Religious freedom in Thomas More's Utopia

Sanford KesslerThe Review of PoliticsNotre 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

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. Most scholars locate the origins of modem religious freedom in Protestant theology and its first mature articulation in Locke's A Letter on Toleration. This reading of Utopia shows that modem religious freedom has Catholic, Renaissance roots. The essay discusses how scholars have treated Utopian religious freedom and considers the much vexed question of whether More actually favored this principle. It also presents the historical context for More's analysis, his rationale for religious freedom, its effects on Utopian religion and politics, and More's strategy for promoting religious reform in Europe.

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.

I 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 his achievement.

Interpretive Issues

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 In the end, this fascinating question may be unanswerable since it is virtually impossible to fathom the deepest reaches of More's extraordinary soul.

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 by presenting 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. 23-31).

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

These 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 case, More's 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."

It 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.

I would like to thank the following individuals for help in clarifying the argument of this essay: Elias Baumgarten, Robert K. Faulkner, MichaelA. Gillespie, Ruth W. Grant, Jack Riley Susan Shell, and Gerard Wegemer.

1. Thomas More, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 4, Utopia, ed. E. Surtz, S.J., and J. H. Hexter. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1965), p. 19, In. 25. Page and line references in the text are to the annotated Latin and English edition; references hereafter will be by page and line number only.

2. Cary J. Nederman and John Christian Laursen,." Liberty, Community and Toleration: Freedom and Function in Medieval Political Thought," in Difference and Dissent: Theories of Toleration in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Cary J. Nederman and John Christian Laursen (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996), p. 2. Some scholars link modern religious freedom to the secularizing intentions of political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (15881679) and Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) (see, for example, Robert P Kraynak, "John Locke: From Absolutism to Toleration," American Political Science Review 74 (1980): 53-68 and Steven B. Smith, Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

3. Nederman and Laursen,." Liberty, Community, and Toleration: Freedom and Function in Medieval Political Thought," pp. 20-37; Stephen Lahey, "Toleration in the Theology and Social Thought of John Wyclif,"in Nederman and Laursen, Difference and Dissent, pp. 39-65.
4. Joseph Lecler, Toleration and the Reformation, vol. 1, trans. T. L. Westow (New York Association Press, Inc., 1960), pp. 105-113; Alan Levine, "Introduction: The Prehistory of Toleration and Varieties of Skepticism," in Early Modern Skepticism and the Origins of Toleration, ed. Alan Levine (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, Inc., 1999), p. 9.
5. The only extensive treatment of Utopian religious freedom appears in Edward L. Surtz, The Praise of Wisdom: A Commentary on the Religious and Moral Problems and Backgrounds of St. Thomas More's Utopia (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1957), pp. 40-78. Other brief accounts appear in Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 53-54; George M. Logan, The Meaning of More's Utopia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 219-20; Richard Marius, Thomas More: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), pp. 172, 175-76; Dominic Baker-- Smith,More's Utopia (NewYork: HarperCollinsAcademic, 1991), pp. 190-91;Alistair Fox, Utopia: An Elusive Vision (New York: Twayne Publishers Fox, 1993), pp. 70-73; David Wootton, "Utopia: An Introduction," in Utopia with Erasmus's The Sileni of Alcibiades, ed. and trans. David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999), pp. 31-33.

6. See, for example, J. H., Hexter "Introduction," in Utopia, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, 4: cvii, cviii.
7. Gerard B. Wegemer, Thomas More on Statesmanship (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University ofAmerica Press, 1996), p. 13; Marius, Thomas More: A Biography, pp. 386-406, 443; Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More (New York: Doubleday, Inc, 1998), pp. 297-312.
8. See, for example, Eva Brann, "An Exquisite Platform: Utopia," Interpretation 3, no. 1 (1973): 1-16; Thomas S. Engeman, "Hythloday's Utopia and More's England: An Interpretation of Thomas More's Utopia," Journal of Politics 44 (1982):131-49; James Nendza, "Political Idealism in More's Utopia," Review of Politics 46 (1984): 428-47; Wegemer, Thomas More on Statesmanship, pp. 106-107, 77-149 passim.

