Saturday, December 17, 2005

Sunday Thought: A Saint for one Season - the irrelevance of Thomas More

    My apologies to whomever supplied the link, but I simply can't remember where I found it. It comes to us via, a website about which I know nothing, and is entitled "A Man for all Seasons: An Historian's Demur," by a Marvin O'Connell, a history professor who, at the time of its writing (2002), was comfortably ensconced at Notre Dame. The demur he seems to be making is with the historical portrait of Thomas More offered in Robert Bolt's play. In the process he makes several claims congenial to the generally slanderous trend of modern scholarship in this area, and even though this one emanates from an employee of a Catholic institution, the spectacle of such places offering shelter to those who would derogate its own saints no longer gives shock or even scandal. It is one of those dreary, dumbing-down articles that would have us part with all that we thought extraordinary about the man, all that made him a saint rather than a charlatan. The picture of More that emerges is one that renders him most modern in the ambition of his professional life, but most archaic in his desire for a martyr’s death, giving his life for a notion of conscience that you and I would scarcely recognize. It is a life he might have saved with a signature and a groveling apology, but there is no wonder in this article that he gave it at all. How many of us, I wonder, or how many professors at Notre Dame, with the headsman’s axe turned toward us, would not sign the oath making Richard McBrien Supreme Head of the Church in America? There is no fervent desire to find in More a man to emulate, no heartfelt longing, from the cold tower of academia, to find in oneself a faith that ran so deep and true. No, More was simply a man of his time, a "man for one season"; he would not understand us, nor we him.
    O’Connell opens, of course, with Robert Whittinton's 1520 encomium, in which Mr. Bolt found a title for his play:

More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.

O'Connell thinks the phrase inappropriate and misleading, for "Whittinton's 'a man for all seasons' could have had nothing whatever to do with the Thomas More about whom Mr. Bolt wrote his play."

In 1520, when Whittinton's book on Latin Composition appeared, More was still a year away from his knighthood and his first ministerial post, three years from the speakership of the House of Commons, nine from the chancellorship, and fifteen from the heroic ordeal which ended on Tower Hill. Henry VIII had not yet published his Assertio septem sacramentorum against Luther. Anne Boleyn was a dark-eyed little girl of thirteen, and Thomas Cromwell was still a moneylender in London. In short, Mr. Bolt's concerns are with More the martyr who died in witness to the inviolability of the human conscience. Whittinton had nothing in mind so grandiose as that.

To which one is tempted to reply: so what? O'Connell admits that "the poet's ecstasy is infinitely more valuable than fastidious chronology...and yet the poet's method in this instance has its difficulties." In other words, what the professor cedes with one hand he will take away with the other. For one who pays apparent homage more than once to the "poetic experience," he seems immune to the poet's almost biblical sense that things are revealed in the fullness of time, that the martyr of More's end is to be found in the seed of his beginning. For it is a fact that by the time Whittinton penned his praise, More's character was fully established not only among his intimates, but among the eminences at Court, not excluding the King. He was, by June of 1517, "in the King's service," and by October of that year he was a member of the King's Council. In yet another sample of poetic symmetry that mere chronology cannot account for, an historian whom I much prefer to O'Connell notes that: "By this reckoning, More's career as servant to Henry begins almost exactly at the same time as Luther's career as Protestant Reformer. For it was on 1 November 1517 that Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg."
    As to the specific qualities of that character, Erasmus had made his own delineation even before Whittinton:

But it is particularly More's gift for friendship which Erasmus emphasizes: the trouble he will take over his friends' affairs, though careless of his own; how his gentle and merry talk cheers the low-spirited and distressed; how he loves especially to jest with women (including his own wife); the charm with which he rules his household, so that quarrels are unknown...; the way he uses his influence with the King to serve his friends; the way he relieves one friend with money, another with a timely recommendation in high places. 'You might call him the general patron of all who are hard up.' No one is more ready to serve, or less expects to be served. He is always reconciling those who have quarrelled...And Erasmus sums it all up in the words of John Colet - that More is the one genius of Britain.

