A Man for All Seasons, Including Ours: Thomas More as the Patron Saint of Social Media, Steve Fuller

SERRC —  March 10, 2017 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3uu

Editor’s Note: Steve Fuller’s “A Man for All Seasons, Including Ours: Thomas More as the Patron Saint of Social Media” originally appeared in ABC Religion and Ethics on 23 February 2017.

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Image credit: Carolien Coenen, via flickr

November 2016 marked the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Utopia by Thomas More in Leuven through the efforts of his friend and fellow Humanist, Desiderius Erasmus.

More is primarily remembered today for this work, which sought to show how a better society might be built by learning from the experience of other societies.

It was published shortly before he entered into the service of King Henry VIII, who liked Utopia. And as the monarch notoriously struggled to assert England’s sovereignty over the Pope, More proved to be a critical supporter, eventually rising to the rank of “Lord Chancellor,” his legal advisor.

Nevertheless, within a few years More was condemned to death for refusing to acknowledge the King’s absolute authority over the Pope. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, More introduced “integrity”—in the sense of “moral integrity” or “personal integrity”—into English while awaiting execution. Specifically, he explained his refusal to sign the “Oath of Supremacy” of the King over the Pope by his desire to preserve the integrity of his reputation.

To today’s ears this justification sounds somewhat self-serving, as if More were mainly concerned with what others would think of him. However, More lived at least two centuries before the strong modern distinction between the public and the private person was in general use.

He was getting at something else, which is likely to be of increasing relevance in our “postmodern” world, which has thrown into doubt the very idea that we should think of personal identity as a matter of self-possession in the exclusionary sense which has animated the private-public distinction. It turns out that the pre-modern More is on the side of the postmodernists.

We tend to think of “modernization” as an irreversible process, and in some important respects it seems to be. Certainly our lives have come be organized around technology and its attendant virtues: power, efficiency, speed. However, some features of modernity—partly as an unintended consequence of its technological trajectory—appear to be reversible. One such feature is any strong sense of what is private and public—something to which any avid user of social media can intuitively testify.

More proves to be an interesting witness here because while he had much to say about conscience, he did not presume the privacy of conscience. On the contrary, he judged someone to be a person of “good conscience” if he or she listened to the advice of trusted friends, as he had taken Henry VIII to have been prior to his issuing the Oath of Supremacy. This is quite different from the existentially isolated conception of conscience that comes into play during the Protestant Reformation, on which subsequent secular appeals to conscience in the modern era have been based.

For More, conscience is a publicly accessible decision-making site, the goodness of which is to be judged in terms of whether the right principles have been applied in the right way in a particular case. The platform for this activity is an individual human being who—perhaps by dint of fate—happens to be hosting the decision. However, it is presumed that the same decision would have been reached, regardless of the hosting individual. Thus, it makes sense for the host to consult trusted friends, who could easily imagine themselves as the host.

What is lacking from More’s analysis of conscience is a sense of its creative and self-authorizing character, a vulgarized version of which features in the old Frank Sinatra standard, “My Way.” This is the sense of self-legislation which Kant defined as central to the autonomous person in the modern era. It is a legacy of Protestantism, which took much more seriously than Catholicism the idea that humans are created “in the image and likeness of God.” In effect, we are created to be creators, which is just another way of saying that we are unique among the creatures in possessing “free will.”

To be sure, whether our deeds make us worthy of this freedom is for God alone to decide. Our fellows may well approve of our actions but we—and they—may be judged otherwise in light of God’s moral bookkeeping. The modern secular mind has inherited from this Protestant sensibility an anxiety—a “fear and trembling,” to recall Kierkegaard’s echo of St. Paul—about our fate once we are dead. This sense of anxiety is entirely lacking in More, who accepts his death serenely even though he has no greater insight into what lies in store for him than the Protestant Reformers or secular moderns.

Understanding the nature of More’s serenity provides a guide for coming to terms with the emerging postmodern sense of integrity in our data-intensive, computer-mediated world. More’s personal identity was strongly if not exclusively tied to his public persona—the totality of decisions and actions that he took in the presence of others, often in consultation with them. In effect, he engaged throughout his life in what we might call a “critical crowdsourcing” of his identity. The track record of this activity amounts to his reputation, which remains in open view even after his death.

The ancient Greeks and Romans would have grasped part of More’s modus operandi, which they would understand in terms of “fame” and “honour.” However, the ancients were concerned with how others would speak about them in the future, ideally to magnify their fame and honour to mythic proportions. They were not scrupulous about documenting their acts in the sense that More and we are. On the contrary, the ancients hoped that a sufficient number of word-of-mouth iterations over time might serve to launder their acts of whatever unsavoury character that they may have originally had.

In contrast, More was interested in people knowing exactly what he decided on various occasions. On that basis they could pass judgement on his life, thereby—so he believed—vindicating his reputation. His “integrity” thus lay in his life being an open book that could be read by anyone as displaying some common narrative threads that add up to a conscientious person. This orientation accounts for the frequency with which More and his friends, especially Erasmus, testified to More’s standing as a man of good conscience in whatever he happened to say or do. They contributed to his desire to live “on the record.”

More’s sense of integrity survives on Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, whenever the account holders are sufficiently dedicated to constructing a coherent image of themselves, notwithstanding the intensity of their interaction with others. In this context, “privacy” is something quite different from how it has been understood in modernity. Moderns cherish privacy as an absolute right to refrain from declaration in order to protect their sphere of personal freedom, access to which no one— other than God, should he exist—is entitled. For their part, postmoderns interpret privacy more modestly as friendly counsel aimed at discouraging potentially self-harming declarations. This was also More’s world.

More believed that however God settled his fate, it would be based on his public track record. Unlike the Protestant Reformers, he also believed that this track record could be judged equally by humans and by God. Indeed, this is what made More a Humanist, notwithstanding his loyalty to the Pope unto death.

Yet More’s stance proved to be theologically controversial for four centuries, until the Catholic Church finally made him the patron saint of politicians in 1935. Perhaps More’s spiritual patronage should be extended to cover social media users.

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  1. Special Issue 4: “Social Epistemology and Technology”, edited by Frank Scalambrino « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - March 10, 2017

    […] Steve Fuller, “A Man for All Seasons, Including Ours: Thomas More as the Patron Saint of Social Media” […]

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