Horns were bleating painfully sweet Renaissance music across an esplanade at Georgetown University. Plastic glasses clinked in the night air. All around, people were talking of Sir Thomas More - 16-century humanist, statesman, and cannonized martyr.
"I think . . ." said a small, spare man from Angers, France, a preist with pale skin pulled severely across his cheekbones, "we admire him because he would not budget. Of course, there is his writing. But primarily you could say the framing of his conscience held fast."
The priest's name is Germain Marc'hadour, and he is a reowned "Morean." He edits a journal called "Moreana." Thomas More died at 57. Father Marc'hadour turned 57 awhile ago. Some say the two look uncannily alike.
"Actually, my frame is much slighter than More's," said the cleric. "But I do what I can."
Just as followers of Beethoven or Cervantes or even Elvis must come together to festoon their here and sift collectively through what he has left behind, so this week an international troupe of scholar-pilgrims has met in Washington to celebrate the 500th birthday of their man for all reasons. To an outsider, the four-day symposium, which closes tomorrow, has seemed amusing at first. Then quaint. Finally inspiring. Which may say something about the power of the man himself.
The attendes at the conference (which is being jointly sponsored by Georgetown, the College of the Holy Redeemer, the Folger Library and its Institute of Renaissance and 18th-Century Studies) is non denominational in make-up. Participants have come from St. Andrews University, Scotland; University College, London; and the University of Dusseldorf.
A groomed English teacher from Sweet Briar named Lee could be found sitting next to a professor from the Midwest in lime slacks and a polyester coat who rose during an open discussion to say:
"I say we don't deminish Thomas one whit by saying he's not a pure, card-carrying humanist."
Maybe this was simply tribute to More's own expansiveness. It may surprise some to know that Thomas More seems on his way to becoming a genuine 20th-century culture figure - an antidote, perhaps, to morally precarious times. Though it is arguable that no death in English history is more famous, one would not think right off to name a 16th-century Christen humanist as a candidate for pop herodom.
Yet in the past several decades there have been an increasing number of workshops, films and plays about More Robert Bolt's searing play and film script, "A Man for All Seasons," is probably the source of More's popular rediscovery. There have also been increased dedications of churches and schools and libraries to More, by no means all of them Catholic.
This year, symposiums on More will be held in Australia, New Zealand, Japan. The Modern Language Association will take him up at its annual meeting in December. Feminists now point out - rightly - that More pushed long and hard in his lifetime for the education of women. (Erasmus once described Sir Thomas' Chelsea household as "Plato's academy on Christian footing!") Yale University Press continues with its massive "The Complete Works of St. Thomas More." Supposedly, there are even T-shirts around. In all, the "layman's saint" seems a thoroughly modern More.
As a writer, Thomas More's most famous work is "Utopia." (The name, from the Greek, means "nowhere".) "Utopia" is an account of an ideal society based in justice and equality and a community of property. Typically, though, as was More's carefully balanced way, there is included in the romance an eloquent defense of private property put into the mouth of a character named More. The book is father to a whole class of writings, from Bacon to Swift to today's science-fiction writers.
But it is the mans life that is simply arresting. It was a life, by all accounts of complex genius and terrible moral tensions. He was born in London (probably in 1948, though some think 1477), son of a prominent lawyer. He proceeded to Oxford. He became a friend of the humanist and scholar Erasmus ("dear darling," he calls him in correspondence) and, after "Utopia," began a meteoric rise as lawyer-statesman to Henry VIII: Master of Requests, Privy Councillor, Speaker of the House of Commons, finally Lord Chancellor. He was never an ivory-towered mystic, your pedantic, sackcloth-and-ashes saint.
It was as Lord Chancellor, in 1932, after the kings marriage to Anne Boleyn that Thomas More faced the "Great Matter" that would make him immortal. He refused to take Henry's oath for the Act of Succession and Supremacy, making the king, not the pope, spiritual head of Christendom. And for this refusal, he died, a martyr to his conscience and faith.
When he put his head on theexecutioner's block, he had enough humor in him still to move his beard aside, allowing that his beard "had done the king no offense." As G. K. Chesterton said five centuries later, "The best friend of the Renaissance was killed as the worst enemy of the Reformation." Chesterton also predicted in the "20s that More would emerge as a dominant hero of the century.
John Guy, a tall, red-headed Englishman, had flown over for the conference. Guy, a Cambridge man who will take up a position this fall at the University of Bristol, said he was really a "meat-and-potatoes More scholar-as they might put it in California" (He was at Berkeley awhile back.) He's not interested, he said, in psycho-literary interpretations of his man (More refers in letters to a "pain in my breast" that scholars make much over), but in More the man whose life melded the Aristotelian ideal of action and contemplation. In fact, he's just finished up a book on More's public life.
"A man gave a paper here this afternoon," said Guy. "It sounded scholarly, all right, but I don't know what the devil he was taking about."
Thursday night's keynote address was given by Richard Syivester of Yale, general editor of the complete works of More. The Rev. Timothy Healy, jocular and rotund president of Georgetown, introduced Syivester by addressing the assemblage in Latin.
"Magistri, magistri. Hospites omnes," he said, adding that he was going to stop it right there. He then noted his own intellectual, life ended in 1610 with a publication by John Donne of a satire on Jesuits. Healy (who took doctoral work at Oxforrd) said it gives him ironic comfort to think editing the satire. "Something Donne probably whipped off in a weekend."
Sylvester, one of the guiding lights behind the conference, was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Georgetown. Sadly, he is ill with cancer. He spoke sitting down, cooling his still-strong voice with drinks of water, his Topsider moccasins showing beneath his black academic garb.
Sylvester began work on the birthday party two years ago. He said the objective this week was to place More "in an out of his age - the Christian knight, St. Thomas and Sir Thomas, all compounded in one complex personality." The general problem with More Scholarship, he said, is there is almost too much More to contemplate - a statesman, family man, author, humanist, scholar. More as humorist and wit - even bawdy, Chaucerian wit - largely goes ignored, he said.
"We tried to get somebody to talk about his humor, but couldn't find anybody up to it".
L'Abbe Marc'hadour said he first came upon More "as a serious companion" nearly 40 years, ago, when he was teaching in a French secondary school. He had thought of commiting himself to Newman (whom he's still keen on) but finds More holds up better.
"He's not a spellbinder," the priest said. "Not in the Shakespearean sense. The issue was never, really, the magic of words. It's the wholeness, the balance, that solidity of moral consciousness that finally rivets you to him forever."