|Sanford Kessler. The
Review of Politics. Notre
Dame: Spring 2002. Vol. 64, Iss. 2; pg. 207, 24 pgs
|Abstract (Article Summary)|
Thomas More advocated religious freedom in "Utopia" to promote civic peace in Christendom and to help unify his fractious Catholic Church. In doing so, he set forth a plan for managing church-state relations that is a precursor to liberal approaches in this area. Kessler discusses how scholars have treated Utopian religious freedom and considers the much vexed question of whether More actually favored this principle.
|Full Text (8650 words)|
Copyright University of Notre Dame Spring 2002
On the eve of the Protestant Reformation, Thomas More (1478-- 1535) asked his readers to consider the merits of religious freedom in Utopia, the famous "philosophical city " he constructed solely on the basis of rational principles.1 Utopus, the founder of More's fictional polity, was skeptical of all claims to religious orthodoxy and abhorred the fierce sectarian squabbling that weakened the Abraxians, his indigenous opponents. After seizing power, he prevented further religious-political strife by denying government the rights to coerce conscience and to privilege a particular sect (219. 39 ff). At the same time, he enabled government to proscribe politically dangerous forms of religion and to require all Utopians to subscribe to certain religious doctrines that promoted virtue. This limited type of religious freedom made Utopia a theologically diverse, but morally unified society wholly free of religiously inspired violence.
I believe that More's account of religious freedom in Utopia (1516) is a deep and original contribution to Western political thought. I also surmise that More favored religious freedom for Christians when writing Utopia, and that he designed Utopian religious freedom to serve in some sense as a model for Europe. In these respects, I differ from most interpreters of Utopia who dismiss this principle as little worth noting or remembering and doubt that More viewed it as an instrument of reform.
Finally, I view Utopian religious freedom as an important precursor of later liberal efforts to manage church-state relations. Most historians of ideas locate the origins of modern religious freedom in Protestant theology, its theoretical growth in the tumultuous changes the Reformation wrought on sixteenth and seventeenth century Christendom, and its first mature articulation in early Enlightenment works such as John Locke's A Letter on Toleration (1689).2 My reading of Utopia gives modern religious freedom important Catholic, Renaissance roots.
offer a comprehensive analysis of Utopian religious freedom in this
essay. I first examine how scholars have treated this principle and
consider the much vexed question of whether More viewed it positively.
Next, I provide the historical context for More's analysis which I link
to the publication of Erasmus's Praise
of Folly (1511) and to More's
polemical defense of this work. I then consider the rationale for
Utopian religious freedom in detail and the effects of this principle
on Utopian religion and politics. Finally, I discuss More's strategy
for promoting religious reform within Christendom and briefly assess
More was the first Western thinker to publish a comprehensive defense of religious freedom. Medieval figures such as John of Salisbury (1120?-1180), Marsilius of Padua (1275? - 1342), and John Wyclif (1328-1384) argued briefly for toleration on political grounds, but left untouched late medieval Catholicism's extensive edifice of orthodoxy.3 Early Renaissance thinkers such as Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) broadened the diversity of belief acceptable to God, but failed to link this reform to a viable political principle.4 More's Utopus, as we shall see, argues for religious freedom on both political and religious grounds.
Most scholars fail to appreciate the significance of Utopian religious freedom because it stands in the shadow of communism, the other great founding principle of More's fictional republic.5 Raphael Hythlodaeus, Utopia's main character, describes Utopian communism in great detail, contrasting its virtues at length to the vices of private property in Europe. Indeed, he asserts that the abolition of private property is the key to European as well as Utopian political health (103. 24-105. 23). In contrast, Hythlodaeus buries his account of religious freedom in a late and somewhat obscure account of Utopian religion and then neither praises this principle nor discusses its significance for Europe (217. 6 ff).
Following Hythlodaeus's lead, More scholars generally consider communism the chief axis on which the argument of Utopia turns and slight More's treatment of religious freedom.6 While these scholars rightly emphasize Utopian communism, they mistakenly slight Utopian religious freedom. In addition to linking the founding of Utopia to this principle, (221. 2-9), More suggests that religious fanatacism was as real, if not as great, a threat to Europe's well-being as private property (see, for example, 83.14-- 38; 85. 1-26; 219. 21-39; 221. 1-28). In Utopia, religious freedom checked this threat by transforming a plethora of squabbling sects into tolerant, stable supporters of the government. Catholics in Utopia eventually formed one of these sects, a fact that in itself should arrest the attention of scholars.
