Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 8, 2004
Pride goes before society's fall
St. Thomas More is perhaps best known for his words on the way to the gallows, "I die the king's good servant, but God's first." He died joking with his executioners, calm and clear of conscience that he had done the right thing by quietly refusing to acquiesce to King Henry VIII's desire to be head of the Church of England, as well as lord of the realm.
But there was much more to St. Thomas More than his death. His martyrdom was but the fitting and glorious end to a life dedicated to serving God. And it was because of his life that Thomas has been designated as the patron saint of politicians.
It is interesting that many of the policies that he championed as lord chancellor are pretty much forgotten, but that his personal integrity is legendary. If we want good leaders today, we should pay attention not only to their policies, but also to the quality of their character.
More realized early in his adulthood that he was called to enter public life, but he took a long time to get there. Gerald Wegemer, in his book Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage, describes how More studied law, philosophy, diplomacy, history, and the arts of speaking and writing to prepare himself for public life. He studied Greek because it was the Greeks who had lifted government and literature to their highest levels. He studied St. Augustine's City of God with its skepticism that a perfect kingdom could ever be built this side of eternity.
All this enabled him to think deeply about the issues facing English society in the early 16th century.
More also wrote The History of King Richard III, a study of the life of a noteworthy tyrant. He looked at how Richard came to power - none of the leading people of his day had the moral fibre to stand up to him. They were sycophants, motivated more by currying favour with the king than by the good of society.
(In Alberta, it is difficult not to see last spring's cloying letters to the editor by some of the province's university presidents after public criticism of the premier's term paper in a similar light.)
At the root of Richard's tyrannizing ways was his pride, pride that was only enhanced by the flattery of his leading subjects. To More, pride is "the root of all mischief." He struggled mightily against it in himself, seeing that pride is the greatest obstacle to the use of reason in decision-making. He saw clearly that the "empty splendour" of high office could bring about one's downfall.
The saint knew that pride would harden any person's heart. And he strove to develop the ability to humbly seek the advice of others and to rely on that advice if he judged it reasonable. Pride makes one insular; humility opens one up to God and others. Scary indeed is a whole society that is proud of itself. Energizing and creative is a society open to the gifts of others.
What that means for Albertans living 500 years after More is that we ought to strive to build a civilization of compassion, rather than of pride. Pride is degenerate - it leads towards decay and self-centredness. Compassion is concerned with the good of the other - it reaches out to affirm the dignity of each person.
St. Thomas More prepared himself well for public office. And, in a sad irony, it was the lack of integrity of the leaders in the time of Richard III that re-appeared when Henry VIII sought the approval of society's leaders for his scheme to marry Anne Boleyn. More and Bishop John Fisher stood alone in refusing to cave in to Henry's plans to make the Church a servant of the state. Others made excuses for going along with tyranny.
Their story should be a reminder that we are called to be something greater than yes-men and yes-women. We are called to speak the truth with integrity.
Pride is not a fruitful path. It is humility and compassion for others that will lead our society forward.
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