The Martyr’s Guide To Life: How To Drink Hemlock, Get Crucified, And Be Burned At The Stake
By David Metcalfe
January 24, 2018
Death As The Great Equalizer
As humans, we are all working toward a common goal. Meeting that special someone, getting that big promotion at work, raising children, acquiring a beautiful house, etc. all culminate in your eventual death. Every second we live is one second closer we are to dying.
It is often said that “death is the great equalizer”. I will admit there is a good case to be made for such a claim. When Hamlet sees the skulls being tossed around by the gravedigger, he is aghast, saying,
“There’s another. Could that be a lawyer’s skull? Where’s all his razzle-dazzle legal jargon now? Why does he allow this idiot to knock him on the head with a dirty shovel, instead of suing him for assault and battery? Maybe this guy was once a great landowner, with his deeds and contracts, his tax shelters and his annuities. Is it part of his deed of ownership to have his skull filled up with dirt? Does he only get to keep as much land as a set of contracts would cover if you spread them out on the ground? The deeds to his properties would barely fit in this coffin—and the coffin’s all the property he gets to keep?”
This “lawyer’s skull” is a representation of the fact that career success is erased upon death. Then, when he sees the skull of his old jester, he grabs the skull in agony and says,
“Oh, poor Yorick! I used to know him, Horatio—a very funny guy, and with an excellent imagination. He carried me on his back a thousand times, and now—how terrible—this is him. It makes my stomach turn. I don’t know how many times I kissed the lips that used to be right here. Where are your jokes now? Your pranks? Your songs?
Your flashes of wit that used to set the whole table laughing? You don’t make anybody smile now. Are you sad about that? You need to go to my lady’s room and tell her that no matter how much makeup she slathers on, she’ll end up just like you some day. That’ll make her laugh.” (No Fear Shakespeare, 2017).
Now, I’m not sure why he “kissed the lips that used to be right here”. Seems like this jester stepped out of line professionally at that point. But I digress. What it’s basically saying is that even our character is erased upon death. If you are funny, intelligent, beautiful, etc., you will still end up in the same coffin, looking and acting (or lack thereof) the exact same. Hamlet eventually reasons that Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, despite their vast empires, are now but dirt in the ground.
It says in Genesis 3:19, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
Or in Ecclesiastes 9:5, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.”
The works of “Hamlet” and the Jewish scriptures attest to what is a very honest, and perhaps brutal, depiction of our existence. The claim of “death is the great equalizer” seems like less of an affirmation of equality, and more of a deterioration of human value, with equality as a biproduct. The book of Job draws upon how God, the decider of death, cares not how great you are on this earth,
“Is he not the One who says to kings, ‘you are worthless,’ and to nobles, ‘you are wicked,’ who shows no partiality to princes and does not favor the rich over the poor, for they are all the work of his hands? They die in an instant, in the middle of the night; the people are shaken and they pass away; the mighty are removed without human hand.” (Job 33:18-20)
We can see that there is a fair case to be made for “death as the great equalizer”. No matter how great you think you are, death will get you. No amount of money, fame, success, relationships, etc. can save you, so therefore, attaining lesser or greater amounts of these things offers no bearing. The only determinant of whether or not you will die is if you are a human being.
Death As The Great Separator
I would like to proceed to argue, well, a very opposite approach of what I just wrote. Now, I agree that every physical body ever made is equally doomed to destruction. The material world is indifferent to the things that we hold most dear: the human spirit, goodness, beauty, justice, etc. However, unlike the material world, I am not indifferent to such things, and I don’t imagine many people are. It is through these qualities exhibited in one’s life, and more importantly, in one’s death, that separates us dramatically.
