As the gulf between classical and postmodern notions of conscience and government grows ever wider and their clashes more explosive, it is high time for the jury to give renewed attention to the nuances of Thomas More’s understanding of the apparently competing, but ultimately harmonious, demands of divine, natural, and human law…

In August of 1534 Margaret Roper visited her father Thomas More in the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned for refusing to take an oath affirming the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. During his prior interrogation More had explained that he was willing to swear to Parliament’s Act of Succession, making the future children of Anne heirs to the throne of England. Though he declined to state his objections, however, insisting that his “purpose was not to put any fault…  in the Oath or any man that swore it,” More made it clear that “in good faith [his] conscience so moved [him] in the matter” that he could not take the oath as written “without the jeopardizing of [his] soul to perpetual damnation.”

After his conviction for “high treason” in 1535, More declared the causes of his noncompliance. Contained in the oath was a rejection of papal authority over the sacrament of marriage, paving the way for Henry’s claim to exercise spiritual headship over the Church in England. While the King in Parliament had every right to leave the crown to whomsoever he pleased, More denounced his other claims as “directly repugnant” not only to “the laws of God and His Holy Church,” but also to natural law, which forbids a non-representative part (England) to legislate for the whole (Christendom), and to Magna Carta and the King’s Coronation Oath, which guarantee the liberty of the Church against government manipulation. Neither More’s initial silence nor his final appeal to higher law succeeded in persuading the King or those under his sway to respect More’s conscience and the limits to state power it entailed. Today, however, when citizens of advanced liberal democracies enjoy constitutional protections such as freedom of speech and the right to remain silent, or their equivalents, it is comforting to suppose that More’s courageous witness has been vindicated and that what happened to him cannot happen to us.

Sadly, we know the truth to be less comforting. Though few Western regimes claim formal authority over the spiritual realm, the modern state has long fancied itself supreme within its territory, exercising final governance over matters of public concern. This includes marriage, which the state (like Henry’s Parliament) claims to regulate according to its own lights. As the convictions of the governing elite migrate steadily away from those of orthodox religion and natural law, citizens active in politics, business, charity, and other visible spheres are under increasing pressure to cooperate in or affirm the validity of no-fault divorce, contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism, their consciences notwithstanding. Like More, we are asked to dismiss the laws of God and reason as mere “scruples,” or face forms of social and political persecution that Tocqueville characterized as “worse than death” in their paralyzing effect on the human soul’s quest to discover and live in accordance with the “admirable order of things.”

While More is often celebrated as an early champion of conscience, he is not infrequently denounced as a cruel fanatic or belittled for confusing court intrigue with religious controversy. From the perspective of modern society the jury is still out on More’s understanding of conscience and the role it ought to play in defining the prerogatives and boundaries of civil and religious authority. As the gulf between classical and postmodern notions of conscience and government grows ever wider and their clashes more explosive, it is high time for the jury to give renewed attention to the nuances of More’s understanding of the apparently competing but ultimately harmonious demands of divine, natural, and human law.

In the tradition to which More adheres, conscience represents the voice of reason within the human soul, counseling us on the compatibility of past, present, and future actions with principles defining good and evil. Some of these principles are known by nature, and others by faith. Since unaided individual reason is incapable of providing for the common good on which each of us depends, reason itself demands that we obey higher authorities capable of directing us to this end. Even so, no directive from any authority can bind us in conscience if that directive conflicts with firm principles of reason itself.

While God and nature are infallible, the reasoning of human beings is not. When a conflict arises between the conscience of one or more citizens and the demands of human law (or human applications of divine law), we cannot know who is right or wrong and to what extent without investigating the particulars of the dispute. Though More holds that the exigencies of law and order require us to give the benefit of the doubt to the formal determinations of recognized authorities and to show the utmost respect for those possessing authority even when they err in certain matters, the fact remains that conscience binds authority to us even as it binds us to authority. Most of all, it binds all of us to a common good defined in terms of principles deriving their validity from reality itself, rather than from the desires, opinions, or preferences of citizens or rulers.

According to this view, the health of political society depends on the willingness of citizens and rulers to embrace the monumental task of approximating a solid and shared understanding of the common good in all of its practical implications. This is a key lesson of More’s masterwork Utopia, written shortly before he entered Henry’s service in 1518, hoping (as his friend Erasmus emphasized) to advance the common good in his country and in Europe by exerting a beneficent influence over “the invincible king of England.” The map Utopiadraws of the intersection between conscience and politics points the way to understanding More’s later response to Henry’s disregard for the limits of civil authority, and the advice he might offer those seeking a modern liberalism truly respectful of conscience.

