Thursday, March 20, 2008

They Might Be Giants

Geez...first Arthur C. Clarke, now this:

The Oscar-winning British stage and screen actor Paul Scofield has died at the age of 86. Scofield, one of the finest classical actors of his generation, won his Academy award as well as a Bafta, in 1967 for his role as Sir Thomas More, the 16th century Lord Chancellor executed by Henry VIII, in the film of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.

Scofield was always wonderful. His King Lear--wonderful. His Nazi colonel trying to steal all of France's art--wonderful. But in this particular role, Thomas More, he stood alongside Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird as a role model of Absolute Integrity for me.

When I first saw the movie as a teenager, it was quite clear to me--crystal clear and irrefutable--that this was what manhood was all about, if it was about anything. Not macho posturing, not physical intimidation, not swaggering bravado, but quiet strength, deep self-knowledge, absolute integrity, and the willingness to stand firm for what was right, come what may. Because a legacy of Right was ultimately better protection for your family and your country than a temporary sense of comfort and security.

It also confirmed for me--along with Mockingbird and the example of my own, personal Atticus Finch--my father--that nothing was more awe-inspiring in the human animal than our ability and willingness to Make Law--and live by Law.

Yes, I know, the authors of the Torah have God delivering the commandments to us and saying, "Behold, I set before you the blessing and the curse, life and death. Therefore, choose life, that you and your people may live." But whoever or whatever may have inspired their writing, they were written by us. By us--as a defense against our own aggresive appetites. By us--as a way to live peacefully together, rather than endlessly at war and alone. We did that. And we don't give ourselves enough credit for it. All we see are the weaknesses, the breaches, the times we don't live up to our ideals. And there are plenty of those. But our ability to see those ideals--and want them--and set them down as codes to live by...that's nothing to take for granted.

I've certainly lived more by the breach than by the observance. But a man's reach must exceed his grasp, right?

So I'll leave you with Thomas More (as imagined by Robert Bolt), who did live (and die) by those principles:

William Roper

So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More

Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper

Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas 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 is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Me, too.

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