A Martyr for All Seasons

A Martyr for All Seasons July 11, 2012

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.

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  • “A man is not made for defeat…a man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
    The Old Man and the Sea.

    • leahlibresco

      Or, as Pratchett’s narration puts it in Witches Abroad

      Cats are like witches. They don’t fight to kill, but to win. There is a difference. There’s no point in killing an opponent. That way, they won’t know they’ve lost, and to be a real winner you have to have an opponent who is beaten and knows it. There’s no triumph over a corpse, but a beaten opponent, who will remain beaten every day of the remainder of their sad and wretched life, is something to treasure.

      • Tell that to the mice. After cats kill them they eat them.

        • Brandon

          Apparently witches think that to win is to make your opponent suffer. If you have another goal in mind, or a particular cause to champion, you don’t care so much what happens to the opposition, as long as your goal is acheived.

          • svedka

            A true witch behaves as if the god in all things matters and is connected back to thier own very being. To believe in the essence of creation is to believe in the essence of interconnectivity. A witch lives by a creed to do no harm. In our belief system there is no path to forgiveness, we must carry and accept the consequences of our actions.

      • Ted Seeber

        I have mixed feelings about Prachet, much as I had mixed feelings about Asimov. But I think it’s pretty clear he had a good Anglican upbringing.

        Also, in my house “Where’s My Christopher”, inspired by the children’s book in Thud, has become a nightly party game.

        • Slow Learner

          ? I mean, one can assume, given that he is English and a child of the 20th century, that he had some Anglican upbringing, but what on earth in Pratchett’s writing suggests Anglicanism rather than Englishness?

          • Ted Seeber

            The monotheistc religion in “Small Gods”. But you might need to be a comparative theologian familiar with Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Scottish Presbyterianism to get all the jokes.

        • Terry Pratchett : “There is a rumour going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.”

          Isaac Asimov: “Emotionally I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.”

          • Ted Seeber

            Yep. Exactly my point. And like most atheists, both retained all the morality while jettisoning the God of their Ancestors. An attitude that I personally find baffling.

          • You think we can’t be moral without God…

            Plus, if you want to pursue the God of Ancestors thing to its conclusion, we’re all descendants of the H. Sapiens that were evolving in Africa all that time ago. So you should be worshipping some totemic, wildebeest-hunt Benefactor, surely? Wouldn’t want to jettison it…

  • Well written, no doubt,

  • Charles

    And I think you have finally summed up what I find so distastful about transhumanism. Which until now I had not been able to put into words.

  • Brandon Jaloway

    I am currently listening to Les Miserables on audiobook. It struck me during the conversation between the bishop and the conventionest that so much of human suffering comes from the evil that is in men’s hearts. It was as true in the build up to the French Revolution as it was during the French Revolution. It was as true in that time as it is today. I realize that most of the suffering that I have caused comes from the evil in my own heart, mostly realized through weakness. Why is it so difficult to be like St. Thomas More and so difficult to live up to the dignity to which we are called?

    • Ashley

      I’m not sure if the difficulty comes from a greater reverence for life, or if people are simply squeamish about killing. Certainly I think it’s easier to set another person on fire when you have someone else do it for you. The guy who kills an intruder with a baseball bat is probably a lot more shaken than the governor of Texas after signing his hundredth death warrant.

      In any case, I’m not clear how any of this is dignified.

    • Zack

      No question it’s difficult to live up to the dignity to which we are called! Jesus Himself cried out “Oh God! Oh God, why have you forsaken me?!” when he was on the Cross. Which is really weird, since Jesus IS God and He should have known why He was forsaking Himself. Almost as weird as pleading with Himself about it in Gethsemane with that “Take this cup of suffering” thing. And He was alone when he said that in Gethsemane, so who heard it? It’s almost as if that part of the Bible is made up.

      • Ted Seeber

        The Doctrine of the Trinity answers this question quite fully. I suggest you look into the concept.

        • Zack

          Frankly, I think the Doctrine of the Trinity is the rationalisation the establishment thought the Bible needed most. It’s not Biblical in and of itself.

          • Is it the Doctrine of the Trinity when we point out that if Jesus is God then it was Jesus impregnating Mary to bring about his birth as his own Father? And if Jesus has to have his Divinity, then why the big deal about tracing Jesus’s lineage back to the dawn of time at the start of Matthew? If he was the Son of a Virgin Birth, then he has no prestige of heritage since he’s not related to Joseph at all.

          • Skittle

            Zack, you seem to be describing Unitarianism rather than the Trinity. Maybe you should look up the doctrine of the Trinity and see what it actually says?

          • Ted Seeber

            Well, since you obviously don’t understand the Doctrine of the Trinity, why don’t you let wiser heads tell you what it means?

      • AnnF

        Zack: Jesus was quoting Psalm 22 when he said My, God, my God . . . . For an excellent explanation, go to http://www.ncregister.com/blog/pat-archbold/my-god-my-god.-why-hast-thou-left-the-gun-and-taken-the-canoli/

        • Yes, all this is in an age where reading was quite the rarity. What we have in the Gospels are transcriptions of an oral tradition so there’s a lot of dramatic license. And Jesus was happy to leave it ambiguous that he was God to the people who didn’t know the quote? Knowing everything, he’d know it’s the kind of thing I’d seize on after a couple of millenia. I offer that after even a little bit of being crucified, you wouldn’t be able to talk at all. What with the arms stretching on the lungs and that. But that’s not interesting to read about, so whoever it was fished for a good quote from the Psalms to make it look all prophetic and mystical.

