An age less fastidious than our own

by Chris Bertram on December 10, 2005

I went to see a production of Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons”: in Bath last night. Martin Shaw was marvellous as More. I was surprised that I already knew much of the dialogue (certainly from “the Fred Zinnemann film”: ). And there are many great moments such as the confrontation between More and Roper in Act 1 concerning the conflict between conscience, God’s law and the laws of England. I wondered, watching the play, whether anything had been mucked about with to make the performance more “topical”, and I was sure it must have been when the “Common Man” declaimed at the start of Act 2:

bq. Only an unhappy few were found to set themselves against the current of their times, and in so doing to court disaster. For we are dealing with an age less fastidious than our own. Imprisonment without trial, and even examination under torture, were common practice.

But no. Those lines are there in Bolt’s original.



Bob B 12.10.05 at 7:27 am

As the great prophet Karl Marx wrote: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

The bit he seems to have got wrong in the present context is about the second time being a farce.


Tim Worstall 12.10.05 at 8:04 am

Great at the Theatre Royal isn’t it?

My favourite lines from the play are “And would you cut down all the laws of England in order to chase the Devil”


“And when the Devil turned on you where would you hide?”

(Sorry, I know that’s not correct. From memory).

Rather speaks to the abolition of jury trial, double jeopardy etc etc etc.


Bob B 12.10.05 at 8:09 am

“WARSAW, Dec 9 (Reuters) – Poland was the heart of the CIA’s secret detention network in Europe until recently, an analyst of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch organisation was quoted as telling a Polish newspaper.

“‘Poland was the main base for CIA interrogations in Europe, while Romania played more of a role in the transfer of detained prisoners,’ analyst Marc Garlasco was quoted on Friday by Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza as saying in an interview.”

I guess someone thought it would be a pity not to use all those skills nurtured in Poland during the times of Rakoshi and Gomulka.


mark s 12.10.05 at 10:23 am

t.more on (among others) j.wycliff: “and for heretics, as they be, the clergy doth denounce them; and, as they be well worthy, the temporality doth burn them; and after the fire of Smithfield hell doth receive them, where the wretches burn forever” 

more wz also i believe basically pro-torture when it came to the WRONG KIND of CHRISTIAN (henry viii of course switched sides in this issue, broke w.the pope, had the bible translated into english, and set in motiion all kinds of political transformations which wd culminate in the crash and burn of feudalism) (not henry’s intention possibly) (anyway these suggest some of the “principled” reasons more opposed him) (which he admittedly did very courageously)


Bob B 12.10.05 at 11:59 am

Thomas Moore was executed for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as the head of the Church in England as required by laws approved by due process at the time. But anyone who entertains doubts about whether rewriting history by legislation is still in fashion might try this:

“PRESIDENT CHIRAC sought to quell a bitter international dispute yesterday over France’s colonial record by calling on the country to face up to the dark side of its past. M Chirac disowned a law, passed by his own conservative majority, that requires teachers to put a favourable spin on the legacy of the former French empire.”,,13509-1918456,00.html

Credit where credit is due.


Another Damned Medievalist 12.10.05 at 12:53 pm

Mark — “set in motiion all kinds of political transformations which wd culminate in the crash and burn of feudalism”

Is quite possibly the most ignorant, uninformed, and asinine thing anyone has ever said in a CT comment thread.


mark s 12.10.05 at 1:45 pm

heh i rather doubt that adm but i am proud to be in the running :)


Kieran Healy 12.10.05 at 2:42 pm

Poor old ADM. (I don’t mean that sarcastically.) Maybe I should start talking about the transition from feudalism to capitalism again, and hasten your first stress-related heart attack :)

Actually, you should know that I substantially rewrote my getting-oriented-to-the-long-19th-century lecture for my Social Theory class based on some of your earlier agonised comments.

I hope “manorial economy” is still allowed, though.


Mrs Tilton 12.10.05 at 2:44 pm


not verbatim, perhaps, but close enough.