And so it goes, such that "Many and many a passage could be selected from other letters," as the one in which Erasmus tells a man who thought More offended with him: "What you write about More is all nonsense; why, he does not remember even grave injuries." That Robert Whittinton could not have known that his words of praise would echo down the ages with greater force and resonance than he could possibly imagine is a matter of no consequence. But O'Connell's claim that the object of Whittinton's flattery and the man who mounted the scaffold were two different men is both outrageous and specious. More's life gave those words their resonance, bringing them to completion. The impression remains (with this reader, in any case) that what most disturbs O'Connell is the fact that, rather than the historian's, "Mr. Bolt's grand and moving drama now provides the standard picture of Thomas More," with the result that "this 'man for all seasons' is radically different from the person so painfully, so incompletely reconstructed from the evidence that has come down to us." He implies what that radical difference might be (which I will deal with shortly) without getting very specific, but I am here to assure lovers of More that the picture you took away from Bolt's play (or its film version) was so radically accurate that it might seem the hand of God had guided the playwright's pen - or, more likely, that Mr. Bolt, unlike some historians, was simply being radically honest with the evidence before him, and which made him disdainful of drawing such inferences as the following:

Thomas More died at a tyrant's hands, but during the greater part of his life he labored diligently in the service of that same tyrant, so diligently indeed that he described himself on the scaffold in a phrase which neither his friends nor his enemies have attempted to rebut: he was "the king's good servant."

And why would anyone want to do that? We have always known that More served the King, and that he did it well. The need to rebut this fact has never occurred to me. In fact, Thomas served the King so well that Henry killed him for it. Perhaps there is here more of what this article contains in abundance: an imputation of moral guilt absent the courtesy of saying exactly what it is. The implication seems to be that there was something reprehensible in More's having been "the King's good servant". No doubt a reader's discomfort is palpable when he reads that More died "the King's (a tyrant's) good servant" absent the punchline: "but God's first." The inference must be that to have served a tyrant in any capacity is to have participated willingly in that tyrant's depredations. But to answer this we must move to the second part of the assertion, to wit, that that he was nothing more than an upwardly mobile politician in the modern mode, and thus eager for the Chancellorship, not reluctant:

Six years earlier, when the highest office in the land was offered to him, he accepted it as any sensible politician would have, seeing it as the culmination of his public life. The evidence that he accepted the great seal of the chancery reluctantly is highly suspect, and there is no evidence at all that he demanded and received, as a prior condition for acceptance, assurances from the king that he would not be troubled over the divorce...It is certain at any rate that More received no assurances from the king about the divorce until after he had hung the chancellor's insignia around his neck.

So we are to assume that More knew he might be bothered about the divorce, but was willing to take the risk because of an overweening ambition. Quite frankly, this is a calumny, to be taken point by point:

The evidence that he accepted the great seal of the chancery reluctantly is highly suspect... Note that he does not say 'absent' or 'wrong,' but merely 'suspect,' which means that is how O'Connell wishes to see it. But in fact the evidence of More's reluctance is quite abundant, and not to believe it is not to believe More, which one is free to do, but to so choose makes one man no more an historian of fact or truth than another. Wrote More to John Fisher, long before the great seal was offered him:

Everybody knows that I didn't want to come to court, and the King often twits me about it; I sit as uneasily as a clumsy rider in the saddle. The King has a way of making every man feel that he is enjoying his special favor...I am not so lucky as to be a special favorite [More is here being excessively modest], or so optimistic as to imagine myself one. But the virtue and learning of the King increase day by day, so that I feel court life less and less of a burden.

    That other historian, and biographer of More, R.W. Chambers, apparently unaware of the ‘highly suspect’ nature of the evidence, asserts with equal confidence that: "He avoided the Court as long as he could – even that of the considerate Henry VIII. Henry dragged him to Court – no one was ever so eager to go to Court as More to avoid it." And on the occasion of Wolsey’s displeasure at More’s reluctant performance, in his capacity as Speaker of the House of Commons, to drag that body blithely along in support of a tax to underwrite Henry’s warring pursuit of yet another (in Cromwell’s phrase) "ungracious doghole" in France, the Cardinal "uttered unto him his griefs, saying, ‘Would to God you had been at Rome, Master More, when I made you Speaker’." To which More replied, ‘Your Grace not offended, so would I too, my Lord.’
    We are speaking now of those years prior to his accepting the great seal. But of that acceptance we have even more evidence. Chambers explains:

