Book Review: Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

One of T.S. Eliot’s masterpieces, Murder in the Cathedral is a drama of the return to England and martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. From the historical events, Eliot creates a piece of writing that is simultaneously, and in equal proportions, a prayer, a study in the psychology of both the murderer and the martyr, and a meditation upon the proper relationship between church and state. The result is one of the greatest works of 20th century literature in the English language.

Eliot begins shortly before Thomas’s return to Canterbury following seven years in France. A feeling of trepidation is already in the air. The players, like the audience, know already what is going to happen.

Upon Thomas’s return, he is haunted by four successive temptations. The first three are the obvious temptations of anyone in his position: power, ease, and treason. The fourth, however, comes as a surprise even to Thomas: the temptation to do the right thing, to embrace martyrdom, but for the wrong reasons. Thomas conquers each temptation in turn. The “Interlude,” a homily by Thomas upon martyrdom, finally shows that he has conquered the fourth temptation.

After the murder of Thomas, the knights who have killed him each in turn step forward to justify themselves to the audience. Just as Thomas’s homily revealed the mind of the martyr, the mind of the murderer is revealed in the defenses given by each knight for his actions. The audience is asked to decide who was in the right, if anyone. Perhaps, Eliot seems to indicate, both Henry and Thomas, as well as the knights, were doing their duty, however much the particular duty of each might bring them into conflict with the other.

The book concludes, as it ought, with a prayer to God as well as to St. Thomas, the martyr, not with an invocation of the king. “Blessed Thomas, pray for us.”

Primary Source Selection: From the Martyrdom of Polycarp (155 AD) (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.9)

Polycarp of Smyrna was an early Christian bishop who was martyred, which means killed for his religious beliefs, in 155 AD. A Christian who witnessed the martyrdom of Polycarp wrote about it shortly after he died. The writings about the deaths of martyrs like Polycarp became very popular reading among early Christians remained popular reading for Christians for over a thousand years. Below is one section of the writing about Polycarp’s martyrdom. Polycarp has just been arrested and brought into the arena. Standing in front of the crowds there, he is questioned by a member of the Roman government.


Now when Polycarp entered into the arena there came a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” And no one saw the speaker, but our friends who were there heard the voice. And next he was brought forward, and there was a great uproar of those who heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore when he was brought forward the Pro-Consul asked him if he were Polycarp, and when he admitted it he tried to persuade him to deny, saying: “Respect your age,” and so forth, as they are accustomed to say: “Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say: `Away with the Atheists'”; but Polycarp, with a stern countenance looked on all the crowd of lawless heathen in the arena, and waving his hand at them, he groaned and looked up to heaven and said: “Away with the Atheists.” But when the Pro-Consul pressed him and said: “Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ,” Polycarp said: “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

But when he persisted again, and said: “Swear by the genius of Caesar,” he answered him: “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you are ignorant who I am, listen plainly: I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn the doctrine of Christianity fix a day and listen.” The Pro-Consul said: “Persuade the people.” And Polycarp said: “You I should have held worthy of discussion, for we have been taught to render honor, as is meet, if it hurt us not, to princes and authorities appointed by God. But as for those, I do not count them worthy that a defense should be made to them.”

And the Pro-Consul said: “I have wild beasts. I will deliver you to them, unless you repent.” And he said: “Call for them, for repentance from better to worse is not allowed us; but it is good to change from evil to righteousness.” And he said again to him: “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, if you despise the beasts, unless you repent.” But Polycarp said: “You threaten with the fire that burns for a time, and is quickly quenched, for you do not know the fire which awaits the wicked in the judgment to come and in everlasting punishment. But why are you waiting? Come, do what you will.”

Bishops, Apologists, and Martyrs (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.8)

In the beginning of the second century, Christianity found itself in a state of crisis. Christian believers, who all together are called “the Church,” found themselves threatened both from the outside as well as from the inside. From the outside, Christians were threatened by the Roman government and others who were very hostile to the message of Christianity. Inside of the Church, there were people who were beginning to teach different things from what the apostles had taught and were dividing Christians into different groups. The last of the apostles died at the end of the first century, so there was no longer anyone around who had known Jesus himself. A new generation of Christians began to take the positions of leadership in the Church to help it through this troubling time. These people are called the bishops, the apologists, and the martyrs.

The greatest problem facing the Church from inside Christianity was the rise of a variety of groups who had different beliefs and practices than other Christians did. The early Christians used the word “heresy” to refer to ideas that were different from those taught by the rest of the Church.

The Church needed leaders to decide what should and should not be believed by Christians, so they turned to their bishops. The word bishop comes from a Greek word that means “overseer” or “supervisor.” It was the job of the bishops to oversee and supervise the Church. The first bishops, Christians believed, had been chosen by the apostles. These bishops then chose other outstanding Christians to be new bishops. Each city had its own bishop to lead the church in that city. Some bishops of very large and important cities, such Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Asia Minor, and Jerusalem, were looked to as leaders even by other bishops. The bishop of Rome, the capital city of the Roman Empire, was especially important.

From the outside, the Church faced the threat of persecution by Roman authorities. Most upper-class Roman men did not like the message of Christianity. They thought it was dangerous for the Christians to tell women, slaves, and poor people that they were equal to rich men. They also thought the Christians were wrong not to worship the Roman gods. They believed the Roman gods would get angry with the people of Rome and punish them. Many Christians were tortured or even put to death by the Romans. A person who dies for their religious beliefs is called a martyr.

The first Roman emperor to persecute Christians was Nero. When a fire in Rome destroyed much the city, Nero blamed the Christians for setting the fire. He ordered Christians throughout the city of Rome put to death. Among the Christians martyred by orders from Nero were the leader of the apostles, Peter, and the apostle who wrote most of the New Testament, Paul. In fact, all of the apostles except John were eventually martyred. Later Roman emperors continued to persecute the Christians for almost 300 years.

Christians who were very educated tried to reason with the powerful Romans who were persecuting Christians by explaining Christian beliefs to them. These people, called apologists, wrote letters and books telling the Romans what Christians believed and trying to persuade them that Christianity was not dangerous to the Roman Empire. The Romans told many rumors about Christians doing bad things. The apologists tried to show why these rumors were wrong.

While most Romans thought the Christians were crazy for choosing to die rather than worship the Roman gods, many Romans were very impressed by how willing Christians were to suffer for their faith and become martyrs. By being willing to die for their beliefs, the Christians convinced many Romans to decide to become Christians as well. Through their work the bishops and the apologists defended the Church against those attacked it from outside as well as those on the inside who wanted beliefs to change. As a result, the Christian Church grew and became stronger even during these tough times.


Review Questions

  1. What two threats were Christians facing from the inside and outside?
  1. What is a bishop?
  1. What is a martyr?
  1. What is an apologist?


Vocabulary Words

Heresy – beliefs that are different from the accepted opinions of the Church

Persecution – mistreating someone because of their religious beliefs

How to die, if you must

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.