The Four Last Things
St. Thomas More
A treatise (unfinished) upon these words of Holy Scripture
Memorare novissima, et in aeternum non peccabis
"Remember the last things, and thou shalt never sin."
What availeth it to know that there is a God, which thou not only believest by faith but also knowest by reason, what availeth that thou knowest Him, if thou think little of Him?
Made about the year of our Lord 1522, by Sir Thomas More, then knight, and one of the Privy Council of King Henry VIII, and also Under-Treasurer of England.
If there were any question among men whether the words of holy Scripture or the doctrine of any secular author were of greater force and effect to the weal and profit of man's soul (though we should let pass so many short and weighty words spoken by the mouth of our Savior Christ Himself, to whose heavenly wisdom the wit of none earthly creature can be comparable) yet this only text written by the wise man in the seventh chapter of Ecclesiasticus is such that it containeth more fruitful advice and counsel to the forming and framing of man's manners in virtue and avoiding of sin, than many whole and great volumes of the best of old philosophers or any other that ever wrote in secular literature.
Long would it be to take the best of their words and compare it with these words of holy Writ. Let us consider the fruit and profit of this in itself: which thing, well advised and pondered, shall well declare that of none whole volume of secular literature shall arise so very fruitful doctrine. For what would a man give for a sure medicine that were of such strength that it should all his life keep from sickness, namely if he might by the avoiding of sickness be sure to continue his life one hundred years? So is it now that these words giveth us all a sure medicine (if we postpone not the receiving) by which we shall keep from sickness, not the body, which none health may long keep from death (for die we must in few years, live we never so long), but the soul, which here preserved from the sickness of sin, shall after this eternal life in joy and be preserved from the deadly life of everlasting pain.
The physician sendeth his bill to the apothecary, and therein writeth sometimes a costly receipt of many strange herbs and roots, fetched out of far countries, long-lain drugs, all the strength worn out, and some none such to be got. But this physician sendeth his bill to thyself, no strange thing therein, nothing costly to buy, nothing far to fetch, but to be gathered all times of the year in the garden of thine own soul.
Let us hear, then, what wholesome receipt this is. "Remember," saith this bill, "thy last things, and thou shalt never sin in this world." Here is first a short medicine containing only four herbs, common and well known, that is to wit, death, doom, pain, and joy.
This short medicine is of a marvelous force, able to keep us all our life from sin. The physician cannot give no one medicine to every man to keep him from sickness, but to divers men divers, by reason of the diversity of divers complexions. This medicine serveth every man. The physician doth but guess and conjecture that his receipt shall do good: but this medicine is undoubtedly sure.
How happeth it, then, thou wilt haply say, that so few be preserved from sin, if every man have so sure a medicine, so ready at hand? For folk fare commonly as he doth that goeth forth fasting among sick folk for sloth, rather than he will take a little treacle (prophylactic) before.
Thou wilt say, peradventure, that some part of this medicine is very bitter and painful to receive. Surely there can be nothing so bitter but wisdom would brook it for so great a profit? But yet this medicine, though thou make a sour face at it, is not so bitter as thou makest for (pretend). For well thou knowest, he biddeth thee not to take neither death, nor doom, nor pain, but only to remember them, and yet the joy of heaven therewith to temper them withal. Now if a man be so dainty stomached that going where contagion is he would grudge to take a little treacle, yet were he very nicely wanton if he might not at the leastwise take a little vinegar and rose water in his handkercher.
Yet well I know that many one will say that the bare remembrance of death alone, if a man consider it and advise it well, were able to bereave a man of all the pleasure of his life. How much more, then, should his life be painful and grievous if, to the remembrance and consideration of death, a man should add and set to, the deep imagination of the dreadful doom of God, and bitter pains of purgatory or hell, of which every one passeth and exceedeth many deaths. These are the sage saws of such as make this world their heaven, and their lust their God.
Now see the blindness of us worldly folk, how precisely we presume to shoot our foolish bolt, in those matters most in which we least can skill. For I little doubt but that among four thousand taken out at adventure, we shall not find four score but they shall boldly affirm it for a thing too painful, busily to remember these four last things. And yet durst I lay a wager, that of those four thousand ye shall not find fourteen that hath deeply thought on them four times in all their days.
