Thomas More


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Background

More was committed to the Tower of London to await trial for treason: not swearing to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy. Upon conviction, More declared he had all the councils of Christendom and not just the council of one realm to support him in the decision of his conscience. Four hundred years later in , Thomas More was canonized a saint of God. While he admits translation as an aid, it cannot equal the impact of reading—say Aristotle—in the original CWM 15, As for those critics of Erasmus who allow the Latin Vulgate a sacrosanct status and regard his corrections from the Greek as unwarranted and even blasphemous, More counters with a pragmatic view of textual reception.

The church, whose sense of the Gospels precedes any written text, accepts the Greek original as the true Gospel and may extend its approval to Latin translations, but never to the extent of ruling out the human fallibility of the translator. Even one of the Fathers like Jerome can err CWM 15, 87, , so there is a vital need for philological engagement with the sources. From More's perspective, Greek is the key element in a major cultural shift.

One consequence of More's humanism was his advocacy of female education. In Utopian schools all children are introduced to literary studies, and in later life both sexes are free to attend the public lectures and pursue intellectual interests. As in Utopia, the basic aim of education is not to prepare for some specific activity or profession but to enhance the possibilities of being human, regardless of gender. More envisages a curriculum based on literary studies which will develop moral awareness, and he further recommends reading of the Church Fathers and of the Roman historians, specifically Sallust.

Erasmus, an admiring witness of this novelty, reports that the girls all had Livy in their hands CWE 8: Ep. The opening of Utopia at once raises a fundamental issue: the relationship between imagination and experience. This merging of worlds, real and imaginary, prepares the reader for the Platonic tension between two cities—that of the philosopher's birth and the one which he creates with words Republic A—B. As Raphael describes his travels, Gillis is prompted to suggest that he serve some prince.

However, this would entail swapping cities, moving from the ideal to the actual, a compromise which Raphael rejects.


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As it is, he can live as he wishes CU: There is a deliberate echo here of Cicero's discussion of the retired life in his De officiis I. On the one hand, there is the option of intellectual liberty, free of external constraints and, on the other, the career of public service, which inevitably demands a degree of accommodation to the status quo. The stage is set for the debate that follows. To make his point that by participation in the political world the intellectual risks either irrelevance or contamination, Raphael appeals to a series of models: first, there is the flashback to Cardinal Morton's household in , and this is followed by fly-on-the-wall accounts of the French Council as it debates foreign policy, and of another, which remains unidentified but is probably the English Council under Henry VII, as it reviews fiscal policy.

The odd one out is the Morton episode which may well date from the final stage of More's composition. In essence, it is about value: the setting of human life against property. Raphael's intervention raises two key issues: one asks what could be an appropriate penalty for theft, while the other looks—with astonishing originality—at the unjust conditions which encourage theft.

To steal may be a personal moral failing, but social pressures which drive the malefactor to crime must share some of the guilt. More would, in any case, have been familiar with the tradition in canon law which argued that in dire necessity to take what was required to support life was not theft.

Raphael lists various causes for the prevalence of theft, among them discharged soldiers and cast-off retainers, but his most startling suggestion is sheep, which now seem to swallow up people and lay the country waste CU: More is pointing obliquely at the evil of enclosures by which peasants are driven from the land to make way for the more profitable returns of sheep farming, a clear instance of vested interests acting against the common good.

Uprooted and deprived of work, these people have little choice but to steal and to hang as a result.

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In each of the illustrative episodes which More includes in Book 1, Raphael appeals to some imaginary land which can provide an alternative to the established order. In a sense, these episodes prepare us for his account of Utopia. For the Morton sequence, it is the land of the Polylerites CU: 71 , whose ingenious system of penal servitude, which may well owe something to Plato's Laws D , aims to destroy the vices but save the persons, providing in the process reparation for their crimes. In discussing the French Council, with its focus on aggressive territorial expansion, Raphael appeals to the Achorians, who compel their prince to confine himself to a single kingdom.

Similarly, the English Council is taken up with dubious schemes to help the prince augment his wealth, and the counter-example is that of the Macarians, who bind their ruler by oath to restrict the sums held in his treasury to a thousand pounds in gold, enough to contain rebels or to resist invaders. The two royal councils are presented with satiric intent, though the policies proposed are all too real. However, if we take all three episodes together, one feature they share is the presence of courtiers. The role of courtiers should be to counsel the prince, but in each episode they are presented as amoral opportunists whose sole aim is to flatter him.

Raphael, who seems to overlook the fact that Morton had entertained his proposal for penal reform, declares that there is no place for philosophy at court, a claim which leads to one of the most important exchanges in the book CU: 95— Hence, his telling comparison with a stage play: you cannot mix comedy with tragedy; Raphael, he implies, is confusing his genres.

In a perfect world, it seems, rhetoric would be redundant. The argument from expediency is rejected by Raphael, but his dismissal of all compromise leads him to make the first allusion to the Utopians and their holding of property in common, a practice he associates with Plato.

