A Man for All Seasons Authority

The Agnostic Playwright and the Catholic Saint

6:00:00 AMKaitlin Fellrath



Thomas More, kneeling. Immediately is heard a harsh roar of kettle-drums. There is a total blackout of the lights at the head of the stairs, while the drums roar.  Then the drums cease.

HEADSMAN: Behold, the head of a traitor! [1] 

Thomas More was beheaded by King Henry VIII in 1535 for refusing to swear to the Oath of Supremacy, which denied papal authority over the English Church. Catholics know Thomas More as a holy martyr, a saint known for "his desire of Christian perfection and his zeal for the salvation of souls," as we read in the homily at his canonization in 1935. [2]  More was indeed a martyr who gave his life in defense of the Christian faith.  But what is this saint to the non-Catholic and to the non-Christian?  

The English playwright Robert Bolt identified himself as a staunch rationalist and secular humanist. Bolt was not Catholic, nor even Christian, but a determined agnostic. Yet his most acclaimed work, A Man for All Seasons, is about none other than Saint Thomas More. In the preface to this play, Bolt addresses his dilemma. He writes, “By what right do I appropriate a Christian saint to my own purposes? Why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on a old black book and tell an ordinary lie?” It is because Thomas More, in Bolt’s own words, is “a hero of selfhood.”

To further explain how he came to admire Thomas More, Bolt delves into personalist philosophy.

“What am I?” According to Bolt, modern man tries to answer this fundamental question in the third person, as if viewing himself through a window. What am I as I look back upon myself?  I am a human, a student, a daughter, a sister.  He refers to the objective selfhood of the human person. The power to objectify is a remarkable and uniquely personal power which is destructive only when abused. To objectify myself is to make myself an object through self-examination. But is this description really adequate? Does it contain all of who I am?  Objective selfhood alone cannot provide me with an adequate answer to the question, “What am I?” In its devotion to rationalism, modernity is missing the true self.

In the preface, Bolt also hints at another truth about the power to objectify: we must first be anchored in ourselves. He acknowledges the deficiency in any society that ignores the subjectivity of the human person in pursuit of rationalism. Subjective selfhood and solitude are two concepts that are fundamental to understanding subjectivity as it is revealed in persons.  The selfhood of the person is the inner core of the person. The solitude of the human person is the way in which a person is set apart  from everything else, the way that he is himself and not another. In A Man for All Seasons, Bolt ascribes to Thomas More a profound sense of his own selfhood. He describes More thusly: “He knew where he began and where he left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachment of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved.”

In his preface, Bolt also mentions the power of an oath, which is something more than a mere pledge or contract. He grounds the swearing of an oath to the selfhood of the human person, writing, “A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement…He offers himself as a guarantee.” Thomas More had such an awareness of his own selfhood that he knew that, by agreeing to the oath, he would be swearing against his conscience and ultimately against himself. In one of the most moving scenes of the play, More’s daughter comes to visit him in prison and begs him to give in and swear to the oath for the sake of his family. Again, More refuses, telling her:  “When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn’t hope to find himself again.”

Robert Bolt views Thomas More’s martyrdom as the ultimate assertion of his selfhood.  Although More believes he has been issued a divine obligation to follow his conscience and remain faithful to the Church of Rome, he is not a slave to this obligation. Rather, we see that his selfhood is awakened by this moral imperative. As Dietrich von Hildebrand writes, “In a certain sense this [moral imperative] is my most intimate and personal concern, in which I experience the uniqueness of my self.”[3] More understands that it is he who is being called, and is thus obligated to act through himself, even to the point of death. This assertion of selfhood is what attracted the agnostic playwright to the Catholic saint. In Robert Bolt’s own words, “What attracted me was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was useless, and when that was denied him, was able to grasp his death. For there can be no doubt, given the circumstances, that he did it himself.”




[1] Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, 1960.  All further attributions to Bolt taken from this text.
[2] http://www.thomasmorestudies.org/rep_canonization.html
[3] Qtd in John F. Crosby, The Selfhood of the Human Person (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1996), 211. 

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