More presents the challenges of practicing a politics of conscience through an account of his interactions with Raphael Hythloday, a fictional world traveler and self-styled philosopher convinced that the common good can be realized only (but easily) through the imposition of a few simple but draconian laws and institutions. When More (with typical irony) invites Raphael to join a king’s council so as to promote the good in accordance with his “noble and truly philosophical nature,” Raphael replies that advising rulers is futile in any society where such advice is required. Taken literally, the Platonic doctrine of philosopher kings (which More cites in his favor) works only when philosophers are kings or kings philosophize. So long as rulers remain unphilosophic, they will “never give their approval to the advice of philosophers, because since childhood they have been thoroughly imbued and infected with misguided notions.” In an uncanny prediction of More’s eventual fate, Raphael contends that a philosophic statesman, if he fails to praise “measures that are utterly pestilential,” will be branded a “traitor” and disposed of as such.

Without denying the premises of Raphael’s argument—that rulers tend to be unwise and that they tend to regard wisdom as a threat to the satisfaction of their desires—More insists that politics is not so bad if one approaches it differently. “In private conversation with good friends,” he admonishes his dismissive companion, an “academic philosophy which considers anything appropriate anywhere” “is not unpleasant.” In such a setting, true dialogue and the uninhibited pursuit of truth are perhaps possible. “In the council chambers of kings,” however, “where great matters are handled with great authority,” “another sort of philosophy” is required, one “better suited to public affairs.” This statesmanlike philosophy “knows its role and adapts to it, keeping to its part in the play at hand with harmony and decorum.” In particular, it avoids the indecorum of “com[ing] out onto the stage dressed like a philosopher and reciting the passage from Octavia where Seneca argues with Nero,” provoking one of history’s great tyrants to murder one of its great moral philosophers.

The tactful philosophy More espouses accepts that politics is essentially like “a comedy of Plautus, when the slaves are joking around together”—that is, a realm in which vice is ubiquitous and a happy ending depends on some combination of cunning and chance. Adopting a role suitable for such a play, More’s philosophy uses “indirection” rather than blunt opposition to error, hoping to “influence the thinking of those whose minds are prejudiced” so as to “turn something to good [or] at least make it as little bad” as possible. When this comic mode proves ineffective, More adds, “it is better… to have a non-speaking part” than to risk tragedy by “jumbl[ing] together” incompatible forms of discourse.

More’s critique of Raphael’s approach to wisdom itself is subtler. A clue is found at the end of Raphael’s book-length monologue, when More indicates to the reader that he differed with a number of his interlocutor’s judgments. “Nevertheless,” he remarks, “I was not sure whether he could endure to listen to an opinion contrary to his own,” and so “I took his hand and led him to dinner,” only wishing that “someday” there would be “time to consider these matters more thoroughly and to confer more fully.” With characteristic understatement, More reminds us that genuine wisdom begins with an awareness that we are not wise, and entails the willingness—or eagerness—to pursue the truth in dialogue (whether academic or political) with others.

Just as kings and their advisors are likely to take umbrage at the suggestion that they are mistaken about the uses to which they put their power, so too is the pseudo-philosopher prevented by pride from considering the problems of human life as thoroughly as their complexity demands. To seek wisdom and its realization in the political world therefore requires a doubly comic awareness of one’s own faults and limits as well as those of others.

This comic-dialogical structure of conscience is evident in More’s 1534 interrogation. When his accusers demand More’s reasons for avoiding the oath, he responds by requesting “the King’s gracious license… that [his] declaration should not… put [him] in danger of any of his statutes.” In other words, he requests the freedom to reason with them in safety, without which he cannot be sure that they sincerely desire to reason with him at all. Combined with More’s 1523 petition for freedom of speech in Parliament, this appeal demonstrates the value of procedural safeguards protecting citizens and public officials in their fallible attempts to articulate and approximate the common good to which they are all bound.

More’s response to his captors also reminds us of the necessity of grounding conscience and authority on objective criteria. Though he refuses to “open and disclose the causes” of his convictions without assurances from the King, More emphasizes that his conscience is informed by “long leisure and diligent search for the matter” in question, and that his conduct is designed to avoid impugning the motives of the King and his supporters. He thus reminds us that conscience is not a license by which individuals may function as a law unto themselves or whimsically undermine the welfare of society. Had More possessed the freedom to articulate his views without the fear of severe reprisals, the question would have remained whether he could persuade the principalities and powers of his time to accept or at least accommodate those views. If not, More would have been faced (as he was) with the unhappy situation of following a conscience at odds with the prejudices of those whose authority over society he could not displace, however true his convictions and misguided theirs.

How does More respond to this predicament? In his humility, he declines to boast of his wisdom or sanctity. Lacking authority and a knowledge of hearts, he cannot correct the errors or condemn the motives leading others to administer or take the oath. Still, More can and does insist on his bona fides as one doing all in his power to seek and do what is good, reminding others of their duty to help rather than hinder him in these efforts, and demanding that they give him adequate reasons for the oath or leave him free to decline it. He also warns them that, if their motives are grounded in self-aggrandizement or mere survival rather than in the truth, they are endangering the welfare of their souls.

