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Incorrectly Political: Augustine and Thomas More

Peter Iver Kaufman
Published by University of Notre Dame Press in 2007

The contributions of Augustine and Thomas More to the development of the Western Intellectual Tradition certainly have been the subject of more than their fair share of scholarly evaluation. But usually such examinations focus on one or more of the sometimes slippery positions of the two authors, hidden often in allusion or late-career retractions, and then not in tandem. Peter Iver Kaufman’s Incorrectly Political: Augustine and Thomas More, does not assay their conclusions on the various issues in their storied careers, but rather seeks to determine their attitude to political involvement generally. Kaufman, recently retired Professor of History and Religion at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and now the Modlin Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, pairs these seemingly disparate personalities and careers and concludes, as the title frankly suggests, that the two entertained serious and delimiting doubts about both participation in political affairs and the amount of possible good that politics might ever accomplish.

Some may wonder at the pairing of these scholars, Augustine and More, separated as they are by significant amounts of time and circumstance. Yet this should not be a cause for puzzlement as the young More, studying law at Lincoln’s Inn, established the basis for his early academic reputation by means of a series of public lectures on Augustine’s City of God. Aficionados of the Just War also will see an obvious connection. More’s Utopia is suffused with Augustinian principles on war, and by extension other governmental issues as well. The real question is whether or not these conjunctions represent a special connection between the thought of the two or signify simply a generalized extrusion of the overall Reformation-era renaissance of Augustinian thought.

Kaufman allays these doubts by enumerating the fascinating points of congruence between the two that inspired his study. Despite being separated by eleven centuries, both wrote enigmatic and much discussed masterpieces of the Western Canon, The City of God and Utopia. Both hovered between a life of renunciation of the world and full involvement in political affairs, Augustine with a monastic community in Thagaste, North Africa, and More with a serious flirtation with joining the Carthusians. Both learned much from a mentor in their earlier years, often as much what not to do as what to do: Augustine with Ambrose, the politically involved Bishop of Milan, and More with John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor for Henry VII, and infamous originator of the “heads I win, tails you lose” tax gambit known as “Morton’s Fork.” Both argued against, and even punished, dissident wings of the Church: Augustine with Donatists and More with the emerging Protestant Reformation. The only serious breakage of this seemingly solid conjoining is that Augustine was a theologian of remarkable breadth and originality, while More was “the only lay member of the king’s council” when he was first appointed Chancellor in October 1529 (208), and he was also a humanist in great standing in the circle that orbited the luminous Desiderius Erasmus; the Erasmici as Kaufman styles them (166). Despite this, the end result is an intriguing and excellently presented study of two singular thinkers that reinforces one of the hypostases of historical studies: that there might well be a transcendent human response to similar situations down through the ages.

Kaufman begins his work with a candid observation: “Theorists as prolific as Augustine and Thomas More can be made to say just about anything, because they said so much” and notes that “Historians … are right to call for inquests when parts of the deceased are resurrected to stand for the whole…”(2). Just so, and rightly he decries those who would make of the two some creation that suits their own agenda (3). One cannot help but wonder, however, if this variety of seemingly contradictory and thus malleable thought, such as the remarkable late-career work of Augustine titled Retractationes, also casts doubt on which “parts of the deceased” Kaufman resurrects himself. I believe he has made a convincing case, but those predisposed to disagree will use his own cautionary words, however accurate and honest, against his arguments.

Much of the book is devoted sensibly to setting a biographical stage for Kaufman’s conclusions. Thus both Augustine and More have their early lives rehearsed so that the actual political involvement of their mature careers has context. Kaufman interweaves a keen analysis of the various theories of contemporary Augustine and More scholarship, and judges the vexed passages of each with a reasonable probity. His judgment on the two is summed up best in the title of one of his chapters on Augustine, “Used But Not Improved” (99-132), that government, or “the business of Babylon” is a “dreadful necessity” that in and of itself cannot cure the spiritual malaise that has affected all since the Fall. “To invest it (government) with any dignity,” or power to correct, “was to be incorrectly political” (224). Kaufman’s conclusion seems to be that both Augustine and More came to realize that politics, while possibly mitigating some of the more rebarbative elements in governing fallen mankind, has no purifying or even curative power for the essentially flawed human condition. This is a serviceable antidote to the cheap optimism of government as panacea, but can swing easily toward a type of fatalistic resignation that at best might limit political reform or at worst flirt with quietism. Pessimism about government is a salubrious medicine, but only taken in the prescribed dosage.