It is not clear, however, that More ever considered anything like Utopian religious freedom desirable for Europe. As Lord Chancellor in early post-Reformation England, he wrote scathing polemics against Martin Luther and his English followers and sanctioned, if not actively participated in, the actual persecution of heretics. Indeed, he considered this assault on heresy one of the few accomplishments worth mentioning in his epitaph. More was also, of course, canonized by the Catholic Church for his defense of papal authority and his subsequent martyrdom at the hands of King Henry VIII. These circumstances as well as More's reputed piety make one wonder whether he ever could have favored toleration.
Some scholars conclude from all this that More categorically opposed religious freedom when writing Utopia and, more generally, opposed most features of his fictional society. His purpose, they contend, was to defend the then reigning Catholic political order by highlighting, as Plato did in the Republic, the shortcomings of radical and idealistic proposals for reform.8
Such scholars correctly point out that Utopia's many unattractive features are hard to reconcile with any version of religious or philosophical excellence. These include the Utopians' excessive preoccupation with material well-being (161. 25-29; 173. 16ff.; 187. 39; 189. 1-26), their drab uniformity(e.g., 117. 25; 127. 2; 133. 35-39), the restricted quality of their lives (e.g., 133. 23-25; 137. 1-4; 147. 8-28), and the morally obtuse aspects of their foreign policy (e.g., 137. 7-22; 201. 15-20; 209. 4-15). Indeed, one critic equates Utopia, and not unfairly, with the city of sows in Plato's Republic.9 Such features at least suggest that More had strong reservations about the goodness of the regime that Utopian religious freedom served.
Others hold that More considered religious freedom appropriate for pagan societies like Utopia where the absence of Revelation precludes a knowledge of the one, true faith and makes a wholly rational politics acceptable. More could defend religious freedom under these circumstances, they assert, because it made these societies hospitable to Catholicism. Their More, however, rejected religious freedom for Catholic Europe, where Revelation anchors orthodoxy and heresy threatens the integrity of legitimate regimes.10 This position preserves Utopia for traditional Catholicism despite its embrace of a principle the Church then opposed.
I suspect, although I cannot prove, that More wrote Utopia partly to promote religious freedom for Christians.11 Tentativeness is warranted here because the book's "sphinx-like" fictional setting makes it impossible to achieve certainty regarding More's stance toward any feature of Utopian life.12 In Utopia's narrative, Hythlodaeus recounts Utopus's arguments for religious freedom to a fictional More character (hereafter referred to as Morus) who records them for the reader. These arguments, seemingly three steps removed from the author's own pen, are also filtered through 1760 years of Utopian history as well as through each character's interpretive lens (121. 29-31).13
While Hythlodaeus admires most of Utopus's creative statesmanship, for example, Morus clearly does not. This figure, an eminently political man, criticizes communism and claims that certain aspects of Utopian religion were "very absurdly established" (245. 18-20). Does he or his creator exclude religious freedom from this category? More, the author, neither answers this question directly in the text nor offers clues that would enable the careful reader to answer it with certitude.
Yet More suggests that he did indeed favor religious freedom for Christians by presenting an attractive, albeit fictional, account of this principle's political advantages. Chief among these was an end to religiously inspired violence caused by sectarian disputes, fanatic proselytizing, and attempts by government to enforce orthodoxy. More carefully shows, however, that religious freedom can only promote civic peace if the religions enjoying its benefits become more tolerant. He also seems to think well of the tolerant Utopian Catholics (219. 21-39; 221. 1-28).
More's apparent approval of religious freedom for
Christians puts him at odds with the Catholic Church of his time and
calls into question his own pre-Reformation stance toward faith. Was he
a genuine Christian who sought to reform Catholicism for religious
reasons, or a religious skeptic whose chief concerns were secular?
More's lifelong devotion to the Church points to the first possibility,
while Utopia's wholly philosophical character points to the second.14
the end, this fascinating question may be unanswerable since it is
virtually impossible to fathom the deepest reaches of More's
The Setting of More's Argument
When writing Utopia in 1515-1516, Thomas More was a Christian humanist, that is a member of a small self-contained circle of Northern European thinkers who used Greek and Roman sources as spurs to moral and philosophical reflection. These men pondered important political issues that concerned the ancients such as how to achieve the best political order, what constitutes true nobility, and whether a philosopher should enter political life. They also reconsidered the status of Christianity and religious knowledge generally in light of the recent geographical expansion of the known world and the recent rediscovery of ancient skeptical thought.15
Although Christian humanists generally accepted the Catholic Church's authority, they sought to purge her of ecclesiastical corruption and some even challenged her theological stance in ways that made their faith suspect. They were confident, however, that they could reform the Church through their efforts without fomenting revolution.
