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The Scandal of Certainty

Fools, Martyrs, Traitors:
The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World

by Lacey Baldwin Smith
(Knopf, 429 pp., $30)

In the Western tradition, martyrdom has always served to connect the idea of truth with the idea of death. It was Socrates who first bequeathed the idea that the ultimate test of a proposition's truth is our willingness to die for it. While his example still inspires, his idea--that truth and death are linked--now seems perplexing. Truth has become too contestable to die for, and the certainty and faith which martyrdom demands have become positively exotic.

This exoticism makes martyrs interesting, but it makes it difficult for us to enter into their mental world. The fact is that while we admire our martyrs, most of them died for a version of the truth radically different from our own. We can only imagine the idea of laying down our lives so that others may be free to construe the truth as they wish. But most of the martyrs in our tradition died not for the tolerance of many truths, but for a truth that they believed could not be other than it was.

Thinking about martyrs also confronts us with what Flaubert called the incorrigibly bourgeois character of modern moral evaluations. We have turned family values into a synonym for values tout court. So to us the martyrs' willingness to sacrifice hearth and home to the demands of truth looks like pathological selfishness. There is an inhuman chill to Jesus's injunction in Luke 14:26: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters ... he cannot be my disciple." Yet this was the inversion of values by which the Christian martyrs believed they must live. As they mount their funeral pyres and brave the flames, we can call them sado-masochists or monsters of self-righteousness if we wish, but in the end we are only seeking to deflect the force of their example. For they do compel us to ask why we place family values ahead of principle, why self-sacrifice has become the most distrusted of moral gestures.

Martyrs also make us think again about modern styles of self-deprecation. We take it for granted that it does not pay to take yourself too seriously. The modern moral style is ironic, and irony is valued because it keeps us from going to extremes. Martyrs make a virtue of going to extremes, taking yourself so seriously that you are prepared to lose your life for the sake of a principle. Our ideas of identity are connected to reflexivity: to having thoughts, mostly skeptical, about our thoughts. For a martyr, identity is not reflexive. Finding yourself means throwing yourself so utterly into a cause that the self is suffused with what it believes. The martyrs in our past make us uncomfortable because they put our ironic standpoint into question. They make us wonder whether irony will be the death of principle. They make us ask why we never dare to take ourselves more seriously.

While we admire martyrs, we also resent and fear them, too. Fearless people are themselves fearful. They affect a superiority to pain that we find appalling and infuriating. Hence, perhaps, the fury visited on martyrs' bodies: throughout history they have not only been put to death, but tortured and abused in an attempt, usually vain, to secure their recantation. It is as if the rest of us, in whose name they are tortured, envy and resent their imperviousness, their refusal to be like us, ashamed and self-deprecating captives to the terrors of the body.

In all these ways, then, martyrdom continues to be a scandal. Since most of us are not made of stern stuff, since most of us believe--for good reason--in the bourgeois virtues, it is not easy for us to think clearly about the nature of this scandal. The sheer suffering that martyrs have endured makes it all too easy to believe that anyone willing to die for what he or she believes has to be crazy or fanatical or inhumanly impervious to the claims of kith and kin. Many people who do die for the truth--Osip Mandelstam dying in Magadan, simply because he was a poet--were neither crazy, fanatical nor inhuman. They were merely courageous and unlucky.

Lacey Baldwin Smith has thought hard about the moral challenge presented by the martyr tradition. He is a historian of Tudor and Stuart England, and the core of his thought-provoking book is a study of the English martyr tradition--Thomas a Becket, Thomas More and the Protestant martyrs put to death by Queen Mary in the 1550s. But he ranges over the entire Western tradition, from Socrates to Gandhi and beyond, asking, for example, whether Julius and Ethel Rosenberg deserve to be regarded as martyrs, traitors, or just plain fools.

The word "martyr" derives from the Greek word for "witness" and the Anglo-Saxon word for "memory." Martyrs are death-artists, manipulating their own mortality to achieve immortality. All martyrdom is self-proclaimed: myth-making is integral to the martyr's passion to order and control posterity. A history of martyrdom, therefore, has to be a struggle against myth, to recover the historical individual from the haloed portrait. Smith has scraped a good deal of gold leaf off the martyr's halo and takes us back, insofar as this is possible, to the quivering and uncertain historical figures martyrs once were. He respects their astonishing bravery while remaining resolutely unimpressed by their myth-making. He also avoids the temptation to pin martyrs into the butterfly collection of modern psychopathology. As a historian of religion, he is able to treat belief on its own terms, rather than as a symptom. For all these reasons, Fools, Martyrs, Traitors is a fine book: vivid, argumentative, compassionate and highly intelligent. It is also full of judgments, and I wonder whether its standards of judgment--its up-to-date, family-centered values--are relevant to the analysis of the martyrological tradition.

