Sir Thomas More

Today there seems to be no limit to technological achievement, yet at the same time Nature (or God) appears to be more intent than ever in reminding us that She (or He) is still the boss. Paradoxically man's own level of intelligence doesn't always seem to measure up to his technological prowess. Indeed in some cases it even appears to regress.
Under such circumstances, which have to include present religious differences, it might be interesting to refer to a certain passage of English history.

The young King Henry VIII, crowned on Midsummer's day in 1509 was a dynamic, talented and impetuous lover of life. But he was destined to become a tyrant, eliminating anyone thought to be impeding him in realising what in fact proved to be delusory. Yet by divorcing from the Roman Catholic Church and establishing himself as Supreme head of the Church of England, he inadvertently contributed to accelerating the development of independent parliament and constitutional democracy in the green and pleasant land that he loved.
What was delusory was his obsession to sire a worthy son and heir to the throne, when in fact his daughter, Elizabeth I, set a precedent. Some would argue that she was one of the finest monarchs in English history. It was certainly one of the richest cultural eras. It could hardly be otherwise, with Shakespeare.

Henry VIII had great respect for Thomas More who later was to become his Lord Chancellor. More, however, chose to resign when the king married Anne Boleyn, his own faith preventing him from taking the oath for the act of Succession and Supremacy of 1534. In spite of his resignation, Henry wasn't satisfied. More's refusal was still considered as treason. The king spared him from torture, but he was tried, convicted and beheaded in 1535. Four hundred years later, in 1886, he was beatified by the Catholic Church as St. Thomas More. He was also canonised in 1935 and added to the Church of England calendar of Saints in 1980.

Lawyer, scholar, author, and known as a Renaissance humanist, More had great wit and sense of irony. In addition to his important, official functions, his writing earned him an international reputation. Utopia, a political satire of the epoch, was originally written and published in Latin in 1516.

Reading parts of it, one finds it difficult to relate such thinking to the early 16th century, when such barbaric methods of punishment and persuasion were regularly, lawfully used. In fact More also wrote against them in his 'Utopia'.

Like other extracts from it, the following from 'Book 2 (Religions)' is particularly revealing and appropriate in relation to the religious turmoil in the world of today.

'Even before he took over the island, King Utopus had heard that the natives were continually squabbling over religious matters. Actually, he found it easy to conquer the country because the different sects were too busy fighting one another to oppose him. As soon as he had gained the victory, therefore, he decreed that every man might cultivate the religion of his choice, and proselytize for it too, provided he did so quietly, modestly, rationally, and without bitterness toward others. If persuasions failed, no man might resort to abuse or violence, under penalty of exile or slavery.
Utopus laid down these rules, not simply for the sake of peace, which he saw was being destroyed by constant quarrels and implacable hatreds, but also for the sake of religion itself. In such matters he was not at all quick to dogmatize, because he suspected that God perhaps likes various forms of worship and has therefore deliberately inspired different men with different views. On the other hand, he was quite sure that it was arrogant folly for anyone to enforce conformity with his own beliefs, by threats or violence. He supposed that if one religion is really true and the rest are false, the true one will sooner or later prevail by its own natural strength, if men will only consider the matter reasonably and moderately. But if they try to decide things by fighting and rioting, since the worst men are always most headstrong, the best and holiest religion in the world will be crowded out by foolish superstitions, like grain choked out of a field by thorns and briars. So he left the whole matter open, allowing each person to choose what he would believe. The only exception was a positive and strict law against anyone who should sink so far below the dignity of human nature as to think that the soul perishes with the body, or that the universe is ruled by blind chance, not divine providence'.
Text © Mirino (PW). Source- The Norton Anthology English Literature. Thomas More (with thanks). 
        Portraits (circa 1527) by Hans Holbein (with thanks to Wikimedia Commons) May, 2010

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