Happy Birthday, Baruch Spinoza!

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Baruch Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He was the son of Michael and Hannah Spinoza, Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, then imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition, then fled to relatively tolerant Amsterdam. The Spinozas became successful and respected members of Amsterdam’s Jewish community.

Their son Baruch (also called by his Latinized name Benedicto, also meaning ‘blessed’), was a precocious and brilliant boy who became an intellectually rigorous, curious, and free-thinking man. He wrote prodigiously, profoundly, and often obscurely while earning a humble living as a scientific instrument lens-grinder. He was excommunicated for his unorthodox beliefs (rather surprising still given the relative broad-mindedness of that synagogue), shunned and condemned by his fellow Jews and by Christians alike, and lived the rest of his too-short life in near-solitude, though in rich correspondence with a wide circle of friends and intellectuals.

His idea of God as a unified substance which, in some sense, can be understood as being the same as Nature or the Universe itself, is still widely beloved (the great physicist Albert Einstein and eloquent, outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, for example, were among his biggest fans), hated, and debated widely, especially insofar as it can be difficult to grasp the exact nature of Spinoza’s metaphysical and ethical ideas. Spinoza refused to repudiate his ideas despite the intense social pressure he had to deal with for the rest of his life. But however much his correspondents argued, cajoled, threatened with hellfire, or otherwise tried to convince him to abandon his beliefs, Spinoza responded with firmness, constancy, thoroughness, and courtesy.

Learn more about the integrious Baruch Spinoza at:

Baruch Spinoza ~ by Steven Nadler for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) ~ in the Jewish Virtual Library

Benedict De Spinoza (1632—1677) ~ by Blake D. Dutton for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Betraying Spinoza ~ Rebecca Goldstein on her book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

Benedict de Spinoza: Dutch-Jewish Philosopher ~ by Richard H. Popkin for the Encyclopædia Britannica

From Baruch to Benedicto! (Spinoza pt. 1) and Spinoza Part 2 ~ by Stephen West for Philosophize This! podcast

God Intoxicated Man – The Life and Times of Benedict Spinoza ~ by Michael Goldfarb for the BBC’s Sunday Feature

Spinoza ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Spinoza’s life and thought with Jonathan Rée, Sarah Hutton, and John Cottingham for In Our Time

The Heretic Jew ~ by Harold Bloom, book review of Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity for The New York Times

The Writings of Spinoza ~ at Internet Sacred Text Archive

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Erasmus!

Erasmus, from page 32 of The Century of Sir Thomas More by Benjamin Orange Flower, 1896, public domain via the British Library

Desiderius Erasmus (October 27, 1469 – July 12, 1536) was, by his own account, born in Rotterdam, Holland. His father was a priest and his mother the daughter of a physician, who, unsurprisingly, were not married. As a child of an illicit union, he had no apparent prospects for a successful worldly career, so he was initially educated for the life of a cleric. However, he was very unhappy during these early years of his education and training, feeling that the strict, narrowly constrained life didn’t suit him. Though he was ordained a priest, Erasmus later insisted he was pressured into doing so, likely because by that time he had long been an orphan of no means to speak of and so had no apparent alternative means of support.

Erasmus was, however, a very pious man, but in his own way. The Catholic Church, at this time, was seen by Erasmus and others of like mind as a decadent, corrupt, licentious institution in deep need of reform, as it had largely cast aside the pure, simple Christianity of its humble founder. Nevertheless, Erasmus’ reformist instincts did not ally him with those who wished to do away with the Catholic Church altogether: like his friend and protégé Thomas More, he saw the Church as a unified spiritual body that must be preserved. While he was sympathetic to Martin Luther’s impassioned and wholehearted rejection of ecclesiastical corruption, Erasmus rejected his views on the hopelessly sinful nature of humanity, so corrupt that goodness and redemption were dependent entirely on God’s grace. Erasmus contended that human beings had God-given free will, and thus were capable of goodness by exercising that will to choose good and reject evil. Erasmus also rejected Luther’s radical and wholesale rejection of the Church. Erasmus believed, rather, that reform would be achieved within its institutions by its conscientious members and through individual inner spiritual renewal, characterized by a life of love and humility in conjunction with a simple piety unconcerned with convoluted doctrines and earthly show.

Moriæ Encomium, or, In Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus, page from J. Woodward’s 1709 English translation

The Church, Erasmus believed, would also hugely benefit from a greater focus on secular and classical learning. After all, the human mind was one of God’s greatest creations, so the products of human intelligence deserved attention and reverence second only to sacred writ. Besides, secular scholarship could act as a valuable corrective to theologians’ tendencies to get so wrapped up in fine points of doctrine that their convoluted wranglings served only to confuse and confound the faithful. These convictions, and his long and successful career as a scholar and writer inspired by them, made Erasmus the godfather and patron saint, so to speak, of humanism. Erasmus did not invent that school of thought, but he created so many seminal works in that genre that his name has come to be nearly synonymous with humanism. A brilliant and deeply read scholar, Erasmus’ incredible body of work included annotated translations of classical Greek and Roman works; theological treatises; collections of proverbs and adages; works on aesthetics, style, and writing; voluminous correspondence with the most learned scholars of his time; and much, much more. Erasmus’ most widely known and popular work, however, remains his In Praise of Folly. However brilliant Erasmus was otherwise, he was unsurpassed as a satirist, and he used his cutting wit as a reformist tool, arguably more effective and memorable than his erudition and most eloquent argument.

