Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tattered Remnants #005: Thomas More


The introduction to this series can be found here.

(Here I again break the rule mandating that I write only about obscure people--for in spite of his fame, great in his lifetime and growing since--More was surely a Tattered Remnant.)

Thomas More. Lawyer. Judge. Chancellor. Traitor. Executed criminal.


His story is well known: a highly skilled lawyer in the early days of lawyering, he rose to the position of Chancellor of All England, that is, the equivalent of Chief Judge of the Supreme Court and Prime Minister combined. His master, Henry England, King, the Eighth of that Name, decided he wanted to get rid of his infertile Spanish wife who had only bore him a dull-witted girl and a number of dead sons. Nominated to succeed to the Chancellorship by his enemy Cardinal Wolsey, he too, like Wolsey, proved incapable of meeting the endless and impossible demands of his syphlitic and, ultimately, mad master. When given orders to pursue and formally approve an unjust divorce and remarriage, More quietly withdrew from his great office. He did not criticize his master, but neither did he approve. He remained silent, hoping that would save him.

But Harry England rightfully saw his silence as criticism, and ultimately demanded that he sign a formal oath of approval. More's refusal to sign led to his execution. He was beheaded with words that should be engraved on every public servant's doorway: "I die the King's good servant, but God's first!"

He is given the title of "Man for All Seasons"—the title of a famous play by Robert Bolt in which his story is used as a counterpoint for the age. Even thirty years ago, Bolt recognized the challenge More presented toward our modern mind set. But rather than being a man for all seasons, is not More truly a man out of season? Does he not contradict the whole spirit of our age?

Why, in this day and age where "mistakes are made" and responsibility dodged, where sensual desire is placed on the same plane as divine command, where "doing what thou wilt" has become "the whole of the Law"—why should a man like More, who tenatiously clung to his outlook to death, be taken at all seriously? In America today, where God is said to have died, the idea that a man should cling to the refusal to take an oath even unto his own destruction seems completely alien to us. More, who refused to sign an oath consenting to the divorce of Henry VIII from his first wife and was executed for treason, seems like fanatical Christians of old who chose death over Emperor worship: that is, almost an alien being. Why—so the thinking might go—why should we not simply take an oath while mentally crossing our fingers? Why lose our heads when we can simply claim that 'they would have killed me if I hadn't'? After all, an oath taken under duress isn't binding, is it? And if there is no truth, is not an oath just a mouthing of words?

Bolt answers this point directly. In one scene toward the end of the play, More meets with his daughter—who begs him to take the Oath and come out of the Tower where he has been held for a year. Bolt gives More these words: "When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water....and if he opens his fingers then—he needn't hope to find himself again..."(1)

But why should he take such a contrapunctual stand? At another point of the play, More is confronted by his good friend, the Duke of Norfolk, who points at the signatures on the oath, and says, "Damn it, Thomas, look at those names—you know those men! Can't you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?" To which More must reply: "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 fellowship?"(2)

And again: "I will not give in because I oppose it — I do — not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do—I!" He challenges Norfolk: "Is there no single sinew in the midst of this"—he taps Norfolk—"that serves no appetite of Norfolk's but is just Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord!"(3) And with that their friendship ends.

To stand against the spirit of the age, to attempt to exorcise the Zeitgeist: this is dangerous, indeed possibly deadly, activity. In More's case it was admirable, but futile; the separation of England's church from that of Rome—against which he stood—is wider even today than it was in his own time. But in other cases—that of the Maid of Orleans in the fourteenth century, or more recently, the cases of Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, or Natan Shchransky—the refusal to give in, to submit, to unlawful authority and the evil exercise of power, can lead to the ultimate destruction or transformation of the power defied.

The renouned English Catholic, G.K. Chesterton, makes an interesting observation on the inappropriateness of saints to an age:

[I]t is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most. St. Francis [of Assisi] had a curious and almost uncanny attraction for the Victorians; for the nineteenth century English who seemed superficially to be most complacent about their commerce and their common sense.... [Francis] was the only midieval Catholic who really became popular in England on his own merits. It was largely because of a subconscious feeling that the modern world had neglected those particular merits. The English middle classes found their only missionary in the figure, which of all types in the world they most despised; an Italian beggar.(4)

If indeed an age is converted by the saint who contradicts it most, then perhaps to call More a man out of season is not appropos: for given the superstitions we substitute for God in our day and age, a man willing to go to the block for a legal quibble may be its most inspiring contradiction. Perhaps this is what will make him a man for our season in the end after all.

1 Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, Vintage Int'l Publishers, 1960, p. 140.

2 A Man for All Seasons at 132

3 A Man for All Seasons at 123-124.

4 G.K Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, "The Dumb Ox", Doubleday, 1933, at 24.
This essay first appeared in EUTOPIA: A LAY JOURNAL OF CATHOLIC THOUGHT, in the Fall of 1997.

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