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Yet, meanwhile, so intriguing are Raphael's references to the Utopians that he is persuaded to give a full account of the island. For much of its reception-history, Utopia has been treated as if it consisted exclusively of Book 2, and this impression was supported by some printed versions which omitted the first book. In Book 2 More sets out to project a society which is radically different from European society, and he does this by drawing on the idea of a state of nature.

This idea, sometimes presented as the Golden Age, was familiar from classical sources, and it also coloured reports of those who had witnessed the native cultures of the New World. Essentially, it imagined a primeval state of human association, prior to the invention of property and the laws which protect it, when all could have access to nature's fruits as their needs dictated.

Cicero, in De officiis 1. However, confronted by the Roman reality, he adds rather lamely that everything identified by statutes and civil law as private property must remain such; it seems that the primitive rights of the state of nature are now reduced to a kind of universal benevolence. More was well aware, too, of Plato's doubts about ownership, and he applies to the whole population of Utopia the communality of possessions which Plato reserves for his Guardians Republic DB.

It is precisely private property which defines European society, and along with it goes the legal code governing ownership, largely inherited from ancient Rome. By making his Utopians adopt a communality of possessions More liberates them from the passions generated by acquisition and loss; by the same token, they are relieved of the whole ideological burden which distorts European society.

It seems an obvious corollary that in a society where all is common money should be redundant, since it opens up a gap between conventional value, which is socially created, and the worth which derives from nature. In Europe this leads to the sort of injustice by which those in essential tasks are cruelly exploited, while those luxury trades which cater to artificial desires flourish. There is a striking contrast between the oligopoly of those sheep traders who profit from enclosures in England and the Utopians' belief that they are the cultivators agricolae of their land rather than proprietors domini ; it echoes the scholastic distinction between usus , simple use, and dominium , the right of disposal which underlies European ideas of property.

Whatever is gathered or produced is cycled through the city markets to meet the requirements of each residential group, or syphograncy, of thirty households.

Utopia by Sir Thomas More - Summary & Analysis

While the household is the basic unit, each with its own residence, the syphograncy binds them to the wider community; in its spacious hall, the household members meet daily to have their meals in common and annually to elect one of their number as syphogrant. This officer represents their interests in the wider affairs of the city and participates in the election of its governor; although the latter may serve for life, the constitution itself is carefully devised to block any shift towards tyranny or factional interest.

Thus, physical and political needs are well catered for. However, the central principle underlying the Utopians' way of life is that as much time as possible should be reserved for the cultivation of the mind, as it is in this that they consider true happiness can be found CU: This requirement is met by their extraordinary system of work in which all citizens, of either sex, and that could amount to about 60, in each city must labour at some essential trade, but only for six hours a day; this more than meets their needs, but still leaves ample leisure for intellectual pursuits.

While there is an elite class of scholars, carefully selected by the priests and approved by the syphogrants, who dedicate themselves to full-time study and are available to hold the higher offices, the lectures provided for them are equally open to all comers.


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There is a vital cultural life, a direct consequence of their economic arrangements. One of the most vivid episodes in Utopia is the account of the Anemolian ambassadors: these dignitaries, determined to impress the Utopians, deck themselves out in conventional finery—cloth of gold, gold chains and rings, jewelled badges—only to find that the Utopians regard them as slaves or fools. This is because of the Utopian value system, which uses such impractical metals for shackles or chamber pots: it is an essential part of their humanist education to recognize authentic values, not the pseudo-values imposed by social conspiracy but those deriving from nature itself.

The fact that they need very few laws comes from the effectiveness of this early formation CU: While the Utopians are baffled by scholastic logic, like good humanists they are keenly interested in moral philosophy and the nature of the happy life, which is one reason why they are so dedicated to learning Greek. Raphael provides an extended account of their views on pleasure CU: —79 , in their view, the most important ingredient of human happiness.

What he describes is, in effect, a classical synthesis: while their definition of virtue as a life in accord with nature has Stoic overtones, the emphasis which they lay on pleasure echoes Epicurean teachings. However, seeing that the theory of pleasure they adopt is based on the supremacy of spiritual pleasure, there is little in the discussion which might not have originated with Plato. Certainly, the key to their thinking lies in the soul and its destiny; and to the rational arguments of philosophy they join certain religious axioms—that the soul is immortal and that after death it will receive reward for virtues and punishment for sins CU: Suicide is condemned, but their commitment to pleasure means that euthanasia is practised: there is no Christian concept of value in suffering, though those strange religious groups, the Buthrescas, put up with hardship now to win happiness after death CU: The psychic focus of their beliefs is one of the factors which makes the monotheistic religion of the Utopians into a prisca theologia or primitive anticipation of Christianity; and we learn that when they have been introduced to Christ's teachings by Raphael and his companions, many of them embrace these eagerly.

But, as Raphael points out, conversion is made easier for them by the discovery that Christ had endorsed the communal life led by his disciples and that this is still observed in monasteries CU: ; cf. Mark —9. The irony needs no comment. What is the reader to make of this newly discovered island and its strange institutions? For a start, he rejects Utopian communalism, as it subverts the.