Despite Erasmus’ disadvantageous start in life in other ways, he made the most of the education he was fortunate to receive. Over the course of his long life, his dissatisfaction with monastic and court life and restless curiosity drove him to create a career as a man of letters on his own terms, seeking patrons that allowed him a career of as much intellectual freedom as the times would allow. Erasmus is often a slippery character, and his motivations and true convictions are hard to pin down, by design. He was least as pragmatic as he was idealistic, and however sharp and potentially dangerous his religious and political satire, he deftly avoided getting himself in trouble in the turbulent and dangerous era he lived in. Not so Erasmus’ friend and protégé More, whose similarly sharp wit and lawyerly skill did not sufficiently counteract his religiosity enough to avoid the chopping block.

Learn more about the brilliant and witty Erasmus by following the links below. I’ve included selections about Erasmus from a variety of religious publication as well which illustrate the mixed admiration and vexation that Erasmus’ idiosyncratic intellect and religiosity still inspire:

Desiderius Erasmus ~ by Erika Rummel for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Desiderius Erasmus ~ in New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia

Desiderius Erasmus ~ in Reformation500

Desiderius Erasmus (1468?—1536) ~ by Eric MacPhail for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Desiderius Erasmus: Dutch Humanist and Scholar ~ by James D. Tracy for Encyclopædia Britannica

Erasmus ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Erasmus with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Eamon Duffy, and Jill Kraye for In Our Time

In Praise of Folly ~ by Desiderius Erasmus, with an introductory biography, Erasmus’ ‘Epistle to Sir Thomas More’, and illustrations by Hans Holbein at Project Gutenberg

The Praise of Folly ~ Nathan Gilmour, David Grubbs, and Michial Farmer discuss this work for The Christian Humanist Podcast

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O.P. Recommends: Patrick Deneen and Ezra Klein Discuss the Failures (and Successes?) of Liberalism

‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith

I have not yet read the book and it may be some time before I get the opportunity, but as is the case so often these days as I work towards my doctorate degree, I rely on discussions with authors to keep up with what’s happening out there in the world of ideas. This little review is, therefore, of the ideas expressed in the context of this discussion only, not of those discussed in the context of the book.

Yesterday morning, as I walked to a class, I listened to this particularly fascinating discussion on Ezra Klein’s podcast: Patrick Deneen says liberalism has failed. Is he right?

Klein and Deneen base their discussion, in part, around the origins of classical liberal thinking, which include John Locke’s thought experiment regarding humankind ‘in the state of nature.’ This is the state of being prior to or outside civil government, and is a way to puzzle out which rights, if any, human beings have according to nature rather than according to civil law. Deneen points out, rightly I think, that this thought experiment is so artificial, so divorced from the actual reality of human nature, that it might lead to misleading results. Human nature, in fact, is bound up in ties to family, friends, society, the political sphere, and so on. To derive rights from the nature of the rootless individual is to derive them from a nature that is, well, not fully human. Liberalism, as Deneen defines it, is the prioritization of the rights and interests of the individual above all else, and points out that this is the central project of both the liberal and conservative parties of the United States. For the former, the personal and expressive life of the individual should suffer little interference from the state, and for the latter, the economic choices of the individual should suffer little such interference. Of course, this is a very rough characterization of the left-and-right political divide, and I suspect that Deneen would agree with my own observation that many on both sides of the political divide no longer seem to adhere very closely to these general principles.

As Klein points out, though there’s much to critique in Deneen’s views, his discussion of why so many people in liberal societies suffer loneliness, depression, alienation, addiction, suicide, and other ills, is often insightful and timely throughout. Deneen sees these as inevitable results of societal values that promote the rights and interests of the individual without sufficient, healthy checks on the single-minded pursuit of individual satisfaction and fulfillment. Human beings intimate ties to others to be happy and healthy, and it appears that without the corrective of social and spiritual concerns, the thoroughly liberal person (again, as Deneen defines it) may very well end up enslaved to the whims and vagaries of appetites, often unhealthy ones, unmoored from personal values or love and loyalty to others.

I consider myself more of a political liberal in many respects, and I felt myself recognizing that some of my reasons echo Deneen’s sentiments. For one, I believe that inherent to the ethos of personal responsibility, often cited as a core value of western conservatism, is taking individual responsibility for behaviors that contribute to larger problems. Further, if individuals continue to behave in a way that significantly erodes the healthy functioning of individuals, families, and societies, then people might have the right to demand that others change their behavior. For example, the degradation of ecosystems that sustain life, health, and happiness through thoughtless over-consumption is, then, it seems to me as it does to Deneen, at least as important a social issue as it is a moral and spiritual one. This is only one of the many matters on which Deneen, in this discussion, offers a timely and well-considered critique of many of the mores and practices the western world takes for granted.

