Man for all seasons is a hero for our times

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 23, 2005

Three things illustrate the importance of being well formed; indeed, there's a fourth that's more important than all the others:

A new home's foundation, for without due care here the rest of the structure might collapse;

A computer's virus filter, for no matter how many wonderful things our computer might otherwise be capable of, if some malicious code compromises the system, we're toast;

One's lungs, for failure to protect them from airborne pollution can lead to premature death;

And one's conscience, for without a well-formed conscience our innermost being is laid vulnerable to the collapse of something far more important than a building, or a computer, or even our body – this is the watchdog of our soul.

Conscience is the deep-seated warning system that alerts us when our very essence as human beings is in danger – or when we are about to willfully harm others. It is the still, small voice within that distinguishes good from evil, wisdom from folly. And having warned us of the choice, it pleads with us, "This is the way; walk in it."

This moral dimension to our being doesn't just happen, doesn't come fully formed at birth like breathing. To be the safeguard it's intended to be, it requires nurturing from our earliest years – instruction in worthy values, exposure to noble examples.

Thus shaped, our conscience becomes our sure guide in the treacherous twists and turns of day-to-day living.

It carries such authority that no one has the right to force others to act contrary to their informed consciences – no one: not prime ministers, presidents, kings or queens; not even the Pope.

Obedience to one's conscience can be costly, however, especially in matters of employment and public life. In my Jan. 26 column I recounted the story of Eleazar, the second century B.C. elder of Israel who accepted death rather than violate conscience and scandalize those who looked up to him.

Another of my heroes-of-conscience is celebrated in Fred Zinnemanns' 1966 Oscar-winning film, A Man for All Seasons. This is the story of Sir Thomas More (played by Paul Scofield), Lord Chancellor of the Realm under King Henry VIII when the king wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn.

The king, speaking through More's predecessor Cardinal Wolsey, tries pressuring More into soliciting the Pope's permission for this change in marriage, but More refuses on the basis of conscience. Wolsey challenges More: "Explain how you . . . can obstruct these measures for the sake of your own private conscience."

More responds: "Well, I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos."

When it becomes abundantly clear that the king is going to have his way by changing the law, More steps down as chancellor. Nor does More show up at the king's wedding, nor does he take the oath in support of the king's marriage and legislation.

The Duke of Norfolk, More's former friend who has gone over to the king's side, pleads with More during a hearing: "Why don't you do as I did and come with us – for fellowship?"

More replies, "And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me – 'for fellowship'?"

More is sent to the Tower, then to the dungeon, where his wife pays him a final visit and urges him to take the oath and to stop trying to be a hero.

More answers: "If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that avarice, anger, pride, and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice, and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little, even at the risk of being 'heroes'."

At his mockery-of-a-trial, More is found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The film ends at More's beheading. Just before the axe falls, More once again affirms the priority of conscience:

"I die, His Majesty's good servant, but God's first."

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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