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The late philosopher Roger Scruton once told a ­Guardian journalist that he thought he had been “too soft” over the course of his life. The interviewer was taken aback: Scruton was known as a scourge of political correctness and academic fashion. But as Scruton explained: “I’ve tended to overlook the actual underlying . . . um . . . precariousness of human life, so thinking we could all just arrange things by sticking to nice, agreeable procedures, being the decent stiff-upper-lip Englishmen that we’ve always been, and let the whole thing manage itself. I think that is a kind of softness, because the more I live, the more I see that humanity is always poised on the brink, and can fall into chaos and disaster at any time.”

That view of human existence, as threatened at all times by the forces of disorder, came naturally to the twelfth-century English archbishop Thomas Becket. Nobody has ever accused Becket of being soft: The common criticism is that he was too harsh, too rigid, too ready to see apocalyptic possibilities around every corner. One of the battles he fought, late in life, was for his right to anoint the king’s heir: The pope had decreed that Becket would perform the ceremony, as the traditional duty of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But the king asked the Archbishop of York to do it, which Becket took so badly that he convinced the pope to excommunicate his fellow-bishop. At the time, and for centuries since, Becket has been seen by many as an extremist, a man who could start a fight in an empty room.

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