Thomas More: Virtuous Statesman
by John M. Vella
Thomas More on Statesmanship, by Gerard Wegemer.
If there is one historical figure whose life and work most closely resembled that of Sir Thomas More, it would likely be the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. As some scholars have noted, Cicero, like More, was a statesman highly honored by Renaissance humanists for his many admirable qualities. He was a successful barrister, a highly skilled rhetorician, a serious student of philosophy, and a political martyr who died in defense of republican government and the rule of law (205).
More admired Cicero’s writings and learned much from reading them. Other figures, such as Plato and Aristotle, Thucydides, and the Church fathers, helped form More’s political vision. Resting upon this solid intellectual foundation was a thorough familiarity with medieval and English traditions of common law and political custom (40). From his study he came to view the role of the statesman as one of discerning the proper means to achieve some measure of justice in the face of constant social unrest and political upheaval. According to Gerard Wegemer, More believed civil peace could be achieved when statesmen employ and advance “[r]hetoric, political free speech, and the wide-ranging consultation and study encouraged by education” (4).
In Thomas More on Statesmanship, Wegemer, who teaches English literature at the University of Dallas, portrays a man who successfully synthesized the Christian humanism of his time with a deep appreciation of the broader legal and political traditions of England. In 1523, he advocated free speech rights for Parliament because he knew that without them the wisest members would be unwilling to speak their mind for fear of retribution from the king if their words caused him displeasure (65). More understood the power of reason and prudently employed it in speech and in writing, particularly in his efforts to resist what he saw as revolutionary ideas entering England from Protestant Europe. Yet he was not against the proper use of force as in the case of enforcement of executions prescribed under just law or instances of just war, particularly armed resistance against Turkish invaders of Christian Europe (73).
More was quite aware of the potential abuse of political power, which was why he favored parliamentary democracy over monarchy. More believed that elected officials were more receptive to reasonable advice than most kings and could be held more accountable. Kings were more susceptible to tyranny than members of Parliament because the vice of pride is more likely to distort their judgment, and thus cause them to misuse their authority. Even while in the service of Henry VIII, More distrusted the power of the king. As he wrote to his son Roper, “I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France …it should not fail to go” (67). More was aware of human weakness and the evil wrought by kings who exercise power without restraint: “Unlimited power has a tendency to weaken good minds, and that even in the case of very gifted men” (67). As a result, the king’s servants, intimidated by his power and eager to secure their position and safety, are often less inclined to offer honest advice and more likely to tell the king what he wants to hear (192).