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Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. Stephen Smith On Thomas More’s Utopia

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HH: The Hillsdale Dialogue is about that which endures, not that which is no matter how terrible transitory. And I’m joined today by Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and his wonderful colleague, Dr. Stephen Smith, who is the Temple Family Chair of English, fourteen years bearing the yoke along with Larry Arnn up at Hillsdale College. He is an amazing scholar of Thomas More. He’s author of a Thomas More source book, For All Seasons: The Selective Letters Of Thomas More. We’re going to talk about Thomas More a lot today. But I thought I would begin by asking you both when the world looks like it’s really on the edge of numerous disasters, why read Utopia? I mean, this is a big question, Dr. Larry Arnn. When the world is coming apart, and terrible things are happening that could spiral, right?

LA: Sure.

HH: You know this. Why read Utopia or anything by More?

LA: Yeah, well, you know, there’s a really good article in the Wall Street Journal this week by the commander-in-chief of NATO about the brilliance and ruthlessness and menace of the Russian strategy in Ukraine. This is all deliberate. And if you think back three months, or a few months at the Winter Olympics, there was a long speech very near the Crimea where, which Putin has seized, about what a peacemaker he was and how the international Olympic movement salutes him.

HH: Yup.

LA: And all this was prepared at the time. And that’s just mean in the way that despotic people are mean. And More knew that, of course, himself. He lived through incredible trials and tribulations, and was eventually beheaded. And he was a senior politician who did some very hard things himself, too. And he made a career, among statesmen, one of the greatest thinking careers I know of. Steve Smith knows all about that.

HH: I’m so glad that you found my transition for me, and we don’t rehearse these things, which is at times of peril, you need statesmen, and you really could use a Thomas More about now for America and for the world. And Stephen Smith, let’s start there. Let’s do some biography. You are, of course, affiliated with the Thomas More Center as well, and I’ll post a link to that over at But give us a sense of the enormity of his life, because the span and the productivity that he displayed, it’s phenomenal.

SS: Yeah, in England, he, as Bill Cosby said, started out as a child. But after that, he occupied post after post of greater and greater significance all the way up the lord chancellorship of England. So he was a lawyer, a judge, undersheriff of London, member of Parliament, speaker of the house of Parliament, lord chancellor of England, and then of course coming to an end on Tower Hill, July 6th, 1535. In his own lifetime, he was known as the man for all seasons. That’s where that phrase comes from. And I think in the tradition after More’s life, you know, the praise for More is pretty extraordinary. Jonathan Swift, who is the author of Gulliver’s Travels and an Anglican priest, called More the man of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced. And another comment a little closer to home was from the 20th Century. G.K. Chesterton wrote this about Thomas More, and this is in the 1920s. Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying. But he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.

HH: Wow.

SS: So Chesterton said that in the 1920s, and we’re approaching, of course, the 2020s here. And the folks have always wondered what Chesterton meant, but that was his prophecy, not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.

HH: And what did he mean by that?

SS: Well, he doesn’t explain. I think he foresaw the need for a man with the character like More, a character that actually can rule himself and others, and that our world is going to increasingly need an example like his as things darkened.

HH: Larry Arnn, what do you think he meant?

LA: Well, there’s something controversial about More that Steve Smith is going to explain, because he and his teacher, Wegemer, of the University of Dallas, have worked on this for a long time. But More himself was a believer in the established Catholic Church. And he was a believer in freedom, and he did hard things to people who were heretical himself, and then they were ultimately done to him. And that led him to be a commentator and a thinker on the relationship between the state, the nation and freedom, and that’s going on now, and worsening all the time, because the claim in modern times is, comes from a different source, but it’s parallel to the claim of Henry, and that was the state can command everyone’s conscience, including in matters of faith. And the big Court cases and the big disputes in domestic politics are about the boundary between one’s faith and one’s freedom and one’s government. And so for sure, the story of Thomas More is relevant to that, and he had profound things to say about it.

