A Man For All Seasons
What does it mean to be “a man for all seasons?” Each season is so different from the other. They range from the hot, sunny days of summer, to the cold, gray days of winter; from the fruition of spring to the dying of the year in the autumn. What does it mean, then, to be the same through all of these seasons.
The title of this essay comes from the title of the famous play of the same name, written by Robert Bolt. It was made into an Academy Award winning movie as well, that is still as effective and powerful as it was back in the 60’s. The play is about Thomas More, a man of uncommon reputation, a reputation recognized and admired by everyone, but most especially by his enemies.
Bolt chooses that title because the man, Thomas More, was the same man in every situation. He was the same in all of his relationships. He did not put on airs, or change his personality to “fit the season,” or to meet the circumstances of any given moment (like most of us do), even if it would make things easier, or keep him from great suffering.
Thomas More was guileless. He was incapable of deceit. His word could be counted on. When he took an oath, he understood it for what it was and would not break it, not even to save his life. Even the king, Henry VIII, who made Thomas the Lord Chancellor of England, recognized this.
In the play, Thomas asks Henry VIII, “Then why does your Grace need my poor support?” To which Henry responds, “Because you are honest. What’s more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest…There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, and there are those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth an I am their lion, and there is a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves—and there is you.”
Where did this honesty come from in More? It came from his deep and abiding faith in God. Such behavior, such conviction and commitment to his faith could come from no other source than God. His faith was so deeply rooted in him that he could not deny it, even to save his life.
At the end of the play, Thomas More has been found guilty of treason and condemned to beheading, because he could not support Henry’s divorce and marriage, and because he would not take the oath that Henry required all of his subjects to take, recognizing him as the head of the Church in England as well as the king. His family has been allowed to visit him in his prison cell in the Tower of London and there is an exchange between him and his daughter, Margaret, who, out of her love for her father, has agreed to try to convince him, one last time, to take the Oath of Supremacy and by doing so, save his life. The following is the exchange:
Margaret: God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth. Or so you have told me.
Margaret: Then say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise.
More: What is an oath then but words we say to God?
Margaret: That’s very neat.
More: Do you mean it isn’t true?
Margaret: No, it’s true.
More: Then it’s a poor argument to call it “neat,” Meg. When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands) 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 any 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: (Emotionally) 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.
“Finally, it’s a matter of love.” What a statement!! More knows that his life is done. He knows that he will lose not only his life, but he will lose the opportunity to see his daughter, Meg, any more, or his loving wife. His life is going to be taken from him because he loves God and honesty, even more than all of that. How many of us can say that we have this kind of faith, this depth of love for God and for being true to him in our words and deeds? How many of us would have the courage and conviction of our Christian faith that we would give up everything that we hold dear, rather than go against God, or go against what is true, even if it meant we might lose our lives? How many of us understand that when we proclaim our faith in Jesus, when we give our lives to Jesus and when we are baptized, that it is an oath that we have taken? An oath is binding. It is more than a promise, or a mere contract. An oath is the commitment of our eternal soul to the One who made us and saved us. To break it is to lose our very selves.
Thomas More was a man. He was no better or worse than any other human being, except in how he understood himself in relation to the truth and to God, and how he took responsibility for that. The one, and extremely important difference between him and others was that he did not bend to the immediate gratifications of expediency, or rationalization, or comfort, or even his well-being in the moment. Rather, he recognized that all those things paled in comparison to the salvation of his eternal soul. He made a choice, a terrifying choice, in the eyes of the world. He chose rather to remain faithful to the One who is all good, all love, all mercy, rather than risk losing his soul.
We can only pray that God will give us the grace to remain true to him in the infinitely smaller trials that we often must endure for being believers in this world today. There is one other truth here too, I believe. I believe it is people like Thomas More and their willingness to sacrifice everything the world counts as precious, to give witness to the wisdom, love and mercy of God in the world that keeps this old world spinning. It is through their examples of honesty and true faith that we can finally see how foolish and false the worldly “gains” of avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity really are. And because of their courageous example we can begin to see the wisdom of humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought for our own lives and for the greater good of our world.
We pray, then, for this kind of faith, for this kind of love in our lives. We pray that God give us the grace to be men and women for all seasons. True in our faith and honesty in every season. To be such is not only good and necessary for our own souls, but it is also good for our troubled and often frightened world.
Dan Doyle is a retired professor of English and Humanities. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology. To read more of Dan’s work, click here.