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It is a rare occurrence to see a film that is so memorable that it implants itself on the human psyche. A film that contains such a captivating story, compelling characters, and profound themes occurs so rarely it becomes etched into our collective unconscious. A Man for All Seasons is one of those films.
Set in Tudor England during the reign of King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547), A Man for All Seasons tells the story of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon (1485 – 1536), the birth of the Church of England, and the man who stood opposed to it.
During the 1530s, King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, passed the Act of Succession (which declared Princess Mary (1516 – 1558), the King’s daughter with Catherine, illegitimate) and the Act of Supremacy (which gave Henry supreme command over the Church in England), and made himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
In A Man for All Seasons, Henry asks Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535) to disregard his own principles and express his approval of the King’s desire to divorce his wife and establish an English Church separate from Rome. Henry believes that More’s support will legitimise his actions because More is a man known for his moral integrity. Initially, Henry uses friendship and dodgy logic to convince his friend. It fails, and the so-called “defender of the faith” tries using religious arguments to justify his adultery. When this fails, he merely resorts to threats. Again, More refuses to endorse Henry’s actions.
A Man for All Seasons is really about the relationship between the law (representing the majesty of the state) and individual consciousness. In the film, Sir Thomas More is depicted as a man with an almost religious reverence for the law because he sees it as the only barrier between an ordered society and anarchy. In one scene, when William Roper the Younger (1496 – 1578) tells him he would gladly lay waste to every law in order to get at the devil, More replies that he would “give the devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”
More’s reverence goes far beyond mere man-made law, however. He also shows a deep reverence for the laws of God, as well. After being sentenced to death, More finally breaks his silence and refers to the Act of Succession, which required people to recognise Henry’s supremacy in the Church and his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, as “directly repugnant to the law of God and His Holy Church, the Supreme Government of which no temporal person may be any law presume to take upon him.” More argues that the authority to enforce the law of God was granted to Saint Peter by Christ himself and remained the prerogative of the Bishop of Rome.
Furthermore, More argues that the Catholic Church had been guaranteed immunity from interference in both the King’s coronation oath and in Magna Carta. In his coronation oath, Henry had promised to “preserve to God and Holy Church, and to the people and clergy, entire peace and concord before God.” Similarly, the Magna Carta stated that the English people had “granted to God, and by this present charter confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”
The central problem of the film is that the legal and political system in England is incapable of allowing More to hold a contradictory, private opinion. Even before he is appointed Chancellor, More expresses no desire to get involved with the debate surrounding the King’s marriage. He will not, however, swear an oath accepting the King’s marriage or his position as the head of the Church of England. More believes that it is the Pope who is the head of the Church, not the King, and he is perfectly willing to sacrifice his wealth, family, position, freedom, and, ultimately, his life to retain his integrity.
The relationship between the law and an individual’s conscience is an important one. What A Man for All Seasons illustrates is just how important this relationship is, and what happens when this relationship is violated. Modern proponents of social justice, identity politics, and political correctness would do well to watch A Man for All Seasons.
Since the Industrial Revolution, scientific and technological development has progressed at an unfathomable rate. In a little over a quarter-of-a-millennium, the Western world has gone from a superstitious, agrarian society to a scientifically and technologically sophisticated one. The price of this remarkable achievement has been our alienation from the ‘dream world.’ We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense that there is something more substantial to existence than just mere crude matter.
The lack of spirituality among modern man is largely the result of an overreliance on materialism. For the philosophically challenged, ‘materialism’ is not a reference to consumerism, but to the philosophical position that regards physical matter as the fundamental substance of nature. Philosophical materialism posits that everything, including human thought and the course of history, comes as the result of physical forces. This is a philosophy which has no room for the soul, for divinity, or for God.
Philosophical materialism likely harkens back to the pre-Socratic philosophers. Epicurus, for example, believed the universe consisted of invisible and indivisible free-falling atoms that randomly collide with the world. For all intents and purposes, however, it is the Ancient Greek philosopher, Democritus (c. 460BC – c. 370BC) who is credited with the invention of philosophical materialism within the Western tradition. Democritus formulated the theory that the world was composed of ‘atoms’ – invisible chunks of matter – existing in empty space. He theorised that these microscopically small atoms would interact with one another by impacting or hooking up. Change occurs when the configuration of these atoms is altered.
In modern philosophy, materialism is referred to as a category of metaphysical theories. The French philosopher, Baron d’Holbach’s (1723 – 1789) book, Système de la Nature ou Des Loix du Monde Physique et du Monde Moral (1770) (The System of Nature, or the Laws or the Moral and Physical World) argued that everything that occurs, down to human thought and moral action, comes as the result of a causal chain that has its roots in atomic motion. The book was condemned by King Louis XVI (1754 – 1793), meaning that it was the job of the hangman to locate every copy and cut it to pieces on the beheading block.
