Chicken Soup for the Legal Soul: The Jurisprudence of Saint Thomas More
51 J. Cath. Leg. Stud. 145 (2012)
50 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2012 Last revised: 8 Jul 2015
Date Written: March 21, 2012
Eighty years ago, G.K. Chesterton stated that Saint Thomas More was “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.” The same could be said right now. While Thomas More has been the subject of numerous biographical sketches, this manuscript is unprecedented in its analysis of the “jurisprudence” of Thomas More, which is a topic normally reserved for the study of modern American judges. This paper ultimately demonstrates why More’s underlying legal philosophy remains relevant today, especially in an American legal framework characterized by pluralism and that many consider to be the logical outgrowth of Lockean legal and political philosophy. This article articulates how More’s legal career - and the decisions leading to his death - display the perpetual conflict between the inherent values of the natural law tradition and the primacy of positive law in legal positivism, including each system’s most basic assumptions. More’s life and legal career is an example of the prudent pursuit of traditional notions of virtue and justice within an era dominated by new ideas about the nature of law and justice in political systems. His jurisprudence implicitly acknowledges the validity of the natural law tradition while paying special attention to the virtue of prudence in public affairs. For More, law was an holistic endeavor built from various disciplines reflecting on human nature. His contemporaries could not fully accept More’s acknowledgment of the limitations of human governance and the compelling force of the natural law in the Christian tradition, as well as his unyielding devotion to his conscience. In this sense, More’s death is a product of the inherent conflict between differing jurisprudential perspectives - including the unchecked force of law founded on will rather than reason that is characteristic of modern positivism. As one scholar notes, More “was fundamentally a man at odds with his age.” The paper concludes by offering some reflections on the relevance of More’s legal career in the present-day American legal framework.
Keywords: Jurisprudence, Thomas More, Legal Philosophy, Religion
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