“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” — Mark 8:36
What indeed? It’s this bit of wisdom that’s at the center of A Man for All Seasons, a biopic released 55 years ago Sunday that tells the much older true story of St. Thomas More, the 16th century English martyr who willingly faced death instead of denouncing his Catholic faith. More’s life—especially as portrayed in the film, which ranks high as one of the most quotable political movies ever made—is always worth exploring, but in the midst of our current political turmoil, with the Christian community divided on how it ought to approach the political sphere, the example More set and the wit and insight of the film adaptation of his life seem especially ripe for revisiting.
A Man for All Seasons opens in 1529, with the Catholic country of England on the brink of crisis as King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) seeks to divorce his wife Queen Catherine, who has not birthed an heir, for his younger mistress. Pope Clement VII, unwilling to recognize Henry’s arguments for why the marriage should be dissolved, refuses to grant an annulment. In the midst of this burgeoning discord, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), a lawyer and devout Catholic, rises to the highest office of the English government, that of the Lord Chancellor. Over the next few years, More’s devotion to God and his devotion to his king come into conflict, with the king declaring himself the head of the Catholic Church in England—but not yet fully separating from the Roman Catholic Church—so that he can legally leave his wife.
There is a real cost to the king not producing a male heir: Without a successor, the Tudor line would end with Henry, plunging England into a civil war as various houses fight for the throne. There would be unrest, people would die. By choosing to recognize the king’s new authority and bride—as the bishops in England did—More could help avert all that. He could remain in office and use his power to achieve further justice in the nation and influence the king. Instead, More resigns.
His resignation of the chancellorship in many ways parallels Christ’s temptation in the desert—all More has to do to remain in power was sacrifice his principles a bit, he needn’t even, as his daughter points out, have to actually believe that the king’s marriage is valid or that King Henry actually had authority over the church. But if the call for all Christians is to model the life of Christ, then the question of sacrificing principles to achieve earthly power ought to be an easy one to answer; just look at the words of Christ’s that opened this article or what Christ did when offered the world by Satan:
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’’”
Earthly power is not an inherent evil, but the pursuit, or in More’s case maintenance, of it at all costs—no matter how well intentioned and no matter what the ends that supposedly justify the means are—is incompatible with modeling one’s life after Christ’s.
As we watch More choose God, A Man for All Seasons shows another politician, Richard Rich (John Hurt), choose power. At the start of the film, Rich is a young man hoping for a political appointment from More, who declines to help him, recognizing that power would have an ill effect on the ambitious Rich. Rich makes friends with More’s enemies, and rises up the ranks of government, eventually agreeing to perjure himself by giving false testimony to ensure More is executed for treason in exchange for being named attorney general of Wales, prompting one of the most famous lines in cinema history: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?”
Rich gets the power he desires, at the cost of his integrity and the life of a man he once considered a friend. “I’ve lost my innocence,” he says at one point earlier in the film as he plots with Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) against More. “You lost that some time ago,” Cromwell tells him. “If you’ve only just noticed, it can’t have been very important to you.” Indeed, the path to major compromises of principle is paved with many small ones.
More was justified in his stance, as both the film and real life showed: After making himself Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1531, King Henry VIII went on to fully separate the Church of England from the Catholic Church in 1534. He famously didn’t stop at one divorce, beheading two of his later wives and carrying on with several more mistresses. He continued to execute political enemies, even those who bent to his will for being insufficiently loyal. “When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duty, they lead their country by a short route to chaos,” says More in the film, a maxim history has proven time and time again. To get off our own current short route to chaos we could bear to recall More’s example and value morality over political expediency, and encourage our leaders do the same. If all else fails we can always follow More’s plan to end the conflict between the church and the king in A Man for All Seasons:
“I pray for it daily.”