But, in fact, More had no choice. Once he had entered the King’s service, he was no longer a free man. Before this date he had made it clear to the King that he could not bend in the matter of the divorce. If the King, knowing this, had promised to give him freedom of conscience, and to employ him in other matters, More had no option but to serve…

It is this promise from the King for which O’Connell says we have no evidence. But we do know this, that

     Soon after More became Chancellor, the King again asked him to consider ‘his great matter.’ More fell upon his knees. He would gladly give one of his limbs, he said, to be able to serve the King in that matter, with a safe conscience. Henry promised to use the advice of those ‘whose consciences could well enough agree therewith’, to use More ‘otherwise’, and ‘never with that matter molest his conscience after’.
     It is likely enough that Roper’s memory is at fault as to the exact times when the King consulted More, and the words used on each occasion. But we have More’s letter to Cromwell to prove that the King, when asking him ‘to consider his great matter’, repeated the promise of freedom of conscience which he had given him on first entering his service: ‘that he should first look unto God, and after God unto him’.

We also know that at least twice during the year 1527, two years prior to More’s ascension as Chancellor, the King had sounded him out on the ‘great matter,’ and it was then that More made known his inability to ‘bend’. But even if the promise was made only after he became Chancellor – a promise More had every right to expect – it was a promise poorly kept:

But when Henry’s promise to molest More no further, followed by promises of worldly honor and profit, failed to change More’s mind, then Henry proceeded to molest him again…The rigidity of More’s conscience is shown not so much by the fact that it was proof against Henry’s threats, as that it was proof against his blandishments. ‘Look first unto God, and after God unto me; nevertheless weigh my great matter once again.’ That was Henry’s trump card, and it seldom failed to win. But if it failed, Henry had another trump up his sleeve, and the obstinate man was in due time told ‘that never was there servant to his Sovereign so villainous, nor subject to his Prince so traitorous as he’.

     There is also the fragment of William Rastell’s lost Life of his uncle, in which he relates that Henry was set on not having another cleric (like Wolsey) as Chancellor, “and offered it to Sir Thomas More, who refusing it, the King was angry with him, and caused him to accept it, and laboured to have him persuaded on his side in the matter of the divorce; and because he could not be persuaded, he hated him for it.”
    And lastly there is a cause I’ve not heard much made of but which seems not unlikely in a man of such “rigidity of conscience,” and that is the call of duty – no longer to Henry, but to the woman he would put away, Catherine of Aragon:

…there was another reason why More could not refuse to be one of the small band of Catherine’s friends who were preparing what resistance they could. Even now, at the eleventh hour, he might help to stave off some of the disasters he foresaw. There was always the duty he had represented himself as urging upon Raphael Hythlodae: ‘That which you cannot turn to good, so order it that it be not very bad.’

It was this principle that More – who detested all war among Christian princes, whose only longing was for the unity of Christendom – brought to bear in all his service to the King.

     Henry doesn’t strike one as the sort of ruler to whom a man turns – as might a cabinet official of our own time – to say that he is weary of the affairs of state, would like to spend more time with the family, and return to private life where, in any case, he could make more money. If Henry wanted you, he would have you. After the King had declared one of the Pope’s ships as forfeiture in Southhampton, More, as hired counsel, represented the Pope’s interest against the King’s. As Roper tells it, More,

…in defence of the Pope’s side, argued so learnedly himself, that both was the aforesaid forfeiture to the Pope restored, and himself among all the hearers, for his upright and commendable demeanor therein, so greatly renowned, that for no entreaty would the King from thenceforth be induced any longer to forbear his service.

But the question fairly remains: if he was so reluctant, why did More enter the King’s service at all? If one is fixated on the lecherous, bloated monstrosity that dominates history’s bequest, the tyrant who would brook no frustration of his will, and took the least sign of disloyalty as tantamount to treason, then the question would be hard to answer. We tend to forget, however, the almost absurdly giddy optimism that greeted the death of Henry VII and his son’s ascension to the throne. Wrote Lord Mountjoy to Erasmus, in an attempt to summon him back from Rome:

Heaven laughs and the earth rejoices; everything is full of milk and honey and nectar. Avarice has fled the country. Our King is not after gold or gems or precious metals, but virtue, glory, immortality…You will come to a Prince who will say, ‘Accept our wealth, and be our greatest sage.’

