In one of his final dialogues before his death, Socrates famously informed his interlocutors “that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.”1 They are, he said, even “looking forward” to it. Socrates’s attitude toward death sits uneasily in the midst of the thought of the ancient world, in which the tendency was to view death in overwhelmingly negative terms. Many of the greatest tales of the ancient world are accounts of great men who desperately sought to escape the inevitability of death, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Sophocles’s plays in particular present a fascinating example of the ancient attitude toward death in that they exhibit both the prevailing attitude of the ancient world as well as the potential for redemption in and of death. There is a marked contrast, for example, between the horror with which Oedipus greets his fate in Oedipus Tyrannos and his final acceptance of death in Oedipus at Colonus. The death of Antigone, Oedipus’s daughter, at the behest of Creon in the play which bears her name is described by the Chorus in that play as “stately.”2 She goes to her death as innocent who suffers for the sins of others. As a result, her death takes on a redemptive, even beautiful, nature. From the perspective of a Christian, the deaths of Socrates, Oedipus, and Antigone are clear cases of spermatikos logos, looking forward to that time when “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54, KJV).
A little over five centuries after Socrates, the Christian bishop and apologist St. Irenaeus of Lyons offered his own baptized version of Socrates’s statement, telling his flock that “the business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.”3 Such a view of death as Socrates held fit more firmly into a Christian worldview, which saw death as having been redeemed through Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection. As a result, the medieval mind, under the influence of Christianity’s attitude toward death, tended to view death in more positive terms. The fourth century bishop St. Ambrose of Milan, for example, in commenting on the death of his own brother wrote that death was ordained by God as a mercy so that man did not have to continue to live in the painful state produced by sin. “Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness,” and, said Ambrose, “there had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”4
This more positive Christian vision of death was not, however, an embrace of the spirit of nihilism and suicide. “Fear of death is a natural trait in man, that derives from the disobedience of Adam,” wrote the seventh century abbot and mystic St. John Climacus, adding that “the terror of death, however, proves that there are unrepented sins.”5 The Christian attitude toward death, then, was not to seek after it in hopelessness as does the suicide, but to accept it in submission and hope. In this First Letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul placed this emphasis on hope in the center of the Christian attitude toward death, advising the Church in Thessalonica to “sorrow not, even as others which have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13, KJV).
This attitude was exhibited nowhere else more clearly than in the deaths of the early Christian martyrs and in the treatment of these martyrs by the early Christian communities after their deaths. One very early early account of a martyrdom, that of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, a bishop and disciple of the Apostle John, records that Polycarp faced his death with courage and treated it as an opportunity to please God through his exhibition of unflagging faith. After his death, says the account, “we, having afterwards taken up his bones, more valuable than precious stones, laid them where it was suitable. There, so far as is allowed us, when we are gathered together in exultation and joy, the Lord will enable us to celebrate the birthday of the martyrs.”6 The death of the martyr is both a source of grief because of the separation which it brings about as well as a source of hope and even joy at the work of God and the steadfastness of the martyr. His body is no longer a source of secular uncleanliness and ritual pollution as it was under the Old Covenant when death inspired horror,7 but instead takes on a sacramental nature, acting as a conduit between the grace of God and the believer who venerates the relics. In short, the death of the martyr is death par excellence; it is a death which is sublime.
1 Plato, Phaedo.
2 Sophocles, Antigone.
3 St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Fragments, XI.
4 Catholic Breviary, reading for All Souls’ Day.
5 St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 6.
6 Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, 18:2-3.
7 See Numbers 19:11.