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Following Frederick Douglass in the British Isles

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my ninth philosophical-historical themed adventure following in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass throughout the British Isles. This series continues from and builds on my first Douglass series in the United States.

Frederick Douglass’s life story is inspiring and humbling in the strength, character, and dazzling intellect he reveals, rising to such greatness in the midst of such adversity. Born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland in the early 1800’s, he was an autodidact, having overheard his master say that learning to read leads to learning to think, rendering a slave too independent-minded to submit to domination by another. Hearing this, young Frederick knew what he had to do. Attaining literacy and learning a skilled trade gave him the wherewithal to escape to New York City in 1838 at about 20 years of age. A few years later, as a result of an impromptu but impassioned and eloquent speech about the hardships of a life enslaved, he was recruited as a public speaker for the abolitionist cause. Douglass spent the rest of his life as an activist for all manner of human rights causes, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to women’s rights and beyond.

Douglass is an especially compelling subject for a student of history and philosophy; observing the true nature and ramifications of slavery led him to think deeply about the most essential questions in human life, which, in turn, spurred him on to a life of thought and action on behalf of oppressed peoples. In these roles, Douglass had a heavy influence on American thought and on the course of American history. He asked, and answered: What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a person of conviction and of faith? What are rights, and why are we entitled to them? What is dignity, and does possessing it entail certain obligations to ourselves and others? Given the frailties and strengths of human nature, how can we best live together and form just societies? What do the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence really say about slavery, equality, and other human rights issues?

Following Douglass’ life and thought led me on a journey that took me much further than I could have imagined. I first came to Edinburgh as a student of philosophy following David Hume; now I live here, pursuing my higher education at the University of Edinburgh with Douglass as one of my primary subjects of inquiry. So I’ll continue my journey, which began in Oakland, CA and took me on a broad tour of the East Coast of the United States, then here to the British Isles. As I follow Douglass, I’ll visit landmarks associated with his life, places where he lived and died, worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested, to see for myself how the places informed the man, and vice versa.

Frederick Douglass in Newcastle upon Tyne, England

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New Podcast Episode: The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 3

Approaching the Lower Wakefield Tower, Tower of London, England

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Saturday, May 4th, 2018, continued

After parting with Simon, Laurence and I step out of the Tower grounds for a quick lunch, though when we return, our first stop features sights and stories that could turn anyone’s stomach. As you may have guessed, it’s the torture room of the Lower Wakefield Tower. As the signage indicates, the chamber now dedicated to the history and artifacts of the Tower’s legacy of torture was likely not used for that purpose at the time. However, it’s well chosen for its current purpose. The underground stone chamber is entered via a series of short stairways and small narrow doorways, evoking an increasing sense of entrapment among stones as cold and impassive as were the torturer’s sympathies.

There is no direct link between this chamber and Thomas More or Elizabeth I, but both of them had strong associations with the use of torture… Read the written version here

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The Bell Tower, Tower of London: Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Other Histories, Part 3

Approaching the Lower Wakefield Tower, Tower of London, England

Saturday, May 4th, 2018, continued

After parting with Simon, Laurence and I step out of the Tower grounds for a quick lunch, though when we return, our first stop features sights and stories that could turn anyone’s stomach. As you may have guessed, it’s the torture room of the Lower Wakefield Tower. As the signage indicates, the chamber now dedicated to the history and artifacts of the Tower’s legacy of torture was likely not used for that purpose at the time. However, it’s well chosen for its current purpose. The underground stone chamber is entered via a series of short stairways and small narrow doorways, evoking an increasing sense of entrapment among stones as cold and impassive as were the torturer’s sympathies.

There is no direct link between this chamber and Thomas More or Elizabeth I, but both of them had strong associations with the use of torture. This comes as no surprise when it comes to Elizabeth, since, infamously, torture was used particularly often on political and religious prisoners during her reign. At the time, torture was regarded by many as an effective method of wresting confessions and information from accused enemies of church and state. Though it was illegal under English common law, torture or the threat of torture was nevertheless used in some cases, especially those in which the crime was considered particularly harmful to the state. England had been rife with religious and political turmoil for decades by the time Elizabeth ascended the throne, so there was a driving political interest in restoring order by cracking down on religious and political dissidents. Protestant Elizabeth reversed her elder sister and royal predecessor Mary I’s policies designed to restore England to Catholicism, religious ties which their father Henry VIII had severed so that he could divorce his wife and marry Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn. So, plots and intrigues against Elizabeth’s reign by papal loyalists abounded, and private citizens practiced their Catholic religion in secret since it was once again illegal.

