Tuesday, October 12, 2010

High Praise Indeed

Of Sir Thomas More:

The steadfastness and courage with which More held on to his religious convictions in the face of ruin and death and the dignity with which he conducted himself during his imprisonment, trial, and execution, contributed much to More's posthumous reputation, particularly among Catholics. Many historians argue that his conviction for treason was unjust, and even among some Protestants his execution was viewed as heavy-handed. His friend Erasmus defended More's character as "more pure than any snow" and described his genius as "such as England never had and never again will have." When he knew of the execution, Emperor Charles V said: "Had we been master of such a servant, we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions than such a worthy councillor."

More was greatly admired by Anglican writers Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson. Johnson said that ""He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced".

Winston Churchill wrote about More in the History of the English-Speaking Peoples: "The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a noble and heroic stand. They realized the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom. [...] More stood as the defender of all that was finest in the medieval outlook. He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values and its instinctive sense of other-worldliness. Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counsellor, but a system, which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams."

Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton said that More was the "greatest historical character in English history".

I think it's a good rule of thumb that anyone praised by Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Winston Churchill and G.K. Chesterton is almost certainly a cool dude. I think Churchill well identifies the reservations that a conservative would have felt when presented with Henry VIII setting up the Church of England.

To get but a small flavour of More, consider how he composed himself as he was about to be executed for treason:

When he came to mount the steps to the scaffold, he is widely quoted as saying (to the officials): "I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself"; while on the scaffold he declared that he died "the king's good servant, but God's first."

Is there anything more wonderfully English than making a gentle ironic joke as one is led to the executioner's block? And not only that, can you imagine declaring yourself a good servant of the man who set you up for execution, rather than sending him off with a hearty "@#$% you"? That takes some serious gentleness and restraint.

(Inspired by Popehat)

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