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A Man for all Seasons: an Historian's Demur
Conscience for St. Thomas More was the right to be right, not the right to be wrong.
"More," wrote Robert Whittinton in 1520, "is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons."1 Mr. Robert Bolt found in these lines a title for his remarkable play, in which More becomes "a man with an adamantine sense of his own self, [who] knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved."2 Such a person, with such a knowledge of and hold upon himself, must be the stuff of heroism at all times and all places — a hero bigger than life, or rather a hero whose moral sway is so prepossessing that he evokes a human response beyond any limiting considerations of time or place — and that, I suppose, is the point of Mr. Bolt's title. In the poet's vision, London of the l530s is as good a backdrop as any against which to pose questions about the nature of law and the love of God and the demands of honor, questions which are appropriately posed at every human season, because they touch at every season the human spirit stirring to unravel the mysteries it finds itself wrapped in.
In dealing with Mr. Bolt's More, we deal with the likes of Oedipus and Faust, not with a Willy Loman, whose tale is told within the context of a narrow and specific cultural setting essentially familiar to us. There may indeed be an apt season for the death of the salesman, but surely not for the death of the lord chancellor whose crise de conscience is too stark, too universal, too genuinely radical to exhaust its significance in that poignant moment on Tower Hill, Tuesday, July 6, 1535, a little before nine in the morning. In dealing with More, we have to face, in Mr. Bolt's words, "the terrifying cosmos, terrifying because no laws, no sanctions, no mores obtain there; it is either empty or occupied by God and Devil nakedly at war."3 The brilliant artistry of Mr. Bolt assures us that in watching the confrontation between More and King Henry VIII we are witnessing, as in some cosmic mirror, the seasonless struggle of our unhappy race.
Mr. Bolt's grand and moving drama now provides the standard picture of Thomas More. What is the historian's reaction to it? Initially, it disturbs him because it seems at once to say too much and too little. So pedantic and prosaic is the historian, so bound is he to the smudged and often obscure documents before him, so accustomed is he to building modest houses out of the fragments at his disposal, that he pales before this great edifice. He tends to be highly suspicious of a concept like "a man for all seasons." There is no such person, he will argue in his fussy way. Everyone has his allotted time, his season, his moment upon the stage, and then he is gone, replaced by some one else.
Look at the phrase itself. It was coined, as we have seen, by Robert Whittinton in 1520. Whittinton was one of More's literary friends, a writer, a teacher of Latin composition, a humanist in the precise sense of that much-abused term. What did he mean by the phrase? Apparently, he meant the witty and learned More was so sensitive to the feelings of others, was so affable and gentle, that, depending on the situation, he turned mirthful or grave and thus matched his mood to whatever emotional "season" his friends were experiencing.
This at any rate is the sense of the words themselves, and they express a high compliment indeed. It is possible also, though less likely, that Whittinton intended them simply to flatter More. Possible, because More, author of Utopia and intimate of Erasmus, was the foremost intellectual in England, and besides that a king's councillor whose patronage might be valuable to an ambitious author. And yet less likely, because More was notoriously straight-forward and impatient of humbug, so that flattery might have been expected to repel rather than attract him.
However that may be, Whittinton's "a man for all seasons" could have had nothing whatever to do with the Thomas More about whom Mr. Bolt wrote his play. In 1520, when Whittinton's book on Latin Composition appeared, More was still a year away from his knighthood and his first ministerial post, three years from the speakership of the House of Commons, nine from the chancellorship, and fifteen from the heroic ordeal which ended on Tower Hill. Henry VIII had not yet published his Assertio septem sacramentorum against Luther. Anne Boleyn was a dark-eyed little girl of thirteen, and Thomas Cromwell was still a moneylender in London. In short, Mr. Bolt's concerns are with More the martyr who died in witness to the inviolability of the human conscience. Whittinton had nothing in mind so grandiose as that.
Well, one might say, so much the worse for Whittinton. And so much the worse for the pedant who enters such a demur. The poet's ecstasy is infinitely more valuable than fastidious chronology. This is so. Any yet the poet's method in this instance has its difficulties. There never was an Oedipus or a Faust, nor even a Willy Loman. But Thomas More was a real man who lived in Chelsea, a man of medium height, with auburn hair and blue-gray eyes, who liked beef and eggs and small beer, who had a wistful way with animals, who walked with his right shoulder slightly higher than his left, who wore a hairshirt next to his flesh.4 He was a lawyer and a politician. He married two wives and sired several children. He was a literateur who wrote one great book and many lesser ones. He was tone deaf and unmusical, though he regularly sang in the choir of Chelsea Church (not necessarily, it has been observed, incompatible statements).5
Thomas More died at a tyrant's hands, but during the greater part of his life he labored diligently in the service of that same tyrant, so diligently indeed that he described himself on the scaffold in a phrase which neither his friends nor his enemies have attempted to rebut: he was "the king's good servant." Six years earlier, when the highest office in the land was offered to him, he accepted it as any sensible politician would have, seeing it as the culmination of his public life. The evidence that he accepted the great seal of the chancery reluctantly is highly suspect, and there is no evidence at all that he demanded and received, as a prior condition for acceptance, assurances from the king that he would not be troubled over the divorce. On the contrary, what reluctance there was about the appointment seems to have arisen in the king's council and perhaps in the king's mind. It is certain at any rate that More received no assurances from the king about the divorce until after he had hung the chancellor's insignia around his neck.6
Thomas More was killed in defense of his conscience. He was asked, in Mr. Bolt's words, "to state that he believed what he didn't believe.'7 He refused, and he died. That he did so with courage, with a kind of whimsical gallantry which has gained him almost universal admiration since,8 needs hardly be said. But it is particularly important to understand the principle he so loyally followed. He did not mount the scaffold in defense of freedom of conscience as such; that is to say, he never maintained, as you and I might do, that conscience is the ultimate voice, that privy place where no authority may intrude and where no abstract truth has any claim, or, as Mr. Bolt might put it, the last refuge of one's selfhood. Such may have been two centuries later Voltaire's notion of conscience,9 and it may be ours. It was never Thomas More's. Listen to the man himself after he had been pronounced guilty, thanks to the perjured testimony of Richard Rich.
The presiding judge replied by citing the bishops, universities "and best learned of this realm" who had approved the Reformation settlement. More answered:
These are not the words of a man for whom conscience defined as the private grasp of the truth according to one's lights, is the supreme tribunal. Conscience for More was the right to be right, not the right to be wrong. He did not refuse to "conform" his conscience to the Act of Supremacy for private but public reasons: "For one council or Parliament of yours," he thundered at his judges, "I have all the councils made these thousand years." Similarly, in the days of his power it had been irrelevant to him that those whom he called heretics and whom he pursued relentlessly with both pen and sword had considered themselves right. In his view it was neither irrational nor cruel to take away their lives, if need be, precisely because they were in fact wrong about the public good.
They understood this conviction of his, even if we do not, because they shared it, and, like More, they were willing to die for it. They were not, any more than he was, martyrs to a pale pluralism. Indeed, the Protestants burned by Mary Tudor twenty years later, the Catholics disemboweled by Elizabeth Tudor twenty years after that, even, in their different ways, Charles I and Robespierre, John Brown and Trotsky, Sacco and Vanzetti would have understood More more readily than we do. For all of them ideology was the expression of the commonweal, and conscience was far removed from bland personal preference. For all of them ideology was a public good which was worth dying for indeed, but which was also — and this may have been harder — worth killing for.
I believe that for More at any rate it was harder to kill than to die, and this may help explain his otherwise incredible good humor upon the scaffold. But he did not shrink from either killing or dying. He did not hold that the state must be ideologically neutral, must be indifferent to what is ultimately true and false, right and wrong, must be content to practice the art of the possible in a less than perfect universe. It never occurred to More or his contemporaries that the state should trouble itself with problems of sanitation or urban development, any more than it occurs to us that the state should support the Christian religion because the Christian religion is true. For, we ask ourselves with a flutter of the mind, what if it is not true? More would have understood us no more easily than we understand him. For we are all humanitarians now, nineteenth century positivists or twentieth century libertarians or technocrats or hedonists. And conscience is a voice deep within ourselves which no one else can hear.
So there is for us something particularly beguiling about Mr. Bolt's brilliantly argued thesis in the play, that More was a martyr to the lonely existential self, "a hero of self-hood," as Mr. Bolt puts it.
The historian, dry and finicky, can only reply that this "hero of selfhood" and therefore this "man for all seasons" is radically different from the person so painfully, so incompletely reconstructed from the evidence that has come down to us. It is not that Mr. Bolt's presentation of More is vulgar or superficial — so often the fate of historical personages at the hands of less skilled artists. On the contrary, Mr. Bolt's sympathy for his subject is so deep that one senses it in every lilting line he has written. If anything, the playgoer or moviegoer will find in A Man for All Seasons confirmation of Swift's observation that More was "the person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced," and of the more recent judgment of Hugh Trevor-Roper — a contemporary historian not much given to compliments even to the dead — that More was "the first great Englishman whom we feel that we know, the most saintly of humanists, the most human of saints, the universal man of our cool northern renaissance."12
Nor is it that the historian is right and Mr. Bolt is wrong. Truth wears many mantles and confronts the mind from many angles. After all, the play's the thing, and there may be more to be learned in one poetic experience than in the study of a thousand worn documents. Perhaps the discrepancy lies in the vocation of the historian whose chief aim, Herbert Butterfield has said, "is the elucidation of the unlikenesses between past and present and [whose] chief function is to act in this way as the mediator between other generations and our own. It is not for him to stress and magnify the similarities between one age and another, and he is riding after a whole flock of misapprehensions if he goes to hunt the present in the past."13 It remains a lowlier calling than the poet's, but it has its uses.
It shows us that in a very real sense Thomas More was a man of one season — that moment of golden twilight when the Middle Ages were slowly giving place to something new, to something no one yet could name, a time of bright hope and fervor, an age of certainty, when Luther stood boldly before the princes of the Empire and Loyola bent before the mystic winds at Manresa, when kings dallied on the Field of Cloth of Gold, when popes still preached crusade. It was a time when people, who had never had the chance to read Camus,14 had no doubt of what was true and what was right. It is all gone now, whistling down the wind, and Thomas More has gone with it.
Marvin O'Connell. "A Man for all Seasons: an Historian's Demur." Catholic Dossier 8 no. 2 (March-April, 2002): 16-19.
This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic Dossier.
Marvin O'Connell is professor of history at the University of Notre Dame
Copyright © 2002 Catholic Dossier