The first time I saw the classic 1966 film A Man for All Seasons was in a high school History class. We were learning about the Renaissance, and this movie definitely proved to be enlightening. Sadly, I didn’t care for it at first, being bored by its lumbering pace and long speeches.
I watched it a few more times over the years and each time I got more out of it. The dialogue (written by Robert Bolt of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago fame) is so witty and equal parts hilarious and dramatic.
On my most recent viewing, it was like I was watching a completely new movie. Every line seemed to speak to modern problems. It turns out that Sir Thomas More wasn’t just a great man who stood against the evil of his day, but he set an example for all of us to follow in our daily lives. So I would like to share 10 timely lessons from A Man for All Seasons.
1. Don’t Tear Down Barriers of Law and Order
William Roper: So now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast. Man’s laws, not God’s. And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law – for my own safety’s sake.
Basic tenets of liberty, such as the presumption of innocence for anyone accused of breaking a law, are important not because they let guilty people go free but because they protect the innocent. People who are shouting to get rid of due process for men accused of crimes are clamoring for their own destruction. If they say that one man has no right to defend himself against an accusation, they open the same door upon themselves to be convicted and punished purely based on an accusation and not on any facts. One who defends the rights of someone accused of a heinous crime like rape is not a “rape apologist,” but a believer in equal treatment for all under the law.
If you put all the power into the hands of accusers and force all defendants to prove their innocence, you destroy the good faith that society must be built upon. For their own safety, the people who desire to do away with due process for the accused must reconsider their naïve assumptions about justice and realize that it could be their own heads on the chopping block next.
2. Give Everyone the Benefit of the Doubt
More: The maxim is “Qui tacet consentire.” the maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent.” If, therefore, you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.
Cromwell: Is that in fact what the world construes from it? Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it?
More: The world must construe according to its wits. This court must construe according to the law.
Why are some people so quick to make others look like monsters in the public eye? When someone says something seemingly inappropriate or takes an action that they disagree with, why not assume the best about that person and let them tell their side of the story before hurling insults that could unjustly ruin their reputation forever.
3. Free Speech Is Essential to a Vibrant Society
More: I trust I make myself obscure?
Duke of Norfolk: Perfectly.
This should go without saying, but I suppose it must be said in today’s increasingly backwards culture: Free speech is essential to our way of life. To voice an unpopular opinion is not against the law and it does not make a person evil. In fact, a person who voices their opposition to a current trend should be commended. It takes courage to stand against the crowd. We might just learn something by listening to people we disagree with.
4. People Who Aspire to Political Office Don’t Belong in Politics
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
More: You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that. Be a teacher.
Richard isn’t a terrible person at the start the film. But he has the fatal flaw of being ambitious without possessing any real skill. He desires power and recognition of his greatness without being powerful or great by any definition. Had he followed More’s instruction, he would have been a good teacher and spared everyone a lot of misery. But he couldn’t stand the thought of having his life amount to nothing in the eyes of those he envies.
Not to get too political, but the moment you see someone who is ambitious and seeks public office to satisfy their own desires and not to act as a servant to the people they represent, run far away from that candidate. I recommend voting for people who are reluctant to run for office.
5. Some Men Are Incorruptible
Cromwell: Your friend, our present Lord Chancellor – now there’s an innocent man.
Rich: The odd thing is, he is.
Just because some people will be corrupted by power doesn’t mean that’s true of everyone. Look at George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and a few other choice leaders from history. These are the kinds of men we should look for in our leaders, not ones who will win at any cost, but ones who will win by paying the price for victory. We are all tempted by different things. The difference between good men and evil men isn’t the temptations they face, but the ones they either overcome or are overcome by.
6. Wrongdoing Makes You Lose Your Conscience
Cromwell: No. And you’ll find it easier next time.
Some people (even ones who I call my friends) make fun of me for never using foul language or drinking anything that could become habit-forming. What could be the harm of only doing them once, they ask. I don’t condemn anyone who drinks alcohol or uses the occasional swear word or anything else I choose not to.