Life On The Death Bed
Ironically, I think it is on one’s death bed that they often find life. They finally, even if just for a moment, become free of their worldly vices. For example, the pursuit of money is a pathetic goal at best. A little bit of money affords one the ability to live, a little more money affords one their necessary liberties, and any more money than that merely serves as a distraction. One may, for the purpose of liberty by means of mobility, purchase a car. However, a car that has anything more than what is necessary for that mobility is just a distraction from its intended purpose. These distractions from our fundamentals of being (existence, faculties, and environment) are actually detractions from humanity’s intended purpose, and separate us from real fulfilment. I could make a similar case for other vices: sex, social approval, pride, etc., but I will not bother, because I think the point is sufficiently made.
Now, tell me this: does anyone on their death bed ask to be surrounded by their money? Or perhaps prostitutes? Do they ever say, “bring me my fancy car!”, or “let me look at my diploma!”?
If such a thing has occurred, I am sure it to be the absolute rarity and idiocy. People on their death beds generally want to know three things: that their life was meaningful, that they have left something better behind, and that they are going to a good place. These three fundamentals of life are far too often reserved for our death beds. I don’t mean to say that these three fundamentals of life do not exist in the minds of everyone. Because, in fact, they do. They are often just not addressed. I think that is the reason that religion refuses to die, and no matter how oppressed or persecuted, seems to spring up within individuals, and in the communities that subsequently form. We need to answer these questions, and no amount of worldly gain affords us that. Facing the reality of death is what allows us to understand what life is really about, and it is how we choose to deal with it that ultimately separates us.
Movies Are Dying
The advent of computer generated imaging has done wonders for movies to be able to look “cool”, but it seems to have come at the cost of proper story telling. What meaningful concepts are to be drawn from recent superhero movies (other than how stupid the general population is becoming)? After seeing such movies, the conversations that develop are always enlightening: “That was so cool when Hulk destroyed that building!”, “Did you see when Thor hit the bad guy with his hammer?”. Yes, I did see it. However, seeing that I am not a freaking idiot, I fail to be mesmerized by generic computer images of grandiose, gratuitous violence for some ad hoc, tired old plot to be fit into.
Many of the movies made in the 90’s were able to strike a good balance between giving a meaningful story while also having proper technology and budgets to afford sufficient semblance of reality. Three of the best movies made in this time were “Braveheart” (1995), “Titanic” (1997), and “American Beauty” (1999). This is my own opinion, but is also supported by majority of film critics. The most striking commonality between these three fantastic films is that the main character dies at the end.
Life is generally the most important thing that we can possibly think of. By default, we innately value self-preservation above all else. However, are there things that might be more valuable than self-preservation? Is there something that might exist, which is so incredibly important, that if one were forced to choose between self-preservation and this certain thing, that the rational choice would be to trade away self-preservation in exchange for it?
According to these three movies, there is.
In an unjust society that severely limits individual freedoms, William Wallace believes that justice and freedom are worth dying for. The most powerful scene I have ever witnessed in a movie was the last scene of “Braveheart”. William Wallace, while defending the rights of the Scottish people, is captured and imprisoned. He is told that if he swears allegiance to the King of England, he will be given a quick and painless death.
Naturally, he does not oblige. He is brought forth to be publicly tortured, with hundreds of people cheering in excitement. After each round of torture, they tell him to swear allegiance to the King of England, and each time, he refuses. After severe torture, to the point where even an R-rated movie did not depict all of it, the executioner asks him one last time to swear allegiance. A hush goes over the crowd, as they wonder if, at last, he will give in. Instead, he yells, “Freedom!” as loud as he can. The crowd, once cheering, begins to see the incredible spirit of this man, and instead looks on in a daze. The executioner then kills him by cutting off his head.
While Rose was meant to be married to Cal because he is rich, she hates the thought of it. She instead falls in love with Jack, who has no money, and they begin to aspire towards a life together when they get to America. However, the ship hits an iceberg, and begins to sink. Rose has the opportunity to leave on a life raft, but refuses to leave Jack. The ship sinks, and Jack helps Rose onto a small piece of wood that can only hold one of them. The water is freezing, and the two exchange final words:
“Rose: I love you, Jack.
