Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Man For All Seasons

When I teach a course entitled Rhetoric and Public Life, I assign Thomas More's Utopia as a central reading. While discussing that text in class, I also show the final three scenes from the 1966 film A Man For All Seasons. Here is a particularly thought-provoking excerpt from Robert Bolt's play that inspired that film. In this scene, Thomas More responds to his daughter's entreaties that he accept the King's supremacy over the Pope and be thereafter freed from imprisonment in the Tower of London.
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 a 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: 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. (ellipses and emphasis in original; pp. 140-141)
I've often wondered whether that phrase, "Some men aren't capable of this, but I'd be loathe to think your father one of them," is a typo. But I imagine that Bolt refers to the larger notion of being capable of keeping an oath. Regardless, the sentiment bares careful consideration in any season.

Bolt, R. (1990). A Man For All Seasons. New York: Vintage International.

No comments: