If there is one quality people want to see in their political leaders
today it is integrity. One could say it signals the difference between
a mere politician and a statesman. So it is no accident that the man
who coined the English word "integrity" nearly 500 years ago has also
been declared the Patron of Statesmen. Thomas More was given this title
just five years ago on October 31st by the late Pope John Paul II in
response to an international petition signed by hundreds of world
leaders and politicians.
Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII before being executed for
defending the ancient liberties of his country and for refusing to
compromise his conscience, Thomas More has been recognised by the
Church as a saint, in Britain as the "Lawyer of the Millennium", by an
agnostic playwright as a champion of conscience, and in his own time by
Erasmus as a great friend and father.
These and many other qualities made More a great statesman, as Gerard
Wegemer demonstrates in the following interview with MercatorNet. Dr
Wegemer is Professor of English at the University of Dallas. He is an
expert on Thomas More and is the author and editor of numerous works
including Thomas More on Statesmanship, and recently, with Stephen W Smith, A Thomas More Source Book. He also has a website, Thomas More Studies.
MercatorNet: Erasmus said Thomas More was "born for
friendship", but one could also say he was born to serve his country,
coming as he did from a family with a long tradition of civic service.
His father gave him the best legal education available, at Oxford and
the Inns of Court. What else did More do to prepare himself for service?
Gerard Wegemer: Right after completing law school, More began
the study of Greek and spent ten years learning from the best and
brightest of the classical and Christian traditions. For those ten
years he did a comparative study of history, law, politics, and the
arts of freedom, but gave political philosophy special importance
paying close attention to Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Aquinas. He
also began his apprenticeship in law and local politics, practiced his
communication skills, and worked closely with professional groups in
MercatorNet: More’s political philosophy was based on the
conviction that every person is essentially free — a rarely-held
position in those days. Where did he learn this? Would he be impressed
with our concept of freedom today?
Wegemer: More learned this from Romans who supported the
republic, especially Cicero and Sallust, but also from the Christian
tradition which emphasized the importance of free will. Like the civic
humanists who came before him, More stressed that freedom requires
strength of character and willingness to sacrifice one’s own good for
the common good. Freedom therefore requires citizen virtue — which
more and more people today are coming to see again.
MercatorNet: In contrast to Henry VIII, whose model was the
chivalric warrior Henry V, More embraced the ideal of peace and
building up the earthly city as the natural sphere of human greatness.
How did he pursue this civic humanism and what were his main
achievements? How do you think he might have advised President George
Bush regarding the "war on terror".
Wegemer: Early in the morning before anyone else was awake, More
studied and wrote, even during his busiest years as Lord Chancellor of
England. He was a model of calm and recollection even in the midst of
the worst crises.
Building up the human city was an ideal of civic humanism that More
shared with other Renaissance leaders, and he encouraged the
development of education and the arts, especially those arts most
important for peace. More considered his greatest political
achievements to be the establishment of peace in Europe, short-lived as
that proved to be.
Knowing human nature well, More had realistic expectations, and he was
painfully aware of our tendency towards violence. That is why he
supported the prudent and vigilant execution of law and just war.
"Prudence" and "vigilance" are certainly what he would advise in
dealing with terrorism.
MercatorNet: More worked very hard at his professional and
political tasks. He therefore faced the problem — so familiar to
politicians and nearly everybody else today — of balancing the demands
of family and profession. In what ways did he show himself a true and
Wegemer: Yes, he had four children by his first wife, who died,
a step-daughter from his second marriage, and he and Lady Alice adopted
two other children. Since all but one of these were girls, More hired
Oxford tutors so his daughters could have the same education that he
So famous were the accomplishments of these daughters that Henry VIII
came to More’s Chelsea estate to hear them dispute philosophy. Holbein
seems to have captured that event in his sketch of the More family. You will notice books on the floor, on the window ledge, and in the hands of most depicted there.