Jack: No…don’t say your goodbyes, Rose. Don’t you give up. Don’t do it.
Rose: I’m so cold.
Jack: You’re going to get out of this…you’re going to go on and you’re going to make babies and watch them grow and you’re going to die an old lady, warm in your bed. Not here…Not this night. Do you understand me?
Rose: I can’t feel my body.
Jack: Rose, listen to me. Winning that ticket was the best thing that ever happened to me. It brought me to you. And I’m thankful, Rose. I’m thankful. You must do me this honor…promise me you will survive….that you will never give up…no matter what happens…no matter how hopeless…promise me now, and never let go of that promise.
Rose: I promise.
Jack: Never let go.
Rose: I promise. I will never let go, Jack. I’ll never let go”
Jack loved Rose so much that his innate desire for self-preservation was far surpassed by his love for her, and thus his desire for her to continue living. If he had let her go on the piece of wood because he merely didn’t care about his life, he would not have been so sure to tell her that she has to keep living. He does not want his death to be in vain.
The film centers around a man who is discontent with his life, and begins to feel sexually attracted to his daughter’s friend. He quits his job, starts smoking marijuana, and rejects everything about the American dream. He is so disillusioned with his materialistic wife, he is utterly indifferent to the discovery that she is having an affair. Eventually, the changes in his life trigger a series of events that result in his death.
Even the most brilliant film critics, sociologists and philosophers cannot entirely agree on the film’s meaning. Is it about imprisonment and redemption, conformity and beauty, sexuality and repression, or temporality and music? Well, it’s safe to say it incorporates and challenges all of these ideas.
The most important aspect, for the purpose of this article, is that of the main character’s ability to achieve life through death. Because, really, operating on the monotony of middle class suburban life was simply a prolonged death for him. Dropping all of those things, in pursuit of a meaningful life, is essentially the crux of the story. And at the end, he finds beauty: not in fulfilling his sexual desires, not in acquiring more possessions, but in the satisfaction of his authenticity, and his genuine love for his family. He eventually arrives at a serene moment, looking at a picture of his family and smiling, right before being shot in the back of the head.
Disparity in Dying Dumb
What we see in these three fantastic films is the trading of one’s self-preservation for something greater, whether that be freedom, love, or meaning. This creates a noble death, and one that inspires people to want to live a life worthy of these great things. It causes people to think, “wow, I shouldn’t just live to exist, I should live for these greater pursuits.” So really, death with a purpose brings about a greater sense of what life really is. William Wallace, Jack Dawson, and Lester Burnham clearly had meaningful deaths, which separates them from people who die, well, not so meaningful deaths.
Now, I don’t think you necessarily have to dress up like a moose during hunting season, or sell both your kidneys on the internet in order to die in a dumb way. If the people previously mentioned in these movies died a good death because they traded self-preservation for something greater, then it is reasonable to suggest that doing the opposite would result in a bad death. The reason that, say, dying from eating superglue, is a bad death, is because it is a bad trade. Human life is more valuable than eating glue. In fact, it’s quite an absurd and extreme example. Yet, it provides some practical meaning to our own life.
If someone dies at the age of 20 because they were hit by a bus, we deem it to be a bad trade, and therefore, very tragic. However, what if it was discovered that this person had been hit by the bus because they were pushing someone else out of the way? We then have to ask: is altruism more valuable than self-preservation? However tragic the result of the 20-year old’s death was, the circumstances and intent around it are potentially vindicating.
In fact, I would suggest that the entirety of our existence is about making good trades. There are easy trades, like trading hunger for fullness. There are medium trades, like trading 1000 hours of wages for a car. And of course, there are difficult trades, like trading our life for an abstract principle like justice or truth. Our goal continually appears to be to trade up for something better.
Consider in your own life: what trades do you make, and are you trading up or down?