I’m probably completely smoking dope on this one. But years and years ago I had a very old volume of memoirs of More by his son-in-law Roper and, if the passage of years isn’t making me hallucinate, I think I recall him recording More saying something very close to those famous lines.

There is perhaps no man who ever lived who had the courage of his convictions more fully than did More. But for all that, he was not the man Bolt painted him. All the more impressive, then, if my recollection is correct and the real More did make that comment about laws and devils.


Another Damned Medievalist 12.10.05 at 3:09 pm

Kieran, wow! And manorial economy is very much acceptable, AFAIK. It’s the conflation with the f-word that drives many of us crazy — and should anyone who deals with relationships between people of different social status (in my field, the whole transition betwen orders and classes is loads of fun).


bryan 12.10.05 at 4:58 pm

“The bit he seems to have got wrong in the present context is about the second time being a farce.”

you think this because you are drawn into the farce.

I am sorry, but modern america must be the most farcical self-destruction of a nation to ever take place.


bellatrys 12.10.05 at 5:18 pm

the meme was going around earlier in 2004:

Lady Alice More:
Arrest him!

Sir Thomas More:
For what?

Lady Alice:
He’s dangerous!

Will Roper:
For all we know he’s a spy!

Margaret More:
Father, that man’s bad!

There’s no law against that.

There is – God’s law!

Then let God arrest him.

Lady Alice:
While you talk he’s gone!

And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law.

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

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

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

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!


Bob B 12.10.05 at 5:22 pm

Bryan: “I am sorry, but modern america must be the most farcical self-destruction of a nation to ever take place.”

I think I understand why you say that but it is OTT to regard extraordinary rendition and torture as merely farcical.

To recap:

“Prague, 24 January 2003 (RFE/RL) — U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld this week put his finger on an uncomfortable division in Europe with his comment that the continent could be broken into ‘old’ and ‘new’ categories — at least with respect to its thinking on Iraq.

“Rumsfeld, responding to a reporter’s question on 22 January about ‘European’ opposition to the use of force in Iraq, said the reporter meant France and Germany, which were part of ‘old’ Europe. He contrasted them with the vitality of the ‘new’ Europe — made up in large part of NATO’s new, formerly communist, inductees.”

Curious then that the CIA is reportedly using prisons in the ‘new’, former Communist inductees, and not the ‘old’ Europe for extraordinary rendition.

Now for a farcical bit?

“How planespotters turned into the scourge of the CIA. . . The recording of flights by spotters like Paul from places as far afield as Bournemouth and Karachi has unintentionally played a significant role in helping journalists and human rights groups expose the scale of the CIA’s renditions system.”,12780,1664147,00.html

“The presence of CIA jets on Irish soil has been well documented by a group of plane-spotters at Shannon.”

Prsuambly, Rumsfeld needs to have the plane spotters taken out. I mean, why stop at bombing al-Jazeera?


Cryptic Ned 12.10.05 at 6:16 pm

Am I the only one who was surprised by the exact wording of the Karl Marx quote in comment #1? I always thought the idea was that history repeats itself twice – in other words, history occurs, and then occurs two more times. Marx is actually saying that history occurs twice, once as tragedy and once as farce. This is different from what I always thought the saying was, and makes more sense.


Backword Dave 12.10.05 at 7:00 pm

Oh, come.

“The weight of this sad time we must obey/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say./The oldest hath borne most; we that are young/Shall not see so much, nor live so long.”

(King Lear, as if you didn’t know.) I keep saying this, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. A good aphorism, it seems to me, is forever. This shouldn’t be so to a proper Marxist — someone who thinks that societal changes alter human nature and truth. (Apologies in advance for a rather glib summation of Marxism.)

Politicians lie, dissemble, and some third word which meant the same bloody thing as the first two which I’ve forgotten after all this typing. What else is new?

Hell, I had a point when I started. Oh yes. There are no “ages” and there are no “times.” History, life, everything: just one damn thing after another. It doesn’t divide into epochs (“When men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri”). Eternal advice: “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meeders.”


