Robert Shaw as Henry VIII and Paul Scofield as Thomas More in a scene from the 1966 film, A Man For All Seasons
At MercatorNet we love book lists. Last week we asked readers to nominate their favourite books about heroes and heroines of conscience. Thanks to all who put their thinking caps on and came up with a favourite character.
Among the 40-odd responses there were a number of popular books and figures, some of which fitted the description “hero/heroine of conscience” better than others. Not surprisingly, Robert Bolt’s play about Thomas More got the most mentions. Here are our top ten picks. Give us your comments and further suggestions.
A Man For All Seasons, by Robert Bolt. Thomas More is a splendid model for conscientious objection. Although he did not seek condemnation or death, he would not do what he thought in his heart was wrong, to swear that Henry VIII was the head of the Church in England. One of his friends presses him to sign, “for friendship’s sake”. To which More responds, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for friendship?”
The Apology, by Plato. The Apology is the defence that Socrates made of his life and vision before a jury of his peers. They condemned him to death for “atheism” and perverting the young men of Athens. To which Socrates responds: “I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?”
Antigone, by Sophocles. Antigone stands for religious freedom in the face of a tyranny. I admire this heroine for giving her life to affirm that there is an authority (God) above the State. (See the recent article on MercatorNet.)
Murder in the Cathedral, by T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s poetic drama of the closing scene of the life of Thomas Becket, and his prolonged conflict with Henry II over the Church-State relationship, shows the Archbishop of Canterbury ready to face death in defence of the Church’s independence. But he still has to wrestle with his conscience over the temptation to “do the right thing for the wrong reason” – that is, for personal honour and renown. This interior conflict is resolved in favour of duty to his office, and he resolutely awaits his fate. On Youtube there is a series of short videos which reproduce an excellent vinyl recording of Murder In the Cathedral by Caedmon Records: https://youtu.be/MxA_3qyN1lk It is something you need to actually hear.
The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In this and other books the famous survivor of Stalin’s infamous prison camps records his resistance – and that of various characters — to all forms of oppression or blackmail to preserve their convictions and human decency.
The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day. She and her associates were willing to prophetically live the Sermon on the Mount in the face of persecution, misunderstanding and harsh criticism from both people of faith and non-believers. As far as social conscience goes, I cut my teeth on The Catholic Worker, the paper that Day and her associates produced and that was always in our home in my childhood. The fact that she is being considered for canonisation as a saint by the Church is particularly relevant for our crazed times with their great divide between the very wealthy and the poverty stricken.
Sophie Scholl and the White Rose by Jud Newborn and Annette Dumbach, provides the fuller story behind the movie, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. In the 1940s Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were among a handful of fellow students at the University of Munich, as well as one professor, who launched a movement against the Nazi dictatorship, disseminating leaflets widely in Germany to encourage passive resistance. Sophie’s arrest and trial — ending in execution — is treated in some detail, representing the bravery of these young Germans who consciences forced them to resist tyranny and the Nazi persecution of fellow citizens.
The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand, by Dr Alice van Hildebrand. Better known as a Catholic philosopher and professor at Fordham University in the US last century, this biography by his wife records the outspoken stand Dietrich von Hildebrand took against the Nazis, making him a marked man. He only avoided assassination by escaping to the United States with his family in 1940.
Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This autobiography demonstrates the capacity of the human spirit to resist tyranny and stupidity. Her strength, her courage, her intelligence, her will, are admirable.
Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. The main characters are Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey amidst a community of female Oxford dons; the subject matter is academic dishonesty for personal gain and a poison pen in their midst. The dramatization in many ways and through several characters, of integrity in duty, self-honesty in intention and trying to do the right thing in small and great ways, known and unknown to the world, made this a faith-forming and life-changing novel for me, leading me to embrace the Christian Faith. The “little martyrdom” of an otherwise secular story brought me to understand that God is never apart from truth and the FACTS — just the avoidance of the facts. This is one of the last of Sayers’ detective novels; her final one was Busman’s Honeymoon which picks up the same theme of intention and honesty in relationships, in being true to the experience of love.