Sign for the torture exhibit at the Lower Wakefield Tower, Tower of London

Elizabeth believed that national unity necessarily included unity of creed as well as nationwide fealty to her, and under her administration fines, imprisonment, torture, and even death were seen as effective deterrents to dissent and disloyalty. Many claim that Elizabeth harshly persecuted Catholics and other religious dissenters for practicing their faith at least as ruthlessly as Mary’s administration had persecuted Protestants, or at least that Elizabeth had failed to interfere when her officers did so. But other historians characterize Elizabeth’s suppression of Catholicism as comparatively mild except when it was linked to religiously-motivated plots to undermine or delegitimize her rule. Elizabeth had many friends who were known Catholics and dissenters and, especially earlier in her reign, rarely punished them for it so long as they kept their beliefs to themselves. She famously stated that she had ‘no desire to make windows into men’s souls.’ But those who were perceived threats to the security of Elizabeth’s throne were often dealt with ruthlessly, though Elizabeth herself was sometimes reluctant to order such punishment.

Regnans in Excelsis, Pius V’s papal bull excommunicating Elizabeth I

Initially more hands-off regarding the practice of religion by otherwise loyal private citizens, Elizabeth’s administration cracked down more severely on the practice of Catholicism after Pope Pius V excommunicated her in 1570. Prior to this excommunication, Elizabeth seemed to have considered the practice of Catholicism as a private matter of conscience so far as this didn’t interfere with their duties as loyal subjects. After the excommunication, however, English Catholics and Elizabeth were all placed in untenable positions. Pope Pius V was not content merely to banish Elizabeth from the Church; he called on Catholics to renounce their loyalty and obedience to her on pain of their own excommunication. In doing so, Pius bound politics to religion far more firmly than Elizabeth had done or wanted to do. Since Elizabeth believed in the legitimacy of her own reign and was bound to promote and protect it, she was unable to overlook this attack on her right to rule and felt forced to act.

More’s connection to torture may be much more troubling since he’s a Catholic saint, let alone given that he was in many other ways an admirable character. However, not all see More in such a glowing light. One of the most controversial facts about More is that he advocated torturing recalcitrant heretics. Some might find it more understandable that Elizabeth, as head of state responsible for enforcing the rule of law, would include torture as a tool of enforcement since it was at least somewhat consistent with the standards of the time. More likewise, in his tenure as Chancellor of England, was responsible for upholding the rule of law and maintaining national security, and in an era when church and state were so intertwined, this entailed enforcing religious uniformity. Neither More nor Elizabeth had access to the large modern body of evidence that torture is not, in fact, effective in gathering reliable intelligence, nor does it deter ideological extremism.

Pages from Thomas More’s A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, 1532

However, as writer Michael Shermer notes, even then, many doubted the rightness and effectiveness of torture, especially those who routinely heard startling and manifestly untrue ‘confessions’ extricated from those under duress. It seems that the otherwise kindly and intelligent More may have been capable of similar insights if he was not himself blinded by his own zealotry. More’s customarily mild and forbearing disposition may have given way to harshness in dealing with heretics because of his deep religiosity in his particular brand of Catholicism. As his biographer Peter Ackroyd writes, ‘More believed in the communion of the faithful, living and dead, while [to More, the heretical Martin] Luther affirmed the unique significance of the individual calling before God.’ According to author and Tudor specialist Melita Thomas, More regarded the Catholic Church as a community of souls whose unity with the divine was threatened by heresy much in the same way as a healthy body is threatened by disease. Like a cancerous tumor, heresy must be identified and ruthlessly cut off from the body of the church. In the case of heretics, there could be no mercy without sincere and complete repentance, since nothing less than the eternal salvation of souls was at stake. Thomas does not offer this as an excuse for More’s bloodthirstiness in this regard but as an explanation.

Historian Brian Moynahan is not among those who believe that this explanation excuses More’s advocation of torture for heretics. He believes that More was at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical in this matter. In more than one instance, More confessed to his daughter Margaret Roper his fear of the pain he might suffer if he was tortured or put to death for his refusal to swear to the Act of Succession, which, among other things, rejected papal authority over the Church in England. More’s refusal had already led to his imprisonment and, he was sure, would ultimately lead to his execution. In a letter to Margaret on the 3rd of June, 1535, More wrote that his interrogators made the point that More himself, when Chancellor, ‘examined heretics’ and ‘compel[ed] men to answer’ on pain of death. Why shouldn’t More himself, his interrogators asked, suffer the same treatment he had recommended for others? After all, those accused of heresy likewise refused to submit to the authority of the state and the church. More defended himself on the grounds that he could not submit since it was a matter of conscience. But, as his interrogators observed, his defense comes off like a case of special pleading since that was arguably true of accused heretics as well.