Mr Ripley 12.11.05 at 3:10 am

People have been killed for trying to make political philosophy out of Bringing It All Back Home. Stick to Desire.


bellatrys 12.11.05 at 9:35 am


CharleyCarp 12.11.05 at 2:36 pm

Here’s a quote from the opinion of Lord Hope of Craighead, in the Dec. 8, 2005 decision in A and Others v. Secretary of State for the Home Department:

106. It was not unknown during the 17th century, while torture was still being practised here, for statements extracted by this means to be used as evidence in criminal proceedings to obtain the conviction of third parties. J H Langbein, Torture and the Law of Proof: Europe and England in the Ancien Regime (University of Chicago Press, 1977), p 94 has shown that a warrant was issued by the Privy Council in 1551 for the torture of persons committed to the Tower on suspicion of being involved in the alleged treason of the Duke of Somerset. The confession obtained from William Crane was read, in Crane’s absence, at the Duke’s trial: Heath, Torture and English Law: An Administrative and Legal History from the Plantagenets to the Stuarts (1982), p 75.

107. When the jurisdiction of the Star Chamber was abolished in England prisoners were transferred to Scotland so that they could be forced by the Scots Privy Council which still used torture to provide information to the authorities. This is illustrated by the case of Robert Baillie of Jerviswood whose trial took place in Edinburgh in December 1684. A detailed description of the events of that trial can be found in Fountainhall’s Decisions of the Lords of Council and Session, vol I, 324-326: for a summary, see Torture [2004] 53 ICLQ 807, 818-820. Robert Baillie had been named by William Spence, who was suspected of being involved in plotting a rebellion against the government of Charles II, as one of his co-conspirators. Spence gave this information having been arrested in London and taken to Edinburgh, where he was tortured. Baillie in his turn was arrested in England and taken to Scotland, where he was put on trial before a jury in the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh. All objections having been repelled by the trial judge, the statement which Spence had given under torture was read to the jury. Baillie was convicted the next day, and the sentence of death that was passed on him was executed that afternoon. There is a warning here for us. “Extraordinary rendition”, as it is known today, is not new. It was being practised in England in the 17th century.

. . . This is additional quote is OT but too good to pass up:

113. Once torture has become acclimatised in a legal system it spreads like an infectious disease, hardening and brutalising those who have become accustomed to its use: Holdsworth, A History of English Law, vol v, p 194. As Jackson J in his dissenting opinion in Korematsu v United States, 323 US 214 (1944), 246 declared, once judicial approval is given to such conduct, it lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. A single instance, if approved to meet the threat of international terrorism, would establish a principle with the power to grow and expand so that everything that falls within it would be regarded as acceptable. Without hesitation I would hold that, subject to the single exception referred to in article 15, the admission of any statements obtained by this means against third parties is absolutely precluded in any proceedings as evidence. I would apply this rule irrespective of where, or by whom, the torture was administered.


Evan McElravy 12.11.05 at 2:58 pm

Extraodrinary rendition…yes, I think that’s basically what happened to More’s old antagonist Tyndale. After leaving England, as memory serves, he had settled in Antwerp, a free-city; the year after More went to the block, he was kidnapped by secret agents of the HRE and black-bagged into their jurisdiction, where he was forthwith tried, garotted, and burned at the stake.


Bob B 12.11.05 at 3:54 pm

Something of potential significance in this that puzzles me: how is the judiciary in a trial to know for sure, or on the balance of probabilities, whether witness statements submitted to the court in the course of the trial have been obtained through torture?


Barry 12.11.05 at 7:47 pm

bob b, the obvious presumption should be that whenever somebody is imprisoned under a secret system, that they’ve been tortured.


bellatrys 12.11.05 at 8:21 pm

charley carp, if that date of 1684 is correct, that means that England was still using rendition after it was technically illegal via the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which specifically said you couldn’t shove prisoners off to other bits of Great Britain or overseas to allies or colonies to evade the law, and specified high fines and stripping of privileges for law officers and officials caught doing it.

