This is another wonderful passage from A Man for all Seasons. This one has to do with the law. The characters include Sir Thomas, his wife Alice, his daughter Margaret, future son in law William Roper (in the course of the play he goes from enthusiastic Lutheran back to enthusiastic Catholic), and Richard Rich. I’m not sure if the actual Richard Rich was quite as morally slippery as he is portrayed in the play. Here he is a young academic seeking preferment and not unwilling to sell out a friend to obtain it. Sir Thomas is still Lord Chancellor and could order someone arrested. Or at least very strongly suggest it.
Rich: I would be steadfast!
More: Richard, you couldn’t answer for yourself even so far as tonight.
Roper: Arrest him!
More: For What?
Alice: He’s dangerous.
Roper: For libel; he’s a spy.
Alice: He is! Arrest him.
Margaret: Father, that man’s bad.
More: There’s no law against that.
Roper: Yes there is. God’s law.
More: Then God can arresthim.
Roper: Sophistication upon sophistication.
Me: (I think he’s referring to philosophical hair splitting. In fifth century BC Athens sophists were known as itinerant intellectuals who used verbal arguments to convince people of their arguments. Some have come down in the writings of their antagonists as using verbal trickery to achieve their successes).
More: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper the law. I know what’s legal not what’s right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal.
Roper: Then you set man’s law above God’s!
More: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact-I’m not 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, 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 were the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So, now you’d give the devil the benefit of law?
More: Yes, what would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get at 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-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 give the devil the benefit of law, for own safety’s sake.
It’s that last sentence that’s stayed with me since I read the play for the first time. And doesn’t the “cut down all the laws that keep us from…….” sound painfully familiar?