Smith is certainly aware of the immense distance separating us from the martyrs whom he brings to life. He helps us re-enter the vanished world of doctrinal certainty, showing us what it would have been like to be so confident of salvation that one would risk the lions or the rack. With the aid of early third-century sources, he examines the life of Vibia Perpetua, a 22-year-old Carthaginian, who went to her death as a Christian martyr in March, AD 203. Her own narrative of her conversion and persecution later came to be known as the Passion of Saint Perpetua. Christianity appealed to the Perpetuas of late antiquity because it assuaged their inner turmoil and licensed their turning away from the increasingly hollow rituals of pagan civic piety. But this challenge to the civic virtues--to the virtues of family, city and empire--roused the persecutorial ire of the authorities. With the imperial system rotting at its core, and barbarians beginning to nibble away at its extremities, pagan Carthaginians would have taken it as axiomatic, in Cicero's words, that "the disappearance of piety towards the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men."

Martyrs tend to make their appearance in societies threatened from without or divided within. Perpetua adopted Christianity to sustain a rebellion against the authority of the classical household, and her willingness to die epitomizes the classical world's weakening hold on her generation. It took less than a month in AD 203 for her "to bend a `course towards the truth and seek after Him who is our real Father, thrusting away custom as some deadly drug.'" Her social prominence guaranteed her arrest. In prison her father visited her, entreating her to abjure. "Give up your pride!" she reports him as having cried. "You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you." Even when he threw himself at her feet, she remained unshaken. We do not know whether he witnessed her end in the arena in Carthage: she was mauled by animals and yet remained sufficiently alert, even in extremis, to guide the sword sent to dispatch her with her own hand.

Smith's account of Perpetua's astounding self-possession, and her refusal to be swayed by the entreaties of her father, is riveting. The problem is that he judges her from a censoriously modern standpoint, condemning Perpetua for treating her father with a "selfishness and cruelty that is deeply disturbing." But hadn't Jesus explicitly told her that she should forswear the lure of family love for his sake? The most worrisome question, Smith goes on, is whether Perpetua's willingness to sacrifice herself and her family was "inspired by love of self or love of God." Why are we required to decide whether her motives were pure? Smith is eager to convict most martyrs of selfishness, but they knew only too well that their motives were never pure, which is why Thomas a Becket and Thomas More wore hairshirts in the first place. Instead of condemning Perpetua for selfishness, Smith might have made the more interesting point that the certainties of contemporary bourgeois ethics simply break apart when applied to the feverish priorities of martyrdom.

Smith is similarly judgmental about Socrates, who shooed his weeping wife away and refused to send his children consoling messages before taking the hemlock. Smith also condemns him for the unbecoming theatricality of his own demise. His last words--instructing the tearful Crito to pay a debt to the Greek god of medicine--are, in Smith's opinion, "dreadfully stagey," as if it is unbecoming for a man in his hour of death to make a scene. Staging his death gave point to the whole dire exercise; it may have been the only way that he could have endured it. It is incoherent for Smith to claim that the "ultimate purpose" of Socrates's death "never comes through." No death has had a more resonant impact on our idea of truth or on our view of what stoical self-command can achieve. And so it was intended. Smith argues that while Socrates certainly did not deserve to die, his persecutors were not wrong in thinking his skepticism corrosively destructive of social order: "Socrates may not have corrupted young minds, but as a consequence of his constant prying into false premises, he may inadvertently have helped to strip from his pupils' personalities those muddled and contradictory instincts that tend to fetter unbridled egotism and keep under control the temptation to impose self-perceived truths on others." Socrates's Athenian accusers could not have put this better. His skepticism and his courage remain just as much of a scandal in our day as they were in his day.

Jesus was likewise a martyr to corrosive and unsettling truth. But in his case, the corrosion was to his own disciples' faith. His sayings were hard: they had to leave behind their family and the known landmarks of Jewish observance, and follow a ragged prophet whose chief claim--that he was the son of God--did not always appear persuasive. Smith, at least, is not persuaded; and he treats Jesus throughout as an entirely human figure and therefore as a self-chosen martyr. Of course, this is hardly how Jesus (and the tradition that was created in his name) saw himself. But Smith's point is that if Jesus's career is seen in strictly human terms, it conforms to one of the central themes of the Western tradition: that those who die as martyrs tend, whether by intent or indirection, to engineer their own destruction. Jesus quickly realized that his teachings were falling on barren ground. His disciples were a "faithless generation," he shouted. "How long am I to bear with you?" When he discovered that not even his own disciples were able to follow where he led, Jesus decided to court martyrdom. "In effect," writes Smith, "he got himself executed." He rode into Jerusalem during the Passover and let the people hail him as the new Messiah; he threw the money changers out of the Temple, deliberately provoking the Sanhedrin that ran Jerusalem under the watchful eye of the Roman governor. When arrested, tried and placed upon the Cross, Jesus "alone was in control of proceedings." He staged his own death and set the pattern for Christian martyrdom ever since. Like Socrates, he forced into Western awareness the idea that the most dramatic way to vindicate a proposition is to die in its defense. It would be beside the point to observe that vindication and proof are not the same thing. Dying for something proves the sincerity of the believer, not the truth of what they profess to believe. Martyrdom is theater which passes as proof.

