When we travel cross-country, on the seas, on through any country, it helps to have a navigation, or travel guide. It also helps to have some understanding about the Laws of any place we visit!
For this coffee break, I want to introduce someone I first learned about through an early, black and White, play.
The play was “A man for all seasons”, and depicted the interplay between Thomas More, and King Henry VIII. I read a bit more about Thomas afterward and learned something about ‘human nature’ through his commitment to Honor and his Integrity. I didn’t particularly like some of his views; he was a scourge against those he considered enemies of the ‘Church’. As a staunch Catholic, he disliked the Lutherans, and Martin Luther was his enemy…
Where Thomas More really ‘shined’, however, was in the stand he took based on his beliefs, against his good friend and King, Henry VIII. In that, he sets a good example for all of us!
that heroes are the people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done,
regardless of the consequences”
It’s probably a good idea to watch or review that play, but what I’m trying to write may make sense to you, regardless.
As Thomas More conducted his travels through the pathways of his life, he had a “map”, and he was certainly familiar with the Law! His map was a set of principles, and his Law wasn’t just in books… It was also indelibly stamped in his heart! He demonstrated a high moral code with the integrity that was required to hold his honor —and keep his word— even in the face of death.
For More, it was ”…sheer simplicity”, as he was heard to say… in its concept.
Chancellor Wolsey asked More to take a particular position, that in good conscience More didn’t want; he showed his strength, moral fiber, and his strong belief in G-d when he answered, “I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties… they lead their country by a short route to chaos”. He understood, very well, the biblical precedents set by G-d in dealing with Abraham and Sarah with regards to children, as he continued his statement with dry humor, “…and we have my prayers to fall back on”. Humor in his answer, but with a strong vein of seriousness and concern for his King, too!
More was trying to safely navigate treacherous political waters, drawn up by a King who was working to ‘break’ the Catholic Church, because it disagreed with his desire for divorce, and remarriage to another.
More understood that honorable people don’t lie.
He understood that honorable men give respect, allegiance, and honor through loyalty to the office of the head of state; that honor requires the man of good character to show respect for all men, and to deal with them honorably.
Further, he knew that the honorable man does what is right regardless of consequence — He knew that what is right or wrong doesn’t depend on the situation, and More was an honorable man.
The Church, and its representatives should have been the world’s greatest examples of high integrity and great moral character, but that is what it surely was not! Instead, the task of doing so was set for a single individual to help teach it to a generation of Bishops, Royalty, and lay people through his actions as a man of honor.
Chancellor Wolsey clearly understood what kind of man More was. “If only you could look facts straight on without that horrible moral squint”, He said.
How rough it must have been for More to be such an island — “One of the… unhappy few who set themselves against the current of the times”.
The generation More was dealing with appeared very ‘Machiavellian’ in nature. Machiavelli’s philosophy offered a false justification for the low moral standards of his time. His philosophy, “The ends justifies the means”, offered a situational type of ethical thought which was contrary to the way of thought of men like Thomas More… and Italy, Spain, England, and the Church were “feeding” at Machiavelli’s table.
Yet, More, after Wolsey’s demise, carried his new Badge of Office, and Honor, well! He knew that everyone around him was coming up short of the mark, but his actions towards both friend, and enemy, King and servant, were straightforward, upright, and firm. He was not arrogant, or prideful in his actions. He had great understanding and respect for the civil law also… and something more too! He knew he was justified in his refusal to sign the King’s oath. He understood that true morality, honesty, and Integrity weren’t just gestures but instead, were the essence of a healthy society. His faith in the Law was justified.
He knew that the law, as it stood, was proper, but he also had good understanding of man’s shortcomings.
He understood the treachery of his King and the Church. Still, he walked a path of honor. He walked it when no one else would.
NO — He wouldn’t perjure himself and sign. He knew honor demands judgement and discipline, and he had judged himself first, letting the King and his cronies condemn themselves by murdering an innocent man.
Thomas More lost his life only – They lost honor, respect, a kingdom, their lives and… their souls.
While society failed More, he did not fail it. He held up a standard for the individual who sought honor and Integrity. He didn’t ask for the task; it was “thrust upon him”, and he did not waver or flinch in carrying out his duty.
Henley, in his poem INVICTUS could have stated More’s case very well with the following:
“…In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance, My head is bloody but unbowed.
It matters not how straight the gate, How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate…
I am the captain of my soul …”
Sir Thomas More knew who he was. The King and all his men did not. More was the master… of the law and more. They were slaves – to vice, greed, and treachery. He was captain of his fate, while they were the crew in a rudderless ship on a storm tossed sea.
They took his life, yes – But they condemned themselves, and in fell in defeat, while he conquered;
Even in death