After watching BYU’s production of “A Man for All Seasons,” a play about Thomas More, I was so inspired that I ordered Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the man. I finally finished it this summer, having worked my slow way through it mostly on Sunday afternoons during the last two years. (Law school has left little time for extra reading.) Although the play “A Man for All Seasons” portrays him, in some ways, more heroically than he deserves, I find that the true facts of his life and death are altogether more inspiring than the play—though I strongly recommend both. (And by the way, the play has been made into an excellent movie of the same title that won six academy awards in 1966, including best picture. Go watch it.) This first essay will be primarily an encomium on Thomas More, though I will depart far enough from my subject to contrast his values with the predominant moral sensibility of our day. In part two, I hope to compare the moral shift that society underwent in More’s day with the shift that has taken place in ours. I have made no secret of the fact that I am opposed to gay “marriage,” and this is part (but only part) of what motivates me to write—for More was, so far as I am aware, the first martyr who can be said to have died, in part, for traditional marriage.
As an introduction: Sir Thomas More (Saint Thomas More for Catholics) is famous for mainly two things: first, he wrote Utopia (thereby coining the term); second, he got his head chopped off for refusing to take a vow affirming certain Acts of Parliament by which Henry VIII secured his divorce, and set himself up as the head of the Church of England.
More was an ardent Catholic, but this is not because he was a dogmatic traditionalist. He was an excellent student of history, and knew that traditions change, and that they are often less than wholly right, and sometimes wholly wrong. He was at the center of the humanist movement—a bosom friend of Erasmus and a well-beloved fellow of the scholars of the New Learning, who largely rejected the labored, pretentious approach to learning that dominated the Middle Ages in favor of a freer and fresher methodology that valued common sense and effective rhetoric at least as much as ancient authorities and syllogistic reasoning. He was a loving father who apparently never beat or whipped his children, contrary to the common practice of contemporary Londoners and that of his own father. Also contrary to common practice, he educated his daughters—one of whom, Margaret, became probably the most learned woman in the world at the time. Yet he had a healthy respect for tradition and a reverence for legitimate authority, epitomized in his practice of kneeling before his father to receive his blessing even in public places such as the courts of law where both the father and the son had their careers.
More was a deeply moral person—but he was not the proponent of freedom of conscience that “A Man for All Seasons” portrays him to be. His morality was not one of freedom, but of submission to the proper order of things. So it was not the freedom of conscience but obedience to a properly informed conscience that was the essential thing. For him, being good meant playing one’s part well—standing faithfully in the office in which God had placed one. This did not preclude the freedom to choose one’s path in life to a certain extent—but it meant that the proper method of decision-making involved more of seeking God’s will and less of seeking one’s own. For example, More was unsure for a long time whether he should become a monk or a lawyer. He ultimately chose the latter, but insofar as he examined his inner impulses, it was primarily to consider what he was best fitted for. He concluded that it would be better for him to take an active part in the affairs of the world than to withdraw from it, and that it was therefore his duty to do so.
Yet if More was duty-bound, he was neither somber nor self-important. He was full of wit, good cheer, light-heartedness, and self-deprecation—qualities that A Man for All Seasons portrays only inadequately. His sense of humor derived, in part, from a sort of spiritual detachment from the world: he recognized that even the legitimate hierarchies and social forms are transitory and somewhat artificial, and that, therefore, all the world really is a stage, and all the men and women merely players. The earth itself was a peripheral sort of center for the universe—a sublunary, cacophonous middle about which the eternal spheres moved with motions more lasting and more musical. The affairs of the world in which he spent his labor and his wit were but a play within a larger drama—God’s heavenly drama of glory and salvation. And earthly societies were but a poor imitation of the true order that would come to pass in Christ’s millennium, when the government would be upon his shoulders. And so More went about his business—earnest in his service to the King, yet recognizing all the while a far greater King.
It is, of course, impossible to translate More’s moral vision into secular terms. God is at its center. Still, the secular world should be able to appreciate the notion (whether or not it agrees) that one’s duty to society is preeminent over one’s individual rights and privileges—that we are obligated to sustain the powers that be to the extent consistent with righteousness, while assisting our societies towards their best selves.
