An argument could be made that the world ended when Henry VIII had Thomas More executed. Or, perhaps, in less drastic terms, the “modern world” began on July 6, 1535. What was left of the world of Christendom faded away at that moment.
This argument actually seems more plausible than the claim that some historians have made that the modern world began with the movements by Martin Luther and John Calvin. In almost every way, Luther and Calvin–with More, John Fisher, and Erasmus–looked first and foremost to the past for guidance and inspiration. Luther was a devout Augustinian, and Calvin’s first love was the Stoicism of Seneca.
But, these are thoughts for a different post, and they certainly require more explanation. Regardless, it’s almost definitely true that, as Russell Kirk argued, Thomas More was the wisest and best man of his era.
In that spirit, I’ve thrown myself into some of the recent publications of Thomas More’s works. Every one of the best new books on and about More comes from the same editorial mind and hand: those of Professor Stephen W. Smith of Hillsdale College.
With each, Smith lovingly annotates and explains the words and ideas of More. Here are three brief selections from For All Seasons:
For His wisdom better sees what is good for us than we do ourselves. Therefore, I pray you be of good cheer, and take all the household with you to church, and there thank God both for that He hath given us and for that He hath taken away from us, and for that He hath left us, which, if it please Him, He can increase when He will. And if it please Him to leave us yet, as His pleasure be it. (Thomas More to Mistress Alice, September 3, 1529, in Steve Smith, ed., For All Seasons, letter 51)
The more I realize that this post involves the interests of Christendom, my dearest Erasmus, the more I hope it all turns out successfully. (Thomas More to Erasmus, October 29, 1529, in Steve Smith, ed., For All Seasons, letter 53)
Congratulations, then, my dear Erasmus, on your outstanding virtuous qualities; however, if on occasion some good person is unsettled and disturbed by some point, even without a sufficiently serious reason, still do not be chagrined at making accommodations for the pious dispositions of such men. But as for those snapping, growling, malicious fellows, ignore them and, without faltering, quietly continue to devote your self to the promotion of intellectual things and the advancement of virtue. (Thomas More to Erasmus, June 14, 1532, in Steve Smith, ed., For All Seasons, letter 54)
Even the layout of each of these books is beautifully crafted and executed. The publisher is also to be commended.
If you’re interested in the last glory days of English Roman Catholicism, the last moments of nearly perfected Christian Humanism, or just some profound words of advice on living well, please look to these works of Thomas More edited by Smith.