HH: Well, I’ve always felt sympathy for Henry, except in this aspect, in that he’s really living in a complicated time, and he’s a man of genius, and he’s surrounded himself, A’s hire A’s, said Don Rumsfeld. And Stephen Smith, he was not hesitant to hire A’s, but he also grew tired of A’s.

SS: Yeah, you mean, I’m sorry…

LA: A character, A excellence.

HH: A’s versus B’s, versus C’s. He hired the best.

LA: Steve Smith has never actually given any A’s, so he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

HH: That is not true. That will get about, then no one will go to his course. And they’ll say it would be like Harvey Mansfield at Harvard in the 70s. No one would take his courses. But I’m saying I like, Henry VIII did hire brilliant people. And now, there’s these popular books, these Wolf Hall books that make it obvious that he surrounded himself with a lot of astonishingly smart but often cunning people, one of whom was smart and good, Thomas More.

SS: Yeah, well, he and More were longtime friends, and especially in the matter of the divorce of Catherine and remarriage to Anne, Henry really wanted More’s consent to that marriage. He admired More. He loved him. And More was a proven servant. And he just really wanted More to say it’s okay, and marry Anne Boleyn. And More wouldn’t do it.

HH: And if he had, he could have lived in peacefully, prosperously, powerfully, as Henry’s right arm, correct?

SS: Yeah, he probably could have walked out of that cell just before his trial. I mean, up to the very end, the offer was on the table to pardon him if he could only acknowledge Henry’s supremacy over the Church and the state, and lawful character of the wedding.

HH: Would you summarize that for people what the dispute was over that lost Thomas More’s head?

SS: Yeah, well, he was imprisoned for not taking the oath of the act of succession. This is a pretty complicated story, but the act of succession made Queen Anne’s children the heirs. Now More thought, this is after Catherine had been put away, More thought Parliament had the competency to make an act like that. The problem was folded into the legislation were the implicit claims that Henry was the supreme head of the Church.

LA: So let me stick something in.

SS: Yeah.

LA: So first of all, what’s all this about? Henry wants a son, and he thinks he needs one, because he thinks the English crown, throne, is hard to hold. He eventually produced a son through Anne Boleyn by the name of Elizabeth.

HH: (laughing)

LA: But he didn’t know he had her. And so he’s, for him, this is not just passion or lust. This is high matter of state, and the calling of his family. And Catherine of Aragon, a Catholic, you know, a Spanish princess, is his wife, and she’s too old to bear children now, and she didn’t give him any boys. And so he’s got to make a change. And he thinks his whole crown depends on that. And the Catholic Church refuses him his annulment of his marriage. He wanted it on the ground that she had been his brother’s wife, and that it was improper for him to marry. He had actually got a special dispensation from the Church to have the marriage. So the Catholic Church ruled in these matters, but you have to understand that the Catholic Church was very subject, the Pope, a person, was very subject to the pressures of Spain and other competitors to England. And so you’ve got high matters of state coming together, and Cardinal Wolsey, this incredibly powerful and brilliant man whom More respected greatly, although disliked some of the things he did, he falls from power, because he can’t get this annulment. And so what are you going to do? Are you going to not have your state? The answer is you’re going to find some other authority, yourself, to bless the marriage.

HH: And when we come back, the consequences of that from the man of all seasons, for all seasons, Thomas More, St. Thomas More.

— – – –

HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and his colleague, Professor Stephen Smith, Dr. Smith, the Temple Family Chair of English, a wonderful guy. I’ve met him when I have been in Hillsdale, and I will meet him again next year when I’m back. But I want to pick up where we left off. Even amidst all these stories of war and invasion, and Ukraine and Israel, this is actually very timely and very relevant. As we went to break, because earlier this week, neither of you may have heard, Ambassador Dermer was on this program, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, explaining to Americans why Israel had to do what it did, which of course have culminated in the invasion of Gaza now, and many people dead, and hundreds of civilians dead, and IDF soldiers wounded and dead, and all sorts of terrible things. And he said it’s an existential crisis. Israel always faces an existential crisis. Dr. Arnn, before the break, you were describing that Henry VIII imagined himself, did not know what he had in Elizabeth, and maybe she wouldn’t have been Elizabeth had she not had to go through Mary and Edward, the heirs to the throne after Henry who assumed it before she did, but he did not know he had in there beats the heart of a lion, right?

