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The Last Medieval Man
The Life of Thomas More, by Peter Ackroyd, Anchor, 480 pp.; $17.50
Hanging over my fireplace is a print of Holbein's portrait of Thomas More, purchased at the Tower of London, the place of his execution. Five feet away, on an angled wall, hangs a watercolor of Samuel Beckett, purchased at Kenny's bookstore in Galway, Ireland. More is looking to his left; Beckett is looking, hawklike, straight ahead. Their gazes cross, but do not meet. At the crossing of their equally fierce gazes sit you and I, lesser men and women no doubt, but equally responsible to make a life.
More and Beckett do not represent opposite poles, sharing as they do some things in common—such as uncommon integrity. But they do represent different visions of reality and of human possibilities, neither of which can be ignored by a reflective person at the opening of the twenty-first century. More stands at the beginning of modernity, a last defender of a medieval understanding of life, and Beckett stands at the end of modernity, a first prophet of the postmodern. If we ignore Beckett, we will be ignorant of our time. If we ignore More, we risk losing our souls.
There are many Thomas Mores, of course. In A Man for All Seasons, the play and the subsequent film that have most shaped the image of More in our time, Robert Bolt dramatized the story of a rugged individualist dying for conscience in a battle against the coercive state. That was a view congenial to the spirit of the 1960s, but it also represents a genuine aspect of More's legacy. And if some more recent biographers have labored to deconstruct More's saintly image and replace it with that of an intolerant, ambitious ideologue, that is not only a testimony to a common academic suspicion of heroes, but also to aspects of More's life which we can no longer admire.
Peter Ackroyd's Thomas More is the last great medieval Englishman, with a Renaissance love of learning and a heart dedicated to God. He is a practical man, involved with sewers and merchant ...