Murder in the Cathedral

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Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power Theme Analysis

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Fate and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Temptation Theme Icon
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As a play based on the actual historical conflict between the Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury and the English King Henry II, Murder in the Cathedral explores the relationship between two forms of power: worldly and spiritual. Worldly power refers to any power that is wielded over the everyday world of human affairs, particularly political power. The play refers to this power as “temporal,” highlighting its fleeting nature and the fact that it is completely subject to the passage of time. Worldly power is therefore open to change, and the effectiveness of its laws is never guaranteed. In contrast, spiritual power in the play refers to a code of laws that spring from God, are eternal, and to a significant degree are beyond human comprehension. From the beginning to the end, Murder in the Cathedral explores how people should navigate between these two powers, through Becket’s interactions with the four tempters, the four knights, and in Becket’s own evolving understanding of his martyrdom—his willingness to die for God.

The four tempters’ dialogues with Becket may be interpreted as attempts to persuade him to adopt certain conceptions of how temporal and spiritual power should be balanced. The first tempter treats spirituality as a kind of decoration on worldly power—as something that can inspire joy and merriment by bringing happiness to the state and, in the process, fix Becket’s conflicted relationship with the king. The second tempter, however, sees spiritual power as utterly ineffectual, and argues that to truly effect change Becket should focus less on religion and return to his former political role as Chancellor. The third tempter sees spiritual power as basically just another form of worldly power—or something that can be put to work to achieve worldly ends that have no spiritual grounding. He argues that Becket should use his role as Archbishop to help empower the lower class of country lords to overthrow the king. The fourth tempter has the opposite opinion of the second: he argues that Becket should devote himself solely to the realm of spiritual power, and shirk the temporal, through martyrdom. Thus, the four tempters all argue for certain ways of how the two forms of power should be thought together or apart.

In the second part of the play, the four knights—representatives of the king and therefore of the king’s worldly power—confront Becket. The knights’ conception of the relationship between worldly and temporal power leads them to call Becket a traitor: they think he’s betrayed the worldly authority of the English crown through an overzealous loyalty to the spiritual authority of the Pope (who has condemned the king). The knights therefore see worldly and temporal power as separate entities that exist in a kind of natural opposition, an opposition where both powers to some extent restrict one another. The knights (and, by extension, the king) believe that Becket has pushed too far in supporting the Pope’s condemnation of the English king; they thus believe he has become a traitor.

Becket’s own view about the relationship between the two powers is revealed by his reply to the knights. He responds by declaring that there is a higher order responsible for the king’s condemnation: “It is not Becket who pronounces doom, / But the Law of Christ’s Church, the judgment of Rome.” This Law, applied by the Pope, is believed by Becket to stem wholly from God (the Pope was believed to be God’s mouthpiece). Becket therefore appeals to the realm of spiritual power as if it had absolute priority over the dimension of worldly authority. To Becket, worldly power is a puny, false conception of power; real power stems from a higher source, beyond human comprehension, and based in God.

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Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Murder in the Cathedral related to the theme of Worldly Power vs. Spiritual Power .
Part 1 Quotes

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.


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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.

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.

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.

No. For the Church is stronger for this action,
Triumphant in adversity. It is fortified
By persecution: supreme, so long as men will die for it.
Go, weak sad men, lost erring souls, homeless in earth or heaven.

Related Characters: The Priests (speaker), Thomas Becket
Related Symbols: Martyrdom
Page Number: 84-5
Explanation and Analysis:

The third priest speaks these lines in response to the first, who thinks that Becket’s death has damaged the Church. Denying the first priest’s claim, the third priest says that the Church has been fortified by Becket’s martyrdom—that it’s stronger because of Becket’s action. The loss of Becket has not torn the Church apart, but has blessed and sanctified it. As the site of a saint’s martyrdom, the Cathedral will forever have the status of especially holy ground.

Thus, the priests end the play somewhat divided over their impressions of Becket’s death and its effect on the Church, but Eliot makes the third priest’s defense of the Archbishop’s martyrdom into the last speech given by a priest in the play. Further, it’s longer, more vivid, and more descriptive than the first priest’s—so we might therefore interpret the play as siding with the third priest’s appraisal of Becket’s death, and perhaps it portrays it as the opinion which the other priests will eventually come to adopt (assuming the second shares the same opinion as the first, for he’s not given any lines on the topic).