The Essential Works of Thomas More by Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith [eds]

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The name of this publication will be shortened to EWM.

This single volume distils a wide selection of Thomas More’s important works, providing within its covers selections of the statesman’s works on theology, political philosophy, literature, theology, and law as well as his less familiar poetry. In this volume in no particular order appear More’s History of King Richard III, Utopia, Epigrams, Letters, the Dialogue Concerning Heresies and The Answer to a Poisoned Book, as well as a host of other writings, all working together to form a comprehensive picture of one of the most important figures in the history of early sixteenth century England. Murdered in 1535 on the scaffold of Henry VIII, More left behind works written in both Latin and English that offer a comprehensive view of the intellectual tenor of the times, while giving scholars half a millennium later, an insight into his friend and fellow intellectual Erasmus.

This valuable resource for students and teachers was compiled by Gerard B. Wegemer, a Professor of English at the University of Dallas and Stephen W. Smith, who holds the Temple Family Chair of English at Hillsdale College. Wegemer and Smith co-founded the Center for Thomas More Studies in 2000. While the title implies a value judgment based around what is essential about this collection, I think it most unlikely that anyone would question this view. The one volume publication has its birth in the fifteen volume work The Complete Works of Saint Thomas More that was produced by Yale University Press in 1997, the work of twenty-five scholars over the decades from 1963. This volume is as practical as it gets.

Peripheral to the work but adding greatly to its scholarship and sense of authority are the map of Thomas More’s London that inhabits the inside front cover, a frontispiece comprised of a sculpture Thomas More by Pablo Escuardo in which More holds St Augustine’s The City of God and Utopia in one hand and a palm branch in the other (this is a most impressive work), a list of illustrations, a general preface, abbreviations and a chronology. At the end of the book are online resources, a list of More’s writings for further study and, on the back cover, a selective glossary. This volume from beginning to end breathes serious scholarship, and this is reinforced by the exquisite reproduction of Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting of More on the front cover.

The material covered is so vast that only a sample can be addressed. One of the first works in the collection is The Life of John Pico, Earl of Mirandola, a translation of selected segments from Gianfrancesco’s Opera Omnia of 1496. It became More’s habit to dissect the lives of prominent intellectuals and this one sets a tone of admiration blended with ambiguity and ambivalence.   More’s History of King Richard III might be addressed as a sample of a particular humanist view of history. Today, accuracy of historical fact holds a high office; More’s history lends greater weight to demonstrative rhetoric, to imitation, to creativity rather than accuracy. Petrarch’s famous commentary on imitation is quoted:

We must write just as bees make honey, not keeping the flowers, but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavours into one (EWM, 95).

The History contains a narrator who offers possibilities rather than accurate solutions, and the work considers aspects of fate, freedom, and law. The ‘sanctuary scene’ is particularly apposite in respect to the place of law vs royal tyranny. Written between 1513 and a disputed 1518, the History was not published in Thomas More’s lifetime.

Naturally enough, considerable space is allotted to the famous Epigrams, forty-eight pages in all. More sourced most of his ideas from classical texts such as the Greek Planudean Anthology and writers such as Aesop, Plutarch Seneca, Cicero, Aristotle, Martial and Lucian. What distinguishes More’s Epigrams is the author’s sharp wit and spirit of fun that display his erudition and keen judgment. One of his more serious is No 198 on the topic of representative government, that might be seen as an attempt to curb the dark passions that underlie the political world (q.v. Richard III). On the same page is the jolly No 201 ‘On the King and the Peasant’, a snide thrust at kingly splendour.

The prizes to be harvested by the reader appear boundless. More’s attacks on Lutheranism appear in A Dialogue of Sir Thomas More, Knight (which concerns heresies) (on page 525ff) and his defence of the Eucharist appears in The Answer to a Poisoned Book (on page 915ff). The Answer is geared towards the common folk rather than the scholar and “aims to persuade the everyday Londoner that Christ’s ‘body and blood are as real to them as the streets they walk on when they leave their churches and stroll past the wrestlers at Clerkenwell or pause to give a penny to a lame beggar by Savygate’ (lxxxvi)” (EWM, 915).

Thomas More will continue to be identified with Utopia, the great work that, in conversational mode, considers such weighty issues as the best way for people to live, what human beings need to flourish in all aspects of their lives, and what kind of leadership is needed if people are to achieve such lives. Utopia is not given pride of place in the EWM but is presented over the space of seventy-six pages as one of many entries. It contains a very useful introduction (as indeed does virtually every other entry – surely one of the most valuable parts of the collection).

Adverse criticism has no place in a review of this publication. While there is much that has gone unmentioned, the other material has not been neglected. It is composed of material at a comparable level of presentation. On all measures, The Essential Works of Thomas More scores full marks. It is scholarly and its audience will find it both useful and satisfying. I cannot praise the publication any higher.

The Essential Works of Thomas More

(2020)

By Gerard B Wegemer & Stephen W Smith (Editors)

Yale University Press

ISBN: 978-0-300-222337-8

1520pp; $199.99

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