A door to the room with torture instruments and exhibits in the Lower Wakefield Tower, Tower of London

Besides, when it comes to those who we honor for their exceptional virtue and expansive moral imagination, commonly used defenses such as ‘well, they were a person of their time’ sound less convincing. The point of bestowing the status of sainthood or sage seems to be that those so honored are exceptional, that they should be able to reason and feel beyond the limitations of their own time, especially in matters of morals and justice. For example, I’ve never accepted the excuse that Thomas Jefferson’s slave-owning was just an understandable manifestation of his ‘being a man of his time.’ The plain fact is, Jefferson knew better but persisted in slave-owning (and -buying and -selling) anyway because freeing them would have caused him personal inconvenience. For both Jefferson and More, insights about the wrongness of their worst practices were available to them, so it’s not as if it’s a matter of 20/20 hindsight or unfair retroactive judgment according to new standards not yet conceived of at the time. As discussed above, torture was illegal under English common law and recognized by many as a cruel infringement on personal integrity, and an accomplished and well-read lawyer such as More was surely cognizant of this. It was also a common charge at the time that torture was used to force false confessions from people just as it was supposed to force true ones, a charge that Catholics later made against Elizabeth and her administration. It seems that Elizabeth and More, like Jefferson, failed their own best selves when it came to an important issue of justice and human rights, and they could and should have known better.

As I look at the instruments of torture and the descriptions of how they were used, I find I have no stomach for lingering or for taking or sharing photos of the instruments or displays. It’s true that these artifacts and the uses to which they were put are of historical interest. But there are photos and articles galore featuring these dreadful things in books and on the internet, and I get the feeling that this room is more often a scene of gruesome entertainment than a place of somber reflection on humankind’s history of inhumanity to one another. I’ve no doubt the latter very often takes place here too, but perhaps the gloomy, creepy mood of the room puts me in a pessimistic state of mind. I’ve seen enough representations of these instruments and read enough about them already that I feel I’m learning nothing new nor am I having an experience of particular value in this room. I take no photos and beat a quick retreat.

Traitors’ Gate under St Thomas’ Tower, from inside the walls of the Tower of London. As you can see, the sky has a grayish cast to it: I took this photo last time I was here at the Tower in January

Elizabeth I When a Princess, c. 1546, attributed to William Scrots, via Royal Collection Trust

We leave the chamber and head toward the southwest corner of the Tower complex. On the way, we pass St. Thomas’ Tower, originally built in the 1270’s by Edward I, and the Traitors’ Gate below it. This is where both Elizabeth and More entered the Tower as prisoners. This wide arched entryway was built so that small boats could easily and securely enter the Tower and deposit their detainees. Then-Princess Elizabeth entered this archway by boat on March 18, 1554, as Mary’s prisoner. As discussed in the previous installment of my Tower visit story, Elizabeth had been connected to Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion, the purpose of which was to prevent Mary’s marriage to King Philip of Spain and to place Elizabeth on the throne. Elizabeth was reported to have said as she entered this gate, ‘Oh Lord! I never thought to have come here as a prisoner; and I pray you all, good friends and fellows, bear me witness, that I come in as no traitor, but as true woman to the queen’s majesty as any is now living.’ As our guide Simon told us earlier today, the truth of Elizabeth’s protestation of total innocence is still debated to this day.

When More entered Traitors’ Gate as Henry VIII’s prisoner on April 17th, 1534, he made no such impassioned protestations of innocence. Instead, as was his wont, More made a joke. When asked for his ‘upper garment,’ More offered his hat, though he would have known that what was required from him was his gown or outer coat. In addition to the warm coat he was loathe to give up, More also wore his gold chain of livery en route to the Tower, which appears to be a form of protest against losing his freedom and his job because he acted according to his religious beliefs. Simon told us earlier today that More’s chain is still worn by Mayor of London. The rooms in St. Thomas’ Tower over the Traitors’ Gate had just been rebuilt and refurbished as part of the many improvements Henry made to the Tower in preparation for Anne’s coronation celebrations. Since Henry’s desire to make Anne his queen was the impetus for More’s imprisonment here, the irony is a bit thick.

William Roper, by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1535-1536, Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Returning to More’s stated fears of suffering and death during his imprisonment, he seemed nevertheless to refuse to let them rule his decisions, through sheer force of will. Prior to his entering the Tower, More said to his son-in-law William Roper on his way to Lambeth Palace where he had been summoned to take the Oath of Succession, ‘Son Roper, I thank our Lord the field is won.’ Ackroyd thinks More’s statement admits of two interpretations: that he had conquered his feeling for his family enough to be able to leave them behind if that’s what it took to stay true to his conscience, or that he had managed to conquer his fears on his own behalf so that he could better plan how to conduct himself. I’d like to think it was the latter. However, commenting as the direct observer when More made this statement, Roper believed it was the former.