The modern world likes to see itself as fundamentally materialistic. Being seen as “practical”, “realistic”, or “down to earth” is considered by many to be a great compliment. However, this view is largely mistaken. In reality, it is ideas, referring to the ability to think and feel and imagine, and the ability to implement them that has truly made the human race what it is. In a letter to Guillaume Gibieuf (1538 – 1650), the French philosopher, René Descartes (1596 – 1650) wrote: “I am certain I have no knowledge of what is outside me except by means of the ideas I have within me.”
It would be a great mistake, then, to suppose that human beings are naturally rational or civilised creatures. In reality, people are far more irrational, crazy, and destructive than we like to think. Modern science is really only a few hundred years old, having its roots with Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). Therefore, the basis for modern society is not, as often supposed, science, but religion. This is evidenced by two facts. First, the existence over thousands of years of civilisations that have their basis in religion, not science. These societies and their corresponding religions include the Japanese and Shintoism, the Chinese and Buddhism, the Middle East and Islam, and the West and Christianity. And second, by the numerous anti-science movements (most notable in today’s world are the social constructionists) that have come to the public’s attention in recent years. We are able to live in an orderly and rational manner because we live in a society that has moral rules and legal boundaries, not because it is something that comes naturally to us
The relationship between the mental and physical worlds was of great interest to the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung (1875 – 1961). Influenced by the German Idealist School, Jung believed that “metaphysical assertions… are statements of the psyche.” He would comment: “it is the soul which, by the divine creative power inherent in it, makes the metaphysical assertion; it posits the distinction between metaphysical entities. Not only is it the condition of all metaphysical reality, it is that reality.” The central idea behind Jung’s metaphysical system was that:
“The premise that all psychological processes are necessarily conditioned on innate universal structures of subjectivity that allow for human experiences to transpire, and that these processes participate of a greater cosmic organising principle that transcends all levels of particularity or individuality.”
– Jon Mills, Jung’s Metaphysics
In his function as a psychotherapist, Carl Jung observed that western men and women often suffered from debilitating feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and insignificance. He believed that this was caused by a kind of spiritual problem that, even today, threatens the stability and liberty of our society. The result is that we limit ourselves only to what is socially and economically attainable. As Carl Jung wrote:
“Man feels isolated in the cosmos. He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had symbolic meaning for him. Thunder is no longer the voice of a god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree makes a man’s life, no snake is the embodiment of wisdom and no mountain still harbours a great demon. Neither do things speak to him nor can he speak to things, like stones, springs, plants and animals.”
– Carl Jung, The Earth Has a Soul
Jung noted that this problem, and the consequences associated with it, correlated with the declining influence of Christianity in the Western world and the rise of mass urbanisation that came as a result of the Industrial Revolution. As the individual surrounded himself with more and more people, his feelings of insignificance increased. The result is individuals who are highly insecure, unstable, and highly suggestible. Furthermore, the rational and scientific mindset that rose to prominence during the Enlightenment has also fooled many politicians and social reformers into believing that the same measures can be used to address social and political problems. The existence of the totalitarian systems such as fascism and communism, genocides, and mass murders that characterised the Twentieth Century stand as testaments to this reality.
The problems the West faced during the twentieth century are almost entirely spiritual by nature. The communists killed tens of millions of people in an attempt to achieve a worker’s paradise, the Cold War was as much a battle between opposing worldviews as it was one of political and economic differences, and one would have to be blind not to notice the religious overtones present in Nazism. Even today, the conflict between Western civilisation and fundamental Islam can be seen as having profound religious overtones.
Jung believed that the unconscious mind could be split into two distinct categories: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The contents of the personal unconscious is comprised of both instincts (Triebe) and archetypal or primordial images. It merely refers to the memories, emotions, and knowledge that have generally been conscious but have become repressed over time. By contrast, the collective unconscious, one of Jung’s most misunderstood concepts, is distinguishable from the personal unconscious in that it is manifested separately and is therefore not a personal acquisition. It symbolises universal culture: the anthropological images, practices, edicts, traditions, mores, social norms, values, and beliefs that embodies a culture or mythos. The collective unconscious, therefore, symbolises the space that human-beings exist in.
Dreams are considered to have great psychological significance. They use mythological narratives to allow us to naturally express our unconscious fears and desires. The average person dreams between three to six times per night with each dream lasting between five and twenty minutes. Jeffrey Sumber, a clinical psychologist, has spent years studying dream mythology at Harvard University and Jungian dream interpretation at the Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. Sumber argues that dreams bridge the unconscious mind with the conscious mind. “Dreaming is non-essential when it comes to survival as a body”, Sumber concluded, “but is essential with regards to our development and evolution as metaphysical beings.”
Active imagination exists to give a voice to the anima, animus, shadow, and other areas of the personality that do not typically hold our attention. When the individual engages his active imagination, let’s say through painting or writing, there is a transformation of consciousness. As Carl Jung wrote in The Conjunction:
“Although, to a certain extent, he looks on from outside, partially, he is also an acting and suffering figure in the drama of the psyche. This recognition is absolutely necessary and marks an important advance. So long as he simply looks at the pictures he is like the foolish Parsifal, who forgot the ask the vital question because he was not aware of his own participation in the action. But if you recognise your own involvement you yourself must enter into the process with your personal reactions, just as if you were one of the fantasy figures, or rather, as if the drama being enacted before your eyes were real.”
