Does Sir Thomas More live a real life?


by cheri block

From Ivan Ilych to Bob Miller to Sir Thomas More… I continue to assess their lives by comparing my criteria to their life experience.

Here is my bit about playwright Robert Bolt’s characterization of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. I have removed page numbers for smoother reading. I have also left my text in big blocks since I have always wanted to be a big block.

Sir Thomas More: The real deal?

               American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce wrote in 1903 that our beliefs are not true beliefs if we do not live them. We can say that eating too much fat is bad for our health, but if we eat so much as a cookie crumb, we don’t truly believe it. Only one character we studied—from start to finish—had what Peirce would call true beliefs. Of all of the other characters whose lives we have examined, including Siddhartha’s and Cordelia’s in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Sir Thomas More’s life stands out as the most genuine and actualized, especially when juxtaposed with my criteria. His devotion to noble principles, his patient manner of speaking and listening, his concern for life beyond his own, and his dignity in the face of betrayal make him the quintessential mensch. Uttering the names of Ivan Ilych and Bob Miller in the same breath with Thomas More’s seems sacrilegious.

As the play A Man for All Seasons unfolds and Thomas More’s untenable position against the King becomes the crux of the drama, even novice students of literature might smell the winds of betrayal, but do we in the audience fear for his life? Do we scream out, “ Sir Thomas, beware of your self-serving steward Matthew! Watch out for that smarmy weasel Richard Rich!  Be wary of your jealous enemies, your cowardly friends, and your King who may value your ‘…honesty…and…truth’ !! Watch out for King Henry, who will bed the woman of his choice, not the one of his vows, the same King whose court will try you for treason!”  To my knowledge, no viewer in any audience of A Man for All Seasons has interrupted the play in this way. Why? The answer to that question is that we believe Thomas More will distill all complexity—in his social, political, and familial obligations—to simplicity. For example, he tells his son-in-law Roper, who wants Richard Rich arrested for being a spy in the More household, that no law exists to justify Rich’s arrest.

ROPER. There is! God’s law!

MORE.   Then God can arrest him.

ROPER.  Sophistication upon sophistication!

MORE.  No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what’s legal not what’s

right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal.

More goes on to relinquish his influential position as the King’s Lord Chancellor in a demonstration of true belief, rejecting the vanity that comes with power. Even the Pope’s man in England, Cardinal Wolsey, demands an explanation as to how England will secure an heir with the King’s barren wife, Queen Catherine.

WOLSEY. …Now explain how you as Councilor of England can obstruct those measures                 for the sake of you own, private, conscience.

MORE. Well…I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the

sake of their pubic duties…they lead their country by a short route to chaos.

To fully appreciate the glorious real life lived by Thomas More, his environment should be taken into consideration, and in light of his courageous decisions he made and acted upon. In the 16th century, capital punishment included burnings at the stake and decapitation. This he faced. Electricity had not been discovered; prison towers were rat and flea infested, unbearably hot in the humid summers and bone-chilling cold in the winters. This he endured. He was a Man for All Seasons. Food was often raw, uncooked, stale, and rancid. This he ate. Men in court, dressed in clothes that had not been washed in weeks, stunk of body odor and urine. These are the foul-smelling witnesses to his final court appearance. When prosecutor Cromwell’s case becomes as thin as the gossamer wings of a fallen angel and his only recourse is to call Richard Rich to perjure himself in a false allegation against More, the following dialogue summarizes More’s real life:

MORE. I am used to hear bad men misuse the name of God, yet God exists. In matters of

Conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any

other thing.

CROMWELL. And so provide a motive for his frivolous self-conceit!

MORE. (Earnestly)  It is not so, Master Cromwell—very and pure necessity for respect

of my own soul.

CROMWELL. Your own self, you mean!

MORE. Yes, a man’s soul is his self!

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Life, On fiction, People and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Does Sir Thomas More live a real life?

  1. Cyberquill says:

    We can say that eating too much fat is bad for our health, but if we eat so much as a cookie crumb, we don’t truly believe it.

    So what if I believe that eating too much fat is bad for my health, but I don’t consider a cookie crumb to contain too much fat?

  2. I don’t know. Yes, he is inspiring and the personification of dignity. But you have to suspect anyone who would die for the Catholic church.

  3. Christopher says:

    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!!!

    • Cheri says:

      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!

