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A review of The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd

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Jan. 24th, 2007 | 06:00 pm

One hears a lot these days about a “Clash of Civilisations”, allegedly diametrically opposed religions and ideologies facing an irreconcilable conflict over the way their adherents and other citizens should lead their lives and by what values they will be judged by, whether in this life or the next.

This creeping de-secularisation of our and other societies has come as a shock to those who grew up in an irreligious era, where God (or Gods) sat on the sideline as the world discretely scrapped in the Third World over whether monetarism or Marx was the great leap forward.

Reading The Life of Thomas More, Peter Ackroyd’s 1998 biography of the first English layman to be beatified as a martyr, one is struck how deeply pious and religious British society used to be, with Christianity permeating every facet of daily life much in the manner that people view Islam today. Thomas More represents the tensions within such a society, the allure of humanism and rediscovered classical text set against the rigidity and solace of deeply rooted Catholicism.

True faith? Thomas More by Holbein

More’s age saw the conception of the ideas that would eventually give birth to the renaissance and modernity, the primacy of the individual edging forward over that of the Pope. More’s mind was not closed to the developments and changes his society were going through, and in his early life was seen to champion to the reintroduction of classical learning into rhetorical teaching, albeit in a Christian context. It is the writings of Martin Luther that set More off on a more trenchant, reactionary path. As far as More was concerned, Luther was literally the antichrist, a portent for the collapse of the then world order.

More did have a point, for our world would be unrecognisable if it were not for the protestant reformation. Not that Luther is a historical figure that should be held with any particular veneration; a vitriolic anti-Semite, driven by an emotional psychosis brought about by his own disillusionment with the Catholic Church. His nailing of his theses on the church door in Wittenberg was motivated just as much by his own inner conflict and despair rather than the cold, analytical rationality that his writings would, in due course, inspire. If it weren’t for Luther, you would not necessarily have philosophers such as Hegel and Heidegger. It really is that simple.

Martin Luther

So was More right to be so resistant to the advent of Protestantism? Well, as has been mentioned and which Ackroyd goes on to describe, Luther did not help his own case. Even More’s fellow humanists who at first were intellectually curious about what Luther had to say about individual enlightenment, turned against the former German monk. However, one of these humanists, Desiderius Erasmus, who was a great friend and champion of More, also became alarmed with the Lord Chancellor’s increasingly draconian and militant stance. One thing that does come out of Ackroyd’s account is how much of a bellwether Erasmus was for the shape of the early Reformation, especially in England. His insights into the pomposity and hubristic arrogance of Henry VIII’s court are something that More seems somewhat oblivious to, whether through piety, natural reserve or political cunning.
The collective name for those around More was, in the fifteenth century, ‘a threat of courtiers’. One contemporary described the court as ‘quesy’ and ‘unstable’. ‘It is hard trusting this wylle worlde,’ he continued, in which ‘every man is here ffor himsylff’. Erasmus had attacked court follies in Moraie encominium where are to be found ‘nothing more indebted, more servile, more witless, more contemptible’ than the courtiers themselves. It was a world of faction and patronage, ‘affinity’ and worship, where competing groups intrigued in order to gain access to the king and where offices could be bought and sold.
The Reformation may have changed our society, but on this evidence it did not change human nature, as I am sure the Metropolitan Police could currently testify as they investigate to what lengths people today will go to ’gain access to the king’.

If More and Luther are to the two opposing ideological forces in this story (thereby creating the first true dialectic of the modern era?), the other central relationship is that of More and Henry VIII. Historians are still divided as to whether Henry’s eventual break with Rome was a cynical move to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn or an action of a man who genuinely believed his first marriage to be unlawful and cursed (Ackroyd is in the former camp), but the transformation of Henry VIII from the great new hope for peace and learning into a bloated, warmongering bully is one that pains More greatly. If one to use a crude modern analogy, More was Tony Blair to Henry VIII’s George W. Bush, someone who saw himself as a restraining influence on his monarch’s impulsion and excesses.

Henry VIII by Holbein

And Henry VIII did listen… for a while. More’s eventual martyrdom was incomprehensible and painful to Henry as the monarch’s bellicose and provocative stance were to Humanists such as Erasmus and More. When More became a (debatably) passive figurehead for those who were resisting Henry VIII’s clerical reforms, he had to be got rid of, and Ackroyd is particularly strong in his book on More’s final act.

The nature of genuine martyrdom is now somewhat misunderstood in an age when desperate, alienated young men all too willingly blow themselves and others up in our multicultural metropolises cities. A genuine martyr has too really sacrifice all he holds truly dear, too the point of painful disavowal of a higher cause. The act of martyrdom is not one undertaken by eager volunteers – it is an act of almost unwilling self-harm and an act which has to be that last available course to the martyr-to-be. And in his last years, we see the tremendous self-discipline and conviction of More, always hoping his Monarch and his court would come to his senses, and avoid the folly of separation. But More could not break his own believes and did not damn those of less resolve – it was an intensely personal matter, one solely between God and himself, a matter of adhering to the teachings he espoused for the whole of his life. Of course, there is a slight irony that Luther was the advocate of the personal contract with God, and that this was all that More was left with as he was beheaded, his own Church withering on the vine in the land in which he was born. However, this More death was the seedling, the last barrier to be overcome on our society’s onward march towards the primacy of the individual and his/ her beliefs.

Ackroyd evocatively depicts the period, putting the modern reader successfully into what is now an alien mindset. His attention to detail is impeccable, and he always has an eye for the telling fact or detail that rounds out events, individuals or beliefs. He also manages to debunk existing preconceptions of More as a proto-liberal (a la Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons) in a gentle sardonic style that is amusing without going for the Rottweiler hostility of a David Starkey. The Life of Thomas More, as so much of Ackroyd’s work, is simply superb and highly insightful for those who cannot fathom those who go to their deaths for their beliefs.

The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd was published in hardback by Chatto & Windus in 1998.

Past Peter Crispin book reviews:
Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir by Gore Vidal

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