Thomas More - Philosophy and Ethics
Thomas More (1477-1535)
English philosopher (pictured right), lawyer and chief minister of Henry VIII, who
eventually executed him for refusing to approve his divorce of Catherine of
His Dutch philosopher friend, Erasmus (pictured below), called him “a man for all
seasons” which became the title for the 1960’s play and film about More.
His most famous book
What did he say about ethics and leadership?
1. Conscience and principle
a) died for his principles
He was executed because of his moral opposition to
- the subsequent break with the Roman Catholic Church in Rome.
b) practised his Christian principles
(of love, honesty, humility and fairness).
- treated everyone, rich and poor, the same.
- was extremely fair in his legal judgements, which earned people’s love and respect.
Erasmus described his soul as “more pure than any snow”.
2. Purpose and God
Always do what God wants.
This is why More lived in a monastery for years, whilst he was training to be a
He never discarded the monastic habits of:
Despite his busy job, every day he got up at 2 a.m., and studied and prayed until 7 a.m.!
His last words were
“I die the king’s good servant and God’s first”.
In his imaginary, ideal state of Utopia:
- private property doesn't exist
- God and religion are seen as essential for the good of people and society.
4. Love and friendship
- found time for everyone including his enemies and the poor.
- gave freely and gladly, expecting no thanks and rarely losing
- loved humour (using it to cut the arrogant and hypocritical down to size).
- was particularly close to his daughter, Margaret, pictured right (although
bossy, and sometimes unkind, with his wives, Jane and then Alice,
pictured right below).
He failed as a leader and politician, because he couldn’t stop Henry’s divorce and break with the Roman Catholic
a) too much reflection, not enough action
More prayed and studied a lot, but didn’t give enough attention to his policies.
b) intolerant of other people’s views
- a persecutor of heretics (opponents of the Roman Catholic Church).
- bossy (imposing his views on others, including his family).
c) dogmatic and not pragmatic
He wasn’t prepared to adapt his principles and policies to changing
d) over-respect for authority and tradition
This made him unwilling to:
- accept an increasingly democratic government.
Key quote on God and religion
I die the king’s good servant and God’s first.
Key quote on
This hath not offended the king (More’s last words, moving his beard away from the execution block).
Key quote on
The clearness of my conscience has made my heart hop for joy(in a letter to his daughter, Margaret, from the
Tower of London, 1534).
Key quote on
You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds….What you cannot turn to good, you
must at least make as little bad as you can.
Key quote on decision
I think that if any good thing shall go forward, something must be adventured.
Key quote on peace of
In the things of the soul, knowledge without remembrance profits little.
Key quote on stress and
We cannot go to heaven in featherbeds (on suffering).
Key quote on education and
Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills or abilities – that’s training or
instruction – but is rather make visible what is hidden as a seed.