Most of us know the movie, and not the play, a misfortune. Because the film, although excellent, is incapable of conveying the complexities, nuances, and timeless relevance of Robert Bolt’s two-act play Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons. Had it not been for my undergraduate English teacher, I’d have missed this stunning, starkly written drama about the most important battle any of us face: conscience versus obedience.
In the preface, Bolt writes a piercingly sardonic explanation about why he selected a sixteenth-century Chancellor of King Henry VIII as his archetypal hero.
Preface- A Man For All Seasons
…why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie? For this reason: A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee. And it works. There is a special kind of shrug for a perjurer; we feel that the man has no self to commit, no guarantee to offer. Of course it’s much less effective now that for most of us the actual words of the oath are not much more than impressive mumbo-jumbo than it was when they made obvious sense; we would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than with themselves. We feel – we know – the self to be an equivocal commodity. There are fewer and fewer things which, as they say, we ‘cannot bring ourselves’ to do. We can find almost no limits for ourselves other than the physical, which being physical are not optional. Perhaps this is why we have fallen back so widely on physical torture as a means of bringing pressure to bear on one another
The years from 1529 through 1535 were years replete with attempted compromise. In 1529 Sir Thomas More was appointed Lord Chancellor of England; in 1535, More was beheaded for his treasonable refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy declaring Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England and which validated Henry’s annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and remarriage to Anne Boyleyn.
Over and over the statesman sought conciliation- a way to reconcile the rupture between his king and his faith; a way to prevent the schism between the Church and the King. Finally More persuades King Henry to accept his resignation as Lord Chancellor in hopes that the resignation could serve to recuse him from signing. Bolt’s play reveals a frightened, increasingly desperate man as he seeks a way out. A person each of us can relate to.
But More’s Catholicism was no obligation bounded by Sunday Mass and the sacraments; his faith defined his person-hood. As a young atheistic college student, I recall feeling jealous, even envy for the clarity of this man. Like the playwright, to me, saints were not human…by definition. Missing, of course, the whole point of a profound desire for Something or Someone so great that were it to be taken away, existence would cease.
GK Chesterton: The Well and the Shadow
More’s mind was like a diamond also in a power like that of cutting glass; of cutting through things that seemed equally transparent, but were at once less solid and less many-sided. For the true consistent heresies generally look very clear indeed; like Calvinism then or Communism now. They sometimes even look very true; they sometimes even are very true, in the limited sense of a truth that is less than the Truth. They are at once more thin and more brittle than the diamond. For a heresy is not often a mere lie; as Thomas More himself said, “Never was there a heretic that spoke all false.” A heresy is a truth that hides all the other truths. A mind like More’s was full of light like a house made of windows; but the windows looked out on all sides and in all directions. We might say that, as the jewel has many facets, so the man had many faces; only none of them were masks.
I developed a high regard for Thomas More- A Man For All Seasons- all those years ago- a deep and real sense of who he had been and even of who I hoped to become.
Norfolk: I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names… You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us for friendship?
More: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for friendship?
Cranmer: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas?
More: I don’t know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man’s conscience. I condemn no one.
Cranmer: Then the matter is capable of question?
Cranmer: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty — and sign.
More: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it? No, I will not sign.
This was someone, Bolt explains in his Preface to A Man For All Seasons, who did not race to martyrdom unlike most of the saints revered by the church rejected by Bolt. (And by me.) Quite the contrary. More was a man of law and a loyal subject of the King of England, considering Henry to be a friend. Married with four children whom he loved dearly, Thomas More was a lover of life, good food and fine wines. He was a humanist; a concept which in the sixteenth century, conveyed submission to God and his law. A man who did not want to die.
Perhaps the tenderest scene in the play is that with More’s beloved daughter Meg. Tender…yet riveting. One that brought me back to read the play again.
MORE “You want me to swear to the Act of Succession?”
MARGARET “God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth.” Or so you’ve always told me.
MARGARET “Then say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.”
MORE “What is an oath then but words we say to God?”
MARGARET “That’s very neat.”
MORE “Do you mean it isn’t true?”
MARGARET “No, it’s true.”
MORE “Then it’s a poor argument to call it “neat,” Meg. When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then-he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.”
MARGARET “In any State that was half good, you would be raised up high, not here, for what you’ve done already. It’s not your fault the State’s three-quarters bad. Then if you elect to suffer for it, you elect yourself a hero.”
MORE “That’s very neat. But look now . . . If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all . . . why then perhaps we must stand fast a little-even at the risk of being heroes.”
MARGARET (Emotionally) “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?”
MORE “Well . . . finally . . . it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
ponder carefully, very thoughtfully, these words of G.K. Chesterton about St. Thomas More:
In the very deepest sense he is thus the champion of Liberty in his public life and his still more public death. In his private life he is the type of a truth even less understood to-day; the truth that the real habitation of Liberty is the home. Modern novels and newspapers and problem plays have been piled up in one huge rubbish-heap to hide this simple fact; yet it is a fact that can be proved quite simply. Public life must be rather more regimented than private life; just as a man cannot wander about in the traffic of Piccadilly exactly as he could wander about in his own garden. Where there is traffic there will be regulation of traffic; and this is quite as true, or even more true, where it is what we should call an illicit traffic; where the most modern governments organize sterilization to-day and may organize infanticide to-morrow. Those who hold the modem superstition that the State can do no wrong will be bound to accept such a thing as right. If individuals have any hope of protecting their freedom, they must protect their family life
In the year 2000, then Pope John Paul ll declared St. Thomas More to be the “heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians.”