Without accusing anyone explicitly, More finds ways to prompt others to a much-needed examination of conscience. As he observes to Margaret, the “most learned” of those taking the oath had once “clearly said and affirmed the contrary of some things that they have now sworn to in the oath,” taking their original stances “after diligently exerting themselves to seek and find out the truth.” By contrast, More “never heard the reason for their change,” and cannot find “any new, further thing” to explain their acquiescence, other than “their desire to keep the King happy and avoid his indignation, [or] their fear of losing their worldly possessions.” Tellingly, More describes one of the dignitaries complying with Henry’s demands as laughing and embracing the others “so handsomely, that if they had been women, [More] would have thought he had been waxen wanton”—that is, guilty of unfaithfulness to his clerical vows. He recounts how another made a show of drinking at the Archbishop’s buttery bar, “so that it might be known that he was known to the high priest”—echoing John 18:15-16 and thereby likening Cranmer to Caiaphas and reminding us of the circumstances leading to Peter’s betrayal of Christ.

As these words demonstrate, despite being forced to play a “non-speaking part” in Henry’s England, More was well able to employ indirect means to engage dialogically even those whom he considered defective in their desire for truth.

There is perhaps no better example of this sort of asymmetrical dialogue than one we find in an exchange of letters Gerard Wegemer has dubbed A Dialogue on Conscience. First More’s stepdaughter Alice Alington writes to her stepsister Margaret Roper, conveying a message from one of More’s interrogators, Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley. In her long and exquisitely detailed reply, Margaret relates her visit with More, including his response to Audley’s letter. Though both statesmen are constrained to speak cautiously—each of them relying upon allegory, allusion, and indirect argumentation, and each speaking through one of More’s daughters—what emerges is a fascinating and instructive glimpse into the conflicting consciences of political actors on opposite sides of the Henrician revolution in church and state.

Having stopped to hunt at the Alington estate, Audley relates a tale in which a few wise men make caves in which to hide from a “heavy rain” that turns men into fools. After the rain they emerge, hoping to “rule [the fools] as they would,” only to find that, despite their “crafty planning,” “the fools would have the rule themselves.” Frustrated in their desires, the wise men “wish[] that they had been in the rain” with the fools. In conclusion, Audley declares tersely that he “would not have [Alice’s] father so scrupulous of conscience.”

Margaret presents the letter to More as evidence that “one of the greatest dignitaries in this realm, and a learned man too,” and More’s “very tender friend and very specially good lord, accounts [More’s] problem of conscience in this matter for nothing but a scruple.” After reading Audley’s letter twice, “in no kind of a hurry,” More remarks that “my Lord’s Aesop’s fables do not greatly move me.” Still, “as his Wisdom for his pastime cheerfully told them to my own daughter, so I for my pastime will answer them to you, Meg, another daughter of mine.” Cheerfulness aside, More acknowledges that what is at stake here is the nature of wisdom itself, and he will attempt to show—without referencing the details of his dispute with Henry—that his conscience is based on true and practical principles not vitiated by his present predicament.

More begins by observing that this story was often employed by his predecessor as Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, including once during a debate among the King’s Council over England’s involvement in a dispute between the German Emperor and the French King. Given More’s general opposition to wars of aggrandizement, and his sardonic comment here about how such wars “help[ed] the King and the realm to spend many a fair penny,” we can assume that he was among those who “thought it would be wise for us to sit still and leave [the Germans and French] alone.” In opposition to this view, Wolsey tells the present fable, concluding that “if we were to be so wise as to sit in peace while the fools fought, they would not fail afterwards to make peace and agree among themselves and eventually all fall upon us.”

The significance of Wolsey’s former critique of More’s wisdom is driven home by the treatment of this theme in Utopia, where Raphael illustrates the futility of advising kings by composing a hypothetical speech in which he scolds the King of France for waging endless campaigns in Italy. With his usual acerbity, Raphael reminds the king that the true ruler is a servant of his people whose focus should be on the good government of his own kingdom rather than the costly and profitless acquisition of others. More’s own view that wisdom begins with a self-rule, allowing one to direct oneself and others according to the virtues that make happiness possible, and his opposition to replacing such virtue with the limitless acquisition of the objects of one’s desires, makes it likely that he agrees with the content, if not the manner, of Raphael’s counsel. In effect, More uses his fictional interlocutor to predict that his opposition to England’s continental wars will be a point of contention between him and the “invincible” Henry’s other advisors, requiring him to make optimal use of his “indirect” philosophical method.