This sense of duty to society, and this reverence for legitimate authority are currently waning; the belief that right and wrong are functions of the will has the ascendency. “I desire it, therefore it is right for me” is displacing “It is right, therefore I should desire it.” Our Supreme Court has made it its business to crown our law with liberty, rather than our liberty with law, in a long line of cases that have discovered various Constitutional rights that are nowhere mentioned or implied in the Constitution. Consider the alleged right to privacy, which includes privileges (abortion, sodomy, sexual liberty) that the vast majority of Americans seventy-five years ago would blush to own, to say nothing of the founders. Adultery laws are repealed or unenforced, and marital infidelity is no liability in custody battles. And this, most of us feel, is moral progress—for our moral indignation is aroused by traditions or authorities that impinge on individuals’ right to choose according to their own desires. We tend to envision such traditions and authorities as “arbitrary hierarchies.” Accordingly, resistance to racism, patriarchy, or domineering leaders have become among the most typical forms of moral action that we glorify in our movies, music, and other media.
Our heroes have tended increasingly to be countercultural: leaders of noble rebellions, proud individualists. They are not the persons who meekly follow the maxim “what e’er thou art, act well thy part.” We prize sincerity above wisdom, and self-expression above self-restraint. Hence the facile bloviations that so ubiquitously and so unblushingly poison the social media. The extreme version of this modern sensibility comes close to opposing authority and hierarchy as such, rejecting (among other things) the very idea that any particular moral vision could properly be normative, or the idea that government and society have any right to impose upon individual liberty except to the extent necessary to preserve—you guessed it—individual liberty.
The basic problem with this atomistic amorality is that it fails to take account of society’s legitimate claims on the individuals whom it helps to constitute. For our societies do in large measure constitute us, and it is only in society with others that we attain anything like full-blown humanity. Society has a legitimate interest in promulgating a particular moral vision, and demanding that its member’s behavior conforms with that vision. Any individualism that denies this basic right of the collective will steadily degenerate towards anarchy.
I believe we have been witnessing the initial stages of that degeneration. We are so suspicious of external restraint, and so eager to free the individual for maximal self-realization (so called), that we are beginning to carve our way out of the order that has enabled our society to survive and flourish, and which has given the lives of its members a nobler and truer form of self-realization than can be achieved through mere freedom from restraint. This order includes the natural family, codes of sexual morality and marital fidelity, notions of civic duty (the duty to become an informed voter, for instance), and a normative commitment to certain narratives and values. Regarding the latter, the pledge of allegiance, for example, quite apart from the controversy over the “under God” part, begins to feel . . . simply old fashioned.
More’s life’s work was the upholding of what he believed to be the proper order of the world. He once presciently remarked to his son-in-law and first biographer, William Roper, that he would gladly be thrown into the Thames in a sack if only three wishes could be fulfilled: that Christian princes could be at peace with each other; that the unity and uniformity of the church could be restored; and that the matter of Henry VIII’s marriage and heir might be well-concluded. He was given the opportunity to seal with his blood his commitment to the ideals expressed in these wishes. His sacrifice turned out to be unavailing (though it earned him Catholic sainthood). Yet he made it gladly enough, despite the fact that he knew perfectly well that the battle was lost, if not the war. He was joking as he ascended the stairs to the chopping block with the help of his executioner. When the present affair was concluded, he remarked, the executioner should allow him to descend the stairs on his own. His detachment did not desert him as he mounted his last earthly stage, and he played his part well to the end.
This ancient order of society which More would die to affirm was beset by two twin calamities: the Reformation and Henry VIII’s personal desires. Stay tuned for my analysis of how these twin calamities, and their accompanying shifts in moral sensibility, parallel contemporary developments. And note, by the way, that I am not a Catholic, and that my vision of the proper order of the world differs nearly as much from Thomas More’s as it does from that of the LGBT enthusiasts who feel that their participation in the gay-pride parade is a grand moral victory. (Note too that the same is probably true of most contemporary Catholics.)