To this end, Kaufman analyzes their positions on the use of force, Augustine with his involvement in supporting persecution of the Donatists (Chapter 3), and More’s activity in dispatching Protestant heretics by sending them from the fire of the stake to the fire everlasting (208). He includes a telling passage from More making the self-conscious connection between Donatists and Protestants and comparing his last resort to force to “saynt Austyn”and his eventual surrender to persecutory methods when persuasion failed (207). Kaufman sums up this use of a necessary evil as “sublime, salvific ends sometimes justified gritty means” (227).

One is reluctant to criticize a study so original and provocative, yet some adjustment in prose might only strengthen the work. Kaufman’s use of modern, almost pop culture terms, while largely quite accurate and pleasing to some, including this reviewer, may disenchant others and give them a handy tool to discredit his larger points. Thus Augustine is labeled a “public relations specialist” (26), pagan gods “flat out” fail their devotees (36), and their cults encourage a “boozy sociability” (52), while the Donatists “were ahead in the polls” in the years just before the Imperial persecution rescripts (72). These same Donatists are made to accuse Catholics of viewing the Late Roman government as “Camelot” (92), and even Augustine’s arguments that flawed government officials could still effect some useful change is summed up as “Frog princes were always frogs” (98), while Donatists drew from a “myth kitty” (99) of their martyrs’ passions as a way to encourage their faithful. As it may be impossible to find a suitable synonym for such a nuanced word, the frequent resort to “decathect,” or the drastic cutting of emotional investment in politics, is over-utilized (106, 117, 128, 183). With his treatment of More, the issue is not so much the use of modernisms, though Utopia is compared to Lake Wobegone (168), nor obscure verbs, but the insistence that sixteenth-century language remain un-translated for the reader. The echoes of late Middle English, one remove back from the increasingly mystifying King James era prose, can be difficult to decipher for the uninitiated and resembles nothing so much as the endemic spelling miscues of atypical unlettered undergraduate. Thus More’s translation of a letter by Pico contains the lament, “what an hepe of hevines ther is, how gret anguish, how much besynes and troubleI may rather lerne of the then teche ye” (148). It may not be apparent that hevines is “heaviness,” besynes is “business” nor that elsewhere dyspyseth is “despiseth” (196) and rethoryk is apparently “rhetoric” (198).

But these are choices of style and presentation. Actual missteps are quite rare in this finework. Kaufman seems unaccountably to misplace the Act of Supremacy (November 1534), whereby Henry VIII was made the Supreme Head of the Church in England when he says, “The Reformation parliament overstepped in early 1534, when it declared the king supreme head of the English church” (215). What was at issue up to that point was the Act in Restraint of Appeals, the Act of Succession, and the subsequent oath that provoked More’s travails and ultimate execution. Kaufman makes no mention of the election of Pope Paul III in October 1534, which triggered the timing of the final break with Rome the following month.

Kaufman opens and closes his work with a reference to George Hateb’s call for “a more profound political pessimism” (1-2, 227), and decries those who would make More “the patron saint of politicians” and see Augustine as a “pioneer of progressive reform” (230). Both thinkers “understood that their governments were necessarily of extremely limited use, and each composed an endlessly generative, enviably entertaining, subtly disorienting work to say so” (232). Believing that “the two … belong in the same book” because they were, after all, “on the same page” (232), Kaufman has answered in a handsome way Hateb’s call for a healthy reappraisal of pessimism in this chapter of foundational Christian thought.

Cite this article
Burnam W. Reynolds, “Incorrectly Political: Augustine and Thomas More”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:4 , 495-497

Burnam W. Reynolds

Asbury University
Burnam W. Reynolds, History, Asbury College