Two weeks ago, I had an absolutely lovely time reading A Man for All Seasons out loud in a coffee shop with a new group of friends. In what I hope was not type-casting, I read the part of Cromwell. (ok, it was probably type-casting). I greatly enjoyed the play (though I’m now going to have to put aside all the very nice spiritual reading people have recommended or lent me, so I can reread Wolf Hall), and there was one exchange that particularly struck me, just after More resigns his position as Chancellor, rather than break with Rome. I’ll add the caveat that my reflections on More below are more rooted in play!More than historical!More, so please only pick fights with the moral philosophy, not the history.
Roper (goes to him, moved): Sir, you’ve made a noble gesture.
More (Blankly): A gesture? (Eagerly) It was not possible to continue, Will. I was not able to continue. I would have if I could! I make no gesture! (Apprehensive, looks after Norfolk) My God, I hope it’s understood I make no gesture! (He turns back to them) Alice, you don’t think I would do this to you for a gesture! That’s a gesture (Thumbs his nose) That’s a gesture (Jerks up two fingers) I’m no street acrobat to make gestures! I’m practical!
Roper: You belittle yourself, sir, this was not practical; (Resonantly) this was moral!
More: Oh, now I understand you, Will. Morality’s not practical. Morality’s a gesture. A complicated gesture learned from books — that’s what you say.
There’s something to what Roper says. Morality might be natural, but most of us don’t think of it as easy. Great goodness seems to definitely fly in the face of something, whether it’s our habit, our culture, or just plain old entropy.
More is, in his mind, only doing what is necessary. In the play, he says repeatedly that he is not trying to rabble-rouse or politick; this is a personal matter of integrity that he cannot compromise on. He gives up his office in order to try to keep his actions in the personal, not the political sphere.
But Henry VIII’s actions are totalizing. They don’t allow More’s dissent to remain private, and, once Cromwell (acting as Henry’s agent) begins forcing a confrontation, the audience knows something has to shatter. Because we are very used to the quotidian, fallen world, we assume it must be More who breaks. After all, it is he who dies.
But More ends up a martyr because he doesn’t bend. His position is incompatible with the world he lives in, so he dies, but he doesn’t yield. Essentially, More responds to Henry’s demands that he sign the Acts of Succession as though Henry had asked him to levitate. He doesn’t have the power to perform either action.
He does not go seeking martyrdom, and when it comes to him, it still doesn’t really seem chosen. If I were trapped in a burning building, I would not choose to die, but it might not be in my power to escape. I can’t really be blamed for not having the power to phase through walls.
And just as an athlete alters the capacity of their body through exercise, More has altered his own capacity to act by training his will and inclinations through study and prayer. While an athlete expands his or her range of possible actions, More is pruning. His self-improvement is self control.
In the end, it’s less that More successfully held to his faith even in the face of death, and more that he had managed to cultivate and maintain the unnatural moral strength that clashes jarringly with a world that is palpably off.
I’m still trying to synthesize this into our broader discussion of martyrdom and resistance to injustice, but, for right now, what I find most interesting is the idea of being defined by our weakness. We could become impervious to fire without really losing anything (says the transhumanist), but for More to be able to withstand and survive the pressures he is under would be a loss.