Friday, February 29, 2008

Man for All Seasons

Last night, we watched A Man for all Seasons. Great movie; I really enjoyed it.

I was particularly taken by words attributed to Sir Thomas More, as he explained to his daughter, Meg, why he could not take the oath required by the Act of Succession, intended to establish Anne Bolyn as Henry VIII's legitimate wife and queen of England.

In the movie, More's daughter has come to the Tower of London to attempt to convince her father to take the oath and save himself. Meg speaking first:
"God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth." Well, so you've always told me.
Then say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.
What is an oath then, but words we say to God? Listen, Meg. When a man takes an oath, he's holding his own self in his own hands... 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 loath to think your father one of them.

This morning's quote of the day settled into my subconcious:
A child's education should begin at least one hundred years before he is born.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., US Supreme Court Justice (1841-1935)
Good idea. And interesting, because of course I dealt with Holmes and some questions of American pragmatism in my dissertation. Nice to know that Holmes appears to have some degree of a sense of proper historical perspective: at least an historical perspective that goes back 100 years.

Looking for a picture to illustrate my lovely post about conscience and truth and being true to oneself a la Sir Thomas More, I came across this Teach With Movies site, which notes that the movie (although a good one to teach with) is based on the inaccurate theme that More sacrificed his life in the cause of individual adherence to his own conscience. 'Not so', these educators claim. In fact, "Sir Thomas More would have thought the view of conscience described in the film to be radical and subversive." Instead, they claim that More "sacrificed his life for the medieval view of conscience, one that was not independent of others, but which derived its legitimacy from his community and the tradition to which he subscribed."

OK then!

More research clearly needed.

Further research showed that More apparently did not quibble about the consciences of others, insofar as he was involved in the death sentences of several Lutheran dissenters. . . .

In addition, unlike the movie, it was apparently not the adhering to a religious view of marriage (and not allowing for divorce) that prompted More to refuse the oath, rather, it was the attack on the primacy of the Pope as head of church. Earlier, More had apparently gone along with King Henry's desire to put aside Catherine of Aragon, but drew the line when the Pope refused to annul the marriage.

I should have known better.

I should have remembered Emanuel Kant, because for all that Kant is difficult to read and notoriously difficult to understand (let alone knowingly apply) one thing I know he did stand for is the inviolacy of individual motivation and thought - in short: conscience.

My mistake was not to situate More within the proper historical time line. Before Kant. And you know what? Holmes' hundred-year historical perspective would not have helped me. Sir Thomas More's life was 1478-1535; Kant was 1724-1804. That's over a 250 year time differential between More and Kant; it's 200 years from Kant to us.

It is almost impossible for us - now - to imagine the adherence to traditional and community-based ideas of legitimacy and authority which would have shaped and guided Sir Thomas More. We may even have reached a time when it is almost impossible for us to imagine the adherence to an inviolate personal conviction ushered in by the thought of Emanuel Kant, and portrayed so attractively and movingly in A Man for all Seasons.

After all, this is the age of the politically-expedient, when the "public" life can be separated out from a so-called "private" life, and lies about sex with interns can be compared to supposed truth or lies about what was known about "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, voting records in Congress, or the use of steroids in professional sports.

Conscience? We live in the age of the expedient. Duty? We measure that these days by what is "legal". I don't know that anyone really expects the truth anymore. Certainly no one expects to suffer for it.

Can you point out just one?

Maybe I'm starting the day on a bit of a pessimistic bent, and have overlooked our modern-day truth warriors. How I hope so!

Meanwhile, I'll cling to the ideal that the movie brought up again: the incomparable value and beauty of truth and the character that is committed to it.

Sigh. . . . I can't help but wonder if this particular depiction of the ideal is tainted by its own falseness to the historical person of Sir Thomas More?

Sometimes maybe I do think a bit too much.

1 comment:

Momma Em said...

"What is an oath then, but words we say to God? Listen, Meg. When a man takes an oath, he's holding his own self in his own hands... water.

And if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again."

This really rang true for me this morning. Thanks!