Which would put them about where things were during the Clinton administration, I guess.


CharleyCarp 12.11.05 at 11:16 pm

bob b, much of the 91 pages of that Law Lords opinion I quote concerns this exact problem. I can send the decision as a pdf if you’re interested.


Bob B 12.12.05 at 12:19 am

charleycarp, Many thanks for the signposting and kind offer of a link. With your prompting I’ve now googled and managed to find links for the House of Lords’ judgement in both pdf and html formats:

As I’m very much not a lawyer, I’ll fetch out the necessary cold towels before getting down to reading the 91 pages in shifts.


Bob B 12.12.05 at 12:40 am

For those with pressing time constraints, the BBC report of the House of Lords’ judgement on evidence obtained by torture is here:

with more by the BBC’s legal affairs analyst here:

The latter answers my earlier question:

“Although the judgment on the substantive issue was unanimous, the law lords disagreed about a significant matter – standard of proof.

“Three took the view that if, after an inquiry, SIAC [Special Immigration Appeals Commission] could not reach a decision on whether evidence had been obtained under torture, it should exclude it.

“But the majority held that SIAC was entitled to admit such evidence if it was left in doubt about how it had been gathered.

“Given that chunks of SIAC hearings are held in secret, even the lawyers for appellants may not know why the commission has decided to admit some evidence, despite claims that it has been tainted by the use of torture.

“The law lords addressed the important ethical dilemma of whether the police or security forces should act on information which was the product of torture.

“But this was not the same as using that information in legal proceedings.”


abb1 12.12.05 at 4:25 am

Freedom-and-human-rights-loving US government building a little GULAG to torture enemies of the people in former communist states? C’mon, If that’s not farcical, I don’t know what is.


Bob B 12.12.05 at 5:57 am

Well, abb1, I continue to remain reluctant to apply the notion of farce to the real torture of people.

The judgement of the Lords in refusing to contenance evidence gained from torture has been widely celebrated but on looking through the finer print as sifted by the BBC’s legal affairs analyst, it was reported that:

““But the majority held that SIAC was entitled to admit such evidence if it was left in doubt about how it had been gathered.”

As it seems likely that there could often remain scope for reasonable doubt about whether evidence and admissions have been gathered through torture, it seems highly probable from the Lord’s judgement that the SIAC will admit evidence obtained by such means.

If not, perhaps someone will post up where and why I am drawing incorrect conclusions.


abb1 12.12.05 at 6:21 am

Bob, I understand what you’re saying, but as Bryan noted this is a matter of perspective – tens of thousands of people on earth are killed, maimed and tortured every day and this has been going on for decades. IIRC, John Ralston Saul counted about 40 on-going armed conflicts during the 1990s, most probably at least as barbaric as the WOT. I don’t think American torture adds significantly to the overall tragedy of brutality in the world, while the incredible hypocrisy of this thing does make it farcical. In my opinion, anyway.

It’s like, say, Rush Limbaugh being a drug addict – is it a misfortune for him and his family? I suppose it is, but at the same time isn’t it mostly a farce?


rea 12.12.05 at 6:41 am

Just because the present administration is a BLOODY farce, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t qualify as a farce. Napoleon III, object of Marx’s original comment, had a lot of blood on his hands, too. Iraq might be a fair match with Mexico under Napoleon III’s puppet Maximilian . . .


Bob B 12.12.05 at 7:01 am

abb1, I understand better where you are coming from but just in today’s news in Britain:

“Benyam Mohammed al-Habashi is accused by the US government of planning a dirty bomb attack in America. He says he was tortured until he admitted the crime.

“He was arrested at Karachi airport in April 2002, with a passport under the name of Fouad Zouawi, a friend, and with a ticket to Zurich and then on to London.