If men would vouchsafe to put in proof and experience the operation and working of this medicine, the remembrance of these four last things, they should find therein, not the pleasure of their life lost, but so great a pleasure grow thereby, that they never felt the like before nor would have supposed that ever they should have felt any such. For it is to be known that, like as we be made of two far divers and unlike substances, the body and the soul, so we be apt and able to receive two diverse and unlike pleasures, the one carnal and fleshly, the other ghostly and spiritual. And like as the soul excelleth the body, so doth the sweetness of spiritual pleasure far pass and excel the gross and filthy pleasure of all fleshly delight, which is of truth no very true pleasure, but a false counterfeit image of pleasure. And the cause why men be so mad thereon is only for ignorance and lack of knowledge of the other,--as those that lack insight of precious stones hold themselves as well content and satisfied with a beryl or crystal well counterfeited, as with a right natural diamond. But he that by good use and experience hath in his eye the right mark and very true luster of the diamond, rejecteth anon and listeth not to look upon the counterfeit, be it never so well handled, never so craftily polished. And trust it well that, in likewise, if men would well accustom themselves in the taste of spiritual pleasure and of that sweet feeling that virtuous people have of the good hope of heaven, they should shortly set at naught, and at length abhor, the foul delight and filthy liking that riseth of sensual and fleshly pleasure, which is never so pleasantly spiced with delight and liking, but that it bringeth therewith such a grudge and grief of conscience that it maketh the stomach wamble (uneasy) and fare as it would vomit. And that notwithstanding, such is our blind custom that we persevere therein without care or cure of the better, as a sow content with draff (refuse), dirt and mire careth neither for better meat nor better bed.
Think not that everything is pleasant that men for madness laugh at. For thou shalt in Bedlam see one laugh at the knocking of his own head against a post, and yet there is little pleasure therein. But ye think peradventure this example as mad as the mad man, and as little to the purpose. I am content ye so think. But what will ye say if ye see men that are taken and reputed wise laugh more madly than he? Shall ye not see such laugh at their own craft, when they have, as they think, willfully done their neighbor wrong? Now whoso seeth not that his laughter is more mad than the laughter of the mad man, I hold him madder than they both. For the mad man laughed when he had done himself but little hurt, by a knock of his head to the post. This other sage fool laugheth at the casting of his own soul into the fire of hell, for which he hath cause to weep all his life. And it cannot be but the grudge and fear thereof followeth his laughter, and secret sorrow marreth all such outward mirth. For the heart of a wicked wretch is like a stormy sea that cannot rest (Isaiah 57, 20) except a man be fallen down into the dungeon of wretchedness, and the door shut over his head. For when a sinner is once fallen down into the depth, he waxeth a desperate wretch and setteth all at naught, and he is in the worst kind of all, and farthest from all recovery. For like as in the body his sickness is most incurable that is sick and feeleth it not, but thinketh himself whole (for he that is in that case is commonly mad), so he that by a mischievous custom of sin perceiveth no fault in his evil deed nor hath no remorse thereof, hath lost the natural light of reason and the spiritual light of faith, which two lights of knowledge and understanding quenched, what remaineth in him more than the bodily senses and sensual wits common to man and brute beasts?
Now albeit so that the fleshly and worldly pleasure is of truth not pleasant but bitter, and the spiritual pleasure is of truth so sweet that the sweetness thereof many times darkeneth (deadens) and diminisheth the feeling of bodily pain, by reason whereof good virtuous folk feel more pleasure in the sorrow of their sins and affliction of their penance than wretches feel in the fulfilling of their foul delight, and credible is it that the inward spiritual pleasure and comfort which many of the old holy martyrs had in the hope of heaven darkened and overwhelmed the bodily pains of their torment,--yet this notwithstanding like as a sick man feeleth no sweetness in sugar, and some women with child have such fond lust that they had liefer eat tar than treacle and rather pitch than marmalade, and some whole people love tallow better than butter, so we gross carnal people, having our taste infected by the sickness of sin and filthy custom of fleshly delight that we list not once prove what manner of sweetness good and virtuous folk feel and perceive in spiritual pleasure. And the cause is why? Because we cannot perceive the one, but if we forbear the other. For like as the ground that is all forgrown (overgrown) with nettles, briars, and other evil weeds, can bring forth no corn till they be weeded out, so can our soul have no place for the good corn of spiritual pleasure as long as it is overgrown with the barren weeds of carnal delectation. For the pulling out of which weeds by the root, there is not a more meet instrument than the remembrance of the four last things, which as they shall pull out these weeds of fleshly voluptuousness, so shall they not fail to plant in their places, not only wholesome virtues, but also marvelous ghostly pleasure and spiritual gladness, which in every good soul riseth of the love of God, and hope of heaven, and inward liking that the godly spirit taketh in the diligent labour of good and virtuous business.
