Friday, March 21, 2008

In Memoriam

It has been a difficult couple of days here at Wheniwasoneandtwenty. First, we lost Arthur C. Clarke, on Wednesday. Today we turn over the New York Times to discover we have lost the actor Paul Scofield.

Paul Scofield is most famous to audiences for his portrayl of Sir Thomas More in the movie A Man for All Seasons. More, of course, being the the 16th cenutry jurist, author, intellectual, friend of Erasmus, Lord Chancellor of England, and confidante of Henry the VIII. More was the author of Utopia (literally, "Noplace," in Greek), the grandfather of novels like Erewhon, We, Brave New World, 1984, a whole genre of Utopian and Dystopian literature. More was beheaded on July 6th, 1535 for treason--which, at the time, could be construed as a polite refusal to recognize Henry the VIII as supreme head of the Church of England.

I first saw (and read) A Man for All Seasons in my 11th grade English class. (For which I will be eternally grateful to the otherwise somewhat distasteful Miss Tracy.) I would not say the play changed my life in any material fashion. But Mr. Scofield's performance did have an intense philosophical, even spiritual effect on me as a boy. Especially the following exchange between Sir Thomas and his son-in-law, William Roper:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas 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 is 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, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

A man of conscience, certainly, and an idealist. More was also a contemporary of Machiavelli. More was a jurist, a lawyer who recognized something about the seductions of Princely power, and the consequences for religion, and for the rest of us. This realization and his stubborn refusal to stick to his conscience--to die "the good king's loyal subject, but God's first"--cost him his life. More slipped into my early pantheon of Heroes.

Thank you for bringing him to life, Mr Scofield.

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