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Religious Freedom in Thomas More's Utopia

  • Sanford Kessler


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 modern religious freedom in Protestant theology and its first mature articulation in Locke's A Letter on Toleration. This reading of Utopia shows that modern 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.



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

1. More, Thomas, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 4, Utopia, ed. S.J., E. Surtz, and Hexter, J. H.. (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. Nederman, Cary J. and Laursen, John Christian,. “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. Nederman, Cary J. and Laursen, John Christian (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 (1588–1679) and Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677) see, for example, Kraynak, Robert P., “John Locke: From Absolutism to Toleration,” American Political Science Review 74 (1980): 5368 and Smith, Steven B., 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. 2037; Lahey, Stephen, “Toleration in the Theology and Social Thought of John Wyclif,” in Nederman and Laursen, Difference and Dissent, pp. 3965

4. Lecler, Joseph, Toleration and the Reformation, vol. 1, trans. Westow, T. L. (New York Association Press, Inc., 1960), pp. 105113; Levine, Alan, “Introduction: The Prehistory of Toleration and Varieties of Skepticism” in Early Modern Skepticism and the Origins of Toleration, ed. Levine, Alan (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, Inc., 1999), p. 9.

5. The only extensive treatment of Utopian religious freedom appears in Surtz, Edward L., 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. 4078.Other brief accounts appear in Greenblatt, Stephen, Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 5354;Logan, George M., The Meaning of More's Utopia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 219–20; Marius, Richard, Thomas More: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), pp. 172, 175–76; Smith, Dominic Baker-, More's Utopia (New York: Harper Collins Academic, 1991), pp. 190–91; Fox, Alistair, Utopia: An Elusive Vision (New York: Twayne Publishers Fox, 1993), pp. 7073; Wootton, David, “Utopia: An Introduction” in Utopia with Erasmus's The Sileni of Alcibiades, ed. and trans. Wootton, David (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999), pp. 3133.

6. See, for example, Hexter, J. H. “Introduction” in Utopia, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, 4: cvii, cviii.

7. Wegemer, Gerard B., Thomas More on Statesmanship (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), p. 13; Marius, , Thomas More: A Biography, pp. 386406443;, Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Thomas More (New York: Doubleday, Inc, 1998), pp. 297312.

8. See, for example, Brann, Eva, “An Exquisite Platform: UtopiaInterpretation 3, no. 1 (1973): 116; Engeman, Thomas S., “Hythloday's Utopia and More's England: An Interpretation of Thomas More's Utopia” Journal of Politics 44 (1982):131–49; Nendza, James, “Political Idealism in More's Utopia” Review of Politics 46 (1984): 428–47; Wegemer, , Thomas More on Statesmanship, pp. 106107, 77–149 passim.

9. Brann, , “An Exquisite Platform: Utopia” p. 12.

10. See, for example, Surtz, , Praise of Wisdom, pp. 7677; Duhamel, Albert P., 1977. “Medievalism of More's Utopia” in Essential Articles for the Study of Thomas More, ed. Sylvester, R. S. and Marc'hadour, G. P.. (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1977), p. 242; Logan, George M., Adams, Robert M., and Miller, Clarence H., Utopia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 223, fn 119.

11. See also Fox, , Utopia: An Elusive Vision, pp. 7073.

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: 301302, 385).

14. Almost all More scholars consider him a believer in the truth of Revelation at the time he wrote Utopia. Popkin, Richard H. 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 Kries, Douglas, 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 Skinner, Quentin, “Sir Thomas More's Utopia and the Language of Renaissance Humanism,” in The Language of Political Theory in Early Modern Europe, ed. Padgen, Anthony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Levi, A. H. T., “Introduction” in Desiderius Erasmus, Praise of Folly and Letter to Maarten Van Dorp, trans. Radice, Betty. (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. xxxi; and Schmitt, Charles B., Cicero Skepticus: A Study of the Influence of the Academicain the Renaissance (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1972), p. 59.

16. Surtz, , Praise of Wisdom, p. 17; More, Thomas, 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 Historia Richardi Tertii, ed. Kinney, Daniel (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1986), p. 161.

17. See, for example, Marius, , Thomas More: A Biography, pp. 79–97, esp. 91, 9597.

18. See Surtz, , Praise of Wisdom, pp. 1720; 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 Introducion” pp. 6–13, 2733; Baker-Smith, , More's Utopia, pp. 57, 72.

19. Wootton, , “Utopia: An Introduction” pp. 36; 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, Thomists, 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. Erasmus, Desiderius, “Letter to Carondelet” in John C. Olin, Six Essays on Erasmus and a Translation of Erasmus' Letter to Carondelet, 1523 trans. Olin, John C. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979), p. 101.

26. The revised Index of Pius IV (the “Council Index” 1564) moderated this ban somewhat (Mansfield, Bruce, Phoenix of His Age: Interpretations of Erasmus c1550–1750 [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979], pp. 2627). 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 (Rummel, Erika, 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 Erasmus, Desiderius and Luther, Martin, Discourse on Free Will, trans, and ed. Winter, Ernst F. [New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1961], esp. pp. 101105). 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. 2627). 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 Olin, John C., Six Essays on Erasmus and a Translation of Erasmus' Letter to Carondelet, 1523 [New York: Fordham University Press, 1979], pp. 5773).

27. Kinney, Daniel, “Introduction” in More, In Defense of Humanism, pp. xixxxi, 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. Born, Lester K. [New York: Columbia University Press, 1936], p. 220; see also Wootton, , “Utopia: An Introduction” pp. 3133).

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; Wegemer, , Thomas More on Statesmanship, p. 98.

41. Mermel, Jerry, “Preparations for a politic life: Sir Thomas More's entry into the king's serviceJournal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 (1977);Logan et. al., Utopia, xxiii.

42. Wegemer, , Thomas More on Statesmanship, pp. 67, 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 (Harrison, John and Laslett, Peter, The Library of John Locke [Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1971], p. 192; Marchi, Ernesto De, “Locke's AtlantisPolitical 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).

Religious Freedom in Thomas More's Utopia

  • Sanford Kessler


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