“MORE pure than any snow” -Erasmus

(Hans Holbein)     A painting of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger

You can’t always blindly trust what you read in a textbook, as I found on the only occasion I was excited about what a textbook had to say. In  A History of Western Society (McKay) (this link might be a slightly different edition than the one I was reading), a very familiar name jumped out at me- Charterhouse.

Charterhouse (shown as the featured image) is the school my dad attended as a teenager, and the school to which I was emphatically denied application by my father. According to McKay, Thomas More was “a student in the London Charterhouse, a Carthusian monastery,” (McKay 416). Interested in how a Charterhouse education influenced such a prominent Renaissance figure, I decided to do some more research.

Wikipedia claims that More was actually educated at St. Anthony’s, (Iconoclasm) and only stayed at the London Charterhouse (which is different than the school my dad went to) for “spiritual recuperation” (London Charterhouse), which (in a nerdy way) was fairly disappointing. While on Wikipedia, I became intrigued with More’s Utopia– the description of the optimal society, especially so with More’s description of Utopian religion. Being a strongly religious man himself, I was interested to hear what More thought was the ideal religious society.

What was most interesting to me was that Thomas More seemed to practice what he preached. In Utopia, it was believed that if a person had a strong desire not to die, it meant that his or her soul was reluctant to face judgement in afterlife (Wikisource). Facing his execution, More was exceptionally calm. According to Peter Berglar in his book, Thomas More: a lonely voice against the power of the state, More told the man who condemned him to death, “So, I hope- and pray with all my heart for it- that although you have condemned me here on earth, we shall meet for our eternal salvation in heaven,” (Berglar 204). Anecdotally, More is also claimed to have told his executioner, “Have courage, lad, do not be afraid to carry out your duty. I have a short neck; so be careful to strike a sure blow so that you are not taken for a mere beginner at your job” (Berglar 208). If More really did believe that fear of death meant an impure heart, then More’s friend, Desiderius Erasmus must be correct in saying More’s soul was, “’more pure than any snow’,” (Iconoclasm).

Utopia is home to a mix of religions- not just each on their own turf (Zoroastrians over here, Jewish people over there, sort of thing), but multiple religions coexist in the cities. To support this vitalizing “religious smoothie” if you will, one of the ancient laws of Utopia is that, “no man ought to be punished for his religion,” (Wikisource). Also, the only tactic allowed to try to convert people to a new religion is persuasion. Any other technique- violence, threat, hostility- is not allowed and is punishable by slavery or exile. The founder of Utopia, Utopus reportedly believed it was, “indecent and foolish for any man to threaten and terrify another to make him believe what did not appear to him to be true,” (Wikisource). Published in 1516, More could not have known the Act of Succession was coming, much less that his choice not to sign it would cost him his life. 18 years before King Henry the VIII’s split from the Catholic Church, More is already preaching the right to choose one’s own religion and that violence should not be the response to differing beliefs. That should give us a fairly good clue about his opinions on Henry’s Reformation.

Works Cited:

“London Charterhouse.” Wikipedia. N.p., 17 Jan. 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Charterhouse>

“Utopia/Chapter 9.” Wikisource, The Free Library. 5 Sep 2011, 11:51 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8 Feb 2012 <//en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Utopia/Chapter_9&oldid=3364110>.

Berglar, Peter. Thomas More: a lonely voice against the power of the state. New York, NY: Scepter Publishers, Inc., 1999. Print.

Iconoclasm, zantine. “Thomas More – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_more&gt;.

McKay, John P.. A history of Western society. 9th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Print.

Hans Holbein. Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). N.d. Frick Collection, New York.Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.

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4 comments

  1. natalie518

    Hey Molly, great job on your post. I think it’s very interesting that you chose this topic because of a personal connection, and I appreciate your humor. While reading your post, I was struck by a potential discrepancy in More’s logic. He says “no man ought to be punished for his religion,” and that it was “indecent and foolish for any man to threaten and terrify another to make him believe what did not appear to him to be true.” But he also said to fear death meant judgement in the afterlife and made a person’s soul impure. What if someone subscribed to a belief system in which there was no afterlife? Do you think More can truly be justified in condemning people for fearing death if they do not believe in the Christian system of judgement, heaven, and hell? I am mostly just curious about your opinion on the matter.
    Also, was Thomas More a humanist? I would suppose so, but how do you think his ideas might have compared to those of other humanists?
    Thanks for your interesting post!
    Natalie

  2. mollyageofreason

    Hey Natalie! That’s actually a really important question, and I’m super glad you asked it! In Utopia, while all religions were accepted, atheism was not okay. More expressed that a man who didn’t believe in a higher power or afterlife wouldn’t have any problem breaking a society’s laws. Here’s a direction quotation from Utopia: “that a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites,” (Wikisource). Utopus is also said to have made laws against atheism because it, “should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature,” (Wikisource). I think it’s a slightly harsh judgment against people that don’t believe in an afterlife, because I’m sure there are plenty of people and faiths that don’t think there’s life after death- especially not the Christian idea of it, but also don’t go around breaking the law. However, More presents a fairly interesting idea and it makes me wonder what problems prompted that twist on acceptance.
    As for the second part of your question, Thomas More was a humanist. But I think compared to other humanists, he kind of forged his own path- while some humanists were reading up on the classics, More was writing Utopia, which at the time (and still is) was very unique. Also, Thomas More is a Catholic Saint, which sets him apart as well. This question brought some stuff up that I need to look into, so sorry it’s not quite a full answers!
    Thank you for your thought-provoking comment!
    Molly

  3. katiereindeer

    Hey Molly, thank you for your great post! It was very persuasive in what you were trying to portray, and the connection to your family was wonderful to read. From reading your post I found the topic of religion in Utopia to be interesting, and you discussion with Natalie was also very revealing. From that, I am wondering, do you think that More was truly accepting of ALL religions, or do you think he was accepting of all Christian faiths? If More was really only referring to different sects of Christianity, then his views on the afterlife would make more sense. Did he mention any specifics as to the religion(s) practiced in Utopia?
    Katie

  4. mollyageofreason

    Hi Katie! Thanks for you comment and sorry for the incredibly delayed response! I think that More was definitely using a pro-Christianity viewpoint when writing Utopia. When reading Utopia, I definitely thought that their understanding of God was basically like Christianity, only it allowed idol worship because all the idols were outlets of the same god. If you’d like to read more about it, here’s the chapter in Utopia about religion http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Utopia/Chapter_9.
    Thanks for your comment!
    Molly

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