Thomas More

Zazzali, James R.

A man for many seasons THOMAS MORE A BIOGRAPHY Richard Marios Knopf, $22.95, 562 pp. James R. Zazzali IT is fifty years since Thomas More was canonized, and fifty years since the last major...

...Elton, the distinguished professor of history at Cambridge University, is a case in point...
...He gave his life for them...
...As Marius recognizes, More did not compromise on the most critical question of all, his convictions...
...The introduction, final chapters, and epilogue make intense reading...
...On both a policy and personal level, many...
...Partly because of this, the reading at times can be both difficult and tedious...
...One contemporary asked whether he was "a foolish wise man or a wise foolish man...
...James R. Zazzali IT is fifty years since Thomas More was canonized, and fifty years since the last major biography...
...Irritated by the defiance of that Thomas, a "single insolent prelate," Henry's henchmen murdered Becket, although there will always be doubt about the extent of Henry's culpability...
...Withal, his ambivalence and ambiguity ceded to conviction when the time came to embrace his king and reject his principles...
...This devout and divided man chose conscience over conciliation, principle over peace, for he was "the king's good servant but God's first...
...In this centrifugal time, clergymen and politicians do not do that much anymore, for faith or party...
...The faults are clearly there and deserve the critical analysis Marius provides...
...The primary public concern today is the evil wrought whenever the state dominates a church (or vice-versa) or when the relationship between the two institutions becomes too close...
...We see the real and flawed More, not the paper saint but the man split by doubt and conflict, the early friend and later antagonist of Henry, and the persecutor/ prosecutor, happy over the death of Protestant heretics but, unlike many of his contemporaries, never hostile in word or deed to any Jew: We see the humanist, capable of great love and great hate, and the consummate actor-politician all the time professing humility...
...Finally, if Marius "manifestly doesn't like More all that well," why does he have a print of More on his study wall...
...The latter is perceived to be the most imperfect institution government...
...Perhaps half the biography deals with his works, with four chapters on Utopia alone...
...To start, it features a large sketch of a sinister-looking More, complete with bulbous nose and ermine robes, saying the rosary in a way no other portraitist has depicted him in picture or print...
...Little wonder that the name Thomas derives from the Hebrew word for twin, for Becket and More are history's twin martyrs to the principle of spiritual independence...
...More was flawed and, in the judgment of history and even hagiography, that is as it must be...
...His decision is all the more gripping since he could have cured his conundrum by a concession, acceptable to the realm, family, and friends, but anathema to him...
...One studies More with a curious sense of d\'ej\`a vu as we recall Becket, a familiar story but worth the retelling because of the parallels...
...As Marius concludes in this the best biography we now have on More and his times, "Erasmus a long time ago called him a man for all seasons, and so he has been and so he will remain...
...an indispensable ideal we cherish for ourselves...
...But some of Marius's judgments have been overstated by others...
...Marius does not remove More's halo...
...Although he has not fallen into oblivion, one recalls that at a Jesuit retreat house in New Jersey, where a reproduction of Holbein's portrait of More hangs, a retreatant was once heard to ask: "Is that the guy who owns this house...
...Almost four centuries before, Becket, also known as a reformer and remembered for the manner of his death, a chancellor like More, companion to another Henry, and likewise summoned to answer trumpedup charges, took issue with his king's dominion over the church...
...His contradictions and flaws are substantial, "and at times they make him a disappointing hero...
...If any criticism can be leveled, it is the book's suffocating under the weight of More's own books...
...Thomas More, now gives us the soul...
...He must try to overcome, yet sometimes succumbs to, "those daily compromises which chip away at character," to borrow Vannevar Bush's phrase...
...Neither or both...
...Various reviews of Marius's work make much of its iconoclasm, and of its evidence that More possessed large warts and small virtues...
...Marius takes us through More's life with absorbing detail: the early years, his family, his relationship with Erasmus, the twin influences of the Renaissance and the embryonic Reformation, the writings, the persecution of heretics, the chancellorship, imprisonment, and death...
...Elton then tells us that Marius "manifestly doesn't like More all that well . . . ." But Marius starts his study by telling us in the introduction to More that "We all end by liking him...
...The effort is relieved when we are fed fillips such as an explanation for the French phrase trente-et-un: Italian authorities punished convicted prostitutes by finding a band of ruffians and ordering them to rape the convicted prostitute thirty-one times...
...More is quickened by the deft hand of the novelist, which Marius also happens to be...
...Even the praise is sometimes faint...
...If the author dissects More with a scholar's scalpel, he does so fairly...
...he only dims it...
...Commonweal: 286 He said no to the king and yes to the scaffold...
...A play and a movie parted the curtains to give the public the saint and star...
...More as bete noire...
...In his epilogue he concludes by calling More "an indomitable symbol" and notes that "few have known him well without feeling a heart lift up to what he was...
...Who would turn to him to buy an indulgence then or a used car now...
...What lessons emerge for twentiethcentury pilgrims...
...The saint remains, injured but intact...
...But it is to be remembered that the principled saint was also the public servant...
...A perceptive review in the New York Review of Books by G.R...
...Richard Marius, head of the Expository Writing Program at Harvard College and an editor of the Yale Complete Works of St...

Vol. 112 • May 1985 • No. 9


 
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