James Froude from Life and Times of Thomas Becket

Life and Times of Thomas Becket

James Anthony Froude

THE mind, or spiritual part of man, ought to direct his body. Nothing is more natural, therefore, than the parallel assumption that the Church, or the spiritual part of society, ought to direct the State. A theory so simple, so complete, has in all ages recommended itself to theologians. It would be accepted universally but for one difficulty that while society can be divided into separate orders, wisdom and virtue cannot be divided, and priests are sometimes worldly and wicked, and laymen sometimes also are brave and wise and good. Priesthoods, therefore, to make out their case have been driven to assume that they possess peculiar privileges; that they have special means of communicating with God and of knowing his will; that they can work miracles, visible or invisible; that they, in fact, are God’s representatives directly appointed by himself. The two swords of St. Peter are the two authorities, secular and spiritual; but to Peter they were both committed, and the civil power in Christian countries exists only as the delegate of Peter’s successors.

If it be true that the clergy are possessed of supernatural powers; if ‘the keys,’ as they are called, have in any such sense been committed to them; if through them, actually and palpably, the will of God is made known to men, and in no other way, the assumption, bold though it be, is fairly justified, and kings and cabinets ought to be superseded by commissions of bishops. If, on the other hand, the clergy are but like other orders of priesthoods in other ages and countries mere human beings set apart for peculiar functions, and tempted by the nature of those functions into fantastic notions of their own consequence the recurring conflicts between Church and State resolve themselves into phenomena of social evolution, the common sense of mankind exerting itself to control a groundless assumption. To the student of human nature the story of such conflicts is always interesting comedy and tragedy winding one into the other. They have furnished occasion for remarkable exhibitions of human character; and I take advantage of the publication of new materials and the republication of old materials in an accessible form to draw a sketch of the once famous St. Thomas of Canterbury, who, after three centuries of neglect, is again being lifted up as an object of admiration, and in whose actions and whose fate an incredulous world, though unconvinced that he was a saint, may still find instruction. I must commence with an attempt to reproduce the mental condition of the times in which St. Thomas lived. Human nature is said to be always the same. It is no less true that human nature is continuously changing. Motives which in one age are languid and even unintelligible have been in another alive and all-powerful. To comprehend these differences, to take them up into his imagination, to keep them present before him as the key to what he reads, is the chief difficulty and the chief duty of the student of history. Characteristic incidents, particular things which men representative of their age indisputably did, convey a clearer idea than any general description. Let the reader attend to a few transactions which occurred either in Becket’s lifetime or immediately subsequent to it, in which the principal actors were persons known to himself.

That’s how it begins: p 1-2. The bit about motives in different ages is absolutely true as is easily recognised by anyone who lives long enough to see the foundational ethics of their youths become the moral poisons of their old age.

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