The only reason I don’t do these things is because I don’t want to fall into a trap and become desensitized to them. I want to be in control of my faculties and not a slave to my desires, so I decided long ago never to even take a single step on a path that leads to a destination I don’t want to end up at. I have plenty of faults, but I’m always trying to be better. Doing one thing I know to be wrong could make it easier to do something worse in the future, and I don’t want to take that chance.
7. Don’t Try to Force Anyone’s Mind
Duke: [The King] wants an answer.
Alice: But he’s had his answer.
Duke: He wants another.
Reason with, persuade, guide, influence, and debate someone all you want, but never try to force his mind. When a person decides they will never be swayed in their opinion on a certain topic, it is not the job of society to make them believe something else or to be complicit with something they abhor.
Whether it’s supporting or denouncing abortions, gay marriages, or any other contentious issues, we must never try to tell anyone what they must think. Offer compelling arguments and do your best to win people over to what you believe is right. If all else fails, leave people’s beliefs alone. What benefit do persuasions gain if all who stand on one side are compelled to do so instead of choosing for themselves? There is far more power in a person who has come to his own conclusion of what is right and wrong.
8. Those Who Know They Are Wrong Call the Truth Treason
King Henry VIII: I have no queen! Catherine’s not my wife! No priest can make her so. They that say she is my wife are not only liars, but traitors! Yes, traitors! That I will not brook now! Treachery! I will not brook. It maddens me! It is a deadly canker in the body politic, and I will have it out!
The king knows he’s wrong so, to assuage his guilt, he labels as traitors anyone who says so. But that doesn’t make it any less wrong. Seeking to silence people for calling something a sin or otherwise morally wrong does not serve the cause of justice. These people can only be defeated using reason, not retaliation.
Anyone who claims a debate is over or who tries to demonize their opponents by using ad hominem attacks most likely has a shaky foundation for his own arguments and doesn’t wish to examine them too closely.
9. Silence May Seem Safe, But We Can’t Stay Neutral Forever
More: Alice, it’s a point of law. Accept it from me that in silence is my safety, under the law. And my silence must be absolute, it must extend to you… When they find I’m silent they’ll want nothing better than to leave me silent.
Sir Thomas More thought he could remain safe and out of the spotlight by resigning his public office and refusing to comment on his reasons why. But his silence wasn’t enough. Despite all his painstaking precautions not to offend anyone, he was condemned as a traitor to the crown.
It may seem safe right now to just mind your own business and wish others would do the same, but those with a guilty conscience will eventually try to weed out anyone who won’t actively support them in their immorality. There will be no other option but to choose a side because the law protecting silence will be torn down by the noisy crowds.
10. The Wrong Values Are Being Rewarded
More: If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that abhorrence, anger, pride, and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice, and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little, even at the risk of being heroes.
It is my humble opinion that people are climbing over each other to find some reason or another to be considered part of an “oppressed” group in order to get special privileges instead of relying on their own personal merits to lift themselves up and make something of their lives. This is creating all sorts of perverse incentives to be offended by everything and everyone. It’s a race to be the most pitiful.
It’s sad that it’s becoming a sign of remarkable courage to simply speak our mind in public. There can be serious repercussions for people who seek to point out that “trigger warnings” and other infantilizing inventions are idiotic and counterproductive. When common sense becomes rare, we can count on good people being silenced for the silliest offenses. And then we’ll have to become heroes merely for following our conscience.
A Movie for All Seasons
A Man for All Seasons has suddenly become a movie for all seasons. The lessons it teaches about the corruption of power and the need for good people to stand against tyranny still ring true today. They are just as important, and I’m sure we’ll discover more Sir Thomas Mores in our midst as time goes by.
Thank you for joining me on this journey. I try not to get too philosophical in my discussions of films. I’ll return to more fun articles starting next week. But I really wanted to get this off my chest. Thanks again.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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