LA: Yeah, he was…

HH: And so he faced an existential crisis. And Thomas More stood in his way.

LA: That’s right, and More very much did not want to stand in his way. He was looking for a way to agree. You know, we keep using that expression, a man for all seasons, and I’m going to ask Steve Smith what he thinks about it. That’s of course a famous play made into one of the best movies, to my mind, ever made about Thomas More…

HH: Yeah.

LA: Is that play accurate? Is that movie and play accurate, Steve?

SS: Yeah, I think it’s a marvelous play. The only thing that I think is inaccurate is when More gives the speech about the self. He sounds like a 20th Century kind of existential hero.

LA: Screenwriter.

SS: You know, he kind of stands for himself, his adamantine sense of himself, as Bolt put it. But really, More understood himself as standing with others in his imprisonment and death.

HH: So you’ve devoted your whole life, Stephen Smith, your scholarship, your great books, your work at the More Center, to More. Do you have any sympathy for Henry’s position?

SS: I find Henry a kind of captivating figure. I don’t think that his fretting over the male heir, England was actually quite stable in the late 1520s, and the more I’ve looked at the evidence, the more I’m kind of inclined towards Shakespeare’s view. He has two gentlemen in King Henry VIII, the play, say oh, the king’s conscience is troubled about his marriage, and the other minor character says I think the king’s conscience is troubled by Anne Boleyn’s skirt. So I think there’s something to the attachment to Boleyn. She wouldn’t give him, you know, she wouldn’t be his mistress. She insisted on marriage. And he went through with it. And so I have sympathy for Henry’s, you know, I think his struggle. He had a huge soul, a very interesting soul. But he does seem weak in this matter of Anne Boleyn to me.

HH: Ultimately, he did not trust God, and ultimately, he declared for himself, right?

SS: He had to be god.

HH: Now what was Thomas More like, because he’s his friend, and I’m always, it’s a curious situation to have your friend counseling you in these Wolf Hall novels. Cromwell is over there trying to get him to do whatever Henry wants done vainly. He was a Wolseyite. And so what’s More like?

SS: Well, you know, if listeners are interested, they should look up Erasmus’ letter about Thomas More from 1519, because he gives a kind of full-scale portrait of his friend. They were old friends. And Erasmus singles out almost every major facet of More’s personality, his great liberal education, his great literary gifts. But perhaps most interestingly, Erasmus said the secret to More was that he had a special love and gift for friendship, and he had a special love for liberty, and hatred for tyranny. Now this is all well before the storm with Henry. And so More was famous as a friend, and then was well known for his love of liberty and his hatred of tyranny. In addition, Erasmus singles out, you know, things we’re familiar with – his piety, his well-formed conscience, his professional excellence and his love of family. But really, one of the most valuable parts of More’s legacy is that love of friendship, and also the hatred of tyranny. He studied tyranny very carefully.

HH: Let me pause there, because I think people will hear that, and they’ll think they know what it means. But I’m curious if Dr. Arnn, if someone said he’s famous for his friendship, what do you think that means?

LA: Well, so I can quote the philosopher, and the one unjustly decried by Luther.

HH: Carrying a grudge?