Roper also made an important observation about More’s beliefs that landed him here in the Tower. Ackroyd, like Melita Thomas of Tudor Times, points out that More, as we have seen, believed strongly in the Church as a community. More believed further that its spiritual authority rests on its divinely-guided consensus expressed through papal decrees. Yet both Thomas and Ackroyd point out that More’s views on papal supremacy shifted somewhat over the years. Initially, Roper, also More’s earliest biographer, described it, More thought that insofar as he was also a temporal prince, the Pope’s authority should not be urged so strongly by Henry VIII in his 1521 treatise A Defense of the Seven Sacraments. Henry VIII consulted More as an editor and advisor for the work; More’s involvement was later used in the attempt to coerce and destroy him in the case that eventually led to his death. According to Roper, More was accused of ‘unnaturally procuring and provoking’ Henry to argue strongly in favor of the Pope’s authority, thereby putting ‘a sword into the Pope’s hands to fight against himself,’ Yet, as we see, More remembered that affair quite differently. When it comes to spiritual rather than temporal matters, More thought of papal authority emanating from, and therefore in some sense secondary to, the Church, the body of Christ on earth. But over time, More’s belief in the final authority of the Pope over the earthly Church strengthened to the point that he, at least in part, bet his life on it.

The Salt Tower and adjoining arched structure where menagerie was, Tower of London

Entry to the lower chamber of the Salt Tower, Tower of London

Turning left at St. Thomas’ Tower, we head for the Salt Tower at the southeast corner of the Tower compound. It was built in the 1230’s under King Henry III’s reign. Simon told us earlier today that this is the other prime candidate as the site of More’s imprisonment. It was also among the most secure chambers, so influential prisoners whose cases were most politically charged were often held here.

This is perhaps, then, the site of his daughter Margaret’s visits and where More received and composed letters to her, the closest of his children. From the beginning of his imprisonment, Margaret acted as the go-between for More and his family, relaying messages and news between them. Margaret had, rather slyly, made herself welcome as a visitor to the Tower by taking the Oath of Succession in full while adding the exculpatory clause ‘so far as will stand the law of God.’ While More was required to take the full Oath with no amendments or additions whatsoever, Margaret was allowed leeway in this because she was seen as ‘covered’ by her husband Roper’s swearing to the unalloyed Oath anyway. Since she was his wife and therefore, by law and custom, his subservient, his Oath applied to her as well. Since Margaret had taken the Oath, it was hoped that she could influence her father to do so. Until More’s imprisonment became more harsh and restrictive in the months preceding his death, Margaret was allowed a great deal of access to her father.

Left, Historical placard and right, lower chamber of the Salt Tower, Tower of London

Margaret Roper by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1536, Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret was highly educated, a rarity for Tudor women, studying Latin, Greek, philosophy, theology, science, and mathematics from an early age. She wrote letters to her father in Latin to improve her skills and became an expert in that language to the extent that she translated one of Erasmus‘ Latin works into English for publication when she was 19. She was also a well-respected scholar though little else of her work survives outside of her famous correspondence with her father. Among the many topics of their in-person discussions and letters, More and Margaret adapted fables he had told to her as a child to refer to the current political situation and his dispute with the king. She and More also composed a long letter in dialogue form to show clearly and compellingly why More felt he could not take the Oath of Succession without flouting his conscience and damning his soul.

More wrote a great deal when he was imprisoned as long as he had access to writing materials, a privilege denied him as the circumstances of his imprisonment became more severe as the pressure to conform was ramped up. In addition to his correspondence, More wrote religious treatises and two of his most famous works after UtopiaThe Sadness of Christ and the Dialogue of Comfort. In the latter, More retold, through one of its characters, a fable that his own mother told him, about a priest fox who hears a wolf’s and an ass’s confessions. Utopia, a tale of an imaginary land with a system of philosophically-derived, seemingly idealized customs and governance that are nevertheless as problematic as the idealized society in Plato’s Republic, reads like a fable as well as satire. As we can see, fables played a strong role in More’s imagination.

A view of the upper chamber of the Salt Tower, Tower of London

Memorial plaques at Tower Hill Scaffold Site near the Tower of London

Laurence and I explore the upper and lower chambers of the Salt Tower, examining the fascinating inscriptions and drawings carved into the walls by prisoners held in these rooms over the years. We continue on and explore other parts of the Tower unrelated to this story.

Our last stop pertaining to this exploration takes us outside the Tower walls to the Tower Hill Scaffold Site in Trinity Gardens, only a mile from where More had been born on Milk Street. Trinity Gardens is a pretty little park on a rise across the A100 / Tower Hill road from the Tower, dominated by the Tower Hill Memorial to those of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who died in World War II. The Scaffold Site, small and somewhat easy to miss, is just to the east of the Memorial. A stand of palm trees that I had seen when here last in January helps me find the site again. It’s surrounded by a very low concrete wall or curb interspersed with short concrete obelisk-shaped posts. Bronze green-patinaed plaques contain some of the names of over 125 people (according to one of the plaques) that were put to death here over the space of around 400 years. Thomas More’s, Thomas Cromwell’s, and Thomas Wyatt’s are among them, three Thomases all closely connected to the histories I’m here to follow.