CU: This confronts us again with the Aristotelian-scholastic view of private property as a resource to be used for public benefit, which is a legitimate argument, but the reference to popular opinion, with its echo of Plato's cave, is less reassuring. How far can Utopia be imitated? One feature which is often overlooked is its foundation: the entire polity, from social organization and street plans to its benign religious toleration, is due to one man, Utopus, whose military conquest of the country enabled him, in Plato's terms, to wipe the slate clean CU: ; Republic A. He represents the ideal philosopher-king who reconciles wisdom with power, and this scarcely makes his precedent an easy one to follow.

This would explain why in his prefatory letters to Pieter Gillis and elsewhere, the author More plays with the interface between fiction and reality.

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It also fits with More's own practice of political engagement, while preserving his intellectual independence. His writings in defence of Catholic orthodoxy have limited relevance in a philosophical context, but some observations are in order. His career as a polemicist began when he was drafted, probably by the Council, to answer Luther's assault on Henry's Assertio , and in he was enlisted by Tunstall to provide a vernacular response to the heretical books illegally shipped in from the Continent.

The conventions which he inherited saw the detection of heresy as a means to restore social unity and inclusion Forrest , and he viewed with dismay what he read as signs of social disintegration in the Peasants' Revolt of in Germany and the Sack of Rome in CWM , —72, —28; , Like many Catholic apologists, he claimed misguidedly that Luther's teaching of justification by faith alone was a license for immoral conduct.

It is no surprise, then, that the author of Utopia should defend orthodoxy not as a check-list of doctrines but rather as a culture, an all-embracing way of life, along with the attitudes and practices which that generated. When writing in Latin, More could assume a sophisticated and informed readership, able to handle his criticism of contemporary abuses without drawing false conclusions.

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However, in an age of expanding literacy, vernacular readers were more exposed to misunderstanding, especially when confronted by conflicting voices. If A Dialogue Concerning Heresies is the most successful of the polemical works, this is because it is not written as a direct riposte to an opponent but as a dialogue which enacts the process of persuasion. In this More, again adopting a fictional persona, wins over the youthful Messenger, his interlocutor, whose sincerity is never in doubt but whose anti-intellectual bias and self-reliance makes him representative of an evangelical readership.

The most interesting strand in the polemical works is More's idea of the church, since that connects with an important theme in late medieval thought. Against the reformers generally, he asserts the material insufficiency of Scripture: before the Gospels were ever written, the Spirit had inscribed Christ's teaching on the hearts of the faithful, and it is within this controlling context that the Gospels must be read. But More's conception of the church is far from being a static appeal to tradition, since he sees the Spirit as actively engaged within the church till the end of time as its founding doctrines evolve and develop CWM , — More might be called a moderate conciliarist; and though his refusal to swear the oath of succession arose from its implicit repudiation of the pope's power of dispensation, he saw that power as deriving from the church as the whole people of God.

In his view, the pope might be admonished and even deposed by a council, and he did not hesitate to declare this view to Thomas Cromwell CWM , ; SL: p. Against the more extreme claims of ultra-papal canonists, More's understanding of the pope's office resembles the restrained conception of royal authority expressed by English lawyers like Sir John Fortescue c. The letters written at this time to his daughter Margaret Roper offer a direct insight into his thoughts, but of particular interest is the letter of Margaret to her step-sister Alice Alington Corr.

Both the Dialogue and De tristitia face the issue of suffering, but they transcend private anxiety and are clearly intended for wider circulation.

bugeforbia.tk In the Dialogue More returns to his preferred fictional form, setting it in Hungary, as the elderly Antony and his nephew Vincent anticipate persecution in the aftermath of the Ottoman invasion of their country. The parallel with More's situation is clear: should one accommodate or follow conscience?

The older man's serene progress towards acceptance of temporary suffering for a higher good is set against the counterpoint of the younger man's hesitation. A key motif is that of the prison: in an apparent allusion to Plato's myth of the cave, More distinguishes between actual confinement in a cell, rated as a prison in the opinion of the common people, and the more philosophical view that the whole earth is, in effect, a prison and all its inhabitants under sentence of death CWM 12, — The wise prisoner, however narrowly confined, is free as long as he can quiet his mind and is content to be where he is.

Though More's wife finds his prison claustrophobic, the only difference between his cell and her chamber is that his lock is outside, while hers is inside CWM 12, Given More's relatively lonely stand against royal policy, conscience is a crucial term for him, as it touches on the soundness of his own motives, especially when these are criticized as over-scrupulous; and in the beast fable of Mother Maud he playfully navigates a course between the scrupulous conscience and the over-large or elastic conscience CWM 12, — In response, More insists that he acts from an informed conscience, one shaped by many years of study and reflection.

The responsibility must be his alone.

Early life and career

It was on the basis of this meticulous self-examination that More went to the scaffold.

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