On Martyrs

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A reflection on Plato’s Apology

Throughout history, many have been awarded the title of ‘Martyr’. The English word is drawn from the original Greek, with the meaning of ‘Witness’. In this context, the original ‘Martyrs’ were those who died due to their religious convictions in the formative phases of the early Christian church. Throughout history, the term has come to have a plurality of meanings, both in the secular and religious world. However, a certain amount of distaste has been attached to the phrase in more recent times. When people think of Martyrs, they conjure up images of religious fanatics, willing to deal violence on those who oppose their narrow and jealous interpretations of holy texts. Despite this, a scrap of its original meaning survives – a person who dies for their beliefs. It is this thread that we shall follow as we attempt to understand martyrdom and its implications.

The first question that this definition brings to the surface is whether there is any difference between the Victim and the Martyr? More specifically, can one become a Martyr if there is no choice involved in one’s death? To take it to its hypothetical extreme can one be a Martyr if one is killed in one’s bed, while asleep, without the knowledge that one’s death is imminent? I would argue no: a Martyr is made from two parts: violence by the oppressor who wishes to silence, and conviction by the oppressed to refuse to change their beliefs. In this sense, the question of Martyrdom is defined by conviction.

A conviction is more than a belief, it is an opinion which has been ascribed sacred value by the subject. The sacrosanct nature of conviction means that it is fundamental to the makeup of a person’s identity and that to abandon this opinion would result in the destruction of that person’s concept of self. However, I would argue that very few people are truly capable of holding any convictions, as to do so runs fundamentally against the grain of instinctual self-preservation. Many people suffer from or a lack of will in their daily lives, as we struggle against the evolutionary drivers and ingrained habits which act as the foundation for our mind. Thus, for someone to cleave so tightly to a belief that they would rather risk physical annihilation as opposed to the destruction of their concept of self is so rare that it begs the question: is it merely a form of pathology?

If Martyrdom is a form of mental illness, it could be argued that it isn’t Martyrdom at all – for the removal of choice from the matter makes conviction less a case of belief and more an instrument of chemistry. Instead, I posit that Martyrdom is actually an inversion of another human behaviour, Heroism. A hero is someone who puts their life in danger to achieve something, and as such is active, whereas a Martyr is a person who puts themselves in harm’s way to resist something, and is therefore passive in nature. A Martyr subverts the traditional archetype of the Hero, unable or unwilling to achieve their means by force. Instead, they place themselves in the path of an unstoppable force, cognisant that their death is the most likely outcome. By committing themselves to physical destruction, a Martyr preserves not only their concept of self but also hopes to act as a beacon, drawing others to their belief.

Because of the intense symbolism and uniqueness of genuine Martyrdom, the Martyr serves as a wellspring of inspiration for others, driving them to exercise greater willpower in attempting to conform their lives to their beliefs. In doing this Martyrs are often expunged, posthumously, of their flaws by the believer. They become a superhuman creature which we, as mere mortals, will never be able to live up to, a being we will never be able to approach. However, this sense of separation is also dangerous. Followers of the Martyr, unable to live up to the ideal of self-sacrifice, will instead turn to more destructive practices as they attempt to reform the world in the Martyr’s image, ironically following the path of the Hero rather than the Martyr. As a voiceless symbol, a Martyr can be appropriated to whichever cause finds him most expedient, not necessarily the one closest to their original conviction. With this in mind I ask, what can we do with Martyrs?

As a Martyr is fundamentally about the concept of choice, we can and should utilise Martyrs as guides and exemplars on our own personal journeys to self-control. We should recognise the humanity of Martyrs, that by overriding the instinct of self-preservation in the pursuit of value, they committed an act which was distinctly human. Also, we should be suspicious of those who invoke the symbolism of Martyrs or Martyrdom for causes predicated on external change, and in particularly violence.

Original text

Plato’s Apology


 Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787


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