Such words could not be wrung from this writer should Ronald Reagan rise from the dead. But they do reveal the hope attached to Henry’s promise, who once told Mountjoy that, without learned men among us, “life would hardly be life.” Says Chambers:

It is difficult for us to realize now, how fair was the promise of the opening years of Henry’s reign, so complete was the frustration brought about in the second half. Before Henry died, he had hacked to pieces or melted down nearly all the treasures of art which amazed the Venetian diplomatist…Henry slew Reynolds, More, and Fisher – the most learned monk, the most learned layman, and the most saintly patron of learning to be found in England. He had already scared away the discreet Erasmus; …he broke Wolsey…Henry VIII destroyed more things of beauty, and more things of promise, than any other man in European history. And many of his countrymen admire him for it. To the sporting Englishman, there is something admirable in having created any kind of record.

In the end, it seems to me that, had More refused the great seal, it would have altered the descent of the executioner’s blade by the breadth of not one hair on his head. By the time he entered the King’s service, he was already the most esteemed man in the realm, among both nobles, clergy and laymen. A man of such character would never have been left “unmolested” by a ruler who needed to “bend” another’s conscience in order to assuage his own, but rather subjected to the very public and flagrantly obeisant pledge of loyalty that was at last demanded of him. By the time the Chancellorship was offered, he had to have known this.
     It is about here I suddenly become almost as weary of making the defense as no doubt the reader is of hearing it. Professor O’Connell trots out all the old spurious charges, such as that More "pursued relentlessly with both pen and sword" those men "whom he called heretics" [as though they really weren’t], and that it was irrelevant to him that these men "considered themselves right," for More’s notion of conscience "was the right to be right, not the right to be wrong," though against this further calumny it has been well established that

…during the dozen years when More was increasingly in power and favor, there were no death sentences for heresy pronounced in his diocese; during the few months when he was still in office, but certainly neither in power nor favour, there were three; during the three years of his retirement, disgrace and imprisonment there were fifteen or sixteen. During these last three years, Lord Audeley held the seals…

But everyone knows that More would approve death for a heretic only under very stringent circumstances, the instance in which a man, though free to hold his opinions, would not keep them to himself, thinking himself entitled to disturb the peace of the kingdom, and, if need be, to incite tumult, rebellion, and civil war. To see that his fears along these lines were well founded, one need only look at the fate of Europe in Luther’s wake. But More did allow to the heretic what many others would not, the right to hold his opinion in silence [thus the importance of More’s own during interrogation and trial], or to say what it was if asked, but not to arrogate unto himself a bully pulpit in either church or town square to blast it abroad.
   All this must seem most strange to those of us living in a time when no heresy or moral aberration goes untolerated. One wonders which state of affairs O’Connell would prefer – the need for certainty which characterized More’s age, or the desire for its absence which marks our own. It’s hard to tell.

… he never maintained, as you and I might do, that conscience is the ultimate voice, that privy place where no authority may intrude and where no abstract truth has any claim…

And what sane Christian would so maintain? He speaks of ‘you and I’ as though we were all members in good standing of the Kerry/Kennedy camp of democratic politics. It would no more occur to More that the state should be

ideologically neutral… indifferent to what is ultimately true and false, right and wrong…than it occurs to us that the state should support the Christian religion because the Christian religion is true."

Actually, such a thought has occurred to me.

