It Is Not In Time That My Death Shall Be Known
What is the significance of the following lines in Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot?
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that a decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent.
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
Eliot wrote Murder in the Cathedral in the 1930s at the request of the Bishop of Chichester, who commissioned the play as a commentary on the situation in Nazi Germany. Many in the English and European elites had initially thought Hitler would "settle down" after the early excesses of his rule. However, the Röhm Purge in late June, early July 1934, in which Hitler ordered the murder of his former friend and colleague Ernst Röhm (and many of his followers) who were in the way of his own ambitions served as a wake-up call that Hitler was unlikely to start behaving like a "normal" leader.
Eliot found a parallel situation in medieval English history, in which Henry II's henchmen murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury for opposing Henry's will. The play explores the temptations people have to do the wrong thing and the Archbishop's decision to oppose Henry when he knew it meant death. In the quote above, Eliot means his audience to understand that we should make decisions, at best, not out of the expediency of the moment, but by thinking of the import of our actions beyond our own lifetimes. Henry or Hitler might have written laws that could be easily obeyed even if they were immoral or unethical, but Eliot in this quote says that the laws of a given moment ("the Law of Man") are subordinate to eternal or universal laws, which he calls "the Law of God." The play is meant to stir people to oppose immoral regimes.
Although Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot takes place in a medieval Roman Catholic setting, the play itself strongly reflects Eliot's sensibility as an Anglo-Catholic, or member of the Church of England who emphasizes what are called High Church theological positions.
The most significant element of the passage is the way it uses the term "time". In the ancient Greek of the New Testament, two terms are used to refer to time. "Chronos" refers to everyday time as we know it, or the time of this world. "Kairos" refers to metaphysical or divine time, a sort of idealized moment within eternity. When Thomas Becket speaks of not taking a decision inside human time ("chronos") but outside human time, he is emphasizing that this decision has to do with his eternal soul in relationship to heaven rather than his everyday human nature making practical decisions about his career.
Human laws exist within human time but divine laws are eternal, and while disobeying a human law can make your life on earth miserable, for Becket, defying divine law can cast you into Hell for all eternity.