Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 108-109.
“If I am doing my best to be a rational being who is free and independent of others, then I will sometimes have to make choices that may appear not to further my own self-preservation. For instance, if a tyrant threatens to kill me if I do not do certain things that I find objectionable or think to be wrong, then–if I am to preserve myself as a rational being–I should stand up to the tyrant even if this may mean the loss of my life (see e.g. Epictetus, Diss. 1.2). But why? How could getting myself killed possibly contribute to my self-preservation? Well, it may not contribute to my self-preservation in so far as I am merely a living animal, but giving in to the tyrant will equally destroy me as an independent rational being. I may remain biologically alive if I give in to the tyrant, but I will have lost something far more important, having reduced myself to a slave. Thus the Stoic doctrine of self-preservation will, in cases of rational beings–that is, philosophers working towards the ideal of the sage–sometimes lead to choices that may actually threaten an individual’s physical existence. But then as Socrates famously put it, it is not merely living, but living well that matters (Plato, Crito 48b).”
When I read the books of Maccabees, a question that entered my mind every now and then was, “Why does any of this matter?” What do I mean by that? Well, basically, the books are about the Jews being willing to fight and die for their religion. They fought to preserve the Sabbath and circumcision. When Antiochus threatened them with death if they refused to eat pork, many of them held fast to God’s food laws. I guess my question was, “Why? What’s the big deal?” What’s it matter if a Jew leaves his foreskin on rather than taking it off? Or if a he works on a Saturday rather than resting on it? Or if he has a taste of nice, juicy pig-meat?
I wonder how Catholics would answer my question. They see I-II Maccabees as canonical, yet they believe that Jesus abolished the Sabbath, circumcision, and biblical food laws. Were Jews dying for things that Jesus would soon abolish, anyway? What was the point of that?
I’ve wondered at times if I would be willing to die for the Christian faith. To be honest, Christianity often looks to me like one religion among others. Why should I die for this particular belief system? Does it really matter?
I guess this quote on Stoicism made certain things clear to me. One should be willing to die for something because otherwise he’s a slave. He’s a slave to someone who tries to force others to see things his way, while eliminating belief systems that contain a lot of good.
I’m approaching this from a perspective of modern-day tolerance, and the ancients may not have done that. Jews and Christians believed that their deaths demonstrated their commitment to the sovereignty of God, not some petty dictator. And I’m not sure why the Stoics died. Maybe they wanted to show that nothing shook them, not even death.