I would not so long tarry in this point nor make so many words of the pleasure that men may find by the receipt of this medicine, were it not that I well perceive the world so set upon the seeking of pleasure, that they set by pleasure much more than by profit. And therefore, to the intent that ye may perceive that it is not a fantasy found (contrived) of mine own head, that the abandoning and refusing of carnal pleasure and the ensuing of labour, travail, penance and bodily pain, shall bring therewith to a Christian man, not only in the world that is coming but also in this present life, very sweetness, comfort, pleasure, and gladness, I shall prove it to be true by their testimony and witness whose authority, speaking of their own experience, there will, I ween, none honest man mistrust.
Lo, the holy doctor, Saint Austin, exhorting penitents and repentant sinners to sorrow for their offences, saith unto them: "Sorrow," saith this holy man, "and be glad of thy sorrow." In vain should he bid him be glad of his sorrow, if man in sorrow could not be glad. But this holy father showeth by this counsel, not only that a man may be joyful and glad for all his sorrow, but also that he may be and hath cause to be glad because of his sorrow.
Long were it to rehearse the places that prove this point among the holy doctors of Christ's Church; but we will, instead of them all, allege you the words of Him that is doctor of them all, our Saviour Jesu Christ. He saith that the way to heaven is straight and aspre (sharp) or painful. And therefore He saith that few folk find it out or walk therein. And yet saith He for all that, My yoke is easy and my burden light. How could these two sayings stand together, were it not that as the labour, travail, and affliction of the body is painful and sharp to the flesh, so the comfort and gladness that the soul conceiveth thereof, rising into the love of our Lord and hope of His glory to come, so tempereth and overmastereth the bitterness of the grief, that it maketh the very labour easy, the sourness very sweet, and the very pain pleasant?
Will ye see the example? Look upon His holy apostles,--when they were taken and scourged with whips for Christ's sake, did it grieve them, think ye? Imagine yourself in the same case, and I think ye will think yea. Now see, then, for all the pain of their flesh, what joy and pleasure they conceived in their soul. The holy Scripture saith (Acts 5, 4) that they rejoiced and joyed that God had accounted them worthy for Christ's sake, not only to be scourged, but also--which would be far greater grief to an honest man than the pain itself--to be scourged with despite and shame, so that the more their pain was, the more was their joy. For as the holy doctor, Saint Chrysostom, saith, though pain be grievous for the nature of the affliction, yet is it pleasant by the alacrity and quick mind of them that willingly suffer it. And therefore, though the nature of the torments make great grief and pain, yet the prompt and willing mind of them that were scourged passed and overcame the nature of the thing, that is to wit, mastering the outward fleshly pain with inward spiritual pleasures. And surely this is so true that it may stand for a very certain token that a penitent beginneth to profit and grow in grace and favor of God, when he feeleth a pleasure and quickness in his labor and pain taken in prayer, almsdeeds, pilgrimage, fasting, discipline, tribulation, affliction, and such other spiritual exercise, by which the soul willingly worketh with the body by their own punishment to purge and rub out the rusty, cankered spots that sin hath defiled them with in the sight of God, and to leave the fewer to be burned out in the fire of purgatory. And whensoever, as I say, that a man feeleth in this pain a pleasure, he hath a token of great grace and that his penance is pleasant to God, for, as the holy Scripture saith, our Lord loveth a glad giver. (2 Cor. 9, 7). And on the other side, whereas one doth such spiritual business with a dulness of spirit and weariness of mind, he doth twice as much and thereby taketh four times as much pain, since his bodily pain is relieved with no spiritual rejoice nor comfort. I will not say that his labour is lost, but I dare be bold to say that he profiteth much less with much more pain. For certain it is that the best souls and they that have best travailed in spiritual business, find most comfort therein. And therefore if they most pleased God that in the bodily pain of their penance took less spiritual pleasure, it should thereof follow that the farther a man proceeded in the perfection of spiritual exercise, in the worse case he were. Which can in no wise be so, since that we see the holy apostles and other holy men and women, the better that they were, the more pleasure they perceived in their fleshly afflictions, either put unto them by God, or taken by themselves for God's sake.
(Continued in next section)
Four Last Things Page