After one year and three months of imprisonment in the Tower, after persuasion, influence, separation from his family, financial pressure, and increasingly harsh confinement failed to bend him to Henry VIII’s will, More could no longer escape the executioner. More was executed on July 6th, 1535, just five days after his trial. Henry never took kindly to opposition from anyone, but the perceived lack of loyalty from his friends and those he had shown special favor in the past irked him most and provoked his harshest responses. Despite a long string of promises not to force his old friend More to betray his conscience, Henry ordered his execution after More refused to go along with Henry’s change of mind. Henry extended one mercy to More: instead of the protracted and agonizing traitors’ death by hanging, drawing, and quartering to which he had originally been condemned, More’s sentence was commuted to the relatively humane death by beheading. By all accounts, More died courageously, swearing his personal loyalty and friendship to Henry while affirming his primary loyalty to the will of God as he saw it. Characteristically, some of his last remarks were kindly and joking ones, apparently to cheer up the executioner, who More assured was simply sending him to heaven where he wanted to go anyway. More exhorted the executioner to escort him safely up the platform’s wobbly steps but to let him make his own way down afterward, and admonished him to strike carefully since More’s short neck might make him accidentally botch the job.

Scaffold Site at Tower Hill, to the north near the Tower of London

Margaret was not there to witness More’s execution. In my further research, I find that it’s still uncertain as to whether this was out of grief, or because she wasn’t informed in time to get there, or because she and the rest of More’s family weren’t allowed to attend. Despite her absence, More was no doubt comforted by the memory of his last encounter with her. Margaret waited among the crowd where she knew More would pass when he was returned to his Tower cell after his trial in Westminster Hall. Upon seeing him, she discarded the dignified bearing expected of her as a gentlewoman, pushing her way through the crowd and, recklessly, past his armed guards, and flung herself on More, showering him with embraces and kisses. According to Roper, there was scarcely a dry eye among those who witnessed this scene. Margaret was loving and solicitous of More’s legacy as she had been of himself. After his severed head had been displayed for a time, Margaret conspired to have it retrieved and it was buried with her. She quickly went to work collecting, arranging, annotating, and publishing a collection of her father’s works and letters. It’s as much the work of Margaret as anyone else that her father’s memory remained so prominent, and so positive, in English, Catholic, and Renaissance history.

UPDATE: in researching the practice and legality of torture in Tudor England, I found more information about the inscription I found as I left the Bell Tower chamber where Elizabeth was imprisoned which includes ‘In forture strange, My trouth was tried, Yet of my liberty ye denied…’ According to scholar Elizabeth Hanson, it was written in 1581 by Thomas Myagh, who had been imprisoned and tortured at the Tower under suspicion of involvement in an Irish rebellion against Elizabeth’s reign.

*Patron of this Tower of London journey: Laurence Murphy ~ With warmest gratitude, thank you!*

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!


Sources and inspiration:

Ackroyd, Peter. The Life of Thomas More. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998

Annual Survey of Visits to Visitor Attractions: Latest Results.‘ VisitBritain.org

Borman, Tracy. The Story of the Tower of London. London: Merrell Publishers Limited, 2015

Borman, Tracy. ‘The Tudors and the Tower.‘ Tudor Times website, 3 Aug 2015

Bowker, M. ‘Roper [née More], Margaret (1505–1544), Scholar and Daughter of Sir Thomas More.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Camden, William Norton, Robert; Hans and Hanni Kraus. The historie of the most renowned and victorious Princesse Elizabeth, late queen of England. Contayning all the important and remarkeable passages of state both at home and abroad, during her long and prosperous raigne. Composed by way of annals. Neuer heretofore so faithfully and fully published in English.
Sir Francis Drake Collection Library of Congress. London: Printed by N. Okes for B. Fisher; 1630

Collinson, Patrick. ‘Elizabeth I (1533–1603), Queen of England and Ireland.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

English Monarchs website: ‘The Bell Tower’ and ‘The Queen’s House

Erasmus, Desiderius, Margaret Roper, and Richard Hyrde. A Deuoute Treatise vpon the Pater Noster, Made Fyrst in Latyn by the Moost Famous Doctour Mayster Erasmus Roterodamus, and Tourned in to Englisshe by a Yong Vertuous and Well Lerned Gentylwoman of. XIX. Yere of Age. London: Thomas Berthelet, 1525

Freeman, Thomas S. (2002). ‘`As true a subiect being prysoner’: John Foxe’s notes on the imprisonment of Princess Elizabeth, 1554-5.‘ (Notes And Documents). The English Historical Review, 117(470), 104-116

Furness, Hannah. ‘Wolf Hall is ‘Deliberate Perversion’ of History, says David Starkey.The Telegraph, 26 Jan 2015

Graham, Beckett and Susan Vollenweider. ‘Episode 43: Elizabeth I, Part One‘ and ‘Episode 44: Queen Elizabeth 1, Part Two‘ for their History Chicks podcast

Guy, John. A Daughter’s Love: Thomas and Margaret More. London: Fourth Estate, 2008

Guy, John. ‘For What Did Thomas More So Silently Die?’ Lecture published at Tudors.org

Hanson, Elizabeth. ‘Torture and Truth in Renaissance England.’ Representations, no. 34, 1991, pp. 53–84