          • Skittle

            Every Jew present would have known the psalms by heart. Quoting the first line is much more efficient (what with being crucified and all) than trying to explain the entire sentiment of that psalm.

            Since nobody intended the Gospels to be read in isolation by people with no knowledge of the wider context (including the rest of the Bible), let alone be read by people who would what it meant without guidance from Tradition and the Magisterium, I really don’t see why it matters that you briefly (until you asked here and immediately got an answer) thought it meant something else.

          • Ted Seeber

            Reading wasn’t a rarity among First Century Jews- it was a religious tradition required of every male child 13 years of age.

        • I don’t need wiser heads telling me about the Doctrine of the Trinity; I don’t want it. I certainly don’t think that it’s enough to see something written in the Bible to think that things really happened that way. Where are all the non-Biblical accounts? If Jesus were the big deal his fanclub built him up to be, it wouldn’t be ONLY from them that we hear about him.

          And good for the first Century Jews being up on their reading. If you think Jesus was trying to clue them in with a quote from the Psalms, I have to say it makes little sense considering that they as a mob begged for his execution and released Barabbas; why would he bother? Cast not your pearls sto swine! That’s why I think it’s made up, a melodrama with all the holes in continuity you’d expect.

          As for intending the Bible “not to be read in isolation”, I’ll BET there is a whole wad of non-synoptic Gospels you’ve never heard of because the Council of Nicea presented you with the Bible you have; the Bible by committee! If you read the Nag Hammadi stuff and the newly discovered Judas Gospel, it puts quite a different light on things.

          • Zack

            And may I say? A crowd of people turning out for a public execution and I’m supposed to think they’re all bookworms? Seriously?

          • It doesn’t say in the Bible “don’t read it in isolation” because when it was written there was no way of knowing how the compilation process would go. You’d think it would, it’s by a bunch of prophets half the time!
            And if I bring up that Matthew 27:52 mentions people coming back to life and walking around town (even though only Jesus defeated death and that’s why he’s cool), don’t you think the people who knew them would have been freaked enough to have made a note of it? Again, it’s only the fanclub that puts these Legendary Jesus tales forward with any seriousness. Now tell me it’s an allegory, I’m ready! Anything that’s ridiculous in the Bible is an allegory. Balaam’s donkey talking is an allegory of something, and I bet it’s really obvious to you of what.

          • Zack, are you a deep cover Christian? Just in case you are I would like to remind you of our Lord’s commandment not to talk false witness against thy neighbor.

          • No Gilbert, I am not a “Deep Cover Christian”, whatever that is (the link isn’t helpful, it’s about something else). I am just another of the great many Christians who got so ticked off with his hypocritical Fellow Christians that he became an Atheist. May I remind you about 1 Peter 3:15? It says “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence”. To clarify; you guys have to explain yourselves when we ask you what you’re tripping on. It’s not something you’re known to be that good at. Which is odd, considering that God never gives you more than you can handle…

  • KareninPA

    It isn’t weakness to be unable to be weak. I’ve often thought that sometimes being a hero just comes down to being trapped. You don’t want to run into the burning house next door, but there’s a kid in there, so how can you not? It wouldn’t really feel like a choice. Thomas More (the real one as well as Robert Bolt’s — see Peter Ackroyd’s biography) is a great example. He does everything he can to avert his fate, but he cannot change himself into someone else.

    • An excellent description of virtue ethics. But the hero is not trapped, they are freed to be a hero. Not everyone could do it, they are not free in that way. For them there is no real choice to be heroic. The hero has a choice, but because they are heroic, they will make the right choice, not the wrong one.

      • Kristen inDallas

        Good habits and virtue are just like bad habits (vice). The more you practice them, the more difficult it becomes to do anything else. More did have a choice, as everyone does, but only about as much of a choice as an 50-year alcoholic has not to drink.

  • J.H.M.O

    Maybe a little off-topic because it deals with the historic Thomas More more than the More of the play, but food for thought as to the tone of his “resistance to injustice”, is the statement attributed to More by his son-in-law (Roper), who was present at More’s trial: once sentenced, More said to the “judges in my condemnation” that “I verily trust, and … sincerely will pray, that … we may hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together.”

    • Ted Seeber

      Truly a man who understood the value of Purgatory, and the mercy of Hell!

      • J.H.M.O

        I don’t dig you, Daddy: What does More’s reported statement of heavenly well-wishing to the judges who had just condemned him have to do with purgatory or hell?

        • David K. Monroe

          Not sure what Ted means by “the mercy of Hell”, but I think the significance of Purgatory is that More was confident that his judges would one day meet him in Heaven, regardless of the fact that they were at that moment sinning egregiously against him. That’s the value of Purgatory – even Christians who are misled into egregious sins may be purged and made right for Heaven.

