A Man For Our Season

In the preface to his play, A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt explains his motivation for choosing Thomas More as his hero. He describes an inability in the people of his time to answer the question of what and who they are. The individual is dissatisfied with defining himself as a Man because he does not know what that means. Instead, he defines himself by his occupation, by his qualifications, by his possessions, by his opinions, etc. He measures himself by the society that contains him because he “no longer [has], as past societies have had, any picture of individual Man by which to recognize [himself] and against which to measure [himself]” (x). On the contrary, Bolt sees Thomas More as “a hero of selfhood” (xiii). As he explains,

Thomas More, as I wrote about him, became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. . . Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff (xi).

Unlike the common man of his time, Thomas More possessed a deeply rooted objective standard by which to recognize and against which to measure himself.

Over a half century later, we are in even greater need of “a hero of selfhood.” As in Bolt’s time, we continue to struggle with defining ourselves according to an objective nature. As Bolt says, 

Socially, we fly from the idea of an individual to the professional describers, the classifiers, the men with the categories and a quick ear for the latest subdivision, who flourish among us like priests. Individually, we do what we can to describe and classify ourselves and so assure ourselves that from the outside at least we do have a definite outline. Both socially and individually it is with us as it is with our cities—an accelerating flight to the periphery, leaving a center which is empty when the hours of business are over (xi). 

Instead of defining ourselves as individual human beings, we identify ourselves and others by political associations, by social status, by bodily appetites, etc. We are conservatives, academics, liberals, white collar businessmen, blue-collar laborers, pro-lifers, persecuted blacks, progressives, traditionalists, social justice warriors, heterosexuals, LGBTQ allies, etc., etc. In other words, we sacrifice our selfhood to the prefabricated molds of our society so that we can recognize and measure ourselves according to our society’s standards. 

But society can have only as much idea as we have what we are about, for it has only our brains to think with. And the individual who tries to plot his position by reference to our society finds no fixed points, but only the vaunted absence of them, “freedom” and “opportunity”; freedom for what, opportunity to do what, is nowhere indicated (x).

We are empty because that by which we recognize our selves is never fixed; our classifications are ever-changing their meaning. “In other words we are thrown back by our society upon ourselves at our lowest, that is at our least satisfactory to ourselves. Which of course sends us flying back to society with all the force of rebound” (x-xi). 

In the midst of this crisis of self, Saint Thomas More truly is a man for our season. There is no sense of insecurity in More. He has everything that an accomplished English nobleman would have—the highest education, prominent political influence, distinguished friends, etc.—and yet he does not identify himself by his position or possessions or power. He possesses something much deeper than these by which he recognizes and measures himself. Sir Thomas More locates his self in the only fixed point where it can truly be found, in God. For what is selfhood but the particular consciousness of a rational creature—the power to know and to love—the image and likeness of God’s own self? More identifies and measures himself by this standard; thus, he is not left empty by his society’s classifications.

Bolt masterfully illustrates More’s heroism throughout his play. Some of the most interesting conversations occur between Thomas and his friend Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. When King Henry decides to break from the Pope and asks all of his noblemen to acknowledge him as Head of the Church in England, More quietly resigns from his position as chancellor with the hope that he will be left in peace. The King’s Secretary, Master Cromwell, however, begins searching for some way to force More into submission or treachery. Howard begs Thomas to submit, “You’re behaving like a fool. You’re behaving like a crank. You’re not behaving like a gentleman—All right, that means nothing to you; but what about your friends?” (70). Norfolk’s whole identity is bound up with belonging to the English noble class; as such, he has a certain social life with other noblemen like Sir Thomas More. Thomas tells Howard that he must cease to know him as a friend since it is not safe. Norfolk replies, “You might as well advise a man to change the color of his hair! I’m fond of you, and there it is! You’re fond of me, and there it is!” (70). For Norfolk, one’s self is bound up with his social affiliations, which are as essential to one’s being as one’s hair color. For More, however, there is something deeper even than this friendship that he cannot sacrifice. He replies, “I can’t give in, Howard—(A smile) You might as well advise a man to change the color of his eyes. I can’t. Our friendship’s more mutable than that” (70). With gentle humor, Thomas attempts to show his friend that one’s self is much more essential than one’s hair color. As the conversation continues, he explains where his self resides.

NORFOLK Oh, that’s immutable, is it? The one fixed point in a world of changing friendships is that Thomas More will not give in!

MORE (Urgent to explain) To me it has to be, for that’s myself! Affection goes as deep in me as you think, but only God is love right through, Howard; and that’s my self.

NORFOLK And who are you? Goddammit, man, it’s disproportionate! We’re supposed to be the arrogant ones, the proud, splenetic ones—and we’ve all given in! Why must you stand out? Why d’you want to take your friendship from me? For friendship’s sake! You say we’ll meet as strangers and every word you’ve said confirms our friendship!

MORE (Takes a last affectionate look at him) Oh, that can be remedied. . . . Norfolk, you’re a fool. . . . You and your class have “given in”—as you rightly call it—because the religion of this country means nothing to you one way or the other.

NORFOLK Well, that’s a foolish saying for a start; the nobility of England has always been—

MORE The nobility of England, my lord, would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount. But you’ll labor like Thomas Aquinas over a rat-dog’s pedigree. Now what’s the name of those distorted creatures you’re all breeding at the moment? . . . Marsh mastiffs? Bog beagles?

NORFOLK Water spaniels!

