December 28, 2007

A Defense of St. Thomas More

It's always surprising to find a modern, secular scholar defending anything or anyone Catholic. Catholicism is seen as archaic, hierarchical, inimical to free thought or expression. So's you can imagine my surprise at finding Burning to Read, a book written by James Simpson, a professor at that Catholic hotbed of Harvard. His main point is that the Reformation was a regression, not a progression, and was triggered by ill-use of a new technology (mass production of books):
I'll look at the ways in which an exceptionally prescient Thomas More foresaw the outcome I have been describing...More's positions, usually dismissed by historians as the manic reflex of a persecutory temper, turn out to be deeply meditated, brilliantly argued, and, up to a very precise point, extremely plausible. The essence of his argument is that texts are trustingly made and re-made in human history and by human institutions. The literal sense is only ever a fragile thread whose sense can be constructed within trustworthy communal understandings and traditions, some of them necessarily unwritten. The society of pure contract, along with the clarity and fullness of the literal sense, is always only a fiction...Evangelical readers insisted on the explicit, written covenants in Scripture as the sure rock of their faith. Contracts are the product of a lack of faith, of a need to have everything written.

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As Richard Hooker was to say about the scriptura sola position in his Of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1586-c. 1593): "Admit this [scriputra sola] and what shall the scripture be but a snare and torment to weak consciences, filling them with infinite perplexities, scrupulosities, doubts insoluble, and extreme despairs?"

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The debates and struggles between 1520 and 1547 [between More and Tyndale] are about differing definitions of self and communities that derive from different reading practices. They are not primarily debates about vernacular translation; and neither are they, therefore, primarily debates about depriving lay readers of the Bible in English. It's also a confrontation that has the dimensions of a tragedy, since each of the two reading cultures becomes more rigid in the face of the other, and the Catholic side in particular contracts a kind of virus of literalism from the evangelical side, while the evangelicals contract an idolatry of the book and the written. This is the kind of confrontation in which both sides are inevitably and permanently transformed from within by contact with each other.

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The relatively new textuality of print was at the same time commanding and thoroughly impersonal. It was commanding not the least because its power of reproduction was so immeasurably greater than that of manuscript reproduction; it was impersonal because it was so much more uniform than the system of manuscript transmission.

At their broadest reach, however, More's arguments offer an alternative to a variety of textual impositions and receptions characteristic of early modernity. That said, it's also true that he was unlikely to win this debate: for More's profound position demands that we take verbal, pre-textual circumstance into account. But in the new environment of polemics, conducted in print, with print's new and demanding impersonality, debate had itself become a written phenomenon. As More fought in print, and as he fought by extensive, precise quotation of the printed works of his enemies, he was fighting in a mode that ran counter to his persuasion that intuitive and/or oral pre-texts are the real determiners of meaning. More's polemical works were fighting, that is, under a debilitating handicap: the formal manner of encounter into which he was drawn ran directly counter to the content of the position to which he was most deeply committed. Although he fought in printed texts, he believed that only oral or unwritten communication made sense of written texts.

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