        • Ted Seeber

          David got the purgatory part right. Now here’s the Mercy of Hell part: to go to hell, you have to reject the idea of God so absolutely completely that being in his presence would be an *eternal reminder that you are utterly wrong and stupid*. It isn’t your sins that send you to hell, it is your pride that you are the moral authority of your life. And thus; to go back to the place meme, God created Hell so that you wouldn’t HAVE to be in his presence for all eternity; you have someplace else to go.

          And that’s why Hell is Merciful.

          And what it has to do with More’s statement: He realizes he isn’t the judge of his judges, and thus he entrusts their behavior to God “and will sincerely pray” that they have enough of a conversion experience to one day join him in Heaven.

          • So in Revelation 20, why does it say the unsaved are “thrown” into the lake of fire? Shouldn’t it say that they choose it? And if God is Omnipresent, then God is in Hell too.

            Earlier you found it baffling that Asimov and Pratchett jettisoned the God of their Ancestors while keeping the morality. It’s because without the God part, your mind is freed up to think; because thinking it was as bad as doing it, right? This improves one’s morality, since one isn’t obliged to blindly endorse the stuff that’s way out of date. One of the things that’s out of date, small example, is the idea that you can’t have morality without God.

          • Ted Seeber

            Because to a believer, being separated from God is like a “lake of fire”. You really have a mental disorder preventing you from understanding allegory?

            God is omnipresent in this universe. and created Hell to be apart from him- and thus not a part of the universe.

  • Brandon Jaloway

    “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.”

    This is what I was referring to. It seems very difficult to me to “cultivate and maintain the unnatural moral strength that clashes jarringly with a world that is palpably off.” I tend to fail at this. It seems like most humans do. Not that I don’t keep trying. Not that we shouldn’t all keep trying!

    • Brandon B

      Woah! There’s another Brandon. Cool. Somehow that always takes me by surprise.

      I fail at this, too. Then I go to confession. Then I fail again. Then I go to confession . . . my only hope is “that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6)

  • Dear Miss Libresco,
    Not being able to find your email address, I posted the below message in the comments section of the previous post. Not having received a response from you (not even “Sorry, not interested.”), I’ll try one last time.

    As a Calvinistic Protestant Christian who is also a community-college mathematics professor, I can’t help but be interested in your story. Like you, I found the intuitive nature of morality to be a big sign that God exists.

    I want to appeal to you to consider becoming not Roman Catholic, but confessional Protestant. Confessional Protestantism, unlike garden-variety lowbrow Protestantism, has almost all of the advantages of Catholicism, but without (capital C) Catholicism’s two big defects: that it does not have the God-ordained authority that it thinks it does, and that it distorts the crucial Gospel message of how man is saved from the wrath of God.

    Regarding Rome’s claim that only it has the authority to say and do Christianity right: There is no evidence (other than Rome’s special pleading) that the Lord Jesus Christ deliberately conferred some of His authority on a human organization headed by the Apostle Peter. Yes, the Apostles had authority, but no organization has inherited their authority. And there is no need for an organization that will speak authoritatively for God. For the Bible is understandable by ordinary men, if they will pay attention to the (lower case t) traditions of Christianity. And even if Rome were the Authority it says it is, this does not solve the problem of people not knowing what Christianity really is: One would still have to decide for one’s self whether or not the authority claim is to be believed (that is, the authority cannot help you know whether it has authority), and Rome’s Tradition does not speak clearly. One has the choice between the Bible which is relatively compact, and Roman teaching, which is vast and confusing.

    The second problem with Rome is that it does not accurately teach the Gospel message delivered by Christ and the Apostles. The sine qua non of Christianity is individuals being saved from the wrath of God by repentance from their sins and faith in Jesus Christ. And “faith in Jesus Christ” means knowing about Him and His words, believing what you know, and trusting Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Any Church, whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, that distorts this message is putting souls at risk. Rome does this when it adds other unnecessary conditions for salvation.

    This is not to say that there is no need for an institutional church, pastors, theologians, creeds and catechisms, liturgy, a deep intellectual tradition, and so on. All of these are needed to nourish the Christian in the faith. But there is no substitute for repentance and faith in Christ, and this message is taught most clearly in a confessional Protestant church.
    This message is already too long. So I’ll just say that there are other resources I can show you if you wish.

    God’s blessings to you!

    Alan Roebuck

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m going to respond to you the way I did last time, and ask again- why exactly, from a Platonic Absolute Objective Morality point of view, is Apostolic Authority a problem? For me, it’s the reason I am still Catholic. If we’re going to have an Objective Morality that is Axiomatically Defined, then we need an Authority to maintain those Axiomatic Definitions. Confessional Protestantism does not have this control (A human authority to prevent individual interpretation from twisting the interpretation of the Gospel) and thus cannot have a Gospel Message that is undistorted by individual interpretation (since, after all, Sola Scriptura is all about individual interpretation, and thus, the very Moral Relativism that Leah is rejecting in atheism).

      I would be VERY interested in your answer- please reference why Confessional Protestantism seems to have fractured into 30,000 denominations if it is not morally relativistic.