LA: There are three kinds…yeah, there are three kinds of friendship. There’s youthful friendships, you do business with somebody, they’re to your advantage, there’s friendships of pleasure, you delight in somebody. This is an ascending scale. Aristotle says young people are given to that kind of friendship. They like each other’s bodies for example. Then there’s the high kind, and that comes from a love of something very elevated to which you both give yourselves completely. And you find one another in that, and you share the joy of knowledge of, beholding of, communing with that. And so Erasmus, there’s a lot of letters between Thomas More and Erasmus, and you can see what’s going on in there. You know, in a college, if it’s a good college, you get to have friendships like that. I have many. Like I never pass Steve Smith on the sidewalk without talking to him if I have the time, whether he does or not. And I always learn something, you know, and so that kind of friendship is abiding, and it makes one better, and it makes life worthwhile.

HH: And Stephen Smith, would you add anything to that?

SS: Oh, just the other…

HH: Other than that you want to get away when you see Arnn approaching?

SS: After 14 years, I’m used to it. I would only add for listeners that the two great sources for More on friendship, well, three, would be Aristotle, of course, and then Cicero’s essay on friendship, and then an essay by Plutarch called How To Tell A Flatterer From A Friend. So More had a very developed and deep and beautiful understanding of human friendship.

HH: I’ve never read, I’ve never heard of that Plutarch letter.

SS: Well, that was actually given to Henry VIII in a Latin translation by Erasmus, we think at the direction of More, because Henry had trouble with flattery. And so Plutarch gives his advice about how to first love oneself right, and then how not to become a victim of flattery. And he says nobody ever is a victim of a flatterer unless he is first flattered himself.

LA: The trouble he had with flattery was he liked it.

HH: Okay, and we have a minute to the break. And so we’ve got two more segments. We have to talk about Utopia. I’m going to leave that for the third segment. When we come back, we have to talk about what? What’s the most important thing for people to read by More other than Utopia?

SS: Well, I like the History of Richard III, which is the source for Shakespeare’s great play. And it is one of the most astute studies of tyranny that I’ve read myself. And again, More, that hatred of tyranny, part of his liberal education was studying tyranny carefully.

HH: Well, when we come back, we’ll follow up on what that means. And what a useful study for now. I mean that. What a useful study for now to study tyranny.

— – – –

HH: When we went to break, we were talking about Thomas More. That’s the subject of the Dialogue this week, his two great works. After the break, we’ll talk about Utopia. But tell us about his study of tyranny, Stephen Smith, and why he did so, and how it’s useful to us.

SS: Well again, that for a long time had been part of a proper education. And for More, I guess the two questions are first, you know, what happens in the soul of a tyrant? Like how does someone become a tyrant? And how do they in fact tyrannize over others? And so he made a study of his in his life of Richard III. Interest, and so with the interior one, how you become a tyrant internally, how one becomes a tyrannical soul, his great source for wisdom on that was Plato’s Republic. And then in terms of tyrannizing over others, one of the most insightful parts of that history, and one that bears the most on his life, is that tyrants often use law, not just brutal force, to perpetrate their tyrannies.

HH: You see, people will be surprised by that. They’ll think that no, that’s not possible. If it’s a duly enacted law, it can’t be tyrannical. And of course, that’s wrong.

SS: Yeah, they just need a good lawyer, or someone to make the laws.

LA: You know, why does, so the specific definition of tyranny in the first book of politics ever written is it’s rule in the interest of the ruler as opposed to the ruled. And Henry VIII became a man who wanted some things, and he was prepared to move, you know, earth and Heaven’s representative on Earth to get it. And he was out for himself and his family. Why does Putin want Ukraine? You know, is it because he wants justice to reign there whereas it is not? People are dying in the streets to avoid him. I mean, students were rushing into a square in the face of sniper fire to try to keep their freedom to study what they want and say what they want and think what they want. Why would a man want to disrupt that? Why would a man want the friction and trouble that comes from such a thing? The answer is he wants to be everything. His wishes, his appetites must have no check upon them. And of course, it’s an old wisdom, like in Xenophon’s Hiero, was a dialogue about a tyrant, with a tyrant, that they’re very unhappy people.

