As he mounted the scaffold and faced the man who had decided his fate, Thomas More declared that he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” These words, taken from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, sound a challenge to King Henry VIII. To many, they read as the last statement from a champion of conscience against an increasingly autocratic state, or the apologia of a defender of the Faith prizing a crown of thorns over a crown of gold.
Yet Bolt’s challenge is a misquotation of what More reportedly said. In the original account of More’s death recorded in the Paris Newsletter of 1535, the English martyr announced that he died “the king’s good servant, and God’s first” (emphasis mine). While Bolt’s depiction emphasizes the opposition between Church and State, an opposition of which we moderns are becoming more and more aware, the original report suggests a more nuanced conception of how More viewed what Pope Benedict XVI called “the perennial question of what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God.”
More’s approach to the question of God and Caesar was expressed not only by his deeds but also in his words, and it is through his words that More may prove the man for our season. Throughout his many writings More’s engagement with the question of God and Caesar is marked in particular by the importance he assigns to the virtues of piety and prudence. The current essay shall focus on piety and how it informed More’s political thought, while its sequel will turn to prudence. Only by inquiring into these two pillars of More’s political thought can one begin to see how More was “the king’s good servant, and God’s first,” and perhaps how men of all seasons might be so too.
In modern parlance, piety denotes a certain respect towards God and the sacred, and is often associated with frequent prayer, daily Mass, and the heartfelt devotions of children and the elderly. To the classically educated mind, however, piety was associated less with a religious disposition and more with a filial one. As an earlier Thomas wrote in his Summa Theologiae, piety was the “protestation of charity we bear towards our parents and country.” For More piety was much the same, encompassing Christ’s commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbor. Writing in The One Thomas More, Travis Curtright explains that More conceived piety as “an unfolding of a Christian’s love for God,” and that the virtue served as the guide for man in “undertaking the duties of any state in life.”
Such duties included not only the religious and familial but the academic and political as well. In essence, More saw piety as directing one towards charitable service—a service from which neither statesman nor scholar was exempt. The good prince, suggests More in his early poems, is “father to the whole kingdom,” and treats his subjects like sons. Just as paternal love motivates a father to seek the good of his sons, so too does piety direct the prince (and by extension, any politician) to seek the common good of those he serves. This princely piety More juxtaposes with the tyrant’s pride, which sees subjects as slaves; while the former feels he was made for the people, “the other feels that the people were created for him…”
Just as pride distracts the prince from his duties to his people, engrossing him in tyranny, so too does pride dazzle the philosopher with the illusion of a duty-free liberty. More critiques this kind of impiety in two major works: The Life of Pico della Mirandola, an abridged biography of the Italian humanist Giovani Pico; and perhaps his most famous work, Utopia.
Through the Life of Pico, More illustrates the consequences of a scholarly life directed towards self-serving pride instead of pious service. Enamored with the wisdom of the ancients, Pico devoted his life to philosophy. Consequently, Pico fled from both marriage and “worldly business,” seeking to birth books instead of children and prizing the liberty of the philosopher above all else. So treasured was this liberty that Pico declared philosophers to be “kings of kings; they love liberty; they cannot bear the proud manners of estates; they cannot serve” (emphasis mine).
This refusal to serve led Pico to dismiss even the dogmas of the Church, his speculation aiming to synthesize the “secret mysteries of the Hebrews, Chaldees and Arabians” with Neoplatonism, Christianity, and the classical philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero—in short, heresy. Even after being imprisoned and recanting his heretical beliefs, Pico’s impiety still prevented him from pursuing his true vocation. More notes that Pico was called to the monastic life “by the especial commandment of God” yet “shrank from the labour,” delaying it in order to finish writing “certain books.” Such delay placed Pico in Purgatory following his death, the consequences of his impiety needing to be purged before entering paradise.
While the Life of Pico depicts the philosopher’s failure to heed piety’s call to serve God and His Church, Utopia questions whether the philosopher’s refusal to serve the common good will bear just fruits. Styled after Plato’s Republic, Utopia consists of a dialogue between More’s fictional persona and Raphael Hythloday, a travelling philosopher, regarding an ideal island commonwealth called Utopia (in the Greek, a “good place” that is “no place”).
The question of service opens the dialogue, revealing Hythloday to possess a predilection for freedom similar to Pico’s. When asked why he does not serve some king, for his knowledge might be “helpful at the counsel board” and as councilor he could be of service to his friends and relatives, Hythloday responds:
About my relatives and friends…I’m not much concerned, because I consider I’ve already done my duty by them. While still young and healthy, I distributed among my relatives and friends the possessions that most men do not part with till they’re old and sick (and then only reluctantly, when they can no longer keep them). I think they should be content with this gift of mine, and not expect, far less insist, that for their sake I should enslave myself to any king whatever.
When corrected that service did not mean servitude, Hythloday answers that the “difference is only a matter of one syllable.”
Like Pico, Hythloday adheres to the idea that philosophers are “kings of kings,” that they “cannot serve.” Moreover, Hythloday incarnates the philosopher’s supposed freedom, abandoning his family and homeland in search of a New World with new modes and orders. He is characteristically impious, looking contemptuously on public service, and viewing his familial duties as nothing more than financial obligations.
In his treatment on the virtue of piety in the Summa, Aquinas follows Cicero in stating that piety “is a part of justice.” Acknowledging Hythloday’s impiety has consequences for the rest of the dialogue, especially his approach to justice. Throughout Book I Hythloday raises complaint after complaint about how his advice would be accepted by neither king nor council, while going into detail the many unjust practices of the kingdoms of Christendom. In contrast to Christendom, Hythloday provides a description of Utopia in Book II, praising especially its “wonderfully wise and sacred institutions.” Hythloday’s argument thus suggests that while the kingdoms of Christendom will possibly be forever unjust, one need only leave them and sail to Utopia to witness true justice.
Yet questions arise in light of Hythloday’s impiety. If More held piety in such a high regard, can one assume that he accepts the society promoted by the impious Hythloday? Further, if piety directs one to serve, can one really expect to do justice to God and neighbor by complaining about the deficiencies of one’s current society while desiring to flee to Utopia?
More’s answer to these utopian dreams can be found in the middle of Book I, when he encourages Hythloday to “not abandon the ship in a storm because [he] cannot control the winds.” In facing injustice one might be tempted to despair. Yet piety commands service, and in the political realm this means service to the public good. One must strive to better one’s country as best one can; and what one cannot turn to good, More counsels, one “must at least make as little bad as [possible].”
How one might proceed in bettering country (or family, or the Church) is a whole separate question, however. While piety directs a person, both citizen and statesman alike, to an active and willing service, it cannot guide him in discerning the best way to serve in a given situation. Hence the need for that other pillar of More’s thought, prudence—for without prudence even the pious can be led astray.