Political Counsel from St. Thomas More

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 15, 2011

In the In Depth Analysis I just wrote, Toward a Realistic View of Society, I make the argument that a realistic assessment of the social order begins with an understanding of the importance of spiritual and moral formation. I stand by that, but I might also have made a point about expectations. We seem to conduct our political life as if every problem can be fixed.

Politically, the drive toward fixing every problem is a drive toward utopia—that is, to nowhere. It cannot be done. Worse, the effort to do it not only multiplies injustices but creates a weight of regulations and controls which enervates rather than invigorates the society it is meant to improve. A more realistic view was enunciated in 1516 by St. Thomas More. He offered it in the first part of his own Utopia, in which he asks whether a good humanist should seek public office, which was in fact his own career choice:

So the case standeth in a commonwealth, and so it is in the consultations of kings and princes. If evil opinions and haughty persuasions cannot be utterly and quite plucked out of their hearts, if you cannot even as you would remedy vices which use and custom hath confirmed, yet for this cause you must not leave and forsake the commonwealth. You must not forsake the ship in a tempest because you cannot rule and keep down the winds. No, nor you must not labour to drive into their heads new and strange informations, which you know well shall be nothing regarded with them that be of clean contrary minds. But you must with a crafty wile and subtle train study and endeavor yourself, as much as in you lies, to handle the matter wittily and handsomely for the purpose, and that which you cannot turn to good so to order it that it be not very bad, for it is not possible for all things to be well unless all men were good, which I think will not be yet these good many years.

Not for a good many years, indeed. It is worth keeping this in mind. Note that this is another extract from Firmly I Believe and Truly, the marvelous English Catholic anthology which I reviewed (and you can purchase) in The Spiritual Tradition of Catholic England.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2011 12:10 AM ET USA

    Many thanks, Dr. Jeff. Methinks Mr. More would have enjoyed sparring/discussing with you, were the 2 of you contemporaries.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Dec. 19, 2011 5:56 PM ET USA

    loumiamo7154: As in a commonwealth, so among kings and princes: If evil and vain ideas cannot be eliminated, and if you cannot effectively root out common and customary vices, then you must not abandon your post. Do not abandon a ship in a storm because you cannot quiet the storm! And don’t waste your breath trying to instill better opinions in those you already know will utterly ignore them. Instead, you must cleverly and subtly attempt to handle the problem as prudence allows, and if you cannot quite turn it to good, at least make it not as bad. For it isn’t possible for everything to turn out well unless everyone is good, and that is not going to happen any time soon!

  • Posted by: - Dec. 19, 2011 4:33 PM ET USA

    Dr. Jeff, Maybe you could do us all a favor and translate St. Thomas More's quote into English. At least I would fnd that helpful.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Dec. 15, 2011 11:39 PM ET USA

    Would it not be true to say that the American bishops have at times adopted a kind of conflicted view of American society, first, perhaps, as a potential earthly utopia that should be freely open to the poor of the world, and secondly, because it is not Catholic in orgin, as something that can and should be "tweaked" by them according to Catholic values in order to to perfect it?