Murder in the Cathedral

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Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power  Theme Icon
Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon
Loyalty and Guilt Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Murder in the Cathedral, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Eternity and Human Understanding Theme Icon

At the core of Murder in the Cathedral is a contrast between a higher power beyond human comprehension and the earthly realm of everyday human affairs. This realm of human thought is fraught with opposites—with oppositional thinking that pits good against evil, holy against unholy, high against low—while the divine realm of spiritual thinking is concerned with a oneness and wholeness that transcends the partial nature of human categories. Eternity—the everlasting, indivisible dimension of spiritual unity—therefore, is put into a complex, unfolding relationship with human understanding in the play.

Becket explores this dynamic relationship in a few ways. He describes the relationship between acting and suffering as one that humans understand as oppositional, but which, from a higher perspective, is an interdependent whole. Early in the play he compares the relationship to a wheel that can turn and be still at the same time, with the moving aspect of the wheel representing human conception of the wheel and the unmoving aspect representing the eternal view. Yet, though Becket retains this theological view about the division between eternity and human understanding throughout the play, he nonetheless seems to believe that, by submitting completely to fate through his martyrdom, he can in some sense bypass the partial nature of human understanding and be an instrument of God’s will in the world.

Further, Becket, in the sermon he delivers in the interlude of the play, encourages his audience to understand the quality of saintliness from a divine, and not a human, perspective. He wants the congregation to understand that Jesus’s disciples by no means became saints through any peace they achieved or experienced on earth. Becket says that the peace which Jesus left to his disciples did not “mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the king,” for his disciples never encountered this kind of worldly, political peace. Instead, they suffered arduous journeys, torture, imprisonment—very little, if any, earthly comfort or peace. He asks his congregation to consider that the peace which Jesus promised had nothing to do with the everyday realm of human satisfaction, but referred rather to peace from a divine, eternal perspective.

The Chorus also demonstrates an appreciation of the radical division between human understanding and eternity. In the beginning of the play, when the Chorus begs Becket to leave and return to France, they say they are facing a fear which they cannot understand, and which is ultimately unknowable; they say that this fear has torn their hearts away, and unskinned their brains as if they were onions—the symptoms of a “final fear which none understands.” The play as a whole, therefore, displays an appreciation of some fundamental split between human knowledge and the realm of something higher than the Chorus—a higher realm whose intervention in their lives threatens to split them from and destroy their sense of self.

The Chorus’s sense of a difference between human understanding and the higher, more eternal powers of fate persists throughout the play. However, the chorus does undergo a changing relationship with the eternal dimension: whereas they begin the play merely speculating about it—warning that it, “the doom on the world,” will be unleashed upon them if Becket stays—they end the play no longer possessing the comfort of a speculative distance from their fear. The fear has come to fruition – Becket has been killed – and they must truly face it.

Thus, just as Becket appreciates a division between human understanding and eternity, so does the Chorus. The way they deal with that division, however, differs. While Becket is “secure and assured of [his] fate, unaffrayed from the shades”—while he deals with the split between eternity and human understanding through spiritual self-sacrifice to fate—the Chorus is unwilling or unable to adopt a more spiritually nuanced, selfless understanding of the eternal.

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Eternity and Human Understanding ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Eternity and Human Understanding appears in each Part of Murder in the Cathedral. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Eternity and Human Understanding Quotes in Murder in the Cathedral

Below you will find the important quotes in Murder in the Cathedral related to the theme of Eternity and Human Understanding.
Part 1 Quotes

We do not wish anything to happen.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.
There have been oppression and luxury,
There have been poverty and licence,
There has been minor injustice.
Yet we have gone on living,
Living and partly living. . .
But now a great fear is upon us . . .
. . .We
Are afraid in a fear which we cannot know, which we cannot face, which none understands,
And our hearts are torn from us, our brains unskinned like the layers of an onion, our selves are lost
In a final fear which none understands. O Thomas Archbishop,
O Thomas our Lord, leave us and leave us be, in our humble and tarnished frame of existence . . .

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Thomas Becket
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

The Chorus has just heard about Thomas Becket’s arrival in Canterbury. They are wary about his return—they’ve spent seven years suffering, but it’s been livable, manageable. Yes, there have been difficulties, but nothing they couldn’t face. Becket’s presence in Canterbury might spell a much graver doom that they couldn’t handle—the possibility of Becket’s death. If the Chorus lost their archbishop, they’d be thrown into a spiritual despair that would overwhelm them. Even though he’s been away for seven years, the sheer fact that Becket existed in the world gave them comfort, and buffered them from having to be purely independent in their spiritual lives. Becket’s erasure from the world threatens to bring them into a horrifying relationship with fate and God—one they feel, as common folk, unprepared to face. They’d therefore rather Becket stay away and alive, so they can at least retain the hope of being spiritually guided.


