Cancel Culture From Thomas More To Godward Podcast

I suspect that in every society that has ever existed, there have been certain obvious truths you could not say out loud without serious blowback. I don’t think cancel culture is new.

No movie had more of an impact on my childhood as A Man For All Seasons (1966) about Thomas More. I saw him as a brave martyr. Wikipedia notes:

The film and play both depict the final years of Sir Thomas More, the 16th-century Lord Chancellor of England who refused both to sign a letter asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry VIII of England’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and to take an Oath of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England….

The title reflects playwright Bolt’s portrayal of More as the ultimate man of conscience, remaining true to his principles and religion under all circumstances and at all times. Bolt borrowed the title from Robert Whittington, a contemporary of More, who in 1520 wrote of him: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”

…Upon receiving his death sentence, More denounces the king’s Supremacy over the Church as illegal, citing the Biblical foundation for the authority of the Papacy over the Church and declaring the alleged Supremacy of the King repugnant to the legal institutions of all Christendom. More further declares that the Church’s immunity to State interference is guaranteed both in Magna Carta and in the King’s own coronation oath. As uproar ensues, the judges pronounce the full sentence according to the standard forms: More is remitted to the Tower and condemned to death by beheading.

The scene switches from the court to the scaffold on Tower Hill, where before his execution More observes custom by pardoning and tipping the executioner before declaring, “I die his Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.” He kneels at the block and the executioner cuts off his head.

I didn’t realize as a child how many people More had burned at the stake for heresy.

Sometimes in life, we get burned at the stake (metaphorically) and other times we burn others at the stake. Sometimes we’re the concentration camp inmates (metaphorically) and sometimes we’re the guards.

A key insight I developed early in my life was that nothing that was human was foreign to me. With a little work, I could empathize with anyone.

I often find it useful to look at the pain in my life as 100% self-inflicted. I take this perspective not because it is necessarily true, but because it can be useful.

When I compare my experience as a Protestant and my experience as a Jew, it seems like there was 100 times as much veneration of martyrdom in Protestantism. God, after all, in Christianity is portrayed as taking on human flesh so he can come to earth and die on a cross to save humanity from sin. Christianity is romantic religion while Judaism is unromantic religion. Jews don’t tend to extoll martyrdom and the next life as much as Christians do. Jews are more pragmatic. They are more likely to make peace with reality rather than to war against it. notes: “The essays collected in Persecution and the Art of Writing all deal with one problem—the relation between philosophy and politics. Here, Strauss sets forth the thesis that many philosophers, especially political philosophers, have reacted to the threat of persecution by disguising their most controversial and heterodox ideas.”


Strauss’s general argument—rearticulated throughout his subsequent writings (most notably in The City and Man – 1964)—is that prior to the 19th century, Western scholars commonly understood that philosophical writing is not at home in any polity, no matter how liberal. Insofar as it questions conventional wisdom at its roots, philosophy must guard itself especially against those readers who believe themselves authoritative, wise, and liberal defenders of the status quo. In questioning established opinions, or in investigating the principles of morality, philosophers of old found it necessary to convey their messages in an oblique manner. Their “art of writing” was the art of esoteric communication. This is all the more apparent in medieval times, when heterodox political thinkers wrote under the threat of the Inquisition or comparably intransigent tribunals.

Strauss’s argument is not that the medieval writers he studies reserved one exoteric meaning for the many (hoi polloi) and an esoteric or hidden one for the few (hoi aristoi, literally “the best”) but rather that their writings’ respective core meanings extended beyond and were irreducible to their texts’ literal and/or historical dimension.

Explicitly following Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s lead, Strauss indicates that medieval political philosophers, no less than their ancient counterparts, in writing, carefully adapted their wording to the dominant moral views of their time, lest their writings be condemned as heretical or unjust, not by “the many” (who did not read), but by those “few” whom the many regarded as the most righteous guardians of morality: precisely those few righteous personalities would be most inclined to persecute or ostracize anyone who is in the business of exposing the “noble” or “great lie” upon which stands or falls the authority of the few over the many. Strauss thus presents Maimonides “as a closet nonbeliever obfuscating his message for political reasons.”

From Haaretz:

For 30 years, Yehiel De-Nur, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who wrote under the pseudonym “Ka-Tzetnik,” was tormented by horrific nightmares. Every night, Auschwitz would visit him in his sleep, and he would wake up screaming, drenched in perspiration. His wife, Nina, heard about a Dutch psychiatrist who healed trauma using LSD, and over a period of two years urged her husband to see him. Finally he agreed, and in the summer of 1976 the couple traveled to the city of Leiden, in the Netherlands from Israel, where they lived. They spent a year there.

Ka-Tzetnik’s encounter with Jan Bastiaans was apparently the most meaningful experience of his life, following Auschwitz. “My mind goes numb at the mere thought of Prof. Bastiaans,” he wrote a decade later in his book “Shivitti: A Vision,” first published in full in the weekly newsmagazine Ha’olam Hazeh.