9. Brann, "An Exquisite Platform: Utopia," p. 12.
10. See, for example, Surtz, Praise of Wisdom, pp. 76-77; Albert P Duhamel, 1977. "Medievalism of More's Utopia," in Essential Articles for the Study of Thomas More, ed. R. S. Sylvester and G. P Mare hadour. (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1977), p. 242; George M. Logan, Robert M. Adams, and Clarence H. Miller, Utopia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 223, fn 119.
11. See also Fox, Utopia: An Elusive Vision, pp. 70-73.
12. Baker-Smith, More's Utopia, pp. 210,243; Wootton, "Utopia: An Introduction," p. 2.

13. More's choice of names for characters and places in Utopia add to the interpretive complexity. Morus and Hythlodaeus in Greek mean "fool" and "learned in nonsense" respectively Utopia means "no place" or, perhaps, "fortunate place" (see More, Utopia, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, 4: 301-302, 385).
14. Almost all More scholars consider him a believer in the truth of Revelation at the time he wrote Utopia. Richard H. Popkin argues in The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), that some sixteenth-century Christians doubted whether reason provided access to orthodoxy but that no Christian questioned the truth of Revelation itself until the late seventeenth century Other scholars suggest, however, that at least some of More's great contemporaries such as Machiavelli were indeed skeptics in this latter sense. See in general Douglas Kries, Piety and Humanity: Essays on Religion and Early Modern Political Philosophy (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997). More indicates in his prefatory letter to Peter Giles that he wrote Utopia in the

plain style which, according to classical rhetorical theory is the appropriate style for a philosophical dialogue (39. 9-15; Logan et. al., Utopia, p. 31, fn. 6). He also claims that Utopia is a "philosophical" city and gives Morus a decidedly secular cast. Although this sheriff and citizen of London attends a divine service in Antwerp before encountering Hythlodaeus, he never makes a religious argument for a political position (49.17; see, for example, 107.5-16). Hythlodaeus makes religious arguments, but is, by his own account, more a philosopher than a man of faith (51. 2; see 101. 19-36 for example).
15. See Quentin Skinner, "Sir Thomas More's Utopia and the Language of Renaissance Humanism," in The Language of Political Theory in Early Modern Europe, ed. Anthony Padgen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); A. H. T. Levi, "Introduction," in Desiderius Erasmus, Praise of Folly and Letter to Maarten Van Dorp, trans. Betty Radice. (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. xxxi; and Charles B. Schmitt, Cicero Skepticus: A Study of the Influence of the Academica in the Renaissance (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1972), p. 59.
16. Surtz, Praise of Wisdom, p. 17; Thomas More, The Complete Works, vol. 15, In Defense of Humanism: Letter to Martin Dorp, Letter to the University of Oxford, Letter to Edward Lee, Letter to a Monk with a New Text and Translation of Historic Richardi Tertii, ed. Daniel Kinney (New Haven: Yale University Press.1986), p. 161.

17. See, for example, Marius, Thomas More: A Biography, pp. 79-97, esp. 91, 95-97. 18. See Surtz, Praise of Wisdom, pp. 17-20; Hexter "Introduction," in Utopia,
pp. lvii-lxxxi, esp. lxxi, lxxiv-v; Levi, "Introduction," in Praise of Folly and Letter to Maarten Van Dorp, p. xliii; Wootton, "Utopia: An Introduction," pp. 6-13, 27-33; Baker-Smith, More's Utopia, pp. 57, 72.
19. Wootton, "Utopia: An Introduction," pp. 3-6; Levi, "Introduction," in Praise of Folly and Letter to Maarten Van Dorp, p. xi; More, In Defense of Humanism, p. 105. 20. More, In Defense of Humanism, pp. 25, 71; Erasmus, Praise of Folly p. 88;
Levi, "Introduction," in Praise of Folly and Letter to Maarten Van Dorp, pp. xxi ff. esp. xxx-xxxi. Erasmus identifies the most important of the partisan sects as the realists, nominalists, Thon-dsts, Albertists, Ockhamists, and Scotists (Erasmus, Praise of Folly, p. 88, see 87n).
21. Erasmus, Praise of Folly, pp. 110-11.

