This week, I watched A Man for All Seasons. It tells the story of how Sir Thomas More refused to approve Henry VIII’s separation from Catherine of Aragon or recognise the king as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. More’s story reminded me of Callisthenes, and how he stood up to Alexander over the issue of proskynesis.
The Thomas More of A Man for all Seasons is a heroic figure. I understand (as I haven’t read it) that the Thomas More of Wolf Hall, a novel by Hilary Mantel, is a villain. Arrian discusses Callisthenes’ opposition to Alexander in some detail. He gives the historian little credit for it, referring to his ‘clumsy protest’ and ‘gross stupidity in making such an inappropriately frank outburst’. Conversely, Curtius talks about Alexander’s ‘depraved idea’ of ‘appropriating divine honours to himself’. When Callisthenes argues against this, he is heard, Curtius says, ‘with approval as the champion of public freedom.’
What I found particularly interesting after watching A Man for All Seasons and reading Arrian’s and Curtius’ accounts of the proskynesis controversy is how Thomas and Callisthenes get in trouble despite doing completely opposite things: Sir Thomas is challenged to swear Henry’s Oath of Supremacy. He refuses to do so, but neither will he give Henry a reason to prosecute him, so he stays silent. He keeps that silence up until he is executed. When it comes to the issue of proskynesis, Callisthenes can’t stop talking.
Tragedy lies heavy on all the actors in these two dramas, 1,800 years apart. Henry wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine because he and the country needed a successor – to avoid the possibility of civil war. At a time when Alexander should have been celebrating his many and continuing successes, he let the same go to his head. Thomas should have left the country. Callisthenes should have learnt to control his tongue. All that happened did not need to happen.
Now, the truth is, I know my Tudor history, but only on a shallow level: Perhaps Thomas couldn’t have left the country. I doubt, however, that what happened to him was inevitable. Nothing is ever inevitable. Callisthenes, though, could and should have known when to shut up. It’s all very sad, and frustrating.