“In documents compiled by the human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, he describes an encounter with someone he believes to be an MI6 officer and details the horror of his torture. Mr Habashi says the officer told him ‘I’ll see what we can do with the Americans’.

“They gave me a cup of tea with a lot of sugar in it. He said ‘Where you’re going you need a lot of sugar’.”

“He was taken to Morocco and questioned, then tortured after refusing to admit links al-Qa’ida links. . . ”

and from the Washington Post:

“BAGHDAD, Dec. 11 — An Iraqi government search of a detention center in Baghdad operated by Interior Ministry special commandos found 13 prisoners who had suffered abuse serious enough to require medical treatment, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Sunday night.

“An Iraqi official with firsthand knowledge of the search said that at least 12 of the 13 prisoners had been subjected to ‘severe torture,’ including sessions of electric shock and episodes that left them with broken bones.

“‘Two of them showed me their nails, and they were gone,’ the official said on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. . . ”


Zephania 12.12.05 at 9:37 am

Everyone is talking about actual torture but what about the threat of torture? Surely, if a person makes a statement under threat of torture the statement is as useless as it would be if obtained under actual torture. The law lords don’t seem to take this into account. Or do they?


Bob B 12.12.05 at 3:25 pm

“The law lords don’t seem to take this into account. Or do they?”

Good point: as far as I can tell, the Lords don’t.

In 1633, after being shown the instruments of torture, Galileo at the age of 69 recanted his heretical observations showing that the Earth moved round the Sun:

Not to worry. The Church officially cleared him of heresy in 1983 and finally exonerated him in 1992.


Gary Farber 12.12.05 at 8:22 pm

Utterly passing note is that I seem to have memorized, essentially, the entire play somewhere around age 12, so I do indeed heartily agree with the goodness of quoting it.

FWIW, Kevin Smith, the American film director, felt the same way, which was highlighted in a fine NY Times piece I will leave to the reader to find.

I quote the damn thing all the time. Which is the only thing I find remarkable about Chris quoting it as if it were something new, or noteable.

For Wales, Richard? For Wales?

One of those oddities I think more and more about as I age are those things that we think of as essential parts of our mental landscape, yet which are, in fact, idiosyncratic. So many things are there that we, or at least I, tend to think of as essential basics for all of us, I have slowly learned, are in fact not. We share fewer such notions than we may perhaps think we do.

For me, A Man For All Seasons was a 12-year-old-thing. For others, not at all. For you, others, and for me not at all. What to do, besides talk about what matters to us each?


Keith 12.13.05 at 10:32 am

Farce is simply Tragedy that happens to someone else. That’s why the Three Stooges are funny. In real life, their antics would result in a grim tale of tripple homicide by combination of criminal incompitence and blunt force trauma. But on TV, it’s funny!


burritoboy 12.13.05 at 8:50 pm

“For we are dealing with an age less fastidious than our own. Imprisonment without trial, and even examination under torture, were common practice.”

While that may apply to Anglo history comparing 1500 versus 1960, it makes no sense in general – if anything, imprisonment without trial and torture on a global basis was far more endemic in 1960 (or within 1960’s recent past) than it was in 1500. It was not unusual for tyrannical regimes in the very recent past before 1960 to imprison or murder substantial percentages of their own populations.

In 1500, the terms “grievous and horrific and infamous slaughters” were often used to denote under a hundred persons being executed – events which modern tyrannical regimes would be upset by if their secret police DIDN’T achieve those numbers before breakfast in every minor regional prison.


Nell 12.16.05 at 2:28 am

Then and there: It was not unknown during the 17th century, while torture was still being practised here, for statements extracted by this means to be used as evidence in criminal proceedings to obtain the conviction of third parties.

Here and now: …[T]he Graham-Levin-Kyl amendment, which is part of the same defense bill as the McCain [anti-torure] provision and is expected to pass along with it … would allow torture testimony to be used to hold and to punish detainees. … [It] allows the use of torture testimony before combatant status review tribunals, which the Bush administration has set up to determine whether a detainee is an enemy combatant.

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