The chief gadfly of this group was Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1469-1536), a man whom More considered a soul mate as well as the greatest theologian and thinker of his age.16 Some scholars downplay the link between More and Erasmus because of the latter's theological radicalism.17 The greater number now hold, however, that Erasmus and More agreed on most important religious-political matters prior to the Reformation and that their writings reflect this complementarity.18
Circumstantial evidence strongly supports this view. Erasmus's most caustic attack on the Christian establishment during this period was Encomium Moriae or Praise of Folly, which Erasmus named for More, wrote in More's house, dedicated to More, and had More defend. Erasmus in turn wrote a prefatory letter and margin notes for Utopia (perhaps with Peter Giles), helped publish it, and enthusiastically trumpeted its virtues to the world.19
Erasmus's chief targets in Praise of Folly were certain prelates and principles of the Catholic Church. The Church's theoretical core in the early sixteenth century was late medieval scholasticism, an intellectual movement that used Aristotle's mode of reasoning or dialectics to resolve contradictions and ambiguities in Christian theology. The scholastics held that Christians must accept a host of logical propositions on abstract and complex theological problems in order to attain salvation. By Erasmus's time, their quest for doctrinal unity had proved fruitless, leading to a proliferation of fiercely partisan sects that vied for the Church's allegiance.20
Erasmus's Folly attacked those sectarians and prelates who claimed that the Church's need for orthodoxy justified the use of force aginst its enemies. "Nowadays," Folly laments, Popes manage the Church's affairs "by the sword as if Christ has perished" and are "not a whit deterred though they turn law, religion, peace, and all humanity completely upside down."21 Folly also criticized natural philosophers who engaged in fruitless and divisive scientific studies, monks who dishonored labor, and hierarchs who sought illegitimate wealth and power.22
Finally, Erasmus attacked the scholastic enterprise itself by casting doubt on the prospects for attaining surety in any human endeavor. "Human affairs are so complex and obscure," he claimed, "that nothing can be known of them for certain."23 He also used the New Testament and patristic sources in an effort to refashion Christianity into a behavior-oriented faith in which theology served to explicate the practical meaning of the Gospels.
These sources, as Folly interpreted them, honored simple beliefs, condemned "battles of words," and made much of the mild Christian virtues. "You won't do badly when you die if you've been good in your lifetime," Folly asserted, and if you practice the Christian virtues of charity, gentleness, meekness, and patience.24 "The sum and substance of our religion is peace and concord," Erasmus later wrote in a famous letter to Jean Carondelet (1523), but "this can hardly remain the case unless we define as few matters as possible and leave each individual's judgment free on many questions."25
After the Reformation, these efforts to simplify Christian theology helped earn Erasmus the enmity of powerful elements within the Catholic Church which accused him of undermining the its authority and unduly narrowing its required articles of faith. In 1559, the Council of Trent condemned him as a heretic of the first class and placed Praise of Folly and all his other works on the Index of Prohibited Books. 26
During the years 1515-1519, More defended his friend against early charges of heresy and schism in four polemical letters. The most important of these for our purposes were written to Martin Dorp, a prominent theologian at the conservative University of Louvain, and to an unnamed Monk (later identified as John Batamson, a Carthusian).27 These letters depicted, as the Folly did, a deeply divided Church whose intellectual elite frittered away part of its moral resources in a dangerous, fruitless quest for doctrinal purity.
More also suggested in these letters that the Church's preoccupation with heresy was peculiarly modern, that is, caused by certain churchmen of his day who fought over obscure, inessential doctrines and ceremonies while violating God's moral precepts.28 More equated these clerics with two types of madmen. The first, who were "mad without being particularly wicked," took "every product of their addled brain as if it were divinely inspired," but were quite content to leave their opponents in peace. The second, more dangerous type used "their own trivial observances" to justify crimes against them.29
In some instances, More asserted, concern for orthodoxy was an "altruistic pretext" for evildoers who cared little about saving souls.30 In other cases, where belief was genuine, pride hardened churchmen against their adversaries, blinded them to their own faults, and caused them to devalue the common elements of their faith. In More's view, this vice was responsible for much of the baseless hatred that some churchmen directed toward Erasmus.31
More, like Erasmus, considered the New Testament and the "positive" theology of the Church Fathers better able to sustain faith, encourage virtue, and promote salvation than "disputatious" scholastic philosophy.32 He, in contrast to Erasmus, also linked the consensus reached by the Fathers to the transcendent principles of Church unity and authority.33 Yet even the Fathers, he shows, differed sharply amongst themselves over weighty theological issues (e.g., the corporeality of angels, infant baptism, and the Virgin's conception). "There would be no end to it," he remarked, "if I tried to list all the points on which it is quite clear that the most learned and holiest men had mistaken ideas."34
More's intention here was not to criticize the Fathers, but to suggest that no mortal, however great, can make the ambiguities of Scripture fully intelligible without divine assistance. Thus, while recognizing the Church's ultimate authority in doctrinal matters, he warned churchmen to theologize humbly and implicitly endorsed Erasmus's view that salvation depends more on virtuous behavior than on belief in extensive theological systems.35
Churchmen were (and still are)
friendlier to More than to Erasmus perhaps because More was more
discreet than Erasmus in criticizing the Church and because of his
martyrdom. Yet More's defense of Erasmus suggests that when writing
Utopia he, like Erasmus,
deemed the Church's stress on complex theology
religiously unwise and politically dangerous. As we shall now see, his
Utopia surpasses the
largely critical Praise of Folly
religious freedom in a positive light.36 More shows through
Hythlodaeus's narrative in Utopia
how religious freedom can promote
theological simplicity and civic peace. The detail and depth of his
argument belie the claims of scholars who see it as insignificant.
Utopian Religious Freedom
As we have seen, Utopus established religious freedom shortly after assuming power, thereby making this principle one of the "most ancient institutions" of his commonwealth (219. 35). Arguing that "no one should suffer for his religion," he apparently left the "whole matter" an "open question," establishing statutes that respected the rights of conscience and prohibited coercion in matters of faith (219. 35-36; 221. 27). Thus, each Utopian could freely decide "what he should believe" and argue "quietly and modestly" for his views (221. 27-28,5-6). It was both "insolence and folly," Utopus thought, "to demand by violence and threats that all should think to be true what you believe to be true" (221. 17-18).
Utopus's most important argument for religious freedom is that it promotes civic peace. In his view, the main obstacle to this great good was pride, the sin Hythlodaeus considered the "chief and progenitor of all plagues" (243. 30-32). Pride is a pleasurable feeling of superiority that generally accompanies the desire to dominate (243.33-38). It can take a variety of forms such as pride in clothes, pride in jewelry, pride in "empty and unprofitable honors," pride in public service, and most dangerously, pride in "superfluous" wealth (167. 28-30; 169. 1-2, 30; 139. 5-10). When unchecked, pride fosters the "ambition and factionalism" that cause domestic discord (245. 9-12). It is a "serpent from hell," Hythlodaeus warned, which "entwines itself around the hearts of men and acts like the suckfish in preventing and hindering them from entering on a better way of life" (243. 39; 245. 1-2).
Religious pride is a sense of superiority produced by theological certainty-the belief that one possesses the truth about God and that "all should think to be true what you believe to be true" (221. 18). More shows through Hythlodaeus's narrative that this form of pride leads to zealotry, intolerance, and violence especially when fueled by political power. As we have seen, zealotry caused the conflicts among the pagan Abraxians that enabled Utopus to conquer them. It also led a Christian convert in Utopia to act in ways that Hythlodaeus condemned: to preach "with more zeal than discretion," to accuse his non-Christian countrymen of being "impious and sacrilegious," and to consign them to "everlasting fire" (219. 24-30).
More also attacked faith-inspired zealotry in Utopia, Part One, by describing an incident in which a jester playfully ridiculed a friar. The friar, who was also a theologian, angrily responded by damning the jester with "terrible denunciations out of Holy Scripture" (83. 31-32). Rejecting a gentle rebuke from his host, the friar deemed his "good zeal" holy, citing a biblical precedent in which God smote some mocking children at the prophet Elisha's behest (83. 35-39; 85. 1-21). More used this incident, I believe, to establish a link between zealotry and cruelty in his readers' minds.37
Utopus dealt with all forms of pride by instituting as much equality as his country would bear. His most famous moves in this direction were economic: the abolition of profit, the community of property, and the obligation of all to labor. His goals here were to check the false sense of superiority that fosters idleness and luxury among the wealthy and leads them to exploit the poor (see, however, 215. 30-33 ). He also established social equality through a variety of institutional devices such as common meals, a common form of clothing, and homes that were open to all (103. 25ff; 105. 18-21; 121. 9-16; 127. 2-5; 147. 29-31).
Finally, Utopus fostered religious equality by protecting the rights of conscience. Once the Utopians were free to choose their faith, they generally perceived all such choices as equally legitimate. In providing this protection, however, he carefully distinguished between religious doctrines that merely shape the understanding and those that influence action as well as thought. The Utopians enjoyed complete freedom with respect to the former, but only a limited freedom with respect to the latter (219. 21-36; 221. 2-9).
