Freedom and conscience – for all seasons

Eleanor Everett Schneider’s excellent and measured review, “A Wolf for All Seasons” from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, made me wonder why I loved Robert Bolt’s 1960s A Man For All Seasons. I understand that Bolt made no history, and certainly by the standards of our time there were things that the historical Thomas More advocated and actually practiced that must be morally opposed. Despite all of this, I find the character of Thomas More, as portrayed by Bolt, moving and philosophically important despite our current woken up world.

As Robert Bolt notes in the preface to his play, the Thomas More he wrote about was initially a man

with an unyielding sense of self. He knew where to start and where to end, what area to give in to the interference of his enemies and the interference of those he loved. In both cases it was a sizable area because he had a reasonable sense of fear and was a busy lover. Being a clever man and a great lawyer, he was able to withdraw from these areas in wonderful good order, but eventually was asked to withdraw from the last area he was in. And there this lithe, humorous, humble and refined person, studded like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive severity and could not be moved more than a cliff.

I trust that this audience will know, or at least know, Robert Bolt’s play, and if not the play, then surely the 1966 film version, directed by Fred Zinnemann, for which Bolt was the Oscar winner. It showed the outstanding performance of Paul Scofield as Thomas More. Bolt’s work is largely a fictional drama, but it is inspired by Thomas More’s refusal to endorse Henry VIII’s divorce and uses accounts of More’s daughter and son-in-law. It is much more than that, however. As indicated, it is a work of philosophical insight that raises fundamental questions about the place of morality in human life and in the political / legal order. It was one of the reasons I became a philosopher and it still inspires me to this day.

I read the play for the first time and saw the film about 55 years ago. I have successfully used both the play and the film on Liberty Fund colloquiums, series of films that I have directed, and even some courses that I have taught. At the end of this brief effort, I will write down some of the things I have learned from this work. But first I want to share some passages (without the stage directions) from the play that are essential to our understanding of human nature, morality, political philosophy, and law.

  1. “More good… I believe when statesmen abandon their own private conscience because of their public duties… They lead their country into chaos on a short path….”
  2. “More: And what would you do with a water spaniel who was afraid of water? You’d hang it up! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to himself. I won’t give in because I’m against – I do – not my pride, not my spleen, or any of my other appetites, but I do – me ! “
  3. “More: For Wales? Why, Richard, it is of no use to a man to give his soul for the whole world. . . But for Wales! “
  4. “More: Oh, now I understand you, Will. Morality is not practical. Morality is a gesture. A complicated gesture learned from books. . . . ”
  5. “More: But since we actually see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, indolence, lust and stupidity usually go far beyond humility, chastity, steadfastness, justice and thought and have to choose to be human at all. . . then why do we have to hold on a little – even if we run the risk of being heroes? “
  6. “More: What, Cromwell? Pooh, he’s a pragmatist – and that’s the only resemblance he has to the devil, son Roper; a pragmatist, the smallest plumber. “
  7. “Margaret: Father, this man is bad. More: There is no law against it. Roper: There is! God’s law! More: Then God can arrest him. . . . Alice: While you’re talking he’s gone! More: And he should go, if he was the devil himself, until he broke the law! Roper: Now you’d give the devil the benefit of the law! . . . . More: Yes, I would give the devil the benefit of the law for my own safety. “
  8. Cromwell: There are no rules. With rewards and punishments – so much wickedness buys so much worldly wealth. . . . No, it is not, it is much more a question of convenience, administrative convenience. . . . [T]The constant factor is that element of convenience. “
  9. “More: The world must construct according to its understanding. This court must interpret according to the law. . . . The law is not a “light” for you or a person to see. The law is not an instrument of any kind. The law is a dam on which a citizen can walk safely as long as he adheres to it. . . . ”
  10. Cromwell: The conscience, the conscience. . . More: You don’t know the word? Cromwell: By God, too familiar! I’m very used to hearing it in the mouths of criminals! More: I’m used to hearing bad men abuse God’s name, but God does exist. In matters of conscience, the faithful subject is more obliged to be faithful to his conscience than to anything else. Cromwell: And so you provide a noble motif for his frivolous complacency! More: It is not so, Master Cromwell – very and pure necessity for the respect of my own soul. Cromwell: You mean yourself! More: Yes, a man’s soul is his self! Cromwell: A wretched thing, whatever you call it, that lives like a bat in a Sunday school! A shrill, incessant educator about his own salvation – but nothing to say about your place in the state! Under the king! In a great homeland! More: Is it my job to say “good” to the state’s disease? Can I help the king by telling him lies when he asks the truth? Are you going to help England by populating it with liars? “

