Thomas More values law and order. He uses the law to work out personal and moral dilemmas, and uses it as a rational shield against Cromwell and the King. Although More is religious and hopes to be rewarded for his moral behavior in the afterlife, religion and God’s laws are sometimes confusing to him. Bolt uses the symbols of water, tides, and the sea to represent religion and the afterlife because water is “the largest, most alien, least formulated thing I know.” In contrast, man’s laws are like dry land, easy to navigate, stable, and safe. A religious man and a lawyer, More orders his life by the laws of man because he understands them, but he ultimately allows his public life to fall apart when it becomes clear to him that man’s law and God’s law have diverged. To More, it is more important to obey his conscience, which is accountable to God’s law.
More relies on laws to orient himself in a society that is falling apart. When he can no longer count on his fellow public officials to obey religious laws or even personal moral codes, he turns to laws created by men as a final line of defense. Bolt writes in the preface, “If ‘society’ is the name we give to human behavior when it is patterned and orderly, then the Law extending from empirical traffic regulations, through the mutating laws of property, and on to the great taboos like incest and patricide is the very pattern of society. More’s trust in the law was his trust in society…” More describes the country as being “planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s” and wonders “if you cut them down…d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow them?” He sees man-made laws as the last structures keeping English society in place. He believes they are important to abide by, because without them the world would fall into chaos. This is at least partially due to More’s lack of faith in his countrymen’s religious devotion. He jokes to Norfolk that “the nobility of England, my lord, would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount.” But even as More appreciates the way law shapes and clarifies behavior, others believe More is twisting the law to his own ends. Cromwell accuses More of “perverting the law—making smoky what should be a clear light,” while More counters that the law is objective, and cannot be used to obscure. He says, “The law is not a ‘light’ for you or any man to see by; the law is not an instrument of any kind. The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely.”
Surprisingly for a religious man, More does not govern his life according to the law of God. The ins and outs of religion are almost too complex for him to consider. He says, “The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh there I’m a forester.” Christian law is also what has caused much of the conflict in the first place, since it states that a man cannot marry his brother’s widow, which the Pope overturned to allow Henry to marry his first wife Catherine. However, when Henry wants to divorce Catherine, he decides his initial marriage was in fact unlawful. Thomas More’s conflicting feelings come as a result of this backtracking—should he heed the Pope’s amendment, or Henry’s insistence that the Pope is wrong and without the authority to make such a decree? Midway through the play, in response to Roper’s accusation that “law’s your god,” More admits that he finds God too “subtle.” More values religion, but in times of duress he prefers man’s laws to religion, which is more difficult for him to comprehend.
Although a reader would expect God’s law to govern the lives of the characters in A Man For All Seasons, the men and women are instead split between closely observing man’s law, or else no law at all. More, the lawyer, finds solace in the neat order of manmade laws, which he tries and fails to use to protect himself against Cromwell’s attacks. Cromwell, Rich, the King, and others, meanwhile, seem bound to no laws at all. They work in their own self-interest, or in the interest of the King, who operates above all legal systems, privileging instead his own whims and desires and framing them as law.
Man’s Law vs. God’s Law ThemeTracker
Man’s Law vs. God’s Law Quotes in A Man for All Seasons
Wolsey: It’s a devious situation.
More: There must be something simple in the middle of it. (Again this is not a moral dictum; it is said rather wistfully, as of something he is beginning to doubt)
Wolsey: I believe you believe that. You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see the facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.
Well…I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties…they lead their country by a short route to chaos.
Norfolk:…d’you propose to meet the King disguised as a parish clerk? A parish clerk, my Lord Chancellor! You dishonor the King and his office!
More: The service of God is not a dishonor to any office. Believe me, my friend, I do not belittle the honor his Majesty is doing me.
More: …I’m not a God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester. I doubt if there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God…
Alice; While you talk, he’s gone!
More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: 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’s 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—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d like to give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
I’m a prominent figure. Someone somewhere’s collecting information about Cromwell. Now no more shirking; we must make a start. There’s a stuffed swan if you please. Will, I’d trust you with my life. But not your principles. You see, we speak of being anchored to our principles. But if the weather turns nasty you up with an anchor and let it down where there’s less wind, and the fishing’s better. And “Look,” we say, “look, I’m anchored! To my principles!”
Roper: You are denying the Act of Supremacy!
More: No, I’m not; the Act states that the King—
Roper: —is Supreme Head of the Church in England.
More: Supreme Head of the Church in England—“So far as the law of God allows.” How far the law of God does allow it remains a matter of opinion, since the Act doesn’t state it.
Roper: A legal quibble.
More: Call it what you like, it’s there, thank God.
Alice, it’s a point of law! Accept it from me, Alice, that in silence is my safety under the law, but my silence must be absolute, it must extend to you.
Cromwell: The King’s a man of conscience and he wants either Sir Thomas More to bless his marriage or Sir Thomas More destroyed.
Rich: They seem odd alternatives, Secretary.
Cromwell: Do they? That’s because you’re not a man of conscience. If the King destroys a man, that’s proof to the King that it must have been a bad man, the kind of man a man of conscience ought to destroy—and of course a bad man’s blessing’s not worth having. So either will do.
Norfolk: Oh, confound all this…I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names…You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?
More: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
Cromwell: …But, gentlemen of the jury, there are many kinds of silence. Consider first the silence of a man when he is dead. Let us say we go into the room where he is lying; and let us say it is in the dead of night—there’s nothing like darkness for sharpening the ear; and we listen. What do we hear? Silence. What does it betoken, this silence? Nothing. This is silence, pure and simple. But consider another case. Suppose I were to draw a dagger from my sleeve and make to kill the prisoner with it, and suppose their lordships there, instead of crying out for me to stop or crying out for help to stop me, maintained their silence. That would be betoken! It would betoken a willingness that I should do it, and under the law they would be guilty with me. So silence can, according to circumstances, speak. Consider, now, the circumstances of the prisoner’s silence. The oath was put to good and faithful subjects up and down the country and they had declared His Grace’s title to be just and good. And when it came to the prisoner he refused. He calls this silence. Yet is there a man in this court, is there a man in this country, who does not know Sir Thomas More’s opinion of the King’s title? Of course not! But how can that be? Because this silence betokened—nay, this silence was not silence at all but most eloquent denial.
More: Not so, Master Secretary, 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: I put it to the Court that the prisoner is perverting the law—making smoky what should be a clear light to discover to the Court his own wrongdoing!
More: The law is not a “light” for you or any man to see by; the law is not an instrument of any king. The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely. In matters of conscience—
Cromwell: The conscience, the conscience…
More: The word is not familiar to you?
Cromwell: By God, too familiar! I am very used to hear it in the mouths of criminals!
Norfolk: Have you anything to say?
More: Yes. To avoid this I have taken every path my winding wits would find. Now that the court has determined to condemn me, God knoweth how, I will discharge my mind…concerning my indictment and the King’s title. The indictment is grounded in an Act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to the Law of God. The King in Parliament cannot bestow the Supremacy of the Church because it is a Spiritual Supremacy! And more to this the immunity of the Church is promised both in Magna Carta and the King’s own Coronation Oath!
Cromwell: Now we plainly see that you are malicious!
More: Not so, Master Secretary! I am the King’s true subject, and pray for him and all the realm…I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live…I have, since I came into prison, been several times in such a case that I thought to die within the hour, and I thank Our Lord I was never sorry for it, but rather sorry when it passed. And therefore, my poor body is at the King’s pleasure. Would God my death might do him some good…Nevertheless, it is not for the Supremacy that you have sought my blood—but because I would not bend to the marriage!