By revisiting this controversy in 1534, More subtly draws a parallel between the wisdom (or folly) of empire-building and that of Henry’s appropriation of ecclesial authority. If wisdom requires the regulation of desires in accordance with right reason before acting upon those desires, then the maximization of power is a dangerous temptation against the orientation of politics through prudent deliberation. As More explained to Thomas Cromwell, the good advisor “ever tell[s] [the king] what he ought to do,” never “what he is able to do.” The acceptance of due limits upon one’s sphere of choices—whether those limits derive from a respect for the rights of other nations or from obedience to legitimate spiritual authority—is a necessary check on the otherwise infinite desires of the human soul. Though kings and others in authority are likely to take offense at an emphasis on this point, advising them (however indirectly) in accordance with it is a central goal of More’s political philosophy, one that he announces in Utopia and continues to pursue in his refusal to endorse Henry’s spiritual supremacy.

The assumption underlying both Wolsey’s and Audley’s employment of this fable is that wisdom weds a desire to rule with the ability to do so. Staying out of foreign wars is folly if it diminishes England’s military might; and hiding from a stultifying rain is futile if the “wisdom” one thus preserves does not contribute to the acquisition of power. More’s explicit rejoinder to Audley consists in the vigorous rejection of this assumption. He argues that it is foolish to embrace “folly” for the sake of rule, for anyone with “any sense” can see that a foolishness one shares with others does not qualify one to rule over them, rather than vice versa. In fact, it is “crazy” to think that “so few” fools would end up ruling “so many,” especially since “there are none so unruly as they that lack sense and are foolish.” This last point is crucial, for More is not so naïve as to suppose that there are no effective means of gaining power over others. Rather, he alludes to the fact that folly, defined as ignorance of or weakness in pursuing what is good, is a recipe for unhappiness, rendering power itself futile when purchased at such a price.

In an apparent flourish to his counter-argument, More remarks that, while Audley may “reckon[] [him] among the fools” for preferring wisdom to rule, More rejoices that “God and [his] conscience clearly know that no man can rightly number and reckon” him “among those that long to be rulers,” as evidenced by his willing resignation of a position as “one of the greatest rulers in this noble realm.” However sincere his disavowal of the desire to rule, though, the statesmanlike philosophy guiding More’s lifelong political efforts—one that uses indirection to influence the unwise according to a wisdom retained amidst the follies of court—bears a striking resemblance to the wise men of Audley’s fable, who would (per impossible) preserve their wisdom while ruling fools. Read in this way, Audley’s tale leads us to wonder whether More, however good his intentions, has not in fact been guilty of a kind of folly in seeking to apply classical wisdom to a world he well knows will always take offense at its true implications.

More’s response to this criticism is indirect but powerful. Declaring himself unable to “read [Audley’s] riddles,” More presents a riddle of his own: “To adapt what Davus says in Terence, ‘Non sum Oedipus’—you’re quite familiar with this, [Meg,] I may say—I’ll make it ‘Non sum Oedipus, sed Morus.’”

As his aside makes clear, the meaning of More’s disassociation from Oedipus the riddle-solver depends upon the particulars of the play he is quoting, Andria. In that work, Davus is a slave secretly helping his master Simo’s son Pamphilus in his affair with Glycerium, an apparently disreputable foreigner who is pregnant with his child. Simo wishes his son to marry the daughter of Chremes, a respectable Athenian citizen. Davus’s “non Oedipus” is part of the feigned ignorance by which he evades his master’s questioning, while scheming to assist Pamphilus in his attempt to remain loyal to Glycerium. After a series of failed plots, Simo discovers Davus’s duplicity and has him imprisoned. Only when a stranger appears with proof that Glycerium is the long-lost daughter of Chremes—making her marriage to Pamphilus both licit and socially advantageous—is Davus set free by a newly satisfied master.

The significance of More’s identifying himself with a slave imprisoned for working against his master’s wishes in order to preserve an existing marriage and prevent a new one is readily seen. How far the parallels between More’s situation and the play reach is a fertile question—especially if we ask what it might take for Henry (or others at court) to realize that the king’s marriage to the Spanish Katherine is both legitimate and advantageous, despite his desire for an English bride.

Wherever such speculations may lead us, More’s ability to stimulate them even in his legally imposed “silence” confirms the power of the comic mode of politics outlined in Utopia. More’s writings and political fortunes remind us that the attempt to bring a conscience informed by the orders of nature and grace into human affairs always faces the possibility of a tragic end. Even across the centuries, however, More’s wit, charm, and integrity stand ready to “influence the thinking of those whose minds are prejudiced.” Despite the constitutional advantages we enjoy today, following More’s example requires courage. By demonstrating the insuppressible potential of a politics artfully combining conscience, courage, and comedy, More reassures us that a real if limited good is possible in an imperfect world if we pursue that good with prudent simplicity. In this way More provides aid and comfort to those opposing the Henries of every age.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a portrait of Thomas More (1527) by Hans Holbein (c.1497-1543), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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