How Two Swords: Heresy and Just War Relates to More’s Utopia
In reading The Two Swords: Heresy and Just War alongside Utopia, More’s reasoning for the Utopian’s more liberal religious policies and social structure becomes evident in 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 is 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) While the Utopian’s policies regarding religion do not seem extraordinarily radical within the context of the other Utopian laws and practices, it is largely at odds with the reality of the English society that More called home.
Heresy and the divisive debate surrounding policies on the punishment of heretics was a subsequent concern to the religious tolerance More points out. The issue of heresy and heretics was so prevalent in sixteenth century England that it makes sense that More chose to devote the Utopians to its prevention. He writes that in Utopia, “one of their oldest policies [is] that no one should come to any harm because of their religion” (Utopia 118). This policy affects the lives of the Utopians in two separate ways. First, it strengthens their aforementioned belief in religious tolerance by providing legal precedence for the protection of everyone’s religious beliefs. It also protects those who disagree with a certain religion from being labelled a heretic and harshly punished as was common practice in England. However, More also acknowledges the existence of those who argue against religion for the sole sake of causing strife. He says in Utopia that “anyone who quarrels insolently about religion is punished with exile or enslavement…for the sake of peace” (Utopia 118). 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) Therefore, it is clear that despite More’s reluctance to support violence, he believes there are instances where war is justified—when the war is to keep the peace of the Utopians’ own community or that of their allies.
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. Through close analysis and explication of quotes from Utopia, the reader can make relevant connections between Utopia and Two Swords: Heresy and Just War. These connections make it much easier to understand how More reached a conclusion regarding the qualities that constitute the most perfect society—that of the Utopians.
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,