Thomas More: A Man for All Seasons

“More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”

Robert Whittington, English scholar, speaking of Thomas More in 1520

On July 6, 1535, a man walked toward the gallows, his soul ready to face destiny. His crime: Refusing to acknowledge the superiority of the King of England over the Pope of Rome. That day, the executioner would sever one of the most privileged heads in Europe, a friend of Erasmus of Rotterdam and, along with him, the greatest exponent of humanism on the continent. 

As he stepped onto the scaffold, Thomas More addressed the executioner with a simple plea: 

—I prithee, honest friend, lend me thy hand to help me up. As for my coming down, let me alone, I’ll look to that myself.

And, before laying his head down, he quipped: 

—See how my beard has grown in prison. Pity that should be cut, for it has not committed treason. Allow me to set it aside. 

Witty to the very end… but never frivolous. A moment later he pronounced his final words in a deep voice:

—I die the King’s faithful servant…but God’s first.

A sense of humor and loyalty to his conscience, the two core personality traits of Thomas More that would endure to his dying breath. Two principles he would never sacrifice, even though it cost him his life.

Because if there is one thing about Thomas More, it is that he never took himself too seriously— the best recipe for not falling into the egotism or pure vanity so prevalent in intelligent men like him. We could say that, along with pain, a sense of humor is the bridge that connects intelligence to wisdom. It is a bridge that More perennially traversed throughout his life.

Wisdom that is not ingenuousness. Because he was never lacking in another essential quality: astuteness. To defend those who hired him as a lawyer in his early days as a professional; to defend English society from the dangers he saw looming over it in the form of religious fanaticism; to try to defend the king from himself, from believing he was a god. And finally, to try to save himself.

The legal proceedings against Thomas More began a few years after becoming the Chancellor of England, the first layman to do so in several centuries. King Henry VIII’s desire to have male children collided with the harsh reality: his wife, Catherine of Aragon, had given him several; but none lived more than a few months. 

The pope would not yield, rejecting his request for marriage annulment. And thus began the monarch’s conflict with the Church of Rome, culminating in the splitting of the Church of England and the proclamation of Henry VIII as its head.

Thomas More knew where his loyalty resided, above all. He fulfilled his duties until he was dismissed by the king. At that moment his passion was awakened. Because, if he had been the average official or politician, his removal would have sufficed. But Thomas More was one of the most influential public figures in Europe. And his non-pronouncement about the king’s maneuvers to marry again was in itself eloquent.

That is when his astuteness emerged. As a lawyer, he knew very well that the law could not force him to rule publicly on laws enacted after he had been dismissed from his public office. He would play that card until the trial, indicating that his silence, if it were to be interpreted under the law, would indicate the opposite of what he was accused of: silence gives consent.

But Thomas More, while he was chancellor and the king’s trusted confidant, had tried to convince him to give up seeking nullification. He argued that he could not force the nature of things, and that this path would lead to the social breakdown of England (which it ultimately did). The king held More in high esteem, which perhaps is why he sought his approval until the end, his support for the split of the Church of England and his remarriage. We understand the king well, because no one with good judgment could face a decision like the one he made without seeking at least some degree of moral support. He always had support from the flatterers, but he was looking for that of the person who had been his beacon and, above all, his friend.

That is why the silence of Thomas More was not enough for Henry VIII: he needed an explicit yes or no from him. To feel supported or to make a clean break from his past confidants, which is what ultimately happened.

Throughout his captivity and trial, the former chancellor remained silent. Until, as depicted in the excellent film A Man for All Seasons (1966), a witness came forward. An old acquaintance of More who falsely testified that, while visiting More in prison, More had shared his true opinion about the king’s actions. More knew right then that he was a dead man, so he broke his silence: He declared exactly what he thought of the king’s madness, bearing witness to what he believed to be true.

But before he testified, he would address the witness, a poor and ambitious lawyer when More met him, who had come to the trial in fancy clothes. 

—You are wearing an officer’s chain around your neck. May I see it?

Cromwell, the prosecutor, explains to More: 

—Sir Richard has been appointed attorney general of Wales.

Feeling sadness for the perjury committed by the person whom he himself had advised not to seek government positions and instead become a teacher, More states: 

—It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales, Richard? 

It is the battle we all wage between something and everything, between for now and forever, between “me” (the ego) and “you.”

And so, Thomas More was sentenced to death, bearing witness to a truth that transcended his own life, and was worth more than his life. That certainty allowed him in his years of government to be an upright and honest leader, the only one in the eyes of the king himself, admired and respected, without the slightest bit of vanity or egotism. Not because he was better than everyone else; but because he was driven by something greater than human ambition: A true filial relationship with God, which he refused to give up, even at the cost of his own life. And that would allow him to remain calm and peaceful in front of judges and executioners. What good would it have been for him to go on living, and remain the king’s trusted confidant, if it meant betraying what kept him going and gave meaning to his entire existence?

In conclusion, we could say the following:

  • Consciousness is a sixth sense that allows us to transcend instant gratification and act with the logic of a greater good. That is the logic of abundance. Sow today, reap tomorrow. Deferred and abundant gratification over instant gratification. 
  • The combination of power and conscience produces good governing officials. The absence of conscience in governing officials is an invitation to use the institutions for their own interests. 
  • The habitual emotional state says a lot about the inner quality of people. 
  • From the beginning, humans have been tempted to become gods. Vanity in practice involves killing the true God in one’s life.
  • There are ideals, people and principles for which life is worth giving; mainly because giving up on them would mean living an empty life.
  • The wise do not lose their sense of humor, even when death is upon them.
  • Defending one’s principles is not at odds with doing so skillfully and intelligently, especially when life itself is at stake.
  • Human laurels pale in comparison to the greatness of a transcendent and holy life.