Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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What do the four tempters represent in Murder in the Cathedral?

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The four Tempters in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral represent temptations to pleasure, secular power, the overthrow of the enemy, and spiritual power. Thomas successfully resists all of them.

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In T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has returned from exile, yet the conflicts with the king that had sent him into exile are far from being resolved. In fact, Thomas is risking his life by returning to England, but his flock has been without its shepherd for too long, and he believes that he must come home no matter what the consequences.

After his return to Canterbury, Thomas is assailed by four Tempters. The First Tempter encourages Thomas to resume his friendship with the king. He should simply give in to the king's desires and stop being so hard on people. Then the good times that once were would come again, and all would be well. Thomas could focus on pleasures and enjoyments as he used to. He could indulge in laughter and wine, parties and sports. This is the easy way out, however, and Thomas will not take it. There is more to life than pleasure and fun.

The Second Tempter tempts Thomas to secular power. He reminds the archbishop of how he was once the king's right-hand man as Chancellor. If he would just give in to the king, he could have that kind of power again. He could rule over people and maybe even make a difference for good in the world. All he would have to do is just allow those bishops and barons he excommunicated back into the Church and resume his former position, and all would be well—better than well even, for Thomas would be powerful. But Thomas will not give in. He wants holiness, not power, and he knows that secular power and holy orders do not mix.

The Third Tempter tempts Thomas to an alliance with the barons that would seek to overthrow the king. These anti-royal barons are more than willing to join up with a powerful archbishop to "fight for liberty" and get rid of that tyrant. Thomas is, in fact, just what they need, for the people love him. The king is his enemy anyway, so why not turn on him, the Tempter suggests. Thomas, however, remains loyal to the king, who rules legitimately, if not wisely. The archbishop will not give in to any plot to overthrow a legitimate ruler. He sends the Tempter packing.

The Fourth Tempter offers the most appealing temptation of all. He tempts Thomas to spiritual pride. Thomas already knows that he will likely become a martyr because of his refusal to give in to the king's demands. The Tempter, however, suggests that Thomas seek martyrdom actively so he can obtain all the rewards of Heaven that go along with it. Thomas would have great spiritual power, the Tempter says. But Thomas knows that this is not right. He must allow God's will to play out rather than actively pursuing martyrdom. If God chooses to give him that gift, he will accept it, but he must not desire it for the power it would give him, because then he risks losing everything through his pride.

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The tempters represent

  • pleasure,
  • secular power,
  • the desire to fight tyranny, and
  • the desire to seek martydom and sainthood for personal, spiritual glory.

Here are the details.

The First Tempter represents the temptation to indulge the senses in parties, entertainment, and light pursuits.

He offers Thomas the prospect of living the social life he had enjoyed in his youth with the king. Laughter, "singing at nightfall" and enjoying "wit, wine, and wisdom." Giving into this wouldn't just be pleasurable, it would be safe. Being "easy" -- offering easy companionship to other pleasure-seekers -- would prevent Thomas from coming into conflict with the king. If Thomas refuses to take this path

"…[Y]our goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone."

The Second Tempter represents the temptation to seek worldly, secular power and the "life lasting" glory that may grow from it:

"...You, master of policy

Whom all acknowledged, should guide the state again."

This temptation isn't simply about obtaining a glorious reputation. The tempter appeals to Thomas's desire to help people in their everyday lives:

"Disarm the ruffian, strengthen the laws

Rule for the good of the better cause…"

This is a more difficult temptation to overcome, but Thomas rejects it. He already possesses the more important power -- spiritual authority. He won't "descend to desire a punier power."

The third tempter is a "rough, straightforward Englishman" representing the barons and the forces that would weaken the king's concentrated power. By succumbing to this tempter, Thomas could join the "fight for liberty" and end the "tyrannous jurisdiction" of the king over the bishops and barons.

Thomas rejects this temptation as well, noting that men who plot against the king are not trustworthy allies, and resolving that "No one shall say that I betrayed the king."

The fourth tempter represents Thomas's desire to become a martyr and saint -- to seek out this fate because it appeals to his pride and selfish wishes for spiritual glory that will outlast his death. This is the most difficult temptation to overcome. Thomas says it's also the "greatest treason / To do the right deed for the wrong reason." The servant of God has the capacity to commit a worse sin than the servant of the king. He can end up using the pretext of doing God's work to further his own personal ends.

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The first three tempters offer Becket reward in this life in return for his taking back his judgments against the King.  They are, in some ways, reminiscent of the three temptations of Jesus at the start of his ministry, offering him rewards in this world.   As with Jesus, Becket rejects these three.  The fourth tempter is a bit different because he appeals not to his relationship with the king, but to his own desire to become a saint and a martyr for his work.  He is told that without sainthood, he will soon be forgotten. Appealing as this may be, it leads him to the most important decision in the play which he expresses in this way:  "The last temptation is the greatest treason:/To do the right deed for the wrong reason."  He rejects the temptation to act out of pride and conceit (the wrong reason), and to stay and fight (the right deed.)

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