House, Seymour Baker. ‘More, Sir Thomas [St Thomas More] (1478–1535), Lord Chancellor, Humanist, and Martyr.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Jones, Jonathan. ‘Wolf Hall is Wrong: Thomas More was a Funny, Feminist Renaissance Man.‘ The Guardian, 29 Jan 2015

Marc’hadour, Germain P. ‘Thomas More.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

Massie, Allan. ‘Let’s Not Overlook the Gory Details of Gloriana.The Telegraph, 02 Jun 2012

More, Thomas. The Apology of Sir Thomas More, Knight. from The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, Vol. 9. Yale University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

More, Thomas. Conscience Decides: Letters and Prayers from Prison Written Between April 1534 and July 1535. Selected and arranged by Dame Bede Foord; preface by Trevor Huddleston; introduction by Germain Marc’hadour. London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1971

More, Thomas. The English Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, 1947 Rogers edition, Princeton University Press, published online by The Center for Thomas More Studies

Moynahan. God’s Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible – A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003

Pius V. Regnans in Excelsis: Excommunicating Elizabeth I of England. 1570 (encyclical). From Papal Encyclicals Online

Roper, William. The Life of Sir Thomas More1556. Ed. Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith. From Center for Thomas More Studies, 2003

Shermer, Michael. ‘We’ve Known for 400 Years That Torture Doesn’t Work.‘ Scientific American, May 1, 2017

Stanford, Peter. ‘Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner?’ The Telegraph, 20 Jan 2015

Teysko, Heather. ‘Catholics in Elizabethan England.‘ Renaissance English History Podcast: A Show About the Tudors, episode 26, Jul 6, 2015

Teysko, Heather and Melita Thomas. ‘Tudor Times on Thomas More.’ Renaissance English History Podcast: A Show About the Tudors, episode 55, Sep 16, 2016

Tower Hill Memorial.Commonwealth War Graves Commission website

Weikel, Ann. ‘Mary I (1516–1558), Queen of England and Ireland.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Happy Birthday, Robert Ingersoll!

Statue of Robert G. Ingersoll in Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Illinois

Robert G. Ingersoll, orator, lawyer, politician and Civil War veteran often called ‘The Great Agnostic’, was a very famous man in his time but rather forgotten today. He was born on August 11, 1833 and died almost 66 years later. Among other things, he was a vocal and consistent advocate for abolitionism, women’s rights, freethought, and scientific progress. While very liberal and broad-minded, he was a dedicated family man. While his views are as progressive as could be for a person if his time, he was what we might call a square. Besides his unabashed and very public religious skepticism, he lived a life that even Victorian standards would consider altogether decorous and blameless, despite frequent attempts to discredit his views by finding something scandalous to publish about his personal life.

Ingersoll was a great friend of many of the era’s most interesting and influential people including Walt Whitman and Thomas Edison, who made two recordings of his voice with his new invention, the audio recorder.

He was also an admirer and promoter of the memory of Thomas Paine. Though Paine was a founding father of the American cause for independence with his great pamphlet Common Sense and other writings, he had long fallen out of favor in American public memory following the publication of The Age of Reason, his diatribe against religious orthodoxy and superstition, as he perceived it.

Robert Ingersoll in 1868

In the time Ingersoll enjoyed fame as an orator, freethought ideas had become more acceptable as a matter of public discourse. It was still generally unacceptable to be an out-and-out atheist, but even these could become popular speakers if they were eloquent and interesting enough. In fact, they were often considered novel and exciting, and free speech was enjoying one of its heydays in the United States in this period sometimes called The Golden Age of Freethought. This was a time when public speakers provided a very popular form of entertainment. Many of that era’s important thinkers and activists made their living, or much of it, through public speaking: Ingersoll himself, abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass, and feminist, atheist, and civil rights activist Ernestine Rose among them. Rose was also a famous orator in her day, pre-dating Ingersoll by almost a generation but like him, eloquent, witty, and a champion of Paine. She generally spoke only of topics related to her social justice causes, but Ingersoll and Douglass, like many famous orators, spoke on a wide range of topics such as Shakespeare (both men were big fans), science, politics, and much more.

For more about the eloquent and brilliant Ingersoll, please see the links to excellent online sources and to my own writings about Ingersoll below. Last year, I followed the lives and ideas of Robert Ingersoll, Frederick Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln in Peoria, Illinois, where Ingersoll lived and worked for many years; all three men admired and were inspired by one another. It was a most fascinating journey.

By Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy:

Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 1
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 2
Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, And Abraham Lincoln, Part 3

Review: The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby

By others:

Robert G. Ingersoll: American Politician ~ by the editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica

Robert Ingersoll, the ‘Great Agnostic’ ~ by John Kelly for The Washington Post

Robert Ingersoll: Intellectual and Moral Atlas ~ by Tom Malone for The Objective Standard

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) ~ at SecularHumanism.org

That Old-Time Irreligion: ‘The Great Agnostic,’ by Susan Jacoby ~ by Jennifer Michael Hecht for The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy