Reviewing a novel by Martin Amis recently in the pages of The Weekly Standard, David Gelernter spoke of irony as a “glacier that has pinned modern culture under its massive arrogance.” A nifty turn of phrase, certainly. But surely it applies to irony as it is currently known and practiced, not to the irony of someone like St. Thomas More.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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As a writer, after all, More was a master ironist, but not in the cause of arctic arrogance. The best-known literary instance of More’s brand of irony is Utopia, the classic account of a No Place embodying an ideal way of life far removed from the Christian ideal cherished by its deeply religious author.
Why did More write this radically ironical book? The answer presumably is: to make people think. Think, that is, about the stark differences between a non-Christian ordering of society and a Christian one. That’s what makes Utopia so piercingly relevant for today’s post-Christian West.
But Utopia isn’t the only expression of Thomas More’s literary irony at work.
Lately I’ve had the privilege of reading a modern English version — the only one so far — of this statesman-humanist-martyr’s first book, The Life of Pico della Mirandola, subtitled (ironically) A Very Spectacle to All (Scepter Publishers, 2010). The very composition by More of this rather mysterious volume can only be explained by appealing to his taste for irony as an instrument for leading readers to face up to truths they’d otherwise miss.
More’s book appeared exactly 500 years ago, in 1510, when he was setting out on the business of an exceedingly busy life as lawyer, public intellectual, and conscientious family man. The Life of Pico is a translation (into the pre-Elizabethan English of that day) and very extensive adaptation of an earlier work by a nephew of its subject.
Who was this Pico della Mirandola? Hardly a household name today, Pico, who died in 1494 at the age of 31, was in his time an international celebrity — a handsome scion of a noble family who’d led a dissolute life, experienced a religious conversion, become an important figure in the history of Italian humanism, and produced works of scholarship and religious tutelage.
Along with a biographical sketch of Pico, More’s book contains letters, a Scripture commentary, and poems. Much of the material, especially the poetry, is largely or entirely More’s. And the book’s special slant on Pico is exclusively his.
It’s suggested by his calling Pico “a spectacle to all.” The ambiguity here is telling: A spectacle may be edifying or it may be . . . something else. Pico’s nephew took a worshipful view of his uncle; More’s view is ambivalent, to say the least, and pervasively ironic.
This second layer of meaning crops up repeatedly in the book. After his conversion, Pico becomes ostentatiously humble, yet as a writer he remains “full of pride and desirous of glory and man’s praise.” His indifference to his inherited wealth impresses casual onlookers as meritorious, but it also reflects self-indulgent refusal to accept responsibility for the right use of what was his. His lack of oversight over his servants strikes some as generous and tolerant, but it appears linked to the rumor that he died of poisoning by those same servants.
Irony and ambivalence come fully into view in a sermon supposedly preached after Pico’s death by the controversial Dominican reformer Girolamo Savanarola, who’d been the dead man’s spiritual advisor and soon was himself to be tried and executed. Though Pico, in the years of his conversion, was widely deemed a paragon of devotion, Savanarola speaks of having seen him in a vision in the flames of Purgatory.
His offense: “I came to see that God by private inspiration was calling him to the religious state. And Pico for his part often resolved to heed this inspiration. . . .Yet, insufficiently grateful for God’s great blessings or held back by the weakness of the flesh . . . he shrank from the effort.”
In an illuminating introduction to this intriguing work, Gerald Wegemer, a More scholar at the University of Dallas, contrasts Pico’s calculating and self-interested spirit with the spirit of ardent love described in the “highly original” poems by More that conclude the volume.
Serve God for love, then, not for hope of pay.
What happier service could you ever wish
Than that which doing is itself your good?
And who so kind, so lovely as is He
Who such great things e’er now for you has done —
First making you, and then upon the cross
Redeeming you with His own precious blood.
Pico’s great loves, writes Wegemer, were “his books and his intellectual projects.” More’s great-grandnephew, the Metaphysical poet John Donne, comments that in More’s treatment of this slippery character, Pico appears as “a man of incontinent wit, and subject to the concupiscence of inaccessible knowledge.”
So why did More spend time on him? Wegemer’s answer seems right: “For attentive readers, More has designed his Life of Pico to help them ‘see’ the workings of pride.” And those curious not just about Pico but about Thomas More will find this ironic book an eye-opening look into the mind and heart of a Christian ironist on the way to becoming a saint.