HH: That’s what I was going to get to, whether or not More points his, did More ever discover a happy tyrant?

LA: Yeah, well, it’s the opposite of friendship, remember, because friendship is not just about giving the highest form of friendship. It’s like marriage. My daughter just got married, so I’m full of talk of marriage right now. But when I see a marriage fail, it’s often that they live their days planning for the evening when they can go home and win the argument and get the marriage the way they want it. And I said to a woman here at the college one time whose marriage was in trouble, I said you know, it isn’t really about that. You know, you find that if you give in a marriage, you get more back. And I try to get my wife to think that, and Lord does she not? What a wonderful woman. But so you see, friendship is, it actually involves a disinterest, almost an uninterest in oneself. And the rewards of that turn out to be spectacular, whereas tyranny is an interest in oneself and see, once, you say I’m just interested in myself, what is it about you that makes you different from everybody else, except merely your appetites, right?

HH: And More told this to Henry, more or less, Stephen Smith?

SS: Well, they were longtime friends, and I think More’s constant service was you know, principled and clear, and as truthful as he could make it. When he entered Henry’s service, Henry gave him one piece of advice, which was to look first to God, and after to me. And of course, by the end, that had become scrambled up. I wanted to throw one thing in about tyranny. The tyranny-friendship connection is really interesting. In the Politics, Aristotle says that tyrannies preserve themselves by taking aim at particular things in a culture. This is very important, it seems to me. What is friendship, because what happens is friends get together, and they aspire to high things. Friends lift their eyes up. The other thing that tyranny attacks is education itself. Anything that gives rise to high thoughts.

HH: Interesting. I’ll be right back to talk about Utopia, not the one promised you by President Obama, but the one written about by Thomas More five hundred years ago, and it matters a lot today, as is evidenced by the fact that one of my guests, Stephen Smith, wrote about it for the Wall Street Journal, oh, two months ago.

— – – – –

HH: Not a few months ago, March 28th, Stephen Smith wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled Masterpiece: Utopia, A Workout For Our Wit And Judgment, which I tweeted out yesterday so people could be ready for today to talk in eight minutes, which we can’t do. It takes longer than eight minutes to read this. But Stephen Smith, why is Utopia, on a horrible week, a terrible week, with planes shot down in Ukraine, and people invading, and death all around us, and horrible things we don’t even know about happening, why care about a book 500 years ago about a republic or a utopia that never happened?

SS: That’s a great question. Well, the book is, it’s one of the great books of the Western world. But it appeals very powerfully to the reader’s reason. And you know, it was written in what C.S. Lewis called holiday spirits. And so it can seem, you know, beside the point when things are going so badly out there in the world. But at the heart of it, the book is about the formation of what More calls well and wisely-trained citizens. And I think one of the most valuable parts of More’s whole legacy for the present moment is his understanding of these well and wisely-trained citizens, these leading citizens. And he thought that a book and an experience and an exercise like the utopia could play a vital role in the formation, the education of these crucial figures, these leading citizens. And so he wrote it…

HH: Now what’s interesting is that our friend, Mark Levin, at least Larry and my friend. I don’t know if Stephen’s had the pleasure, yet. Levin is suspicious of this book in the Liberty Amendments. I mean, he’s suspicious that it encourages utopianism. To what do you say to that, Stephen Smith?

SS: Oh, I can only give Thomas More’s own conclusion. You know, it’s important to understand the book. First, it’s divided into two books. Book One is a conversation between Thomas More and a kind of visionary intellectual named Raphael Hythloday. Book Two is the description of the utopian order, a place that only Raphael has visited. And at the very end, More responds to the description of utopia. And his description is kind of, his response is funny. He says it sounded to me quite absurd. So More thinks that the utopia described by this guy, Raphael, was absurd, and not particularly great, and not the best way to order a republic. And people often miss that. It’s funny, and you mentioned Russia. There is a monument to Thomas More in Red Square Moscow.

HH: What?