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They know and do not know,
what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that acting is suffering
And suffering is action. Neither does the agent suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), The Chorus
Related Symbols: The Wheel
Page Number: 21-2
Explanation and Analysis:

Thomas Becket speaks these lines after he’s arrived in Canterbury, and overheard the Chorus saying they wish he would stay in France. The priests told the Chorus they were being foolish, but Becket says their comments were merited—this quote is his explanation why.

Becket invokes the image of a wheel in order to describe the pattern of time and the unfolding of fate. Human action and suffering are interdependent, and fixed together in an eternally unchanging relation. Yet, while the wheel is forever still—while the relation between action and suffering never changes—there’s still a sense of movement. Humans are required to perform new and different actions with each successive moment of time, but their relation to suffering never changes. Thus, the Chorus has every right to feel the pain and powerlessness they do, especially in the face of losing their spiritual leader, the one who helps them deal with their suffering.

We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.
Men learn little from others’ experience.
But in the life of one man, never
The same time returns. Sever
The cord, shed the scale. Only
The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), First Tempter
Related Symbols: The Wheel
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Thomas Becket speaks these lines to the first tempter, who wants Becket to rekindle his old friendship with the king, and act as if nothing bad has happened between them. He wants the happiness of the past to be restored.

Yet Becket shuts this tempter down, totally denying the possibility of repeating anything from the past again in the future. He again invokes the wheel as an image of time’s passage and its unfolding into the future. Humans only repeat experience at the collective level, across generations—but, on an individual level, a person’s past can never be replicated in a future moment. Humans are therefore caught in the wheel’s eternal but simultaneously changing patterning, repeating a structure (at the generational level) which is the same, but, as individuals, always going into a future they cannot predict.

Temporal power, to build a good world
To keep order, as the world knows order.
Those who put their faith in worldly order
Not controlled by the order of God,
In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder,
Make it fast, breed fatal disease,
Degrade what they exalt. Power with the King—
I was the King, his arm, his better reason.
But what was once exaltation
Would now be only mean descent.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), Second Tempter, King Henry II
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is Becket’s reply to the second tempter, who insists that spiritual power means nothing compared to worldly/temporal political power—the kind of power Becket had when he was Chancellor.

Becket strictly disagrees, calling temporal power a “punier power” than his spiritual command as an Archbishop. Further, he says that worldly power does nothing but “breed fatal disease,” lacking any true connection with the higher, divine dimension of God and fate. Those who invest themselves in temporal power and shirk a genuine relationship with God only cause harm, and degrade the crown they praise and exalt by severing its office from any relation to the spiritual.

Is there no way, in my soul’s sickness,
Does not lead to damnation in pride?
I well know that these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.
Can sinful pride be driven out
Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer
Without perdition?

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

Becket speaks these lines after talking with the fourth tempter, who tells Becket he should pursue martyrdom in order to gain spiritual glory.

This proposal repulses Becket, for it reveals that he’s not as personally distanced from pursuing martyrdom as he thought, and as he wants to be. The fourth tempter reveals in Becket his own lust and self-serving desire to die in the name of God: to achieve the heavenly glory of sainthood, but not actually sacrifice himself wholly—including his desires and concern for himself—in order to totally submit to, and become an instrument of, God’s will.

Becket’s realization about his desire also exposes the problematic paradox behind free will and sacrifice, or action and suffering. If martyrdom is something the martyr actively wants to perform, then how can it not involve a bit of pride or self-serving desire? And then how can one avoid damnation if martyrdom is in the name of God? Becket eventually resolves this paradox, for he says that the moment he committed himself to martyrdom occurred “out of time,” in an eternal instant—which could be interpreted as an ideal juncture where one is united with and taken over by the will of God.

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason . . .
What yet remains to show you of my history
Will seem to most of you at best futility,
Senseless self-slaughter of a lunatic,
Arrogant passion of a fanatic.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Related Symbols: Martyrdom
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

After his initial shock at the fourth tempter’s proposal, Becket is confident that his rightful fate is martyrdom. He acknowledges that martyrdom is the “right deed,” but that one can do it for the wrong reasons, and vows that he shall never be tempted by these reasons again.

Becket also knows that his sense of duty to God will seem futile, worthless, and insane to most people, but his commitment to his fate overshadows their views. He has come into a relationship with his God that has cut him off from a worldly relationship with other humans. With his attention centered solely on God, and acting as the executor of his will, he becomes a sheer force of fate.

Interlude Quotes

[On Christmas] we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overborne by mourning, or mourning will be chased out by joy; so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Page Number: 47-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Becket speaks these lines to his congregation during the interlude of the play, in a sermon at Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas Day. He wants to get his audience to think more deeply about the way they celebrate Christ’s birth—to see the nature of the celebration not from a worldly perspective, but to try and grasp it from a more spiritual one. For, to truly contemplate the mystery of Christ on his birthday, one must both mourn and rejoice at the same time. Christ’s coming into the world must be rejoiced, but his purpose for being born—saving humanity by dying for their sins—must be mourned. But both must be done at the same time to truly appreciate Christ’s existence; to do only one or the other would be to degrade the complexity of His nature and purpose as a savior.

This moment is one instance in which the play explores the problem of thinking two opposites together—when two opposites are seen as separate, they’re viewed from a worldly view. When seen from a divine view, however, they’re viewed together—as inseparable, independent, and one. Other examples of this mysterious contradiction in the play include the relation between action and suffering, fate and free will, and the movement of time and stillness.

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples ‘My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’ Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the house-holder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. If you ask that, remember then that He said also, ‘Not as the world gives, give I unto you.’ So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Related Symbols: Martyrdom
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs in Becket’s Christmas sermon. Here, he continues to expound upon the distinction between viewing things from a worldly perspective versus a spiritual one—upon the difference between the undivided, permanent realm of eternity and the divided, oppositional, and dualistic nature of human thought.

The peace promised by Jesus to his disciples, Becket clarifies, was not a worldly form of peace—it wasn’t some comfort to be found and achieved in the world. Rather, it was beyond the world, and beyond what the human mind could be given by the world. To support this, Becket notes that Jesus’s disciples never encountered any peace in the world, for they suffered immensely (and many were even martyred). What Jesus promised was “not as the world gives.” Throughout the sermon, Becket seems bent on getting his congregation to try and develop a sense of this paradox of a peace that is not of the human world, but is divine—in a way, preparing them to deal with the worldly suffering brought on by his inevitable death.

A Christian martyrdom is never an accident. Saints are not made by accident . . . A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Related Symbols: Martyrdom
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote also comes from Becket’s Christmas sermon. He continues to push his audience to understand certain concepts from a more spiritual perspective—martyrdom, in this case. Becket stresses the fact that true martyrdom is not the product of a human’s free will, or human design; rather, martyrdom is designed by God, a fate given to people by God. The paradox involved in trying to think about martyrdom this way, however, is how the human free will and the fate designed by God can fit together. After all, don’t most martyrs start out with the sense of a free will, actively endeavoring to be martyred on their own?

Becket’s point is that somehow the human will and God’s will can be brought together in the concept of martyrdom. In the case of the martyr, a human’s free will is totally submitted to the will of God, and they have their own will transformed into God’s. But, for a martyr or saint, this actually grants freedom, for it seems that their submission to God reveals to them that they were fated to be a saint or martyr all along. Thus, they realize themselves, their own freedom, and their nature, through their very submission to God.

Part 2 Quotes

It is not I who insult the King. . .
It is not against me, Becket, that you strive.
It is not Becket who pronounces doom,
But the Law of Christ’s Church, the judgement of Rome.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), First Knight (Reginald Fitz Urse), Second Knight (William de Traci), Third Knight (Hugh de Melville), Fourth Knight (Richard Brito), King Henry II
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Becket addresses the four knights, who’ve accused him of betraying the king, calling him the one who’s ultimately responsible for the king’s condemnation by the Pope.

Becket asserts that he’s not the one who is truly responsible, but that he was just following the orders of the Pope (who was viewed as the direct voice of God). He claims to be the executor of a law higher than his own powers and command, acting as an instrument of a spiritual order of which he’s merely the mouthpiece—it’s not “Becket” who’s giving the commands, but Christ’s Law and the judgment of Rome. This instant is another example of Becket affirming himself as merely channeling the will of God, having submitted himself wholly to Christ.

