It is the first task of the historian—the recorder and interpreter of ideas and events—to see and understand those who made history as they saw and understood themselves. Our historical interpretations must proceed with an awareness of the importance of beginning with an accurate portrait. Hence, to understand Thomas More the scholar, the lawyer, the layman, and the saint, we must first understand More as he understood himself; that is, as a Catholic.
Thomas More would probably have been canonized by the Church simply for his life, even had he not suffered one of the most infamous executions in Western history. This is not, of course, to say that More led a perfect life. But notable with More is his serious and conscientious attempt to guide his life and political career by the principles of Catholicism. He recognized, insofar as he was able, when he had failed to live up to those principles, and strove to improve with each effort. This is indeed a man whose life should be understood in light of his final immortal words beneath the executioner’s blade: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Attempts to do otherwise are doomed at best to incompleteness, at worst to positive error.
Alistair Fox’s Thomas More: History and Providence is part of a broader Yale University Press interest in More, most notable in The Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More—a publishing event of great promise. Fox’s commentary on literary matters is well researched and documented, bringing together diverse points which More addressed in numerous writings (though unfortunately, many of More’s most important letters are omitted from consideration). Fox’s synthesis of several points—for example, his theory of relationships among Utopia, The History of King Richard III, and Four Last Things—is thought-provoking. Again, Fox’s study of the moving De Tristitia Christi appreciates More’s understanding of Christ’s suffering, and shows how More himself drew strength from that holy sacrifice. Yet, Fox’s insights here make us regret all the more that Fox frequently fails to use the key of More’s Catholic faith for a better understanding of More. Instead, he reverts too often to what seems to be little more than attempts at centuries-removed psychoanalysis.
Citing More’s first biographer, son-in-law William Roper, Fox points to More’s “distress” while his beloved daughter Meg lay near death as evidence that his “humanity was too powerful to be effectively sedated by the pious commonplaces he tried to administer to it.” But how shall a father’s distress over a stricken daughter be evidence that one is more human than Catholic? Consider as well this excerpt from a later letter to Meg, which More penned while imprisoned in the Tower:
I will not mistrust the Lord though I feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how St. Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: Call upon Christ and pray to Him for help. And then I trust He shall place His holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.
Shall a faith of “pious commonplaces” yield such fruit?
Fox’s account of More’s literary work during the period in which he finally decided against a religious vocation leaves us particularly disappointed. Fox simply assumes that More faced a dilemma which, in fact, he did not, namely, “whether to be holy or wise.” Remembering our charge to see More, as far as we are able, as More saw himself, we must say that he was too perceptive a Catholic and too rigorous a scholar to presume a conflict between sanctity and wisdom, Initium sapientiae timor Domini (The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). More’s option for a lay vocation was not a humanist election but a Catholic one: More saw that it was God’s will that He be served by More as a layman. That this might leave him more time for scholarly pursuits (though in fact, it probably had just the reverse effect) was of secondary interest to him.
Fox devotes a disproportionate amount of space to More’s theological writings. While these are important works, and while Fox does have some interesting observations to make about them, we must recall that More was not, by his own frequent admissions, a theologian, nor did he have sufficient time to devote to the projects. Fox’s assertions notwithstanding, it seems likely that More undertook the task unwillingly-and at times inadequately. To aid his commentary, Fox reprints several passages of More’s theological texts, usually in the original Latin and late-middle English. He cites John Foxe among several authorities to maintain that More was “uncharitable” in these writings. This may have been so-though again More’s 16th century words lend themselves to misunderstanding on the part of 20th century readers-and hence Fox must qualify his reliance on John Foxe as an authority on uncharitable writings. Fox does recognize, however, as More must have realized, that the Lutheran heresies were unlike any others faced till then by the Church. Whereas Pelagius, for example, thought men might be able to do some good works without the help of grace, Luther asserted they could do no good even with grace. If any assertion were to attract the ire of the Catholic and humanist, surely this was it, proposing, as it does, the ineffectiveness of grace and the powerlessness of men. Fox also notes something usually overlooked by modern scholarship, namely, More’s fears over the politically disastrous effects of a splintering of European Christian unity, fears borne out by ensuing events.
Clearly, then, Alistair Fox has made a significant, perhaps important, contribution to More scholarship. But his reluctance to incorporate More’s Catholicism more fully in his study prevents us from recommending Thomas More: History and Providence as an introduction to his literary works. We would recommend it instead to those already fairly familiar with the works and life of St. Thomas More.