William Roper v. Richard Rich

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 In good faith, Mr. Rich, I am more sorry for your perjury than mine own peril; and know you that neither I nor any one else to my knowledge ever took you to be a man of such credit as either I or any other could vouchsafe to communicate with you in any matter of importance.

Saint Thomas More

 

Two arresting scenes from A Man For All Seasons, (1966).  Usually the second scene in the video clip is remembered for the statement by Sir Thomas More that he would give even the devil benefit of the law.  I have written about that statement here.  However there is another interesting facet to the pairing of these two scenes:  a comparison of William Roper and Richard Rich.

Sir Thomas is fond of Roper the suitor of his daughter, and the fondness is obvious in the scene.  However, he will not allow him to marry his daughter because he is a heretic.  More notes that at one time Roper was a passionate churchman and now he is a passionate Lutheran and hopes that when his head stops spinning it will be to the front again.  (Roper did become an orthodox Catholic again and remained one till his death, even under the reign of Bad Queen Bess.)  In spite of Roper being something that Sir Thomas detests, that does not alter either his liking or his high regard for the young man.  Why is this?  Because Roper is obviously seeking after the truth and attempting to do what he thinks is right.  Such good motivation is to be respected even when it reaches erroneous conclusions.

Richard Rich on the other hand lacks such motivation.  More likes him also, but recognizes that he has no character.  Rich will do whatever it takes for him to rise in the world, and if that involves immoral actions, so be it.  Unlike Roper he lacks any good motivation or honest intent.  (The historical Rich was a complete scoundrel and recognized as such at the time.  He specialized in betrayals and making himself useful to whoever was in power at the time.  Under Henry and Edward he persecuted Catholics, under Mary he persecuted Protestants, and under Elizabeth he was whatever she was.  It is a sad commentary on the human condition that such an open, time-serving villain prospered and died in his bed, the founder of an aristocratic dynasty.)

Unlike Roper, More has no hope for Rich.  An earnest seeker after truth, even enmeshed in error, may ultimately find it;   someone who regards truth as  infinitely malleable in the service of personal ambition is lost.  More has pity on Rich and will not use his office to punish him for being evil, but he does not want him in his service, and does not seek to have him stay.

These scenes can be very useful in our own lives.  People we encounter with good motivations and who earnestly desire to learn the truth are never to be scorned no matter how much they disagree with us.  Poor lost souls who flee from truth when it presents an obstacle to something they desire are to be pitied, because their moral state is far more perilous, to them and to those around them, than someone who is honestly mistaken.

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6 Responses to William Roper v. Richard Rich

  • Well of course “Parliament has not the competence” – it’s Parliament! What possible competence could it have? ;)

  • Those are some pretty interesting thoughts there Don; I had not considered More’s perception of Roper & Rich, but it completely makes sense. Are there any books or other movies on More’s life that you might recommend?

  • There are endless good books on Saint Thomas Kyle!

    William Roper’s life of his father-in-law is the starting point for all More biographers.

    One of the more recent bios is Peter Ackroyd’s Life of Thomas More, which has some of the best recent scholarship on More.

    I have enjoyed The Field is Won by Ernest Edwin Reynolds.

    The late Richard Marius did an interesting, if critical, biography of More in 1984. Marius was editor of the Yale collection of the writings of More, and knew his source material, but his bio was marred by Marius attempting to portray More as troubled by religious doubt. Actually Marius, a fallen away evangelical, was reading his own lack of faith into More. He pulled the same unconvincing analysis in his bio of Luther.

    More biographies are endless, and in his case it is always “More the merrier!”

  • One thing about the line about giving the devil benefit of law for his own safety:
    The law didn’t keep him safe did it? St. Thomas lost his life because a legal proceeding warped by the perjury of someone who didn’t respect the law!

  • John Guy’s A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg gives a rather negative portrayal of Roper.

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