A man for all seasons has more to offer than these passages can convey, and when you watch the film, the performance of Scofield enables you to experience a man perfecting himself without enlarging himself, brave but careful and at the same time in principle and practical. We have the concrete representation of a moral ideal in which abstractions are realized. We have Aristotle’s man of practical wisdom.

Bolt’s historically informed account of More’s advocate of the law in defense of Cromwell’s indictment of treason shows a premonition of the ethical insight of classical natural rights liberalism, albeit without the social contract theory of Hobbes or Locke.

However, this work has another dimension, as one seizes the possibility of having a view of human nature and personal responsibility that requires a robust role for morality in personal and social life, and yet does not see the legal system as an instrument to make men moral, but as protection for their self-directed pursuit of a morally rewarding life. However, this is not an easy thing. Recognizing this possibility requires conceptual sophistication, and real statecraft is required to make it a reality. Bolt makes this very clear at the beginning of the play when he gives Cardinal Wolsey more answer that he actually would like to rule the country with prayer, and Wolsey replies, “I would love to be there if you try.”

Government requires the statesman to be both principled and practical, but here the principle is not to be understood apart from the basic problem for which it is intended to provide the solution – namely how to create a political / legal order that is ethical It is based on and recognizes at the same time that each individual has a conscience to which he has to respond morally. To put it neo-Aristotelian, although we can abstractly speak of human prosperity that is common to all human beings, human prosperity only exists in every human self or soul, and it is to the perfection of that self or soul that each of us is ultimately responsible. The statesman must therefore be moral in principle without being a moralist. As suggested earlier, this means that human moral perfection is not the goal of the state or the political / legal order. Here is where Bolt speaks more of the law than dam rather than light, and more insists that he “give the devil the benefit of the law.” Bolt’s historically sound account of More’s advocate of the law in defense of Cromwell’s indictment of treason shows a premonition of the ethical insight of classical natural rights liberalism, albeit without the social contract theory of Hobbes or Locke.

A man for all seasons remains intoxicating because in a powerful artistic form he represents an antidote to a culture that increasingly sees no room for conscience in social and political life. Not only must we reject ethical relativism and be personally and socially prepared to take a moral stance, but we must also reject the various forms of amoral pragmatism. Contrary to what Cromwell implies, we should see that some facts contain moral traits, and that man’s personal, social, and political life is much more than just a process of finding the most efficient means to achieve whatever ends are desired. Administrative convenience will not be enough.

When we finally realize that positive law and the actions of the political / legal order are subject to moral evaluation and can therefore be perceived as defective, we cannot be satisfied with Cromwells. Indeed, we must remember Jefferson’s assertion that we have the right to change or abolish any form of government that is not devoted to the creation and protection of individual rights. However, this requires accepting the possibility of situations where we will have to be heroes in one way or another. However, this does not mean that we have to throw ourselves in the path of a juggernaut. Again, Bolt has more wise advice when he realizes that God created man “to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind! If it makes us fall into such a case that there is no escape, then we can stick to our procedures as best we can, and yes. . . then we can scream like champions. . . when we have the saliva for it. . . . But it is God’s part, not our own, to bring us to this extremity! Our natural business lies in flight. . . . ”

This really is an all season work.

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