Thus, the Utopians could worship the sun, the moon, or heroic ancestors, but could not profess doctrines that degrade human beings or make them poor citizens (217. 8-11; 221. 27-29; 223. 1-3). These include the views that "souls likewise perish with the body" and that "the world is the mere sport of chance and not governed by any divine providence" (217. 8-11; 221. 27-35). The state did not technically punish the holders of such ideas, but shamed them by denying them honors, offices, and a popular forum (223. 4-14). Such disgraces were not lightly born in a society that highly valued public esteem (147. 25-28; 193. 30-35; 227. 37-39).
Nor could the Utopians profess doctrines or engage in religious behaviors that were likely to cause strife. Thus, violent, abusive, or overly zealous proselytizers were "punished with exile or enslavement" (221. 8-10). Such was the case with the Christian convert mentioned above who was banished not for "despising" Utopia's religions, but for "stirring up a riot among the people" (219.30-33).
Despite these limitations, the Utopians took a certain pride in forming and maintaining their own religious opinions without endangering their commonwealth. Over time, they became reasonable, good-tempered, and generally nondogmatic about most religious matters, preferring to focus on their common moral-- religious principles rather than on their theological differences (179. 38-39; 227. 21-23). Thus, by the time Hythlodaeus arrived in Utopia, there were many religions, but no discord or persecution.
Utopus defended religious freedom on religious and philosophical as well as political grounds. Skeptical of all claims to orthodoxy, he preferred free choice to coercion in most matters of faith. Otherwise, he feared, the violent spats over doctrines would attract the worst men to the fray, overwhelming the "best and holiest religion" like "grain choked by thorns and underbrush" (221. 24-26).Thus, on most religious questions Utopus was tentative, not venturing "rashly to dogmatize" (221. 14). He was uncertain, for example, whether God preferred religious freedom because He desired a "varied and manifold" worship, or because He thought that the one, true faith would sooner or later emerge by "its own natural force" (221. 15, 21-23). Religious freedom allowed for both possibilities.
Religious freedom also enabled Utopia's philosophers to study man and the cosmos rationally, that is, unconstrained by an established orthodoxy. These philosophers differed freely regarding metaphysical questions while jointly engaging in productive scientific research. In this respect, they differed sharply from the scholastics whose science, in Hythloday's judgment, created nothing but fruitless bickering (225. 25-26; 161. 7-16; 183. 7-27; 159. 25-35).
Over the years, Utopian scientists became "exceedingly apt in the invention of the arts which promote the advantage and convenience of life" (183. 26-27). These included labor saving tools, new medicines and health-related devices, and means for protecting themselves against foreign invasion, hunger, and adverse weather. Indeed, these scientists' strong desire to make arable land productive was one factor that led the Utopians to wage just war against nations that consigned such land to waste (129. 34-35; 111. 32-33; 183.25-27; 117. 10-11; 179.30, 32-33; 161. 7-8; 115. 25-31; 137. 19-22).
On pondering human nature, Utopian moralists concluded, somewhat to Hythlodaeus's dismay, that virtue, properly understood, is simply a means to obtain pleasure, their "end and happiness" (161. 25-28; 165. 14-15; 167. 5-6). The Utopians recognized two kinds of genuine pleasure: the mental and the physical. The mental pleasures, in their view, arise from the "contemplation of truth... the pleasant recollection of a well-- spent life and the sure hope of happiness to come" (173.10-15). The physical pleasures, which Hythlodaeus tends to dwell on, arise from sensual delights, sexual activity, and, most important, good health (173. 30-39; 175. 1). This national love of material well-being led the Utopians to condone practices condemned by the Church such as euthanasia, divorce, suicide, and, most famously, the viewing of one's prospective marriage partner naked (185. 38-191. 9).
Utopian moral philosphers also learned from studying human
nature that equality is the cornerstone of justice. All human beings
are equally favored by nature, they discovered, and therefore equally
entitled to pursue happiness (165. 13-19). While engaged in this
pursuit, they must first succour themselves and then alleviate the
misfortunes of others (165. 3-22). Meeting these obligations required
productive labor which the Utopians highly honored, respect for private
contracts, and obedience to just laws governing economic distribution.
Under these laws, however, they could prudently pursue their own
interests (113. 12-18; 127. 23-- 25; 131. 28-35; 147. 21-33; 165.
