Saturday, January 14, 2012

Thomas More: A Discussion

The blog I mentioned last time, had a recent posting about Sir Thomas More. If you, for instance, saw the film, "A Man for all Seasons" or read Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall", you'll know who Sir Thomas More was.

He lived in England a long time ago - nearly 500 years - and so lived there when King Henry the Eighth lived there too. Thomas Moore worked for Henry, serving as his Lord Chancellor, which was like a prime minister today.

Thomas was as highly educated as highly educated can be, and was England's foremost intellectual. He has come down through the ages as being selflessly good because he went to the gallows for his beliefs, in particular his belief that the Catholic church was the only church that should be allowed in England, and that Catholics in England recognise the authority of the Pope in all matters spiritual and churchly.

To ensure that the men of England didn't get false ideas, England had to be cleansed of all Protestant-written religious books, including, of course, Protestant bibles. People having such books, and the people who wrote them, were, if caught, burned alive. Thomas More, as the lord Chancellor, was responsible for seeking out and punishing these wrongdoers. He did so enthusiastically.

Things started going wrong for Thomas when Henry began getting tired of his wife, Catherine of Aragon. He wanted to divorce her and marry woman who had taken his fancy, Anne Boleyn. The Pope wouldn't allow this because Catholics couldn't get divorced. Thomas, being always the Pope's man, opposed Henry's divorce and marriage plans. He eventually paid for this with his life.

The blogger I'd mentioned at the beginning of this entry, had written her piece on Thomas Moore, under the influence of Robert Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons". She was exploring whether Thomas Moore had lived a good and meaningful life. I left the following comment:
Robert Bolt’s depiction of Thomas More would appear hagiographical. The saintly figure portrayed in “A Man For All Seasons”, has been described by others who have delved into More’s life, as a religious and masochistic fanatic and pervert, among other things.

So there we go..

Thomas More would appear to have been big on conscience. Hence you quote him saying things like, “…..In matters of Conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing…..”

However, when More, during his time as Lord Chancellor, condemned six men to be burned at the stake for heresy, did he do so with a clear conscience? It’s all very well for us today to say that burning people at the stake was simply what one did then, but anyone, even then, with any imagination or sensitivity would have known deep down that burning people alive just wasn’t cricket.

One of More’s biographers, Peter Ackroyd, wrote that More explicitly “…approved of Burning….”. In the case of a John Tewkesbury, burned for harbouring banned books, More said he “……burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy….”. I don’t know about you, but I’ve taken this to mean that More thought this OK.

What was the noble principle for which More went to the gallows? No more than that Papal supremacy should resume unhindered in England. Noble principles like freedom of conscience and freedom of expression just weren’t part of it.

You said that “…..Uttering the names of Ivan Ilych and Bob Miller in the same breath with Thomas More’s seems sacrilegious……”

I dunno. If I was going to have a beer and pizza with anyone, I’d be more comfortable with Ivan IIych or Bob Miller than with Thomas More!!!
The blogger (my interlocutor) replied:
You are correct in assuming I was analyzing the character in Bolt’s book. But your comment raises good questions. For example, if I believe in the death penalty, and if on a jury that convicts a man of murder, would I not be living a real life by approving death?

Can we apply my list to different historical times? Or is it very much a modern list?

If we support the death penalty (as I do), can I not live a real life?

The pizza and beer litmus test is a good one!
I then wrote:
You said, “……If we support the death penalty.........can we not live a real life?……..”
Tolstoy said of the death penalty that because the condemned man has lots of time to think about what’s going to happen to him, and exactly when it will happen, that he has already died a thousand deaths before the time he is actually killed.
So killing someone “judicially” for something he’s done is not a case of an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, but a thousand eyes for an eye and a thousand teeth for a tooth. Is this justice?
If you say the death penalty is a good thing, you would surely agree that “judicially” killing people should be done in public as it used to, so that “justice” can actually be seen to be done.
There’s nothing like witnessing the consequences of one’s actions, or witnessing the consequences of one’s decisions, or witnessing the consequences of one’s opinions, to concentrate one’s mind.
My interlocuter wrote in turn:
I have learned over the years (and you have as well, I’m positive) that people either are or are not for the death penalty. That may sound obvious, but minds are rarely changed in this debate.........
Other commenters had entered into this discussion. The topic of Thomas More's attitude to his wife and daughters had been raised. They had entreated him to be flexible with Henry, and so save his life. I wrote:
You said, “……what men who have taken noble stands out of principle have done so at the expense of their families?……..”

I think of what I’d said in another comment – about the intellectual putting his philosophies (out of which his principles and cherished beliefs are born) above people. Thomas More was, after all, England’s most prominent intellectual.

Because the intellectual’s world is that of abstract ideas, philosophies, and principles, they are his raison d’etre. They are who he is – his ego. Hence he will die for the principles he believes in because they are more precious to him than physical life itself.

I suggest, then, that Thomas More’s martyrdom came out of his overweening ego. It was all about him. The disguises of the ego are infinite.
My interlocuter replied thus:
......I agree with you, so perhaps I should bump him down a few rungs........

I respect the position he took (at least in the play), especially in the face of Henry and the entire English system of laws. I admire people who live their beliefs. It is very difficult to do that in this wishy-washy squishy time we are living. Don’t you agree with that statement?
I then wrote:
Your question, "I admire people who live their beliefs. It is very difficult to do that in this wishy-washy squishy time we are living. Don’t you agree with that statement?"

Yes and No. It depends what the beliefs are.

You said of what I said in my last comment about Thomas More, “……I agree with you, so perhaps I should bump him down a few rungs…….”

I always get uneasy when someone agrees with me on anything, because it usually means I’ve got something wrong.

Because Thomas More lived so long ago (almost 500 years) and because the longer one goes back in history the less one knows for sure, we have relatively less to go on when evaluating a long-ago personage like Thomas More.

Hence he can be “…..the most saintly of humanists, the most human of saints…..” (historian Hugh Trevor-Roper) or “….a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert…..” (historian Jasper Ridley).

It seems that so little is known about Thomas More for sure, that anyone today can spin him anyway he likes, and do it plausibly. Ultimately, though, any evaluation of Thomas More, the man, says as much about the evaluator as about Thomas More.
Your having read the foregoing, dear reader, has this whetted your appetite for more of Thomas More?

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