The dilemma of using any means necessary for achieving noble goals has always been prevalent in philosophical and political discussions. Every country has examples of engaging in authoritarian measures to accomplish a higher objective, yet the implications are best illustrated by biographies of people who had to choose what means to resort to. Thomas More and Georges Danton are contrasting examples of figures who perished because of their choice of methods. The lives of More and Danton and the story of the French Revolution demonstrate on a societal level why prioritizing means over goals defeats the nobility of goals altogether.
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Thomas More was an English philosopher, author, and lawyer who served as the Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII. The time he lived in was characterized by the House of Tudor’s accumulation of power in the kingdom. More was born in the final years of the Wars of the Roses, with Henry VII becoming King of England. The succeeding ruler proceeded to enhance the powers of the monarch by putting himself superior to the Pope, thus ushering in a period of unlimited authoritarian rule.
More built an exceptional reputation as an advocate in London. He was also significantly influenced by the monastery lifestyle and spirituality. He was twice elected to the Parliament, under kings Henry VII and Henry VIII. More was a follower of humanism, relaying his thoughts and ideas in literature. His most famous creation is known as “Utopia”, which would become a title of a literary genre. Thomas More was publicly seen as a highly virtuous citizen, constituting a positive posthumous legacy.
Thomas More pursued a political career, with a high point being his assignment as the Lord Chancellor. The King’s decision to separate England from the Roman Catholic Church and head the Church of England himself was met with disapproval from More. After three years in office, he resigned, opposing Protestant Reformation. Yet, the kingdom continued on the course of acknowledging the ruler as the head of the church, blaming anyone who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy as a traitor. Remaining loyal to his beliefs, Thomas More chose to be executed than accept the new order.
Georges Danton was a French politician who played a pivotal role in the first years of the French Revolution. Although more than three hundred years separated him from Thomas More, the problems were similar in both time periods. The high level of economic inequality, coupled with the overpowered monarchy, produced a plethora of contentious issues for society. The difference is that at the end of the eighteenth century, France was also experiencing severe debt issues, which were had been exacerbated by insufficient harvesting seasons. As a result, the French King’s ability to resolve the multilevel crisis fueled the antifeudal sentiment.
Like Thomas More, Georges Danton also started his career as an advocate. However, he was prone to seeking luxuries and was willing to increase his wealth, while the working population was struggling with high prices. Danton faced numerous accusations regarding his corruption, which he could not refute. Danton did not hold to a particular viewpoint, changing them as they benefited him. For instance, his statements regarding Louis XVI ranged from supporting him to executing him. Danton was publicly seen as a controversial figure, is known as a patriotic revolutionary, and a corrupt official simultaneously.
Danton’s life resembles Thomas More in their political ascension and demise. Danton was appointed a minister of justice under the Legislative Assembly, but he held the position for several months. Despite the fact that he supported radical revolutionary ideologies, he stood against the Reign of Terror. He was eventually arrested and guillotined by the Committee of Public Safety. Danton and More are remarkably similar in that they were both executed by the very people they had been serving.
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The conflict between goals and means
The lives of Thomas More and Georges Danton teach a lesson on the discrepancy between the nobility of goals and authoritarian means. Both wanted to see a juster society, yet their vision of its establishment was drastically different. More was consistent in criticizing the authoritarian politics of his ruler and preferred to retain his ideas rather than agree with the King’s ambitions. In contrast, Danton eagerly shifted from one viewpoint to the other depending on the danger to his life. More is remembered as an exemplary citizen, while Danton’s life choices earned him a mixed reputation, regardless of his intentions.
Similar dynamics can be observed with the French Revolution. Society demanded reasonable changes to the economic, social, and administrative systems of the kingdom, which still followed traditions of the Middle Ages (Doyle 4). All lands were distributed according to feudal principles, however, both peasants and landlords claimed their ownership. Prices grew substantially after several poor harvest outputs, thus causing the landowners to ask for an increase in taxes, while peasants wanted the King to recognize the lands as theirs.
Stark inequality pervaded French society with strict social estates. Multiple lawyers, bankers, teachers, and even wealthy people belonged to the Third Estate, although they carried out functions vital to the country’s growth. Yet, the rigid medieval estate system did not allow people to raise higher. Aristocracy and the Royal Family ripped the most benefits, with the budget financing their entertainments. The representatives of the higher class did not welcome any societal changes for fear of losing privileges. King Louis VIII recognized the need to reform, but he was also unwilling to limit his power.
It is evident that the demand for reforms was sensible. The King’s decision to follow the traditional social and economic setup left revolution as the only viable way of initiating changes. Subsequently, the monarchy was replaced by the republic, the King and his wife were dethroned and executed, France instigated a series of wars with neighboring monarchies. At the same time, French revolutionaries launched numerous massacres, eliminating opponents to the revolution (Doyle 413). In retrospect, it could be argued that the goals of the French Revolution were accomplished in the long term. However, the resulting death toll and the subsequent Napoleon’s rise to power raise the possibility that utilizing violent means defeats the humanitarian goals of changing society for the better.
Altogether, European history is rich with examples of noble intentions being undercut by violence and an authoritarian grasp for power. Thomas More was beheaded under orders of the same King, who had enabled him as Lord Chancellor. Georges Danton was guillotined by the same people he had overthrown the monarchy with. In an attempt to resolve inequality and injustice, the French Revolution destroyed more lives than the executed King. However noble the goals might be, they lose their point if the means are not morally regulated.
Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2018.