The collective unconscious manifests itself most greatly through mankind’s proclivity for telling stories. As the clinical psychologist and cultural critic, Jordan Peterson (1962 – ) explains, story-telling is an ancient and innate aspect of human nature:
“You know, we’ve been collecting stories as people we don’t know how long – hundred thousand years, maybe. There’s been creatures like us, indistinguishable from us, for a hundred thousand years. And we know that societies that appear more or less as archaic as those old societies tell stories, have rituals, have mythology. What do they mean? What are they good for? Well, imagine this: you tell a story to your husband or your wife about something interesting that you saw. Well, imagine that you could collect a thousand of the most interesting stories. And then imagine that you were some kind of literary genius like Shakespeare and you could take those thousand interesting stories and boil them down to a hundred really interesting stories. And then imagine that you had ten thousand years to gather up those most interesting stories and average them and you could come out with one perfect story: the best story, the most interesting story you could possibly tell. Well, that’s what a myth is. It’s the most interesting story you could possibly tell. Virtually every story you ever see has a mythological structure, that’s why it’s compelling to you. And when you meet someone who is charismatic or who holds your attention or who you’re interested in, the probability that they’re acting out a mythological fragment is very, very high. That’s why it is that your attention is captivated by them.”
Myths are really psychological in nature, even though they are typically misread as biographical or even historical. Myths, much like dreams, emanate from the unconscious thoughts and emotions and gives a voice to the innermost fears and desires that underlie most of our behaviour.
The purpose of mythology is to provide the individual with a mirror which he can use to assess himself and his relationship with the wider world. It exists to provide the individual with a sense of history and of his place within the cosmos. Whereas the world of fiction has to work in an alternative reality where the facts of that universe are considered irrefutable and correct, mythology works by taking the metaphorical or metaphysical-cum-spiritual truths of existence and gives them voice and meaning through the medium of a story. Therefore, it is not how factually true a mythological story may or may not be that is important, but the metaphorical truths it imparts on the reader.
There can be little doubt that the modern world has produced marvels. The price of these remarkable achievements has been a form of perverse arrogance in which modern man likes to believe he is somehow a different, more rational, creature than his ancestors. The price for our arrogance has been the loss of our sense of something more substantial and wonderous than ourselves. As a result, people limit themselves only to that which is socially and economically attainable. Seeing ourselves as eminently rational and pragmatic creatures we have managed to produce a world where the individual feels worthless and insignificant. What is required is a revitalisation of the dream world. A return to the knowledge that it is ideas, our ability to give a voice to those aspects of our personalities that lie dormant, and to venture out into the chaotic unknown and return triumphantly that makes human beings great.
The evolutionary psychologist E.O. Wilson referred to war as “humanity’s hereditary curse.” It has become infused in our collective and individual psyches. The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War, Shakespeare’s Henry V is centred around the Battle of Agincourt, and All Quiet on the Western Front tells of the experiences of young German soldiers on the Western Front.
The purpose of war can be split into two fields: philosophical and pragmatic. Most modern wars are fought for ideological, and therefore philosophical reasons: capitalism versus communism, fascism versus democracy, and so forth. Richard Ned Lebow, a political scientist at the University of London, hypothesised that nations go to war for reasons of ‘national spirit.’ Institutions and nation-states may not have psyches per-say, but the individuals who run them do, and it is natural for these individuals to project the contents of their psyches onto the institutions and nation-states they are entrusted with.
Rationalists, on the other hand, have another perspective. War, they argue, is primarily used by nations to increase their wealth and power: allowing them to annex new territories, take control of vital resources, pillage, rape, and so forth. Bolshevism arose in the political instability and food shortages of World War One Russia. The Nazis used the spectre of Germany’s humiliating defeat in the Great War and its treatment in the Treaty of Versailles as a stepping stone to political power. In the Ancient World, Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279BC) used war to form the Akkadian Empire, and then used war to quell invasions and rebellion. Similarly, Philip II of Macedonia (382BC – 336BC) used war to unify the city states of Ancient Greece.
Another explanation may be that we engage in war because we are naturally inclined to. War speaks to our need for group identity, and to our deep predilection for conflict. And it should come as no surprise that the two are not mutually exclusive. Our strong predilection towards our own group not only makes us more willing to help other members of that group, it makes us more willing to commit evil on its behalf. Chimpanzees have been known to invade other congresses of chimps and go on killing sprees. The obvious intention being to increase territory and decrease intra-sexual competition. Similarly, our own evolutionary and primitive past is fraught with violence and conflict. It should not escape our attention that history is abundant with examples of invading soldiers slaughtering men and raping women.
Like all the profound aspects of culture, war conceptualises a facet of a deeper truth. It has been central to our history and culture capturing both the more heroic and the more frightening aspects of our individual and collective psyches. We both influence and are influenced by war.