Like all busy people, More found it difficult to establish the right
balance, but he says that family life should "count as business",
meaning that it simply must be done, regardless of other demands. He
worked hard to establish a personal friendship with each child and to
deepen the friendship between himself and his wife.
MercatorNet: Although he had been invited earlier, More was
41 before he entered King Henry’s service, well aware of the dangers of
court and of Henry’s tyrannical leanings. What did this cost him,
materially and in other ways? And how did he approach the step that
would eventually see him holding the highest office in the realm—that
of Lord Chancellor?
Wegemer: His son-in-law William Roper tells us that More was the
most sought-after lawyer in London. Entering Henry’s service, More made
much less money, gave up his leisure to read and write as he wished,
assumed countless worries, and eventually sacrificed everything.
At 41, More had just finished writing a history of the tyrant Richard
III and several poems about lions who destroy even those who care for
and counsel them. So why take such a risk? More saw it as his duty, and
indeed for the next 15 years he succeeded reasonably well in guiding
Before agreeing to enter Henry’s service and then before agreeing at 52
to be Henry’s Lord Chancellor, More spoke about conscience. Imagine the
King’s surprise that a subject would be so bold as to set such a
condition. Yet, as More reports, the King gave him the best lesson that
prince could ever give to a servant: look first to God and conscience,
and then to the king. More would diplomatically remind Henry of this
answer in his last words on the scaffold: "I die the King’s good
servant, and God’s first."
MercatorNet: More is famous for his affability and sense of
humour, his wit as well as his wisdom. How did he use these qualities
in dealing with others?
Wegemer: More was a genius, according to Erasmus, and gifted
with remarkably sharp wit. More worked hard to use these gifts to make
himself accessible to others, regardless of social station. Erasmus
marvelled at the "skill with which [More] adapts himself to the mood of
anyone… Nobody is less swayed by public opinion, and yet nobody is
closer to the feelings of ordinary men."
MercatorNet: The "great matter" of King Henry’s marriage and
a male heir caused his Chancellor many a sleepless night as he thought
through all the issues involved. What principles regarding the
relationship of church and state led him to oppose Henry’s final
solution of declaring himself head of the church in England?
Wegemer: More spent seven years studying and responding to the
many issues that arose before he finally resigned. He saw clearly that
the spiritual and temporal spheres each had its own distinct authority,
yet should each complement the other. Those words at his death tell
all: "I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first." That "and"
indicates the integrity that More saw possible in this life.
And, by the way, More is the first person to use the word "integrity"
in English. He died in support of the centuries of English law which
guaranteed that the "Church should be free" from state interference, as
set forth in the first article of the Magna Carta of 1215 — which More
invoked at his trial.
MercatorNet: What does More’s death teach us about statesmanship?
Wegemer: That "a man may lose his head and have no harm". That
witty statement he repeated throughout his last months, and it must
have echoed in the minds of his family, friends, and colleagues long
after his execution as a traitor.
Yes, King Henry had his hour, but history has since passed its own
judgment: In 1935, the Catholic Church declared Thomas More a saint —
in part, as a model to strengthen those dealing with Hitler’s rise to
power. In 1960 the agnostic Robert Bolt praised More as a hero of
conscience in his play, A Man for All Seasons. In the 1980s
More was included in the Anglican calendar of saints. In December 1999
the Law Society of Great Britain voted him the "Lawyer of the
Millennium", and in 2000 he was made "Patron of Statesmen and
Politicians" at the request of leaders from around the world.
From our vantage point today we can see that Thomas More advanced
liberty through law, education, parliamentary self-government, and his
historic argument for freedom of speech (the first ever recorded). His
death, which he embraced not only calmly but with good cheer, teaches
the price that any true statesman must be willing to pay for the common
good of their country.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.
* Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the film
version of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man For All Seasons, which won six
academy awards. Sony is putting out a DVD edition, with features.