In the book, published in English in 1989 in a translation by Eliyah Nike De-Nur and Lisa Herman, Ka-Tzetnik (the Yiddish acronym used to describe a concentration camp inmate) describes how Bastiaans injected him with the drug and how he was abruptly catapulted from the spacious, pleasant therapy room back into hell, entering the ghetto behind Vevke, the cobbler, when suddenly the cobbler’s bench changes colors “from blinding yellow-green to ultraviolet… elongating like that clock of Salvador Dali’s.” Then, before his eyes, Vevke’s face transmutes into the face of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. The whole of Auschwitz is illuminated by the flames of the bold colors, he writes.

The entire process of treatment is recorded. During the trance, Bastiaans sits next to Ka-Tzetnik and urges him to describe in detail the hallucinations racing through his mind. He also sees to it that the patient does not drown under the horror. Bastiaans tells him that if he hadn’t wakened him he would not have been able to bring him back. You would have remained there, lost in limbo, the psychiatrist tells him.

Five LSD treatments sufficed for Ka-Tzetnik, before he announced that he wanted to go home. The nightmares vanished, and for the first time in 30 years he was able to sleep peacefully. After Leiden, he said, he was no longer the same person he had been before. Under the influence of the treatments, he retracted his famous comment – made when he gave testimony in the Eichmann trial, in 1961 – that Auschwitz was another planet. In an interview to journalist Ram Evron in 1988, he said, “Neither Satan nor God built Auschwitz, but I and you.” In that room in Leiden, he grasped that Auschwitz was the handiwork of human beings, “and it’s Hitler, it wasn’t Satan. He was a person.”

…While the patient was under the influence of the drug, Bastiaans and the clinic staff invoked techniques of psychodrama to stimulate memories and flood the patient emotionally. Bastiaans played Nazi march music for the patients and exposed them to S.S. symbols and effigies of Nazis. He also played roles of characters in situations that the patients had experienced.

“Bastiaans took the role of authority, often it was the role of the caring father but also he might be the camp commander, the person who was feared,” Van Waning explains. “There was always someone supervising in the room, usually a woman. So I might get the role of a mother or sister or a more supporting person. The script wrote itself during the session.”

‘The aim is to live through what happened but also to see it in a larger context, become a ‘witness’ and see that now it was safe.’

So it was a form of improvisation?

“Yes. It all depended on what the patient would reveal. The patient could suddenly say to Bastiaans, ‘You hate me, I can see it in your eyes, you are going to destroy me.’ So within the hallucination, it felt real to him. But the patient might also say, “The way you are looking at me reminds me of the camp commander.’ In that case Bastiaans would not join in ‘being’ that person but ask the patient in what way he was like that person and what kind of feelings that generated. I think that it’s not very fruitful to let the patient identify with these positions completely and for a long time; the aim is to live through what happened but also to see it in a larger context, become a ‘witness’ and see that now it was safe. There is a great risk of re-traumatizing the patient when the patient is taken back into this hell and relives it in that deep, direct sense. It can aggravate the problems, the suffering. So it is important to touch on what happened just enough so that we can be a witness.

Hilary Mantel writes in the second novel of her Wolf Hall trilogy — Bring up the Bodies:

* He finds he cannot think of the dying men at all. Into his mind instead strays the picture of More on the scaffold, seen through the veil of rain: his body, already dead, folding back neatly from the impact of the axe. The cardinal when he fell had no persecutor more relentless than Thomas More. Yet, he thinks, I did not hate him. I exercised my skills to the utmost to persuade him to reconcile with the king. And I thought I would win him, I really thought I would, for he was tenacious of the world, tenacious of his person, and had a good deal to live for. In the end he was his own murderer. He wrote and wrote and he talked and talked, then suddenly at a stroke he cancelled himself. If ever a man came close to beheading himself, Thomas More was that man.

* He [Thomas Wyatt] will be released, he says. But perhaps not until Anne [Boleyn] is dead.
The hours to that event seem long. Richard hugs him; says, ‘If she had reigned longer she would have given us to the dogs to eat.’
‘If we had let her reign longer, we would have deserved it.’

* The Lord Chancellor says, ‘The truth is so rare and precious that sometimes it must be kept under lock and key.’

Galileo had trouble with the Catholic Church. Notes Wikipedia: “Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism and Copernicanism met with opposition from within the Catholic Church and from some astronomers. The matter was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, which concluded that heliocentrism was “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture”.[9][10][11]

Galileo later defended his views in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), which appeared to attack Pope Urban VIII and thus alienated both the Pope and the Jesuits, who had both supported Galileo up until this point.[9] He was tried by the Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, and forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.”

French philosopher Rene Descartes had to find a modus vivendi with the Catholic Church. “Though raised as a Catholic, Descartes, who had been summoned in 1649 to tutor Queen Christina, was regarded with suspicion by many of his theological coreligionists. His theories were viewed as incompatible with the belief of transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine served during the Eucharist become the flesh and blood of Christ.” The Guardian says: “French philosopher was killed by arsenic-laced holy communion wafer after airing ‘heretic’ views, says academic.”

Wikipedia notes: “The Catholic Church prohibited his books in 1663… Descartes steered clear of theological questions, restricting his attention to showing that there is no incompatibility between his metaphysics and theological orthodoxy. He avoided trying to demonstrate theological dogmas metaphysically. When challenged that he had not established the immortality of the soul merely in showing that the soul and the body are distinct substances, for example, he replied, “I do not take it upon myself to try to use the power of human reason to settle any of those matters which depend on the free will of God.””

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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