Religious Freedom and the Growth of Utopia's Common Faith
Although the Utopians grounded their morality on enlightened self-interest, they knew that reasoning about morals was insufficient to make pleasure-oriented people virtuous. Intelligent people, in their view, tend to maximize pleasure "by fair means or foul," seek to avoid death at all costs, and are only restrained by fear of punishment (163.5-9,13-17; 221.39; 223.1-3). Thus most Utopians considered a wholly secular case for restraint and sacrifice hollow and unconvincing, or as Hythlodaeus put it, "the extreme of madness" (163.17, see also 177. 38-39; 179. 1-10). "What profit can there be," these Utopians asked, "if after death you gain nothing for having passed the whole present life unpleasantly, that is wretchedly" (163. 14-17)?
Such views led the Utopians always to add religious principles to their repertoire of rational arguments when discussing moral philosophy These include the views that God exists (although this is assumed rather than specifically mentioned), that He is one, that the world is governed by divine providence, that the "soul is immortal," and, most important, that "after this life rewards are appointed for our virtues and good deeds, punishment for our crimes" (161. 30-35, 38-39; 163. 1-5; 217. 19-21).
These doctrines, which Utopian moralists considered rationally demonstrable (163. 3-5, 26-27) formed the core of a common faith designed (apparently by Utopus) to foster virtue as well as piety. Utopians who would otherwise be licentious were quite willing to follow the "hard and painful" path of self-- denial in exchange for "immense and never ending gladness" in Heaven (163. 10; 167. 3-4). They especially feared divine punishment, a fear which Hythlodaeus concluded was perhaps "the greatest and almost the only stimulus to the practice of virtues" (235. 7-8).
During Hythlodaeus's time, Utopia's common faith featured a single deity called Mithras "to whom are due both the creation and the providential government of the whole world" (217. 20-- 21).38 Virtually all Utopians worshipped Mithras while freely differing regarding his essence and the rites and ceremonies he required (217.17-23). Some conceived of Mithras as a nature deity or a virtuous, glorious ancestor, but this "medley of superstitions" (Hythlodaeus's term) was gradually disappearing as religious freedom fostered a simpler, more rational form of monotheism (217. 7-11, 26-28). This version of Mithraism featured a vast, eternal, all-powerful God, "far above the reach of the human mind" (217. 12-15).
The guardians of this faith were "God's interpreters" or the priests. These men were Utopia's de facto rulers, although the country was by law a mixed regime in which church and state were separate (123. 8, 10-11, 21-23, 16-20; 141. 15-19; 187. 16; 227. 26-27). The priests' chief political task was to govern mores which all Utopians deemed more central to their country's political health than their relatively few statutes (195. 8, 26; 229.17-18). They also educated the young, effectively chose the country's intellectual elite, and were the only individuals exempt from legal punishment and political control (131. 35-40; 133. 1-9; 227. 34-36; 229. 23ff).
In the religious realm, the priests presided over the rites and ceremonies of Utopia's common faith (227.37). These observances, which occurred on "holydays," or the first and last day of each month and year, were dedicated to Mithras and emphasized the shared elements of all Utopian religions (231. 29-31). In theory, the priests strictly respected the rights of conscience. Public prayers were formulated so that each individual could utter them "without offense to his own belief" and religious icons were forbidden in the "churches" (233. 17; 227. 28). All, it seems, could conceive of God as they pleased (233.16-17,11-13). In fact, however, the priests gave sectarians rather short shrift. They structured public religious observances in ways that enhanced their own power and relegated private religious practice to the home (233. 1-5, 10-11; 235. 19-35).
Christianity in Utopia
Hythlodaeus and company introduced Christianity to Utopia where it was well-received and appeared likely to gain in popularity (219. 1-2). This friendliness was due, in part, to the principle of religious freedom itself and, in part, to the Utopians' striking openness to religious innovation. At the end of "holyday" services, each Utopian asked God to lead him to any religion that He considered superior to the worshiper's own faith (237. 17-21). Although Hythlodaeus showed why the Utopians identified Christianity with their own faiths, as we shall soon see, he did not clearly indicate why some embraced it. The converts may have considered Christianity "heaven sent," or may have admired its great popularity in the world at large (179. 14; 217. 39; 219. 1). While the Utopians acknowledged the virtues of religious diversity, each liked to believe that his particular deity was accorded the highest status "by the common consent of all nations"(217. 25-26).
Utopian Christianity was quite unlike traditional Catholicism, however, because Hythlodaeus himself brought this faith to the island and shaped it according to his own predilections. Hythlodaeus was "unreservedly" a philosopher and, as such, a very dubious Catholic (51. 2). He rejected authority, avoided institutional ties, and criticized the medieval Church for distorting Christ's teaching. In fact, his religious independence was so great that he took no Christian literature or Bible with him on what was to be his final departure from Europe (see 107. 20-21; 181. 33ff.).
