The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd

Book Review: The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd

Ng Kam Weng
Thomas Hobbes once described the life of natural man as solitary, poor, brutish and short. This vivid image becomes palpable when society degenerates into chaos and violence in the absence of strong political leadership. In such times, politicians as such are quick to exploit the fearful scenario and counsel that it would be wise for frail citizens like us to surrender our precious freedom into the hands of a strong government.

Even more seductive are calls coming from religious ideologues who promise us spiritual peace if only we submit to a power alliance between religion and government: Public order will prosper if the unchanging laws of God are implemented, if not imposed, by a central sovereign. Law, politics and religion form a threefold cable that cannot be easily broken and offers itself as a well nigh irresistible seduction to citizens who are disturbed by the breakdown of morality in modern society.

The vulnerability of Malaysians to such beguiling promises lies precisely in our country being fortunately spared of tragic violence that frequently accompany political struggles fueled by competing religious ideologies. I have in mind the revolutionary struggles propelled by religious clerics in Afghanistan, Iran and increasingly in Indonesia. It is granted that such revolutionary clerics were provoked by either corrupt governments or an unacceptable hegemony by one tribe over other tribes. But what happens to the credibility of religion when clerics who gain power venture to police the private lives and even prohibit the freedom of thought of their citizens, all in the name of national and religious purity? Does not an oppressive and violent ‘cure’ damage the vitality of a community in the long run?

Perhaps the above examples are too far away to warn us against the temptation to unite religion with political power. It would be unfair to blame religion alone in situations where national misfortunes are magnified by a long history of internal tribal conflicts. It is easy to excuse the failures of clerics who wield enormous political power when we view them at a distance. These cleric politicians can always blame their revolutionary failures on the pernicious manipulations of foreign powers.

Political power is often legitimized by sophisticated ideological rhetoric. The difficult and delicate task of exposing the damaging consequences resulting from the entanglement between religion and politics requires a close analysis of the dynamics of power struggle between the protagonists. Social conflict is guaranteed precisely because the clerics are rigidly imbued with a sense of righteousness that must impose their religious vision upon pluralistic civil society without compromise and without any regard for citizens of different convictions. What is conflict but a disregard for compromise in the public sphere?

Obviously God is on the side of those who wield political power! Woe befalls anyone who fails to follow these clerics who have God on their side and who prosecute their vision with revolutionary ardour. To be sure, they act with utmost sincerity. But is it not the case that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions from self-righteous clerics?

In this regard, Peter Ackroyd in his book, The Life of Thomas More, gives us a most lucid study of the complexities of power struggle in the potent brew of law, religion and nationalism. Ackroyd succeeds in going beyond the feeble abstractions of sociological discussions of political power by focusing on the life and conflicts of Thomas More (1477 – 1535), a man most evidently brilliant and the embodiment of personal integrity and generosity to the poor. One may also include among his virtues a disciplined life resulting from an unshakable sense of divine calling. What happens when a man like Thomas More lived in obedience to his unsullied conscience amidst the life and death struggles of the shadowy world of politics?

Ackroyd exploits his erudite learning and narrative skills as an accomplished novelist and biographer. He had earlier won the Whitbread Prize for his biography on T.S. Eliot and the Whitbread prize and Guardian Fiction Prize for his novel, Hawksmoor. His vivid descriptions of life amidst the narrow streets of London in Thomas More’s days enable us almost to smell the pungent atmosphere of a city without proper drainage. We are treated to delightful cameos of the private lives of families and the perennial hopes of parents for their gifted children.

Ackroyd’s achievement is to portray with psychological sensitivity the depth and complexities and even the limitations of a somewhat recluse man. His portrait provides an instructive contrast with other hagiographic literature of More who was canonized as a saint in 1935. More’s enviable successful life in the world was tempered by an awareness that “a recognition of the hollowness of the world no more precludes ambition than it does conviviality.” It simply places it within a larger context and demands that one acts to the best of one’s ability. Ackroyd displays objectivity in showing us that even canonized saints are human.

