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Thomas More - Philosophy and EthicsThomas 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 Aragon.

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.Thomas More - Philosophy and Ethics


His most famous book is...

Utopia (1516).


What did he say about ethics and leadership?


1. Conscience and principle


 Thomas More - Philosophy and Ethics

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 Thomas More - Philosophy and Ethics

(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.Thomas More - Philosophy and Ethics

This is why More lived in a monastery for years, whilst he was training to be a lawyer.

He never discarded the monastic habits of:

  • early rising. 
  • prayer and fasting.
  • wearing a hair shirt.

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”.

 Thomas More - Philosophy and Ethics

3. “Utopia”

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 his temper. Thomas More - Philosophy and Ethics
  • 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).


Thomas More - Philosophy and Ethics

5. Leadership

He failed as a leader and politician, because he couldn’t stop Henry’s divorce and break with the Roman Catholic Church.



a) too much reflection, not enough action

More prayed and studied a lot, but didn’t give enough attention to his policies.

 Thomas More - Philosophy and Ethics

b) intolerant of other people’s views

He was:

  • a moral dictator
  • 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 circumstances.


d) over-respect for authority and tradition

This made him unwilling to: 

  • change.
  • 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 death

This hath not offended the king (More’s last words, moving his beard away from the execution block).

Key quote on ethics

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 management

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 making

I think that if any good thing shall go forward, something must be adventured.


Key quote on peace of mind

In the things of the soul, knowledge without remembrance profits little.


Key quote on stress and pain

We cannot go to heaven in featherbeds (on suffering).


Key quote on education and training

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.


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