This independence combined with Utopia's isolation enabled Hythlodaeus to present Christianity to the Utopians as he wished. His version of the faith, like that of Erasmus, stressed the sacraments and the character, teaching, and miracles of Christ rather than the complex doctrinal requirements of the Church (217. 36-39; 219. 1). Hythlodaeus also made much of the disciples' common way of life in deference to the prejudices of his audience (219. 1-8). While in book one of Utopia he railed against those who would "accommodate [Christ's] teaching to men's morals as if it were a rule of soft lead," he made Utopian Christianity wholly compatible with Utopia's common faith and with her legal and ethical codes (101. 33-34). Indeed, he invoked Christ's authority in support of Utopian laws which he recommended for worldwide adoption (243. 25-32). Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the Utopians considered Christianity "nearest to that belief which [had] the widest prevalence among them" (219. 4).
Utopian Christianity was also quite congenial to the priests who, as "God's interpreters," could have turned public opinion against it (219. 21-22). Yet their silence regarding the new faith did not betoken a relinquishment of authority. The priests allowed the Christian Utopians to modify their new faith when expedient and tolerated this faith, but on their own terms. The new Christians, for example, desired but were unable to receive certain sacraments that only a Church-appointed priest could administer. Since they lacked such an individual, the Utopian converts were permitted to consider anointing one of their own rather than complying with the Church's requirements (219. 16-20). More important, the Utopians regulated Christian or Christian-like behavior in strict accordance with their political needs. As we have seen, they banished the Christian fanatic whose damnation-- oriented rhetoric stirred up violence among the people.
Another more interesting case involving politically questionable behavior concerned a large number of ascetics who were strikingly Christian in conduct if not in name. These belonged to one of two "schools." The first consisted of celibate vegetarians who "entirely reject[ed] the pleasures of this life as harmful" (227. 4-6). The members of the second, less extreme group married, ate meat and "avoid[ed] no pleasure unless it interfere[d] with their labor" (227. 10-14). Both groups refused the leisure time afforded them, disdaining learning and scientific pursuits for drudgery (225. 26-33).
The Utopians considered the first group holier than the more moderate second group calling them "Buthrescae" or "religious par excellence" (227. 24-25). Although they paid lip service to both groups, they probably considered asceticism as irrational as zealotry (227.16-25). They tolerated the ascetics, however, perhaps because their behavior was politically beneficial. In contrast to the zealot whose theological pride endangered the peace, the ascetics "neither belittle[d] insultingly the life of others nor extol[led] their own"(227. 1-2). Furthermore, the ascetics did Utopia's dirty work. "If anywhere there [was] a task so rough, hard, and filthy that most [were] deterred from it by the toil, disgust, and despair involved," Hythlodaeus reported, "they gladly and cheerfully claim[ed] it all for themselves"(225. 36-38).
More's preface to Utopia suggests that he approved of the way Utopian religious freedom brightened the prospects for religious reform. Here he announced that he and Peter Giles forgot to ask Hythlodaeus where Utopia was located. This convenient mistake served to prevent a "devout... theologian" from visiting the country on the pope's authority to promote traditional Catholicism (43. 1-15). It also may have guaranteed that Utopian Christianity could continue to develop without outside interference.
Achieving Religious Reform
Thomas More provided guidance for Christian humanists seeking to reform the Catholic Church in the famous "Dialogue of Counsel" that forms the core of Utopia, Part One. Here the issue dividing Morus and Hythlodaeus was how a public-spirited philosopher can best promote his ideas. In Morus's view, the proper strategy was to become a "councilor to some great monarch" and cause him to follow "straightforward and honourable courses" (57.15-16). Hythlodaeus rejected this advice echoing Socrates' claim in Plato's Apology that engaging in politics puts a philosopher's integrity or life at risk. These dangers are especially acute at court, he asserted, where evil colleagues would "easily corrupt even the best of men before being reformed themselves"(103. 9-15).
Hythlodaeus was something of a zealot in this exchange, arguing that Morus's prudent advice would necessarily lead to immoral political compromise.39 Christians should never accommodate their principles to prevailing morals, he asserted, but should preach the doctrines of Christ "openly from the housetops" let the chips fall where they may (101. 23-36). He was also something of a hypocrite, having advised Christians to accommodate to Utopian mores when necessary as we have seen.
