Book Review: Thomas More, A Portrait of Courage
[An excellent book to understand the courage that sustained Thomas More through ALL his seasons.]
I read this book because its author, Dr. Wegemer, gave the commencement address at Ave Maria University last fall. He is a professor of English at the University of Dallas, the Director for The Center for Thomas More Studies, and one of the top scholars of More today (which is no surprise as he has dedicated his scholarly life to the study and promotion of the study of Thomas More).
Of course none of that guaranteed that he would be a good speaker or even an enjoyable writer. However, it turned out he was both, and more. I have been to many of these kinds of speeches during my time at the university; I cannot think of one which stirred me more deeply than his. And the “and more”? When he made time to have lunch with many students of the English program he struck me as one of those rare and wonderful learned people who are at the same time deeply humble, caring, and eager to share the passion they carry for their work.
Thomas More puts two words together that, as far as conventional usage goes today, are basically treated as opposites: saint and politician. What place does the saint have in the practical world of law, statecraft, and ‘getting things done’? Piety is fine if that’s your thing but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the “real world”, does it?
But then you have this successful lawyer, the shrewd diplomat, the renowned wit and man of letters, Lord Chancellor of England, and of course the beheaded martyr. More was a “man for all seasons” but many of us are only familiar with one season of More’s life (martyrdom) as portrayed in Robert Bolt’s captivating hagiographical play, and immortalized by Paul Scofield in the movie adaptation. The question More’s life poses is how does it all add up- the worldly and the heavenly? Is there any real relation between the two or did he live two separate lives: one as saint and another as statesmen?
Gerard Wegemer’s biography, Thomas More, A Portrait of Courage, allows us to discover the man in all of his seasons. In doing so he executes (excellently) a very difficult task: writing both a scholarly historical biography and spiritually insightful hagiography in one book (that is also an accessible and enjoyable read to boot!). It is a Scylla and Charybdis with dangers on each side to navigate through. Histories can be too material while hagiographies can be too spiritual. The one is susceptible to the treadmill of their author’s theories of how the subject can explained away as a product of certain cultural, economical, and psychological conditions, with the result that the subject is stripped of his spirit and his story. The other is susceptible to the credulity of their author’s enthusiasm, resulting in fables that are detached from human reality (More himself was not fond of most of the “Lives of the Saints” of his day).
Wegemer is a good pilot and navigates between this dangers with ease, drawing us into a narrative that gives us both a compelling sense of Thomas More’s historical situation and the choices he had before him, as well as the development and the fruits of his spiritual life. One thing that struck me after finishing the book was that you barely sensed Wegemer’s presence in the text. He leads you straight to Thomas More himself; the book is filled with block quotations from his works, of which Wegemer has an impressive command. But he is not altogether absent, either. (If he was why would you need a biographer at all? You could just go straight to the sources- ad fontes!- which More would certainly approve of). Rather he is like a curator in an art gallery moving you from one exhibit to the next, helping you notice patterns that you may not have noticed before, and weaving your mind through the story of the artist in order to understand how he was able to produce such beauty.
Wegemer said in his commencement address,
Part of that greatness was Moore’s willingness not to appear great. Having achieved the highest office of the land, the love of his family, and the admiration of his friends, he was willing to give up all for what his family and friends called a “scruple of conscience.” But More, equipped with the hard-earned wisdom of liberal learning, illumined and strengthened by a faith exercised every day, could see beyond appearances to recognize- serenely, courageously- what were actually the greatest problems facing his country from generations past and for generations to come, and he humbly planted the seeds needed to solve those problems even though he would never benefit from the solution; in fact, planting those seeds meant suffering by abandonment and what most saw as a shameful death.
That kind of courage, both civic and spiritual, does not come out of a vacuum. The saint and the lawyer may make for a strange match in our imaginations but what Wegemer shows us is that his life of faith and learning, and life of civic service are threads of the same cloth. The success of the latter depended on the foundation of the former in self-mastery, patience, perseverance, and vision- an eye to what is most enduring and good for man.
Thomas More, A Portrait of Courage was especially edifying for me as a student and I would heartily recommend it to fellow students and young professionals, as it helped me understand more deeply the vital importance of my work and study that I am engaged in now. After completing his studies for his law profession More spent three years mastering Greek and then for fourteen additional years he spent his early morning studying the greatest minds of the Christian, Roman, and Greek traditions and the rest of the day devoted to his duties as a husband, father, and civic servant. These intellectual and moral habits prepared him for the great work and tough storms he would later face.
Wegemer put it this way as he closed his speech to the students of AMU,
May you form an ambition to form your souls, your mind, your hearts now while you can, and what you want them to be when you confront the greatest challenges of your life. And challenges you will certainly face. Our country, our church, our world needs “first citizens” like Cicero, Basil, and Thomas More. The courage you exercise now as a student will determine the courage will be able to sustain throughout your professional and family and civic life in the years to come.
Every time has its injustices to stand up to. There will always be Henry VIII’s and people chopping off people’s heads for being one of the handful good men left in the kingdom. As St Augustine put it, “Bad times, hard times – this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.” I can think of few models more appropriate for our times to study and imitate than Thomas More, patron saint of religious freedom, statesmen, lawyers, and people in public life.
This book is a great place to begin for anybody to understand and learn from a life so integrated and bountiful that when he canonized him in 1935, Pious XI declared “What a complete man!”
You can purchase this book here.
In full disclosure I would like to mention that in exchange for this review I received the book pro bono. I wrote this review of Thomas More, A Portrait of Courage for the free Catholic Book review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods. The way it works is simple. If you are a blogger who is Catholic they send you a book to review. You get a free book and they get a review. Lucky for me they are forgiving of very tardy reviewers like myself (i.e. I gathered from some very kind and persistent emails that one year was not the normal length of time between the sending of the book and the writing of the review). I promised them I would not let it happen again, as I would like to continue reviewing for Tiber River.