MORE And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You’d hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it—I do—not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do—I! . . . Is there no single sinew in the midst of this that serves no appetite of Norfolk’s but is just Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord! 

NORFOLK (Breathing hard) Thomas . . . 

MORE Because as you stand, you’ll go before your Maker in a very ill condition! 

NORFOLK Now steady, Thomas. . . . 

MORE And he’ll think that somewhere back along your pedigree—a bitch got over the wall! (71-72). 

The measure of Thomas’ selfhood is fixed in the identity of His Creator, who is “love right through.” And this Creator has appointed the Pope to represent His authority on earth. Therefore, Thomas cannot follow his King in breaking from the Pope without disobeying God, which would break him away from the one fixed point where his self resides. 

At the end of this conversation, Howard attempts to punch Thomas, who ducks out of the way. They are then interrupted by More’s daughter Margaret and her husband William Roper, who come to inform Thomas about Parliament’s Act to administer an oath under compulsion of treason. Up to this point, More could live freely under the law by simply not speaking against his King. He had been careful to make no statements, even to his own family, that could be rendered treasonable. He tells his daughter and son-in-law that they must study the wording of the oath to see if they can take it. Confused and excited, Will asserts that they already know what it will mean, no matter the wording. More replies,

It will mean what the words say! An oath is made of words! It may be possible to take it. Or avoid it. . . . Now listen, Will. And, Meg, you listen, too, you know I know you well. 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! If he suffers us to fall to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and yes, Will, then we may clamor like champions . . . if we have the spittle for it. And no doubt it delights God to see splendor where He only looked for complexity. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to that extremity! Our natural business lies in escaping—so let’s go home and study this Bill (73). 

Here, Saint Thomas More reveals true humility. He knows himself and his proper place in creation. He is a particular kind of creature of God—a complex, material-spiritual creature whose natural duty is to glorify God in his material existence with the help of the mind to which his body is linked. Therefore, so long as he can remain obedient to God through His Church, he will do his natural business to avoid death through reason. 

Nevertheless, the wording of the oath recognizes Henry VIII as “Supreme Head of the Church of England” and recognizes the validity of his marriage to Queen Anne Boleyn, both of which contradict More’s obedience to God. For refusing to take the oath, he is sentenced to life imprisonment. Norfolk beseeches his friend once again, “I’m not a scholar, . . . and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names . . . You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?” (77). Sincerely moved but steadfast in his faith, More replies, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?” (77). Secure in himself because he resides in God’s love, More is not afraid to stand apart from his class and truly be himself. Our fellowship with certain groups of people cannot be the measure by which we recognize ourselves, lest we find ourselves as shallow and empty as Norfolk. 

More’s final temptation, however, cuts much deeper than Norfolk’s appeal to fellowship. Master Cromwell allows More’s family to visit him in prison so long as they attempt to persuade him to take the oath. Margaret argues that “God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth” and begs her father to “say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise” (81). But if the creature Man is meant to serve God in the tangle of his mind, this includes serving him in his words, for words are the external expression of the mind’s thoughts. Lovingly, More replies to his daughter,

MORE When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.

MARGARET In any state that was half good, you would be raised up high, not here, for what you’ve done already. It’s not your fault the State’s three-quarters bad. Then if you elect to suffer for it, you elect yourself a hero.

MORE That’s very neat. But look now . . . If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all . . . why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes. 

MARGARET (Emotionally) But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want

MORE Well . . . finally . . . it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love (81).

A man cannot believe one thing in his heart and live the opposite in his words and actions, for by doing so he divides his very self. As our Lord informs us, “No city or house divided against itself will stand” (Matthew 12:25). Just as water, once it slips through one’s fingers, cannot be gathered again wholly into one’s hands, so one’s self cannot remain a fixed point if one’s words contradict one’s heart. 

We all know how the rest of the story goes. Thomas More did indeed stand fast to his tackle and clamor like a champion, for God brought him to such a case that there was no escaping. In the end, it was a matter of love, for reason had reached its limits and assented to faith. In our current season of identity crises, violent political tribalism, and ecclesiastical corruption and mediocrity, we are in desperate need of saints like Sir Thomas More. We ought to reflect deeply on whether we truly locate ourselves in the steadfast love of God or in some social classification, even if that classification is counter-cultural and goes against the most popular trends. Do we ignore what our conscience says in order to go along with the ever-changing agenda of our social class or political party, for fellowship? Or do we react with passionate anger to the sins we perceive in our leaders and elect ourselves “heroes” before God has brought us to that extremity? Do we avoid all conflict and say and do whatever is most convenient for our safety, comforting our lukewarm selves with the idea that God knows what’s really in our hearts? Or do we identify ourselves as the truth-warriors whose personal mission is to point out the failings of our leaders, ignoring our own, in order to assure ourselves that we are the righteous ones? More’s heroic death came about slowly; he did not rush out to make himself a martyr and even resisted coming to such a point. But it was not that he was lukewarm until his final moments; his martyrdom came about because he was rooted in God’s love all along. He embraced death when God called him to show His splendor, but he waited for God to call him to such a point. Saint Thomas More is a man for our season because he shows us how to answer the question of who we are. We are rational, material creatures whose particular identities are rooted in the only fixed point of this otherwise fleeting universe. It’s not a matter of choosing the right “side” out of the multiplicity of classifications our society offers. Finally, it’s a matter of locating our selves in God, who is love right through.

  • Bolt, Robert. A Man for all Seasons. New York: Vintage Books, 1962.

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