Most people don’t treat Sir Thomas More as a political thinker, but his political philosophy is worth studying as an insightful unification of the contemplative life and political action, according to Veronica Brooks, who recently completed the Ph.D. program at Hillsdale’s Van Andel School of Statesmanship.
Delivering her dissertation on More’s political philosophy Monday afternoon — and joking that the name More gives himself in “Utopia” (“Morus,” Latin for “fool”) was fitting for the first of April — Brooks argued that More admired a republican form of government that depended on citizens’ consent and virtue. She pulled from four of More’s works — “Utopia,” “The History of King Richard III,” “Life of Pico della Mirandola,” and a collection of poetic epigrams — to make her case.
More’s views on virtue or the human good are a “starting point” for understanding his politics, Brooks said. He derived these largely from Cicero, who rejected the Epicurean practice of withdrawing from society to philosophize. Instead, Cicero — and More after him — recognized that the good life takes place in community.
“More critiqued the ‘ivory tower’ intellectuals,” Brooks said, pointing to “Pico,” who’s apolitical practices led to trouble, as an example of this criticism.
More also rejected the Epicurean idea that virtue was ultimately one’s own pleasure.
“An instrumental conception of virtue is what More found politically dangerous,” Brooks said. More’s history of Richard III particularly makes this case. More recognized that a monarch often feels that people exist for his use — but instead, a republican government checks the excesses of rulers and allows for consent of the governed.
In “Utopia,” More endorses a realistic approach to politics, Brooks pointed out, epitomized in a particular quote: “What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as possible.”
More’s blending of political action and contemplation in his own political life “is hard to separate from his Christianity and his piety,” Brooks said. “His perspective on eternity is responsible for his realistic view of politics.” More recognized that heaven comes later and is impossible on this earth.
Stephen Smith, professor of English and one of Brooks’ dissertation readers, said Brooks “articulates a very satisfactory and attractive account of prudence and the great need for it in political and personal life.”
Professor of History Paul Rahe, another of Brooks’ readers, said that while everyone writes about More’s “Utopia,” few delve into the other works that Brooks used for her dissertation. He said he hopes she will publish it as a book in the coming months.
“This is a first-rate dissertation, and it will be a great book,” Rahe said. “It’s the most comprehensive thing written on the political thought of Thomas More.”