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
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!