I have smelt them, the death-bringers; now is too late
For action, too soon for contrition.
Nothing is possible but the shamed swoon
Of those consenting to the last humiliation.
I have consented, Lord Archbishop, have consented.
Am torn away, subdued, violated,
United to the spiritual flesh of nature,
Mastered by the animal powers of spirit,
Dominated by the lust of self-demolition,
By the final utter uttermost death of spirit,
By the final ecstasy of waste and shame,
O Lord Archbishop, O Thomas Archbishop, forgive us, forgive us, pray for us that we may pray for you, out of our shame.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Thomas Becket
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

This moment marks a pivotal point in the spiritual evolution of the Chorus. They’re in the Archbishop’s Hall with Becket and the priests, before the priests carry the Archbishop off to the Cathedral.

The Chorus has finally accepted their role in the pattern of fate, and their God-designed relation to Becket’s martyrdom. The thought of Becket’s imminent death has affected their senses and connection to the natural world—they have a heightened perception of their relationship with the environment around them, to the extent that they come to understand that fate is woven through the external world and into their own bodies and minds. They come to a pinnacle of spiritual cognition where they must consent to their position in the grand scheme of God’s will, to the unfolding of destiny. They therefore accept that Becket’s martyrdom is a necessary part of fate, and ask him to forgive them for their previous ignorance and desire for him to stay away from Canterbury.

You think me reckless, desperate and mad.
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker), The Priests
Page Number: 73-4
Explanation and Analysis:

Thomas Becket speaks these lines to the priests after they’ve moved him from the Archbishop’s Hall to the Cathedral. The knights are at the door, about to break in.

The priests refuse to unbar the door, unwilling to accept Becket’s martyrdom. Becket accuses them of refusing to adopt a more nuanced, divine view of the knights’ behavior, saying that the priests think in too factual, too worldly a manner, about whether actions in the world count as good or evil. He claims that the difference between good and evil become blurred as time passes, and that his own death, as a martyr, has nothing to do with the passing of time. His death transcends good and evil, and time itself. The priests seem either unwilling or incapable of comprehending this—if they’re just unwilling, then it’s because they want to protect their own sense of identity and spiritual well-being. Becket’s death has nothing to do with good and evil as men see it, but rather the eternal, divine relation between them.

It is the just man who
Like a bold lion, should be without fear.
I am here.
No traitor to the King. I am a priest,
A Christian, saved by the blood of Christ,
Ready to suffer with my blood.
This is the sign of the Church always,
The sign of blood. Blood for blood.
His blood given to buy my life,
My blood given to pay for His death,
My death for his life.

Related Characters: Thomas Becket (speaker)
Related Symbols: Martyrdom
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Thomas Becket speaks these lines just before the knights murder him. He defends his innocence with regard to the knights’ charges that he’s betrayed the king, appealing to—yet again—a higher, spiritual order beyond the dimension of human thought and events. He has not betrayed the king—he’s submitted himself to a divine process of fate whose unfolding cannot be explained by reducing it to human considerations of betrayal and politics. Becket sees himself as giving his life for Christ, paying for His death—the death which bought Becket his own existence. Wholly immersed in his faith and fated relation to God, he approaches death without fear.

We did not wish anything to happen.
We understood the private catastrophe,
The personal loss, the general misery,
Living and partly living;
The terror by night that ends in daily action,
The terror by day that ends in sleep;
But the talk in the market-place, the hand on the broom,
The nighttime heaping of the ashes,
The fuel laid on the fire at daybreak,
These acts marked a limit to our suffering.
Every horror had its definition,
Every sorrow had a kind of end:
In life there is not time to grieve long.
But this, this is out of life, this is out of time,
An instant eternity of evil and wrong.

Related Characters: The Chorus (speaker), Thomas Becket
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

The Chorus speaks these lines after Becket’s death, before the four knights turn towards the audience. The Chorus members reiterate that they did not want anything—any new troubles—to befall their dissatisfying but bearable lives in Canterbury. They wanted Becket to stay away, fearing that his death would cause them to face spiritual ruin.

Before Becket’s death, their daily suffering had a definable shape and limit—but now their despair is overwhelming and beyond their understanding: it’s infinite, out of life, an eternal instant. Before, their daily chores and activities marked a limit to their lives, to the suffering which characterized their ordinary existence. Now, all those limits have been erased—the Chorus’s spiritual leader, who intervened in their relationship with the divine, has perished, and with him, so has their old world defined by that intervention. They must rebuild their lives and their faith.