      • Great question about whether your list can be applied to other time periods. Let’s have a post about that because I’m sure the discussion would be great. Coming from the POV of my comment, if we live in a secular society, our evaluation of people who lived in, were controlled by or were leaders in a religious society, we might not see them as exercising free will, etc.

        • I would go along with T.S. here. A judicial error can be righted if the wrongly convicted is alive, not so if he or she is dead. The U.S., China and Iran with Sharia countries are the only jurisdictions still applying the death penalty.

        • Cheri says:

          Excellent point, Thomas. We discussed this very idea in class on Wednesday as we read The Book of Job. The class is called Ancients vs. Moderns, so to look at suffering, we read Job and Kafka’s The Trial.

          Job can take on a vastly different meaning for moderns than it probably did for ancients…
          I may write a post on this if I have time.

          Thanks for suggesting this idea.

  4. More’s religious rigidity applied to others to the point of condemning them to death is a clear violation of your criteria no 6, Cheri, is it not? It would also violate no 5 about control.
    Sir More could be, in some ways, admirable, but not imitable.
    As for living a real life, I’m not sure since he was living through the Church teachings more than through his own natural instincts or needs. But I may be wrong.

    • Cheri says:

      Bolt’s Sir Thomas More was a magnificent character although it could be argued that rather than be a principled man, he was a religious dogmatist.

      No character (or person) is perfect, you are right.

      So are you saying that by living the Church’s teachings, you couldn’t be living a real life?
      What do you mean here? This statement would certainly take thousands of amazing people out of contention…

      • “I know the law, and what is right, and i’ll stick by the law”, he did the same with religion without compassion nor preoccupation about what was right or not providing religious and legal tenets were safegarded. His religion was based on a message of love…but love was not a preoccupation when it came to apply law and dogma. That is not living a real life as per your criterias. I have come, over the years to consider very few people as amazing when you apply your criterias. Not even Jesus would qualify since he was living his Father’s redemption mission although according to the Church he is one in trinity with the two others…so God help me help me.

  5. Christopher says:

    @Cheri – “……If we support the death penalty (as I do), can I 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.

  6. Cheri says:

    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. As a high school teacher, I would occasionally use the topic to teach argumentation and the essay that goes with it.

    Of course, here in California, we have learned recently that the state cannot afford executions.

  7. Mr. Crotchety says:

    Didn’t Thomas More put himself before his family? Life was short in his day and he might have died any day of some sickness. But the family…

  8. Cheri says:

    Agreed. In the film, his insistence to stand on principles despite his family’s pleas and impoverished circumstances, creates that tension between family and “calling.”

    We discussed this very topic in class. But then, what men who have taken noble stands out of principle have done so at the expense of their families?

    And…is family sometimes overrated?

  9. Christopher says:

    Cherie – “……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 the raison d’etreof his existence. 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.

  10. Cheri says:

    Excellent comment, Christopher. I agree with you, so perhaps I should bump him down a few rungs. Maybe Siddhartha and Cordelia should go ahead of him?

    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?

    Btw, you would be getting a big fat A in my Masters program. No kidding.


  11. Christopher says:

    Cheri – 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.

    • Christopher says:

      I forgot to address 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 on what the beliefs are.

      • Cheri says:

        Ah ha!! So are you saying that if you agree with the person’s beliefs, then you admire that person more than say, a person with whose beliefs you disagree?


        • I admired our Pierre Bourgault for his consistency and his adherence to his beliefs in a sovereign Québec although I thouroughly disagreed with his beliefs and lifestyle.
          It is possible to admire someone you disagree with.

    • Cheri says:

      Actually Christopher, one of the subsets of #1 in my list of criteria for living a real life is after reflection, some change. You changed my mind, a bit.

      And your point about the evaluator of any person, living or dead, or any character, major or minor is terrific and true. Jung would agree, would he not?

      You have made me think…which is good!

  12. Christopher says:

    Cheri – “…….are you saying that if you agree with the person’s beliefs, then you admire that person more than say, a person with whose beliefs you disagree?……..”

    It depends (or “ça depend”, as Paul might say!!).

    It has been said that the longer an internet discussion goes on, the more likely that Adolf Hitler will invoked. So, if you admire anyone who lives his beliefs, regardless of the beliefs, it would follow that you admire Adolf Hitler, who not only lived his beliefs, but died for them – n’est-ce pas?

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