In a recent entry in his Through a Glass Darkly column here at Patheos, Joseph Susanka reviews the classic movie A Man for All Seasons. Susanka considers himself a “dyed-in-the-wool fence sitter,” and perhaps because of that he admires the martyrdom of Thomas More, a Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. Susanka considers More “a fanatic in the best sense of the word,” someone willing to die rather than compromise his ideals.
I don’t want to be a pedant, and I know that Thomas More the character is not supposed to completely line up with Thomas More the historical figure. And it’s also true that I haven’t seen A Man for All Seasons in quite some time. But I still cringe at lines like this:
Unlike modern-day fanatics, who impose their values on others without regard to conscience or the vital importance of free will, More’s extremism lay not in the way he treats those around him, but in the demands he placed upon himself.
It should always be remembered that during More’s time as Lord Chancellor, six men were burned at the stake for heresy. More was quite willing to impose values, namely the value of obedience to the Pope and the King. We can argue back and forth as to whether this represented a betrayal of More’s humanism or whether he was simply a man of his times, but the fact remains that he was completely willing to ignore the “vital importance of free will.”
Let me finish by quoting Professor Robert Bucholz, from his Teaching Company lecture on the history of the Tudors and Stuarts:
“More didn’t die for his conscience. Remember that he quite enthusiastically burnt people at the stake for theirs. More died for the Pope’s right to tell you what your conscience ought to believe.”