Thesis Number: #3 (Page 4 of 10)

Rule by Divine Right

A thousand years later, the Epicurean theory was retrieved to become part of the Renaissance. This was a second chance at evolving a metaphysics that fused theology with physics. What happened may be illustrated by the fate of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535 CE), an English lawyer and committed Catholic who became Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor.

More had absorbed the Epicurean thesis through On the Nature of Things. He believed the Epicurean philosophy would help to liberate mankind from abject misery. His knowledge of the Covenant contributed to his vision of the ideal society in a land called Utopia. Professor Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University has summarised how More censured conditions that prevailed in England.

“Utopia begins with a searing indictment of England as a land where noblemen, living idly off the labour of others, bleed their tenants white by constantly raising their rents, where land enclosures for sheep-raising throw untold thousands of poor people into an existence of starvation or crime, and where the cities are ringed by gibbets on which thieves are hanged by the score” (Greenblatt 2012: 228).

Thomas More’s fictional world was inspired by the discovery of America and the pleasurable life of the indigenous peoples. The Utopians, More wrote, are inclined to believe “that no kind of pleasure is forbidden, provided no harm comes of it”. Utopia was a blueprint for a reformed society that would meet all needs “from public housing to universal health care, from child care centres to religious toleration to the six-hour work day” (Greenblatt 2012: 230). The fabled life would begin by abolishing private property, to prevent the onset of the unequal conditions that cause misery, resentment and crime.

If More and the scholars of 16th century England had been free to explore the collaborative potential of the theology of the land with the emerging scientific method, a peaceful breakthrough in culture was possible. It was not to be, however, thanks to the King of England. For a metaphysics that secured the welfare of all the king’s subjects, one that united sacred scripture with secular authority, would have hindered Henry’s aspirations. When More and Henry clashed, More’s fate was sealed: he was beheaded in 1535. The course of English history, and much of the rest of the world, was diverted away from a synthesis of sacred and secular wisdom.

Henry’s breach with Rome was opportunistic. He wanted to fulfil his sexual and dynastic desires. To do so, he demolished the monasteries, grabbed their land and created a market in the green acres of England. He proclaimed himself head of a new Anglican Church.

Now, there was no prospect of priests drawing on sacred texts to censure the corpulent king’s earthly misdeeds. Far from separating the state and religion, Henry united them in a single statecraft based on his claim to rule by divine right.

England’s spiritual leaders were muted, barred from invoking theology as a check on secular authority. England’s peasants, and the indigenous peoples of the colonies, could not invoke scripture to censure the land grabbing actions of the state. God was silenced, co-opted into the Tudor state with seats in the House of Lords reserved for bishops.

During Henry’s reign, 72,000 people were hanged as thieves. The biggest thief of them all grew fat on his throne.

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