      • Just getting back to you on the allegory thing. I’m not the only one to point out to you how “it’s an allegory” gets dragged in to rationalise away everything awkward in the Bible. In this case, it’s supposed to be an allegory that unbelievers getting thrown into a lake of fire is an allegory of choosing to exist outside of God’s prescence. That’s not really allegory, since the real meaning is supposed to remind you of the flowery way it was presented. In this case, you’re twisting the words of scripture until they break. And the guy who wrote Revelation was shrooming, anyway. Admit it, all this “Going to Hell is a choice” stuff is very new! New, and you only bring it up when challenged; the rest of the time it’s business as usual.
        Here is something about a “Hell House”:
        Look out for the bit where the organiser says Jesus makes the decision to send you to Hell at the Judgement Gates!
        And here is Joyce’s autobiographical recollection of a Minister who doesn’t seem to think it’s an allegory at all:
        “Designed by God to punish those who refuse to be bound by his Laws”. God is Love!

  • Hello, Leah! Great article. I am glad you enjoy the play. One of my favorites too. A couple thoughts:

    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.

    (1) It’s good to remember our ascetic tradition which is all about drawing our bodies into the sacrifice of Christ’s body – on the cross, on the altar. In doing so, we train our souls for self-sacrifice. St. Thomas More was not known as a super-faster, but he did maintain a steady diet of fasts, abstinences, and other mortifications. We ought to as well.
    (2) While your post is very much on-point, I think it is a mistake to think of penances as not “expand[ing] his or her range of possible actions.” In fact, as we gain the detachment aimed at by penances, we also gain liberty of action. St. Thomas More was free to capitulate – he could have and made a choice and stuck to his guns. But was Norfolk, or Rich or Cromwell for that matter, free to take a stand? In some respect yes. But really, they had trained themselves for acquiescence for years and years. Think of it this way. I have never used cocaine, and yet, am free to try it out if I choose. But a cocaine addict is nowhere near as free to put it down. Our Lord tells us that “everyone who sins is a slave to sin,” (Jn 8:34). Only the very virtuous man is free. In like manner, to use your metaphor, a great ballplayer is free to bunt or swing wild, but a lousy one is not free to hit a home run. The first ballplayer has the virtue of good ballplaying, the latter lacks it. St. Thomas More had the virtues of integrity and fortitude. Sadly, most of his contemporary peers did not.

    • Yes. Pinckaers distinguishes between the “freedom of indifference” which is the ability to choose any of the choices available without compulsion, and the “freedom for excellence” which is the ability to choose more choices, and better choices, than are available to the unpracticed or unvirtuous. I have found this distinction to be very helpful in explaining virtue ethics to those who assume a rule-based morality.

      • YES!! Pinckaers! His distinction between the two kinds of freedom made Catholic morality finally make coherent sense to me. Life is like playing a musical instrument – if your practice hard at being good, you will become good, both at music and at life. If you don’t practice you will never become free to explore and actualize your own potential; you’ll never know what you can do. The goal is goodness, and to get there you must practice. Arbitrary freedom of indifference might seem like freedom but it is actually detracting from your goal. Leah, I highly recommend reading Pinckaers, either _The Pinckaers Reader_ or _Morality: The Catholic View_ (only 100 pages) – they are easy starts.

        • Kristen inDallas

          Also the more you practice playing well, the more difficult it is to play badly on purpose. Not just because you have the choice not too, but there is an actual physical resistance to being able to hit “bad” notes. I think this was More’s point, that, for him, the “choice” was just as limited as it would be for one who had always indulged in self-interest.

  • More confounds me—whether it’s historical!More, play!More, author!More, he strikes me as missing some essential element of humanity: ruth. There’s an inflexibility about the man that goes beyond (or maybe falls short of) the virtuous. It’s as though he simply turned his judgment of the Protestant martyrs on himself. Cromwell and Henry, for all their sins, are human. More’s a toaster, and not one of the ones who learn from the humans they emulate. Becket, that other king-ridden martyr Thomas with whom More is always being confused, at least experienced a passionate conversion of sorts, as unexpected as he and his Henry probably found it. More never changes. I think that’s amoral, if not immoral.

    But I’m biased, probably, because Josephine Tey made me a Ricardian with The Daughter of Time. So now I only know the damn!sainted!More.

    Play!More does get one of the best passages in English-language theatre, though: “God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.”

    • leahlibresco

      Well, I’m a bit of a toaster myself, so one of my favorite lines was the inflexible-for-your-own-good:

      Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
      More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
      Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
      More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

      • That is my favorite exchange out of the entire movie. A close second is the one about why god made man (“to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind” = a great turn of phrase), but this one comes top for me. Both the meaning and the metaphor (trees, wind) are admirable. “Yes, I’d give the devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.” = brilliant. You think More might have been a closet Jesuit?

        But of course every time I see Richard Rich now I think of Mr. Ollivander 😉

    • @Joanne K. McPortland –

      More never changes. I think that’s amoral, if not immoral.

      Intriguing. What is amoral or immoral about not changing one’s convictions? (I presume you mean his convictions, because he was willing and able to change his tactics so long as it did not injure the principle.)

      I ask out of genuine curiosity. I think I disagree, but I want to make sure I understand you before getting into an argument.

      • deiseach

        I can see how More would be unsympathetic to some; he made his decision and stuck to it on a matter of principle and of law (that Henry did not have the right to make the claims he did and to force the swearing of oaths about the legitimacy of the marriage with Anne Boleyn and the Supremacy of the Monarch as spiritual and temporal head of the church). It’s a cool, legal, intellectual choice and a more emotional, personal, passionate response would be more appealing.

        But I tend to like cool, intellectual choices and I approve of people who stick to their principles. I also agree that More didn’t want to be a martyr and tried all he could to retire, be a private citizen and keep out of notice so that either side (pro-Henry or pro-the old dispensation) couldn’t use him as a token in the game. Well, that failed. But I do think he acted on the basis that it is not permissible to pursue martyrdom; as the old 1917 “Catholic Encyclopedia” describes:

        “The orthodox were not permitted to seek martyrdom. Tertullian, however, approves the conduct of the Christians of a province of Asia who gave themselves up to the governor, Arrius Antoninus (Ad. Scap., v). Eusebius also relates with approval the incident of three Christians of Cæsarea in Palestine who, in the persecution of Valerian, presented themselves to the judge and were condemned to death (Church History VII.12). But while circumstances might sometimes excuse such a course, it was generally held to be imprudent. St. Gregory of Nazianzus sums up in a sentence the rule to be followed in such cases: it is mere rashness to seek death, but it is cowardly to refuse it (Orat. xlii, 5, 6). The example of a Christian of Smyrna named Quintus, who, in the time of St. Polycarp, persuaded several of his fellow believers to declare themselves Christians, was a warning of what might happen to the over-zealous: Quintus at the last moment apostatized, though his companions persevered. Breaking idols was condemned by the Council of Elvira (306), which, in its sixtieth canon, decreed that a Christian put to death for such vandalism would not be enrolled as a martyr. Lactantius, on the other hand, has only mild censure for a Christian of Nicomedia who suffered martyrdom for tearing down the edict of persecution (Do mort. pers., xiii). In one case St. Cyprian authorizes seeking martyrdom. Writing to his priests and deacons regarding repentant lapsi who were clamouring to be received back into communion, the bishop after giving general directions on the subject, concludes by saying that if these impatient personages are so eager to get back to the Church there is a way of doing so open to them. “The struggle is still going forward”, he says, “and the strife is waged daily. If they (the lapsi) truly and with constancy repent of what they have done, and the fervour of their faith prevails, he who cannot be delayed may be crowned” (Ep. xiii). ”

        I can see More thinking along those lines: it is rashness to seek death, but it is cowardice to refuse it. And I think he was vindicated in his love for the upholding of the law; when you make the king’s whim the governing principle, your head is the next on the chopping block (as Cromwell found out).

    • deiseach

      More was a lawyer; that may explain a lot (and he’s also proof that lawyers can get to Heaven, but it takes a lot to get them there). 🙂

      The Tudor court is a fascinating historical study, a real tangle of poisonous snakes. I should feel sorrier for Thomas Cromwell than I do, but he is a fine example of riding the tiger’s back; I don’t know how much he was invested in the Reformation, but he certainly was fully involved in enriching and ennobling himself and his family. Unfortunately, though you may make gains by encouraging the development of a tyrant, you are always at the risk of that tyrant deciding he doesn’t need you and indeed that reliance on you is making him look bad, so you have to go. And Henry liked to solve his problems the permanent way.

      Cranmer, Cromwell, many others all trimmed their sails to the prevailing winds, but in the end, it did them no good.

    • grok87

      @Joanne k McPortland
      Great quote- thanks.
      The reading from today’s Morning Prayer seems apropos: (Romans 12)
      ” Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect.”
      It’s an interesting linkage by Paul. Perhaps obvious, perhaps not. That the ability to “not conform” (i.e to resist) must be grounded in the “renewal of the mind”. Again I like that “tangle of the mind” phrase…
      And all very appropriate for the feast day of St. Benedict, founder of one of the great contemplative orders

    • Mitchell Porter

      What’s a toaster?

      • Kristen inDallas

        Makes bread crunchy? 🙂

      • I was presuming a BSG reference.

    • Brandon Jaloway

      Yeah, what is a toaster?

      • leahlibresco

        I assumed this was a BSG reference. Though on that show, the humanoid robots (the slur for them is ‘toasters’) are pretty emotionally engaged, albeit it in a very weird way.

  • Jeanne
    • deiseach

      The first thing that came to my mind when Ms. Mantel said that about not being fit for respectable people was this excerpt from G.K. Chesterton’s autobiography:

      “My father, who was serene, humorous and full of hobbies, remarked casually that he had been asked to go on what was then called The Vestry. At this my mother, who was more swift, restless and generally Radical in her instincts, uttered something like a cry of pain; she said, “Oh, Edward, don’t! You will be so respectable! We never have been respectable yet; don’t let’s begin now.” And I remember my father mildly replying, “My dear, you present a rather alarming picture of our lives, if you say that we have never for one single instant been respectable.”

      We Catholics have never been respectable (remember Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church, when the bystanders were convinced the Apostles were roaring drunk first thing in the morning?) so it’s too late to start now 🙂

  • I love ‘A Man For All Seasons’. Too bad it has nothing to do with the real Thomas More. Because this is a guy who isn’t mad that he doesn’t have the freedom to practice his religion. He’s simply pissed off that the tables have turned. As Chancellor, he happily sentenced heretics to die. From my perspective, his trial and death were karmic.

    • Peggy Hagen

      Oof – what they did to Becket, as a historical figure, is even worse. A Saxon…who kept a mistress who killed herself rather than go to Henry, thus laying the ground for Becket’s breach with Henry…

    • Pissed off in a way that got himself martyred? I don’t get it. Usually angry people don’t commit suicide to spite others, though it does happen on occasion. If he had gone underground and started, say, a gunpowder plot, that would seem more appropriate. Perhaps I am not understanding you. I think real-life More knew perfectly well what he was doing and what the penalty would be. No anger necessary.

      • Oh, he didn’t do it out of spite. He pulled every lawyerly trick in the book to try and save himself, save for breaking his own oath. But there’s a karmic irony in his death, considering that he was happy to kill people who were unwilling to change their beliefs when Catholicism was the law of the land.

        • I would not call it karmic or ironic, but consistent. He accepted having done to him as he had done to others. Both acts of killing were evil, don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending him. But he accepted the consequences of his actions as the law dictated. On the other hand, if the machinery of government eats people and you feed people into the machine and then one day others feed you into it, I suppose you could call it karmic. Just depends on your perspective.

    • By the way, Alex, great blog you have. Nice to have found it.

    • David K. Monroe

      More sentenced heretics to die because in his culture at that time, heretics were considered perhaps as dangerous as terrorists are today. People simply had a much different attitude toward religious belief and its role in society. It was not considered a “private thing” – it was the fulcrum on which all society turned. The very same commitment to the truth of the Catholic church that drove More to sentence heretics also drove him to defy Henry VIII and be executed himself.

      • Mike R

        I take it that you don’t mean to imply that commitment to the truth of the Catholic church requires condemning heretics to death. I assume that the truth of the Church would direct him to NOT kill heretics. Am I wrong?

  • Jubal DiGriz

    Martyrdom in of itself is not a virtue. Moore’s unwillingness to bend and inability to transgress his own principles shouldn’t be what makes him a good man. What matters is what principles one is sacrificing for, whether those principles are worth upholding.

    So, as a sincere question, what was Moore sacrificing himself for? A notion of fealty to the Church, or something else? What did his martyrdom accomplish?

    • deiseach

      If inability to transgress one’s own principles is not a good thing, then what is? Yes, I get your point about what principles one is wedded to, and a devout (let us say) believer in the ‘scientifically proven’ inferiority of Race A to Race B who will not budge on a point of principle is still not in the right, no matter how admirable his tenacity may be.

      But falling into the ditch on the opposite side of the road is the squishy conformity that ‘goes along to get along’, where every principle is up for re-negotiation, until you find that suddenly you’re no longer the moderate, but the conservative (all the other conservatives having been driven off or out) and now it’s your turn to the guillotine.

      What did his martyrdom accompish? Bad law is still bad law, no matter who is pushing it or for what intentions. That’s a protection for all, secular as well as religious.

    • So, as a sincere question, what was Moore sacrificing himself for? A notion of fealty to the Church, or something else? What did his martyrdom accomplish?

      I don’t think he was sacrificing himself for anything, and he didn’t intend to accomplish anything by it. Death wasn’t his goal, he simply couldn’t find a way to avoid it without compromising his ethics. If the Oath had been worded differently, he might have been able to sign it and lived to a ripe old age, teaching his granddaughters Latin and Greek and enjoying amateur astronomy.

  • And the Mantel!More is saddled with some unsupported-by-history prejudices and accusations, apparently. History is a fascinating and tricky thing.

  • Peggy Hagen

    “… 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.”

    But play!More would have lost something were he physically impervious. Once in jail, he suffers – it’s damp and miserable, and he becomes ill; by the time of his trial he cannot even stand for long. And yet his concern is still for his family, and even for Richard Rich in their final exchange. He still thinks of others before himself, but it’s a strength that would not be seen, or at least not seen with the same clarity, were he not defined already by his physical weakness.

    Rich, by the way, is the character I’d likely pay most attention to on a re-watch: More’s foil, ascending as he descends, and utterly bankrupting himself morally in the same scene that has More earning his martyr’s crown. And yet he didn’t start out wanting anything wrong…just a place at court, just a little attention, just something to assure him that he mattered somehow. It’s all very natural and human of him, but his weakness consumes him instead of becoming a defining mark he can set himself against.

    • Brandon B

      “…he didn’t start out wanting anything wrong…”

      More accurately, he didn’t want anything big that was wrong. There is great value is catching your sins while they are small (“a stitch in time saves nine”). Seeking “a little attention” is a great way to feed your vanity while assuring yourself that you’re being humble.

  • Peggy Hagen

    Oh – Robert Bolt was an atheist, would ‘A Man for All Seasons’ thus count as atheist literature? 🙂

    • You’re cool with martyrs so long as they’re from your own faith…

      • Margaret Catherine

        Hmm? Not sure whence that comment, but no; I’d respect anyone willing to die for their faith, consequent to a situation forced on them and not sought out. Not revere them as a saint, perhaps; and certainly not respect anyone who wants to take others out with them.

        • Peggy Hagen

          Sorry – that was me, above. Different computer, old handle.

          • Whence the comment is that the original theme is touchy for the 21st Century. Even after 9/11 we have Guantanamo defendants plea-bargaining that they’ll plead guilty only if given the death penalty and Anders Breviek requesting “acquittal or the Death Penalty”. We also have people Dying for their Faith in terms of having been lured into suicide cults or cults that wear you down to that option. The Victims of Honor Killings are dying for their Faith, as are the infants dead from botched circumcision. Now that we have a hard-won Age of Secular Enlightenment & Human Rights we can still respect people dying for their Faith; it’s just at the same time there’s a sense of the waste of it, of how much more of a life there would be for someone unblinkered by the constraints of their Faith. Unshackled from dogma, you can be more moral.

        • I’d prefer that fewer people were willing to die for their faith and more people were willing to live for it.

          • Ted Seeber

            To the Catholic, the difference is rather slim.

  • Fanofstomoore

    St Thomas Moore was a man ahead of his time. I recommend reading The Sadness of Christ or/and The Four Last Things. I believe he wrote these while imprisoned.He maintained a witty humor and a devout character even under the mot strenuous of conditions. I have been a fan since my teens. I wish you the Peace of Christ which is beyond understanding!

  • Kewois

    > Morality might be natural, but most of us don’t think of it as easy.
    You said “morality” but you are talking about “moral dilemmas”.
    I mean, I think that for most of us is easy not to steal or to kill at random.
    But in a moral dilemma you have to choose between two “evils” trying to achieve a grater good.
    Moore could have signed the Act and then live to fight against Henry or die accordingly to his ideas.
    And of course moral dilemmas are hard for everyone.
    >More is, in his mind, only doing what is necessary. … this is a personal matter of integrity…… He gives up his office in order to try to keep his actions in the personal, not the political sphere.
    Exactly. “in HIS mind” “as a personal matter”
    Another man can choose the other way and there is no absolute parameter to say that his action was wrong.
    >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.
    Many people have died for their ideals. For compassion, for love even for delusions.
    The people of the Seven Gates Cult decided to kill themselves because they believe they will go to another better planet. As we don’t believe that poisoning oneself makes you to go aboard an alien UFO most of us don’t look at that like something “good”.
    >He does not go seeking martyrdom, and when it comes to him, it still doesn’t really >seem chosen.
    He could sign the act anytime. He didn’t wanted to sign. He preferred to die than to sign.
    >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.
    What is your point that praying and studying anyone can become a better person, like anyone through exercise can enhance his physical performance??
    There are many cases of people who prayed and were really bad people.
    >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.
    Why his no action is objectively better to sign the act?.
    As I said he could sign the Act and then live to fight against Henry. He could left England and went to Rome and support Catholicism.
    >for Moore to be able to withstand and survive the pressures he is under would be a loss.
    For HIM that was the case.
    If any moral dilemma has a right and wrong answer then it is not a moral dilemma.
    It is something personal because whatever you choose depends on many things.
    What you believe, what do you know, your personality, your emotions.
    For example some people refuse to receive blood transfusions because they believe that doing that is a sin. So they prefer to die rather than have a transfusion. As far as is just their own live which is at risk, in my opinion, they can do (as Moore) what they believe is right. BUT if they refuse to made a transfusion to their children….WAIT not everyone in our society believes that transfusions are sins so the dilemma changes…. From “to allow a transfusion and sin or not allow a transfusion and perhaps die” to “let a parent allow his child to die for their beliefs or preserve the life of a kid no matter what the parent believes”


    • deiseach

      “Moore could have signed the Act and then live to fight against Henry or die accordingly to his ideas…As I said he could sign the Act and then live to fight against Henry. He could left England and went to Rome and support Catholicism.”

      It’s complicated in that three separate Acts were involved;
      (i) the Act of Supremacy, making Henry and his heirs supreme spiritual as well as temporal authorities in England: “Be it enacted by authority of this present Parliament that the King our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia, and shall have and enjoy annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm as well the title and style thereof, as all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits and commodities, to the said dignity of supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining”

      (ii) The Act of Succession (and this is the sticky one that tripped More up because he would not take the Oath):

      “And if any person or persons, being commanded by authority of this Act to take the said oath afore limited, obstinately refuse that to do, in contempt of this Act, that then every such person so doing, to be taken and accepted for offender in misprision of high treason; and that every such refusal shall be deemed and adjudged misprision of high treason; and the offender therein to suffer such pains and imprisonment, losses and forfeitures, and also lose privileges of sanctuaries, in like manner and form as is above mentioned for the misprisions of treasons afore limited by this Act.”

      (iii) The Treasons Act which made the offence of not swearing the oath treason (that is, a capital crime punishable by death).

      The Treasons Act was the one under which More was tried and executed, and it was for refusing to take the oath and thereby denying “king’s most royal person, the queen’s, or their heirs apparent…of their dignity, title, or name of their royal estates”. That is, by refusing to swear that (a) Henry was supreme head of the Church, More was depriving him of his dignity, title and name in this capacity and (b) by implication, repudiating the lawfulness of his marriage to Anne Boleyn and denying the transfer of the succession from Mary to Elizabeth. Henry had had to include the declaration that Mary was a bastard included in the Act of Succession because otherwise she would have remained his legitimate heiress, even if the annulment of his marriage to Catherine had been recognised; under Catholic theology, children of an invalid marriage are not considered illegitimate.

      Also, you forget the circumstances of the time; travel was not open and easy as it is nowadays. Henry refused to let Catherine return to Spain, what makes you think he (and more particularly his courtiers) would have allowed More to leave for Rome?

      Suppose More had signed the acts and then skedaddled to the Continent and , as you put it, fought for Catholicism – you forget that there was a requirement to swear an Oath. All his enemies would have to say was “This man is a perjurer, how can you believe him?” Either he would have sworn a false oath (perjury) or he would have had to say “I meant it then but I’ve changed my mind now”. Either way, he would not have been credible.

      I think he was willing to stay quiet as a private citizen about what Henry’s position as supreme temporal governor was in relation to the Church in England, and I think he might even have acceded to the act of succession (the notion that kings could choose their heirs and not go strictly by order of birth was not uncommon still), but when Henry tried to take spiritual as well as secular power – and he worded the acts so that all authority was given directly by God to the king ,which is to say that you were not just committing a crime by opposing the king, you were directly defying God – that was a step too far. So More stuck to his guns and would not take the oath, and his enemies took him down as a traitor.

      • deiseach

        What I’m saying is that we don’t recognise the enormity of what Henry was doing; it was a throw-back to the days of the Egyptian Pharoahs, gods as well as kings; divinely instituted rulers who were the heads of the faith as well as the state. Henry was making himself the Vicar of Christ in place of the Pope.

    • @Kewois –

      But in a moral dilemma you have to choose between two “evils” trying to achieve a grater good.

      You are right that moral dilemmas are usually the difficult part of living morally. (Though morality, as an academic subject, has academic difficulties.) However, a moral dilemma is – at least from a virtue ethics point of view – always a choice between two goods. Evil is never, under any circumstances, chosen directly. Evil is accepted, permitted, or endured; but never chosen. To choose evil is the very definition of immoral action.

      Another man can choose the other way and there is no absolute parameter to say that his action was wrong.

      Again according to virtue ethics, the “absolute parameter” is the principle of Natural Law. Indeed, under virtue ethics, it is difficult to say what is “the best” action, because there are many goods that a person can pursue. But it is easy to say when someone’s action is wrong: that is, if that person chooses evil.

      If any moral dilemma has a right and wrong answer then it is not a moral dilemma.

      Not exactly. If a moral dilemma has an easy answer, or a single clear right answer, it is not a dilemma. However, a moral dilemma may present a situation where sorting out the good and the evil are difficult or complicated. Or, a moral dilemma may have a very clear wrong answer, but a variety of good answers, none of which is clearly the “right” or “best” answer.

      It is something personal because whatever you choose depends on many things. What you believe, what do you know, your personality, your emotions.

      But I would argue that it also depends on reality. My knowledge of reality is certainly incomplete, and my emotions may be all over the place, so I may not be able to take the best possible action; and I may take an action that seems good to me but is, in actuality, evil; but the morality of an action is not determined by my knowledge, or emotions, or beliefs. The morality of an action is determined by what is truly good (or evil) in the act.

      Now, my intentions (summing up knowledge and belief and emotion and also will) affect my responsibility for the action. To use the example of movie/play!More, he refuses to sign because to do so would betray his conscience. Yet he also presumes that those who did sign signed in obedience to their consciences. (See the second quote here.) He leaves it to God to judge the right and wrong of the action, but he is certain that responsibility goes with the intention.

      I realize I’m just glossing over a number of ideas and assumptions based on virtue ethics, so I’m open to clarification, argument, and/or correction here.

      • Kewois


        I just try to say that Thomas More could have made another choice. Thomas More was not a madman and did not seek martyrdom but we did what he did for very good reasons for him and for many other people. But not everybody agrees that his action was the one and only moral one.
        It is a very complicated situation and I appreciate the careful analysis of the situation you made.

        >Henry was making himself the Vicar of Christ in place of the Pope.

        Yes but that’s is a valid reason only if you believe that the Pope really is the Vicar of Christ if you think that he is just another man that is not a valid reason. And after all Henry (and nowadays Elisabeth II) become the head of the Church of England.

        Robert King:
        >Again according to virtue ethics, the “absolute parameter” is the principle of Natural >Law.
        There is no agreement in WHAT is the natural law.
        >But it is easy to say when someone’s action is wrong: that is, if that person chooses >evil.
        It is not that you choose an evil. Sometimes you have to choose between actions which outcome can be something you don’t like or want and you have no other choice.
        >However, a moral dilemma may present a situation where sorting out the good and the >evil are difficult or complicated. Or, a moral dilemma may have a very clear wrong >answer, but a variety of good answers, none of which is clearly the “right” or “best” >answer.
        Or perhaps something brings an outcome that you didn’t know it would happen.
        >The morality of an action is determined by what is truly good (or evil) in the act.
        I do not agree. If you don’t know that something will have a prejudicial outcome you are not making an evil choice. Afterwards you realize that your act was wrong but not evil.