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Does One’s Intentions Matter When Determining The Morality Of An Action?

T. S. Eliot portrays different perspectives on the events of Thomas Becket’s assassination in “Murder in the Cathedral.”

Photo by Piret Ilver on Unsplash

Murder in the Cathedral is a poetic drama by T. S. Eliot that is set in December of 1170 at Canterbury Cathedral. It depicts the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket and his thoughts leading up to it.

After disputes with the King, Archbishop Thomas Becket fled his country to France and spent 6 years in exile. In December 1170, he returns to England and the Canterbury Cathedral. A Chorus of Women foreshadow Thomas Becket’s impending death. The Archbishop himself is also aware of the dangers of his return to England.

Four tempters approach Becket to persuade him into adopting different ways of handling his religious and political powers. They represent his inner dialogue—the internal conflict and desires that he has considered pursuing. Becket does reject the proposals from all four tempters. But the fourth tempter, in particular, suggests that Becket pursues martyrdom for the personal glory he will receive. One of the most well-known quotes of the play came from Becket:

“The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason” (Eliot 44).

This really struck out to me, as I’ve written a poem almost a year ago that’s titled “Doing The Right Things for the Wrong Reasons.” This is an idea that I have taken the time to think about over the years, and seeing it in Eliot’s work has prompted me to want to dive into it some more.

So, let’s talk about it.

Right Deeds, Wrong Reasons

A 13th-century manuscript illumination, depicting Thomas Becket’s assassination (Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Martyrdom is “the act of sacrificing one’s life in the defense or upholding of certain religious beliefs.” (litcharts.com) As we can tell from the title, Thomas Becket is murdered by the end of the play. He believes that martyrdom is his fate, though not for the reasons stated by his fourth tempter. Becket remains in the Cathedral since he does not want to abandon his church. When the knights are coming to assassinate him on the 29th of December, he insists that the doors should not be barred because he believes that the church should be open to all people.

Becket could protect himself, yet he welcomes his martyrdom. It would appear as if he chooses this for divine reasons and not for his human desires. This would be that he sacrifices himself for God—which he considers to be the “right deed”—with the right reason.

However, if the tempters are a personification of his selfish desires, then we should consider the possibility that he really does choose martyrdom out of the desire for holy glory. This, to him, is the “greatest treason”—though how would we really know if this is not his motive?

Perhaps he doesn’t even realize that—at a subconscious level—he is seeking glory. The fourth tempter brings up this desire to him, so it could have very well stuck with him, in his mind. But to admit to himself and others that he wishes for sainthood would be too treacherous for Beckett to accept, so he convinces himself that this is the fate that God has set for him.

Or maybe he really does die selflessly. No one really knows.

So, my question is this—does it really matter?

What Makes A Difference?

Does the intent behind a “good deed” really make a difference? Does it matter?

Because regardless of whether or not Becket wants to receive glorification after his death, he still ends up being viewed with glory—the Chorus of Women of Canterbury praise him for his martyrdom. He becomes a saint. In this way, whether it’s for a good or bad reason, doing the right thing leads to the same outcome.

The difference comes down to perspective. People’s views/thoughts regarding an outcome is influenced by their own perspectives. Becket considers it a treason to die for God with the intentions of personal gain. But by reaffirming with himself that he is doing it for reasons beyond his mortal existence—this shift in perspective allows him to accept his martyrdom. Same with the Chorus of Women—they are initially fearful of losing their spiritual leader and are devastated after the murder, but they come to accept that this is God’s decision and that it is an honorable death.

Not only do Becket and the Chorus have a change in perspective that allows them to accept his death, but another difference in perspective is between religion and politics. The Knights each give a speech and explain their reasons behind murdering Thomas Becket, asking the audience for forgiveness. In their opinion, Becket causes his own death because of his betrayal to the King. They believe he deserves his death, as a result of his own actions. This perspective would take God out of the equation and place the responsibility on Becket. From this point of view, Becket’s death was something that he inflicted upon himself and therefore not his fate, but rather an avoidable event and a consequence of his actions.

A Matter of Perspective

The idea of something being “right” or “wrong” is usually subjective. And the motives behind a decision does not really have an impact on the outcome. We can be presented with the same outcome, but each individual’s perspectives is what ultimately changes the narrative.

In deciding what is morally correct, it all comes down to a person’s values. And what every person believes is morally right or wrong, as well as their perspective on different matters such as religion and politics, is what will determine how an action is perceived.

When looking at an event, it’s important to be aware of the fact there is likely more than one perspective to the situation, and that we should try our best to take all of them into consideration before making a judgement. Though, at the end of the day, what has happened has already happened—it’s just up to you to decide how you see it.

There are many sides to one story—how do we know which one is true?

Well, perhaps there’s some truth to all of them.

Works Cited:

Hello there! I’m A.X. — a theatre student who is sharing her thoughts about the plays she’s reading in theatre stuff. Interested in more? Here’s what I had to say about Waiting For Godot:

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A.X. Bates

A.X. Bates

Words can make a difference. Theatre student writing poems about life, society, and coffee. @axybates on Instagram and Twitter.