He did not refuse to "conform" his conscience to the Act of Supremacy for private but public reasons…

…and then quotes his words before the judges as to all the councils "made these thousand years" which he would hold against their "one council or Parliament" - as though More were willing to put his head on the block merely to make a rather pronounced political point – and thus leaving out, by necessity, all his writings from prison, and his immortal witness before Cromwell and Cranmer, et. al, that he would "meddle" with no man’s conscience in this matter, for it was upon answer to his own that his salvation hung; that he wished "nobody no harm, I say none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live"; and that (following directly upon the above given "public" reason) "very and pure necessity, in discharge of my conscience, enforceth me to speak so much. Wherein I call and appeal to God, whose only sight pierceth into the very depth of man’s heart, to be my witness."
   As I say, it’s all so dreary, though Professor O’Connell leaves himself an out: "Nor is it that the historian is right and Mr. Bolt is wrong. Truth wears many mantles and confronts the mind from many angles." Yes, how modern of him, and how convenient. Which leads us to the modern conclusion that the great saint - whose appeal has crossed denominational, religious, and cultural barriers, who for many, in generation upon generation, remains a light worth discovering along their journey to faith in More’s Master – is in the end an irrelevance,

a man of one season — that moment of golden twilight when the Middle Ages were slowly giving place to something new, to something no one yet could name, a time of bright hope and fervor, an age of certainty, when Luther stood boldly before the princes of the Empire and Loyola bent before the mystic winds at Manresa, when kings dallied on the Field of Cloth of Gold, when popes still preached crusade. It was a time when people…had no doubt of what was true and what was right. It is all gone now, whistling down the wind, and Thomas More has gone with it.

     That sounds like the historian waxing poetic to me, and which, as has already been pointed out to us, is a method that, "in this instance, has its difficulties." I don’t know. O’Connell has read the same biography as I, and concedes in his notes that it remains the best extant (and, I predict, shall remain so). So we both read it and come away with two different men as its subject. I saw the film first, and upon picking up the book had expected that my admiration for Thomas would have to be brought down to earth somewhat. This did not happen. I know more about him – his family, his professional life, the breadth of his learning, the regard of his fellows both at home and abroad, the incredible consistency of his character, and most especially about the depth of his faith, one in which he fancied that the dead, as our fellow citizens in God’s polity, prance about and move among us daily, interceding for us, though invisible to the human eye, a faith by which even Erasmus seemed greatly edified: "He talks with his friends in such a way about the world to come that you can see that he is speaking from his heart, not without good hope." How fitting that More laid his head down not merely for his own soul’s sake, nor as a witness to those still living, but that the voice of the dead might still be heard among us.
     No, I will not be of those who bring him down to earth, but rather one (as unlikely as it seems) who would rise to the level of another in whom the perfection of God’s grace ran its course. There are Christian scholars in abundance who will perform the former duty; may they find much joy in the endeavor.


alicia said...


Anonymous said...

Wow. Now I remember the reason I keep checking in here. Long live St. Thomas More!

(And can we expect Ch. 7 as a Christmas gift?)

William Luse said...


John the Mad said...

Well said. St. Thomas More pray for us in this new age of apostasy.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Luse,

Your rebuttal of Marvin O'Connell's brief piece is, as usual, beautifully written and even inspiring. But I fear you have seriously misunderstood O'Connell's unambiguous intentions, and have therefore misread his essay.

First, Marvin O'Connell is a superb Catholic historian, author of books on the Oxford movement, Pascal, modernism and other subjects. He wrote essays regularly for the now defunct Catholic Dossier, a periodical edited by Ralph McInerny and published by Ignatius Press. He is not a dissenting liberal debunker.

Second, O'Connell's central thesis is that Robert Bolt's notion of conscience is a modern one which Thomas More would not have recognized. Such a notion of conscience is not truth-dependent, whereas More's unambiguously was. This being the case, despite the play's many excellences, A Man for All Seasons misrepresents Thomas More. Everything else in the essay is evidence for this claim or elaboration and qualification of it.

Third, O'Connell, though a historian, does not write *merely* as a historian; he is at pains to write beautifully and with a rhetoric that he plainly hopes his readers will find persuasive. When he says 'you and I' or 'us' or 'we' he means 'us-insofar-are-we-are-typical-modern-people.' I see that you might miss O'Connell's point here, since you, Mr. Luse, are plainly the furthest thing imaginable from a typical modern (and that is no insult). But so is Marvin O'Connell, at least insofar as he is an orthodox Catholic. And he is an orthodox Catholic. He should not be taken literally when he says 'you and I.'

