Thursday, December 8, 2016

More's Many Faces? One More Time

Joanne Paul has written a book about Thomas More for the Classic Thinkers series published by Wiley that will be available in just a few days:

Thomas More remains one of the most enigmatic thinkers in history, due in large part to the enduring mysteries surrounding his best-known work, Utopia. He has been variously thought of as a reformer and a conservative, a civic humanist and a devout Christian, a proto-communist and a monarchical absolutist. His work spans contemporary disciplines from history to politics to literature, and his ideas have variously been taken up by seventeenth-century reformers and nineteenth-century communists.

Through a comprehensive treatment of More's writing, from his earliest poetry to his reflections on suffering in the Tower of London, Joanne Paul engages with both the rich variety and some of the fundamental consistencies that run throughout More's works. In particular, Paul highlights More's concern with the destruction of what is held 'in common', whether it be in the commonwealth or in the body of the church. In so doing, she re-establishes More's place in the history of political thought, tracing the reception of his ideas to the present day.

Paul's book serves as an essential foundation for any student encountering More's writing for the first time, as well as providing an innovative reconsideration of the place of his works in the history of ideas.

One of the blurbs, by historian Suzanne Lipscomb, praises the book for having one, united view of More:

"For too long, there have been multiple Mores: Thomas More the 'man for all seasons' has also seemed to be a man of many faces: More's identities as a statesman, humanist, and saint have seemed riven from each other and bafflingly incompatible. In this brilliant, lucid, and pithy account, Joanne Paul reunites More with himself by identifying the central idea that animated his thought and action. This is an original and illuminating work that should be compulsory for any reader of Utopia."

But then, in a post for History Today, Paul seems to divide More again:

2016 is the year of Utopia, marking 500 years since the publication of Thomas More’s influential text. Central to the celebrations is a timely re-evaluation of the man who stands behind the enigmatic masterpiece. More’s reputation has ranged from saintly scholar to sex-crazed zealot, with Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall bringing each of these visions to life, albeit almost 60 years apart. 

It is 500 years since the publication of
Utopia, but it is also 50 years since the release of the Oscar-winning film based on Bolt’s play (first performed in London in 1950). Of course, neither Bolt nor Mantel is entirely accurate; that is what makes their work fiction. What is interesting is what the deviations from historical record in A Man for All Seasons tell us about Bolt’s time. This raises the question: if Bolt’s 1950s needed More the defender of individual conscience, why do we need More the zealous persecutor of heretics?

Bolt's More; Mantel's More; Paul's More; my More; your More: can't we just have one More? Or can't we just accept that Thomas More, like every other human being ever born, is complex and contradictory, both great and fallen, both a success and failure at what he loved and wanted the most? (Well, except for Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who were sinless!)

Does every generation really "get the More it needs" or does someone create a More for his or her own purpose? Instead of looking at the different views of More, shouldn't we just look at More?

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