Thomas More’s Option: Soul First, Then the Body

If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” (Mt.19:21).

Have I sold everything I possess? Or, on the other hand, have I opted to “sell” only spiritually? There is a difficulty in answering this particular call, though I believe that it is an answer to the perennial human question: how can we escape this earthly finitude—or in other words, “what good shall I do that I may have life everlasting?” (Mt. 19:16), so asks the young man to Christ. Yet, how must we interpret Christ’s answer? Here, I will turn to the life and teaching of St. Thomas More to reflect on how we must feed this human desire for eternity.

Thomas More is a particularly relevant saint. He is a man, a fervent worker of this earth, and an unwavering seeker of Heaven. He is not a man who attains sainthood through isolation from the world, nor was he a devotee of the world in the expense of his sanctity. Analogically, there are two ways to take Christ’s call, “go sell what thou hast.” First, one may in the literal sense sell everything that one owns, like Sts. Benedict and Francis, or like Buddhist asceticism at the extreme. On the other hand, one may take it strictly in its spiritual sense: Christ only asks the young man to surrender his spiritual devotion to God, not all of his material possessions.

In which camp does Thomas More fall? Neither, it seems to me, and I will turn to his works to explore the saint’s ethics.  More wrote an unfinished treatise on the Scripture passage which writes “remember the last things and thou shalt never sin” (Ecclus. 7). Here, he attempts to defend the literal meaning of this passage and thus argues that by remembering the “last things,” namely “death, doom, pain, and joy,” one will in fact cease to sin. In other words, the four last things form a shortcut to holiness. The rationale behind this claim is rooted in his understanding of holiness:

And thus shalt thou well see that thou hast no cause to look upon thy death as a thing far off, but a thing undoubtedly nigh thee, and ever walking with thee. By which, not a false imagination but a very true contemplation, thou shalt … take occasion to flee vain pleasures of the flesh that keep out the very pleasures of the soul.

One may object to this ethics: More seems to bifurcate body and soul, and thus worldly activities are shunned for the sake of spiritual contemplation of the last things. However, is this a true representation of More’s view? It is reasonable to always be cautious of the flesh, but to what extent must one renounce it?

Another lesser-known work, More’s The Life of Pico, sheds further light on his philosophy. Much of this book is, in fact, not More’s own writing, but rather his translation of letters and other’s biographies of Pico della Mirandola, an Italian Renaissance philosopher (a controversial one), into English. Yet, the most crucial aspect of this book is More’s extensive abridgement weaved in between his translation. One example is the warning of a friend concerning Pico’s reclusive devotion to study, which originally reads: “I don’t want you to embrace Martha to such an extent that you give up Mary entirely”—with Martha scripturally representing the active life, whereas Mary the contemplative. To this More adds (in italics): “It’s fine with me that you study, but I would have you engaged with the world around you as well. I don’t want you to embrace Martha to such an extent that you give up Mary entirely. Love them and do them both: study and worldly business.” Now, we hear More’s subtle voice: the “worldly business” needs not to be diametrically opposed to the “true contemplation.”

What, then, can we gather from More’s writings? First, he is ever critical of worldly affairs, and so too must we be, especially of those that “keep out the very pleasures of the soul.” Second, however, More does not shun the world unconditionally. He still loves and does both the contemplative and active lives. For More, worldly pleasures do not necessarily negate heavenly delights, but may be ordained thereto. In fact, contemplation or “pleasures of the soul” per se may be disoriented as they are in Pico’s “proud ambition.” In sum, by fixing our eyes at the last things, we must become not haters of the flesh, but rather its lovers—not for its own sake, but for the sake of heavenly life.

What good shall I do that I may have life everlasting? How must I sell everything I have? More has taught and exemplified through his life this principle: love both the spiritual and worldly lives, yet only insofar as they help us soar heavenward; sell everything that pulls us earthward. This “middle-way” ethics, nonetheless, does not contradict the lives of other saints, like St. Benedict, but rather presents to us yet another way to holiness. We may tend to think that the “Benedict Option” is the only shelter from the evils of the world. I have lived in a community of which More is the dear patron, and I am convinced that the life of St. Thomas More, embracing both “Martha” and “Mary,” serves as both a sword against the evils of the world, and a nod to Christ’s call to eternity. This I take to be the “More Option.”

S. Thomas More, ora pro nobis!


(This article first appeared in 2019, but perhaps more relevant than ever)