SS: Yes, as a forerunner of the glories of, you know, communism to come and the utopia. So this reading is out there, and it’s a mistaken one. And More disagrees with Raphael. And the book is inviting you to reflect upon all of this guy’s claims about the best way to order a republic.

HH: I’m curious, have you read the Liberty Amendments, I mean, Levin’s treatment of More specifically?

SS: You know, I haven’t read that. I heard a little bit about it.

HH: And so that would be an interesting conversation to have. So it’s a common, but you are saying incorrect reading of More?

SS: Yes.

LA: In that sense, it’s, the Utopia is just like Plato’s Republic, because Plato’s Republic serves to do two things. It serves to establish a hierarchy of goods, the things of this Earth not at the top. And then by showing a model society, and in Plato’s Republic, they show it breaking down in detail, then you get a sense of what the limits are, like you know, modern socialism and most left-leaning thought, but before that, national socialism, right-leaning thought. Their idea was if you can communize or socialize everything, then you can make everything right for everybody. And that means the state has to, for example, invade the family, because the family is a source of inequality. I like to say I got lucky. I could have been born to a rich wastrel. I was born to a schoolteacher who didn’t have any money, but he liked to read books.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so those inequalities are written deeply in the way human beings come to be, and so that leads you to the thought that if you communize everything, everybody can have the same chance. And what you destroy with that is human nature itself and the opportunity of, you know, like in a land without families, nobody gets to be a husband or a father or a mother or a wife. And the dominion and responsibilities that they exercise are human characteristics. Those have to go.

HH: Then let me close our conversation by asking Stephen Smith if it’s such a bad situation, you conclude your Wall Street Journal piece by saying More doesn’t want to upset Raphael. He instead, “takes him to dinner.” Lead him to dinner, so he didn’t do what he was supposed to do.

SS: Well, it’s left open. It’s a kind of happier book. You know, it’s a comic, you know, book written in those holiday spirits. But the thing you have to realize is that Raphael has revealed himself in the book to be quite a talker. So he has, you know, a 400 word sentence. Thomas Word gets in one word. Then a 900 word sentence, and then he gives the entire monologue about Utopia. So at the end, More observes, he was really tired out from all that talking, and he also says I didn’t think he could take contradiction in the matter of Utopia, so I led him to dinner instead. So he’s going to try to presumably have the conservation with this guy about Utopia, but after a meal.

HH: Get a couple of drinks in him.

SS: Well, that’s the thing.

HH: And by the way, it’s unfair to Mark. It’s not the Liberty Amendments. It’s Ameritopia, is the book in which he talks about Utopia. And I want people not to go looking in the Liberty Amendments for his argument about Thomas More. So let…

SS: Well, let me just say one other…

HH: Go ahead.

SS: The key thing with Utopia is that, so Raphael is a kind of visionary intellectual, and he is sure that he has an understanding of human nature that’s adequate, and he’s sure that this republic he’s imagined is the best way to order a republic or make people happy. But the more you study the book, as I posed in the piece in the Journal, the more you wonder if he hasn’t actually imagined a tyranny.

HH: And who does that bring to mind? We have a minute left, Dr. Arnn.

LA: Well, you know, lots of modern people, right?

HH: Lots of modern people.

LA: Yeah, and amplify Steve Smith’s point. In Aristotle and in Hesiod, there are parallel examples of what you would do to sustain a tyranny. And what you have to do is lop off everything high, because anything high, the person who approaches it, first of all, forgets himself by approaching it, but second, winds independence from everything low. So tyranny is the enemy of excellence.

HH: And on that note, tyranny being the enemy of excellence, we remember that. And Dr. Larry Arnn, Dr. Stephen Smith, thank you both. We’ll be back. We’re going to take a week off, and then we’re going to be back with Shakespeare for many weeks, for many, many weeks, and look forward to that, America. And in the meantime, feed on the Hillsdale Dialogues, all of which are posted at

End of interview.


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