Once Jesus had shown that it was more effective to die for a proposition than merely to profess it, a terrible new power was unleashed on the world. Those who are prepared to die for what they believe are beyond the reach of human sanction. Their imperviousness, besides making them intractable subjects, gives them a political leverage out of all proportion to their numbers. Smith makes a persuasive case that the Marian martyrs--the 288 Protestant believers sent to the stake during Mary's attempt to re-impose Catholicism in England between 1553 and 1556--saved Protestantism in the English-speaking world. Protestant belief had been devastated by the premature death of the "godly imp," Edward VI, in 1553; and most of the country was prepared to knuckle under. But the Marian martyrs managed adroitly to exploit their own persecution, publishing accounts of their suffering in prison, making sure these were circulated among the faithful and then dying in the flames with such awesome, if stage-managed, composure that their example rallied and renewed the faith. A heroic martyrology ensured that when Mary died, Protestantism would return as the state church.

Likewise, the monarchical martyr Charles I, executed in high style in front of the Banqueting Hall in 1649, managed the almost impossible feat of securing the future of the monarchy for his son in the very act of losing his own head. He had been a pig-headed and unimpressive king in life, but the manner of his dying--his ironical composure, evident piety and courageous defense of royal prerogative--restored the magical aura of an institution which, until the moment of his execution, seemed fated to succumb to the republican tide.

Saving your cause by laying down your life need not preclude taking some other people's lives with you. The line between martyr and terrorist is thin. John Brown, whose abortive raid on Harper's Ferry helped to provoke the South into an attack which would drag the North into the Civil War, died a martyr to the anti-slavery cause on a Virginia gallows in 1859. Two years later, Union troops crossed into Virginia singing "John Brown's body lies a-molderin' in the grave, but his soul goes marching on." Brown purchased this immortality not merely at the price of his own life, but at the price of all those he so callously led to destruction at Harper's Ferry. Even before Harper's Ferry, Brown had ridden through Kansas and Missouri, killing pro-slavery settlers in cold blood. Brown's sadistic self-righteousness makes the valuable point that martyrs often disgrace good causes with evil methods. In Brown's case, the martyr's pathological indifference to the lives of others seems to have derived from an abnormal contempt for his own.

If martyrs are a study in the power, but also the destructiveness, of intense forms of self-belief, the question is whether there is something inhuman about the martyr personality. While Brown was clearly a fanatic, Smith is at pains to show that the martyr need not be fanatical. Smith discusses two martyrs--Thomas More and Mahatma Gandhi--who seemed recognizably complete human beings, awake to the ironies of their own self-belief. More went to the stake only after seeking every possible way to reconcile conscience with expediency. He was also fully aware of what his martyrdom was costing those he loved. He seems a very human and worldly figure, and his irony and self-doubt make his courage all the more likable, though we turn him into a liberal saint at the price of neglecting that the proposition he died for--the Church's right to refuse Henry VIII's annulment of his marriage--is hardly a liberal truth.

Gandhi, the other likable and unwilling martyr in Smith's story, is appealing because he was so keenly wary of the terrible power that his own willingness to die placed in his hands. He was ruthless in his use of hunger strikes, but he was scrupulous not to tempt others into martyrdom. This sense of the extent of his power made him a responsible leader; it led him to call off hunger strikes and forms of civil disobedience that risked getting out of control or placing his followers in jeopardy.

Gandhi's subtle and skillful courtship of martyrdom was a politically effective weapon only because the Raj was ruled by an isolated and discouraged imperial elite that was responsive to pressure. If martyrdom has become steadily less effective in the twentieth century, as a style of moral witness and as a form of political pressure, it is because new regimes have arisen which are indifferent to the moral scruples which form the tacit contract between martyr and persecutor. Gandhi, for example, counselled the Jews of Europe to embrace martyrdom in order to bring the Nazi regime to its senses. He urged them to embark on a "truly religious resistance ... against the godless fury of dehumanized man." What he could not fathom was a regime explicitly bent on destroying the moral contract between the state and its opponents upon which all martyrdom depends for its effect. Jews underwent martyrdom to no avail. Pastor Bonhoeffer sought to make his own death a rallying point for Christian opponents of the regime, but he misjudged the totalitarian state's capacity to bury its martyrs without a trace. He died in a concentration camp in 1945, his example known to only a handful.

If truth has become relative, if family values have triumphed, and if the modern state has become too cunning and too ruthless to allow martyrs to trouble its hegemony, the end of the martyr tradition in our culture may be at hand. And yet such a conclusion seems both premature and pessimistic. Smith's account may have been intended to strip away the haloes around our martyrs' heads, but the effect is simply to make them more human. And since they seem more human, the tradition that they represent seems less like an austere and impossible exercise in fanaticism and more like something the rest of us could admire, and if we had to, emulate. The noble few who value their lives so little continue to inspire the rest of us, even when they make us suspect that we may value our own lives too much.

Michael Ignatieff is working on a history of the moral imagination in the twentieth century.

By Michael Ignatieff