, yet astutely pragmatic man, More was well known for his wit and had penned bawdy verses in his youth. Born into a wealthy and well-connected middle-class family, he trained as a lawyer.

In the course of his impressive career, he served as under-sheriff of London, a member of Parliament, a commissioner of sewers, a diplomat, a member of the Star Chamber, and finally, Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, who would order his execution when More refused to support his break with Rome.

Despite his professed belief in religious tolerance, More himself had been responsible for the banning of heretical books and the imprisonment and execution of those accused of heretical beliefs.

Ackroyd's thoroughly researched, beautifully written, vividly detailed biography is a convincing account of this gifted and complex man. By background, training, and temperament, Ackroyd argues, More was a true conservative, with a reverence for tradition and the rule of law and a deep abhorrence for what he saw as the forces of disorder. Indeed, as Ackroyd points out, More was "the first English writer to employ the Greek term anarchos, and he related the whole great change of European consciousness in the sixteenth century to the 'hatred that they beare to all good order.' "

Unlike some More scholars, Ackroyd sees no inconsistency between More's devout religious beliefs and his worldly success and practical shrewdness. As a lawyer, public administrator, and statesman helping bring piety, order, and justice to civic life, More could believe he was also fulfilling his duties as a Christian. This was an age that believed in the divine right of kings: In serving Henry VIII, he would be serving God. Or so he could allow himself to think, until Henry demanded he swear an oath acknowledging the king to be the supreme authority on all matters temporal and spiritual, thus severing the English church's ties with Rome.

In Ackroyd's view, More chose martyrdom because he saw the king's actions as sounding the death knell for the world as More understood it: the divinely ordained, hierarchical world of Catholic tradition, ritual, and belief, a world of duty, custom, and orderly transitions. In its place, he saw and feared the coming of the "anarchic" world of Luther's Protestant individualism.

Ackroyd seems to share his subject's preference - or, at very least, he writes poignantly and evocatively of life in that earlier, Catholic England. Whether or not one shares Ackroyd's nostalgia for medieval times or agrees with his analysis of More's motives and personality, this is an exceptionally fascinating, colorful, and moving biography that all but transports one back to a bygone age.

* Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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