I’m currently reading Peter Ackroyd’s Life of Thomas More. I began with Chapter 10, “The Wine of Angels.” In it, Ackroyd spotlights and analyzes an ostensible contradiction in the character of the great saint which, given my own recent discovery of the haunting truths which inconsistencies obscure, I found illuminating.
More was not only a great saint, but a great lawyer—Ackroyd describes him as without question the greatest lawyer the English-speaking world has yet produced. Even to the end, he remained a man of the world; yet he died a martyr for the Catholic faith. He dined with kings, cardinals, and archbishops, lived amid splendor, and understood the civic uses of religious pageantry. Yet his favorite book, the book which most inflamed his life and thought, the book which proved his greatest comfort in the solitary confines of his cell, was Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ—a mediaeval devotional treatise on the vanity of trusting in the transient glories of this world.
Thus Ackroyd raises the inevitable question, “If The Imitation of Christ was More’s golden book, as is often surmised, where was the spiritual profit to be found?”
And then he goes on to explain:
It lies at the centre of a Kempis’s teaching, when he urges the reader to ‘look on all things as passing away, and on thyself as doomed to pass away with them.’ It is the theme taken up in many of More’s earliest epigrams and might be supposed to be his greatest subject; yet such a deep and permanent awareness of transience seems difficult to reconcile with More’s successful life in the world. But a recognition of the hollowness of the world no more precludes ambition than it does conviviality. It simply places it within a larger context. All becomes part of the same play which, in the words of More, you must act out to the best of your ability. The whole elaborate mediaeval edifice of spectacle and display is built upon the awareness of death. Yet within the overwhelming context of divine truth and eternity, there is also a delight to be found in the transient game and an energy to be derived from the passing spectacle. It is in this crucial area of the late mediaeval imagination, so open to misunderstanding and to misinterpretation, that we must place Thomas More. There is a Japanese image of the ‘floating world’, wonderfully constructed and designed in full knowledge of its eventual demise: there ceases to be any private motive in collaborating upon this infirm beautiful project, but rather an awareness of common inheritance and destiny. We may see More’s education and career as part of the same process; that is how he could combine ambition and penitence, success and spirituality, in equal measure. He could move easily through a society permeated with religious values and images; the faith of his nation was a social and political, as well as a spiritual, reality. His sense of transience, and recognition of eternity, could only be enhanced in a city which from the southern bank of the Thames looked like an island of church steeples. More kept in fine balance these complementary vistas—of the hollowness of the world and of the delight in game. From this awareness of duality (and perhaps the duality within his own nature) springs his wit, his irony and the persistent doubleness of his vision.
Chesterton would argue that More’s ability to sustain this paradox throughout his life is a testament to the power of orthodoxy: for in embracing Christianity as taught by Christ and eventually codified in the doctrines of the Church, he embraced a vision of the world which makes it possible for a man to live in the world, and yet be dead to it. It is one of those apparent contradictions in the Christian faith which, on further examination, proves to be the path of truth—“the combination between two almost insane positions which yet somehow amount[s] to sanity”—not a middle way between two extremes, as Aristotle would have it, but both extremes at once—in More’s case, both the scholar and the saint. “We want not an amalgam or compromise,” says Chesterton, “but both things at the top of their energy: love and wrath both burning.”
And in More’s case, I suspect it was his actual devotion to Christ (most immediately suggested by his devotion to The Imitation of Christ) which best explains this seeming contradiction in the composition of his character. A man who has been captured by the love of Christ will feel no need to seek his worth in his (formidable) achievements, still less in the favor of clerics and monarchs. Thus Ackroyd is correct in his assessment, though he only goes so far. It is true, there burned in More’s soul an abiding conviction of the vanity of all things not eternal, but if it ended there, it would have been mere pessimism—and we know that More cherished “merriement” above almost all other qualities. No, it was his love of the eternal which enabled him to see with clarity the fading nature of the fashion of this world [edit: Aquinas affirms this when in Chapter 11 of his commentary on the book of Job WHICH I JUST STARTED READING AND IT’S AWESOME he writes, “The vanity of man comes from the fact that his heart is not fixed in the truth which alone can be the foundation of his security”]. He had found his identity, not in his rhetorical skills, nor his wealth, nor his fame, nor his writing, but in Christ Himself, the Man he would march to the scaffold celebrating and defending. Realism without love is itself vanity. More had both, and this is the enduring secret of his greatness.