22. Ibid., pp. 84-85, 96, 107-111.
23. Ibid., pp. 70-71, 153-54; see also Popkin, History of Skepticism, p. 5. 24. Erasmus, Praise of Folly, pp. 66, 98, 121.
25. Desiderius Erasmus, "Letter to Carondelet" in John C. Olin, Six Essays on Erasmus and a Translation of Erasmus' Letter to Carondelet, 1523 trans. John C. Olin (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979), p. 101.
26. The revised Index of Pius IV (the "Council Index," 1564) moderated this ban somewhat (Bruce Mansfield, Phoenix of His Age: Interpretations of Erasmus c1550-1750 [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979], pp. 26-27). Many of the charges against Erasmus by Catholics stemmed from his publication of a scholarly, annotated edition of the Greek New Testament which was thought to undermine the sanctity of the Latin Vulgate text established by Church tradition (Erika Rummel, Erasmus and His Catholic Critics: 1523-1536, vol. 2 [Nieuwkoop: De Graaf Rummel 1989], p. 147). On the Protestant front, Martin Luther accused Erasmus in their

famous controversy over free will of entirely removing doctrinal belief and, indeed, Christ Himself from Christianity (see Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther, Discourse on Free Will, trans. and ed. Ernst F Winter [New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1961], esp. pp. 101-105). Erasmus, of course, had defenders within the Church during the sixteenth century although their numbers lessened considerably by the 1550s (Mansfield, Phoenix of His Age, pp. 26-27). Modern scholars are divided over the precise nature of Erasmian Catholicism. Some contend that he was a rationalist who saw religion largely as an ethical concern while others hold that he was always a fully orthodox Catholic (see John C. Olin, Six Essays on Erasmus and a Translation of Erasmus' Letter to Carondelet, 1523 [NewYork: Fordham University Press, 1979], pp. 57-73).
27. Daniel Kinney"Introduction," in More, In Defense of Humanism, pp. xix-xxi, xli.
28. Ibid., pp. 49, 57, 71, 75, 281. 29. Ibid., p. 283.
30. Ibid., p. 267.

31. Ibid., pp. 49, 275, 277, 279, 303.
32. Ibid., pp. 141,47,49, 65-67. More did not condemn scholasticism outright, but rather slothful and arrogant scholastics. He admired Thomas Aquinas, for example (see Kinney, "Introduction," p. lxxviii).
33. Ibid., p. 89: 2-6; Kinney, "Introduction," p. lxxv. For other theological differences between More and Erasmus see Kinney, pp. lxxv, lxxx, lxxxiii, lxxxvii-lxxxviii.
34. Ibid., pp. 215, and 213, 59.
35. Ibid., pp. 59, 61, 89, 75, 79, 279, 281, 303-305.
36. Erasmus endorsed a limited form of toleration in The Education of a Christian Prince (1516). "It is the part of a Christian prince," he wrote, "to regard no one as an outsider unless he is a nonbeliever, and even on them he should inflict no harm" (The Education of a Christian Prince, intro. and trans. Lester K.

Born [New York: Columbia University Press, 1936], p. 220; see also Wootton, "Utopia: An Introduction," pp. 31-33).

37. See II Kings 2:23-24 and More, In Defense of Humanism, pp. 267,289.

38. In the ancient Persian religion, Mithras or Mithra, the spirit of light, was the supreme force for good in the universe (Logan et. al., Utopia, p. 219, fn. 114).

39. See Wegemer, Thomas More on Statesmanship, p. 103.
40. Engeman, "Hythloday's Utopia and More's England," pp. 134,147; Werner, Thomas More on Statesmanship, p. 98.

41. Jerry Mermel, "Preparations for a politic life: Sir Thomas More's entry into the king's service," Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 (1977); Logan et. al., Utopia, xxiii.
42. Wegemer, Thomas More on Statesmanship, pp. 6-7, 117; Ackroyd, Life of Thomas More, p. 180.
43. Wegemer, Thomas More on Statesmanship, pp. 184-85. 44. Fox, Utopia: An Elusive Vision, p. 19.

45. Surtz, Praise of Wisdom, p. 76.
46. Wegemer, Thomas More on Statesmanship, pp. 161-82. 47. Hexter "Introduction," in Utopia, p. xxiv.

48. Locke owned two copies of Utopia (published in 1631 and 1663) and cited certain passages from the work in the "Atlantis" entries in his Journals of 1676-8 (John Harrison and Peter Laslett, The Library of John Locke [Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1971], p. 192; Ernesto De Marchi, "Locke's Atlantis," Political Studies 3 [1955]:164-65). It is unclear, however, whether he read Utopia before he first formulated his arguments for religious freedom in his early "Essay on Toleration" (1667).

[Author Affiliation]
SANFORD KESSLER is Associate Professor of Political Science in North Carolina State University, Raleigh.