Fourth, on certain points, such as whether or not More was reluctant to become chancellor, and whether or not he pursued heretics, only the evidence can be sufficient reason to come to a conclusion, and I am not familiar with the evidence, so do not take issue with your arguments. I will say, however, that Chambers' biography is not evidence. But his interpretations may be correct, and you may be correct in quoting them. Even if you are correct, it does not affect the soundness of Marvin O'Connell's central thesis, since for O'Connell these are not the main issues, and he deals with them only in passing.

Finally, the portrait of More that emerges from O'Connell's brief essay is that of a man profoundly attractive in many ways yet also deeply alien in a number of important ways. The author implicitly wishes the reader to be aware of that alienness while also continuing to be attracted to his subject's sanctity, his humanity, his genius. Is that such a bad thing? I would say that insofar as you have failed to see this, Mr. Luse, you have failed to understand O'Connell's essay.

Frank McManus

Unknown said...

I agree with Mr. McManus. What Fr. O' Connell is doing is not denigrating the real Saint, but some of the misconceptions used to make him more palatable to a modern audience. What he is saying is that it would be difficult for our times to produce a St. Thomas More- and so much the worse for our times !
Of course, the fact that I have actually met Fr. O' Connell and fojund him to be both orthodox and charming may have something to do with my judgement...:)

William Luse said...

To take Mr. McManus' points:
1. It's good to hear that Fr. O'Connell is orthodox and prolific. I find the former quality especially attractive. But that doesn't change my impression of the tone or substance of his essay.
2. "Robert Bolt's notion of conscience is a modern one which Thomas More would not have recognized." I can't speak for Mr. Bolt, only for the notion of conscience offered in evidence by the play and the film, and it is More's own, that a man should not be compelled to "state that he believes what he does not believe," (words used by Bolt but taken from Chambers'
biography). The modern notion of conscience to which O'Connell and Mr. McManus refer is indeed one More would have recognized - as wrong, abominably so. "Such a notion of conscience is not truth-dependent, whereas More's unambiguously was." This is just plain "not truth dependent," or, in common parlance, wrong. Every notion of conscience is truth-dependent. Even the modern man's contention that "my conscience owes allegiance to no guidance but its own" depends on the truth of that statement. That More's notion of conscience (the Catholic one) as owing a duty to Truth is superior to the fashion that its only duty is to itself is something O'Connell should have been at pains to emphasize. Therefore, I do not believe the play "misrepresents" More.
3. It's a little puzzling to be told by Mr. McManus that on the one hand O'Connell's intentions are 'unambiguous,' but on the other that I should not take his use of 'you and I' literally. For Pete's sake, the thing appears on a Catholic website. Imagine the fascination for the irreligious. If his purpose was to upbraid Catholics for embracing a too-modern concept of conscience, he might have said so.
4. "Chambers' biography is not evidence. But his interpretations may be correct..." Yes, I made clear in the essay that I prefer Chambers' interpretation to O'Connell's, especially since the latter offers his with no evidence...but..."it does not affect the soundness of Marvin O'Connell's central thesis, since for O'Connell these are not the main issues, and he deals with them only in passing." But you just said two paragraphs before that "Everything else in the essay is evidence for this claim" [about conscience] "or elaboration and qualification of it." You can't have it both ways. And the word "evidence" here is high praise indeed, highly inflated.
5. "...the portrait of More that emerges from O'Connell's brief essay is that of a man profoundly attractive in many ways yet also deeply alien in a number of important ways." Okay, you see it one way, I another. The attractiveness didn't come through for me. If I were a freshly minted Catholic who - in my newfound love for, and curiosity about, all things Catholic - came across this essay, I would be hard put to comprehend whatever inspired the Church to declare this man a saint, or why he should (as he does) continue to inspire anyone of our own time, even though I saw an atheist friend who attended with me weeping in the movie theater.
As for Donna Marie Lewis, it's interesting to see her opinion so swayed by a man's charm rather than the evidence, a situation I doubt she would tolerate if the target were John Henry Newman.

Anonymous said...

My father, raised a Southern Methodist, had read Chambers' biography of More before he met my mother, a Catholic. Asking him about this around 1968 he explained that:

"I always knew More was a great man(especially his battle for freedom of conscience, now he talks to me".

He became A Catholic in 1970.

William Luse said...

I appreciate the comment, Mr. Andrews, for it proves my point on at least one score.