More sullied Hythlodaeus's character in this way, some scholars contend, to signal his distaste for Utopia as a whole. They assume that since Hythlodaeus presents Utopia to the world it must embody his flaws.40 I believe, in contrast, that More makes Hythlodaeus an ideologue at least partly to show that the theoretical boldness appropriate to a subtle work like Utopia or "the private conversation of close friends" must give way to prudence when a philosophical statesman seeks to implement his principles (99. 5-6).
Such a statesman (or writer), Morus asserts, must know his "stage," adapt himself to "the play in hand," and perform his role "neatly and appropriately" (99. 13-16). He must not "force upon people new and strange ideas..which will carry no weight with persons of opposite conviction," but should rather set forth these ideas indirectly and with tact. What he "cannot turn to good," he must "make as little bad" as possible (99. 36-39; 101. 1-2).
Shortly after completing Utopia, More entered the court of Henry VIII with at least some trepidation.41 He also, perhaps, had aspirations to be a great statesman like his mentor John Morton who, as Cardinal and Lord Chancellor, exercised extraordinary religious and political power during the reign of Henry VII.42 Indeed, Henry VIII favored More and his friends at the time and appeared sympathetic to Christian humanism.43 Might More have used these advantages to help reform his Church from within?
Such reform, if More's Utopia and his defense of Erasmus are guides to his thinking, would aim at making Christian behavior rather than belief in a complex theology the chief criterion for salvation. Required doctrines would be drawn primarily from patristic authors and the Gospels with an eye perhaps toward fostering worldly as well as otherworldly happiness. Thus, churchmen would promote, or at least not oppose, religious doctrines friendly to scientific inquiry, productive labor, classical learning, and good citizenship. Guided by the Church, Catholic governments would enforce some orthodoxy, but allow free choice in most theological matters. This new religious freedom would foster Church unity by curbing zealotry and encouraging respect for a broad range of religious opinions.
More's hopes for establishing religious freedom for Catholics were thwarted by the cataclysmic events surrounding the Reformation. Yet the very nature of these hopes helps to explain why he opposed religious freedom for English Protestants during the 1520s. Some scholars attribute this intolerant turn to the baneful influence of Church politics on More's character-precisely the type of danger that Hythlodaeus warned Morus against in Utopia.44 Other scholars think, as we have seen, that More always opposed religious freedom for Christians and deem his pre-Reformation and Reformation era views consistent.45
scholars, while possibly correct, fail to appreciate the limits More
was always willing to place on religious freedom. His Utopians, as we
recall, allowed no freedom to zealots or to others whose religious
doctrines or practices were politically harmful. More believed that
Protestant sectarians threatened legitimate Christian orders, and, if
unchecked, would precipitate decades of religious war. Perhaps this
fear, rather than concerns for doctrinal purity, account for More's
decision to punish Luther's English followers.46 In any
statesmanship in Reformation England has little direct bearing on his
views in 1515-- 1516 when the Christian world was fairly united. To
claim otherwise is, as J. H. Hexter put it, an "obvious anachronism."47
Thomas More argued in Utopia that all efforts to achieve the "best state of a commonwealth" (47. 1) in the Christian era must grapple with the problems posed by faith-based violence. His fictional solution to these problems was a highly original strategy for managing the relationship between religion and government. This strategy featured a version of religious freedom that prohibited government from enforcing a complicated orthodoxy or infringing on what he considered the legitimate rights of conscience. At the same time, it allowed government to prescribe certain religious beliefs that More considered essential for virtue and to proscribe politically dangerous religious observances. More also showed how religious freedom causes all faiths, including Catholicism, to reject theologies that foster virulent religious pride. In Utopia, this plan curbed sectarian conflict and helped promote civic peace, scientific development, and economic prosperity.
Although More's ultimate stance toward this version of religious freedom is ambiguous, he publicly touted its merits just prior to the Protestant Reformation and approximately 175 years before John Locke wrote his highly influential A Letter on Toleration. In fact, Locke's work contains arguments that are remarkably similar to More's. Locke, like More, identified pride as a primary source of religious strife and sought to remedy this evil by separating church and state, establishing secular supremacy, fostering material well-being, and making Christianity more "reasonable."
is not clear whether More directly influenced the religiouspolitical
thought of Locke or other liberal champions of religious freedom, nor
why he made his intentions for Utopia so difficult to discern.48
Scholars may never be able to clarify these matters fully. Yet all
should be thankful that More's once utopian principle that "no one
should suffer for.. religion" is now a hallmark of free societies (219.
35-36). Today this principle is, as it was in More's time, the only
humane alternative to faith-based forms of oppression that thwart
humanity's just religious and political aspirations.