More lived a charmed life, moving from one successful career to another. Granted, he benefited from the connections of his father. Nevertheless, his climb to the heights of power which led him into the inner cabinet of the King and to his appointment as the Lord Chancellor, the most powerful law official of the land, was due to a wonderful concourse of political events and the skills of a man for all seasons. Unfortunately, success in politics fell victim to the capriciousness of Lady Fortuna.

Thomas More’s life confirms that the greatness of a man is often forged in the context of difficult dilemmas arising from conflicting loyalties. The murky world of politics is not just a clinical competition of ideas. On the contrary, the protagonists regardless of their most honorable intentions, are caught in a web of contestation for power that protects the interests of the ruling elite. In particular, King Henry VIII of England, undoubtedly acting out of personal reasons, wanted to get rid of any foreign manipulation from his land. Specifically he demanded a pledge of utmost loyalty from his subjects. One might view such a demand as proceeding from paranoia. But any deed done in the name of national security is acceptable since the Pope and other foreign powers in the European continent had a proven track record of undermining the independence of smaller nations.

The great irony was that the King was prepared to chop off the head of his most brilliant official, and one with great integrity at that, when More refused to go through the formality of taking such an oath. More, after all, was a member of the Star Chamber and was also known as “the keeper of the King’s conscience”. Undoubtedly, King Henry would protest that More’s execution came only after a ‘fair trial’. More’s execution provides a most telling tragedy that arises when the ruling elite fails to separate religious loyalties from political allegiance.

Many of us understandably feel a distaste towards the violent twists and turns in the power struggles among the ruling elite. Ackroyd gives us a glimpse of how ferocious a political fight can turn particularly between intimate enemies such as in the case of the King and his adviser whom he knew well from his younger days. One might still accept the judgement of the King if the highest law official of the Kingdom was himself part and parcel of the world of corrupt cronies. But unlike many modern counterparts, More was by all accounts a man with a clean conscience and irreproachable conduct. Even the King, who eventually executed More, confessed him to be an “upright and learned man”.

The tragic dimension of More’s death can only be understood when we view him in his religious context. Ackroyd successfully captures the zeal and effectiveness with which More discharged his role as the chief law official to ensure congruence between religious practice and the ideology of the state. He provides a quick description of More’s forceful actions, “He commanded every office holder in the country to search them [heretics] out, and issued a list of prohibited books of which the ownership would bring immediate imprisonment. The whole power of the realm. . . was now directed against the ‘newe men’ [independent religious teachers]”.

Ackroyd follows with a succinct assessment: “He epitomised, in modern terms, the apparatus of the state using its power to crush those who appear to subvert it. His opponents were genuinely following their consciences, while More considered them as the harbinger of the devil’s reign on earth. How could there be moderation in any confrontation between them? He was, in large part, successful; he managed to check the more open expression of heretical opinion and thereby prevented it being accepted piece by piece or gradually condoned.”

More’s rejection of religious freedom was a natural outcome of living in a society in which lawyers and clerics wielded immense influence and power. “And how could it not be so, in a society and culture which have been rightly called obsessed by the law and legal relationships? Everything activity of life was seen within a network of duties and obligations, which in turn led to a concern for precise formulae and ordinances” (p.51). More himself arrested four Lutheran preachers for teaching without licence from the state. He despatched them to the flames.

While it is easy to fault More for his ruthless action, one must bear in mind that he in turn perished under the same brutal system of political religion. More’s religious integrity is beyond question. Indeed his calm and dignified composure is a testimony to the sufficiency of his Christian faith in the face of injustice and death. We may, however, question whether we should tolerate a society that wantonly destroys such an exemplary life because the political system operates without adequate checks and balances of power. Indeed, such checks are rendered impossible when cynical politicians easily exploit religion to legitimize their personal interests and when clerics in turn collaborate with callous politicians to suppress religious differences.

Ackroyd’s book provides salutary lessons on the need to separate church/mosque and state to prevent religious discrimination. Such concerns for justice in a pluralistic society do not mean that religion should be removed from the public sphere. What is affirmed instead is that all religions seek to support social order and public morality through a process of consensus building rather than through imposition of one religion upon society at large.

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