Stoic Martyrs

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.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Comps, Greco-Roman, I Maccabees, II Maccabees, III Maccabees, IV Maccabees, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Stoic Martyrs

  1. Byker Bob says:

    Oh, man! I’ve often contemplated this. Sometimes it’s difficult enough to avoid responding when someone flips you off, or calls you a name, or misinterprets your actions and makes all manner of false accusations, let alone actually dying for your beliefs.

    If I’m not mistaken, the ancient Jews had categorized sins into groups into which you could indulge if your life were threatened, and those you were required to die rather than do. As an example, the starving Jew was permitted to eat pork or anything else if he were dying. Saving life was considered to be the ultimate priority. So, while interesting from an historic point of view, I’m nor sure that an allegedly apocryphal book gives the best criteria for martyrdom.

    I sincerely hope not to be tested “unto death”, as so many Christians were throughout history. When I think of the people in medieval times who were boiled to death in oil, or slowly burned at stake, it grieves my heart. I know that accused witches also suffered this fate, so apparently it was an equal opportunities occurrence. It is easy for anyone from the comfort of their living room to state that they would be willing to die for their belief in Jesus Christ, but my opinion is that we’d really need the power of the Holy Spirit to go through with it.



  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Byker Bob. Thanks for your comments!

    Yeah, I’ve been wanting to track down that source on the three sins Jews should die to avoid. One is idolatry. I think the others may be murder and sexual immortality, but I could be wrong.

    On what you say about the apocryphal source, I’m looking at what it says as thoughts to interact with. I’m not really looking to it as an authority. The same goes with Stoicism, which isn’t exactly authoritative for Christians. It’s my way of making my comps reading interesting.


Comments are closed.