How Two Swords: Heresy and Just War Relates to More’s Utopia
Reading The Two Swords: Heresy and Just War alongside Utopia gave me a unique opportunity to better understand More’s reasoning for some of the Utopian’s policies and social structure, because he wrote both works. It is easy to see how his criticisms of the politics and religious structure of sixteenth century England influenced his decisions when creating the ideal society outlined in Book II of Utopia. Notably, his ideology of the benefits of religious tolerance, the importance of peace, and what makes a war justified.
One of the main concepts in More’s dialogue The Two Swords: Heresy and Just War is that of the coexistence of religion. He argues that it is indeed possibly for different religions to practice alongside each other and even try to convert non-believers to their theology. However, he asserts that symbiotic relationship can only work as long as all religions are tolerant of the others. As a devout Christian, More obviously believed that Christianity was the supreme religion, but nevertheless states that coexistence without violence is possible. This belief is echoed in his writings in Utopia, for many religions exist within the Utopian society and conversion to Christianity is widely accepted. Further evidence of the benefits of religious tolerance is that, “even those who do not agree with the Christian religion still do not frighten anyone away from it; they do not oppose anyone who has embraced it.” (Utopia 117) The acceptance of differing ideologies regarding religion creates an environment in which heresy does not exist, so there need not be any discussion of how to best punish heretics, which More considers a divisive issue in sixteenth century England.
Similar to More’s belief that religious tolerance is essential is his assertion, found in both texts, that the peace of a society must be protected above all else. The issue of the heretics is one which More considered to be a dangerous threat to the peace and order of his society. Their violence is great enough that religious and secular leaders alike must, “permit and exhort…others to suppress them with force and threaten them with bodily punishment.” (Swords 284) We can see that, although Christian literature seemingly prohibits violence of every kind, More believes that violence or war is justified in defense of “the peace and quiet of the people…of Christendom.” (Swords 285) The idea of justified war is echoed in the Utopian policies on war, that it is usually avoided, but allowed “to defend their own territory, to drive an invading enemy from the territory of their friends, or else out of compassion and humanity.” (Utopia 105)
I am glad I read More’s Two Swords: Heresy and Just War dialogue as a supplemental reading in the study of his Utopia because it helped me to better understand the actual social and political issues in More’s society that led him to create the Utopian society in the way he did. The problem of the heretics and other religious violence in sixteenth century England obviously led him to imagine a better system, which he then realized in his satirical work Utopia.
Thomas More, “Two Swords: Heresy and Just War” in A Thomas More Source Book. Edited by
Gerard B. Wegemer and Stephen W. Smith. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of
America Press, 2004, pp. 281-290.
More, Thomas. Utopia. Translated by Clarence H. Miller. New Haven: Yale University Press,