Here are some trades I have made…for better and for worse:
High School Graduation
It was in grade 12 that my mind started to really care about things beyond what the social structures around me were saying. I remember studying economics and realizing: no one really knows how to run an economy. We have all these experts who disagree with each other, and we’re basically running by the skin of our teeth, trying to make it work. Same goes for religion, politics, education, and most other socially constructed concepts. The realization that these things were not fixed, but rather the result of a certain person’s opinion, made me question everything we did.
One such thing was a graduation ceremony. Who decided that this was a good thing? Could it be just as easily argued that this was a bad thing? As I thought about it, I realized that we were spending an incredible amount of time and money on it, and the result was basically for us to be paraded around like show dogs for two hours. This was not something that I valued, but I figured I would go along with it, because my family and friends wanted me to.
However, as more and more people got angry at me for criticizing graduation and not wanting to participate in additional things, my liberties got too restricted. I decided that sacrificing social affirmation in exchange for authenticity and liberty was a fair trade. Unfortunately, my parents are very far from valuing abstract concepts like authenticity and liberty. They pleaded for me to go, but I refused. Eventually, they offered me $1000 to attend it, and I accepted. I allowed myself to be bought into doing something I believed to be unethical and a poor use of money. I traded my liberty and authenticity for money. Going to that graduation is the biggest regret I have of my time in high school.
Fighting Axis Powers
Axis is a company I worked for in Colorado for several months after I finished university. It was the best job I’ve ever done, and I love the way I left.
Now, Axis does some good quality journalism from time to time, and their presentations to high school kids are very well done. There are a plethora of incorrect things in the presentations, but you only have so much time to communicate some very complex ideas, and they are able to do it fairly well. I loved the speaking and writing experience they gave me. I used to hate extemporaneous speaking, and now I adore it. Whenever I get a chance to share my research, I absolutely love it, and speaking in front of hundreds of people is something I have come to enjoy. I am forever indebted to Axis for the help they gave me in my speaking ability.
And, in many ways, the writing was also good. It was simplistic, and very pandering to cultural Christians, but I enjoyed putting words together in a coherent fashion and seeing them be published and read by people. The problems really started when I was no longer learning anything new, and began to be intellectually bored by the content I had to write.
My problem is, I don’t think that I’m smarter than other people, I think I’m way smarter than other people. I listen to lectures and read academic articles from Yale and Harvard professors for fun and understand all of it. Whether my intellectual superiority complex is warranted or not, it does not bode well for me to interact with authority. The people put in authority over me were trying to criticize things about my ideas that they didn’t even understand. The top editors would write ideas that were insanely stupid, and directly contradicted current research.
I realized that I had a trade to make between my intellectual freedom and authenticity, and the job and life that I adored so much. I could pander to my superior’s wishes, and write incorrect garbage to pander to cultural Christians, and therefore keep my life in Colorado. Or, I could uphold the greatest gift that I have, and pursue my intellect where it truly leads me, and therefore give up my life in Colorado.
It was the best decision I’ve ever made, and that bald moron I worked for will never understand it. But I don’t need him to, in fact, I don’t need anyone to. I will be long dead before I trade away intellectual freedom for social affirmation, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Trial Denials: The Best People Get The Worst Lawyers
Joan of Arc
In the early 15th century, France was pretty much extinct. The English and Burgundians had taken the entire north side of France, and were looking to take the rest. The queen of France had signed over control of France to England, and as soon as Henry VI was of age, he was to take over. However, a 13-year old French girl had other plans.
Joan claimed she had a vision in which the saints told her that she must lead the French army against the invading English. She led various conquests and was so successful, the French were convinced that she must be from God, while the English believed she was from the Devil, naturally. She didn’t really fight in these battles, but rather held a banner and advised on military strategy. The French reclaimed much of their lost territory, and Charles VII was given his rightful place as King of France, but eventually she was ambushed and captured.
English law would not allow her to be killed simply for defending her country, so they looked to charge her with heresy, which was punishable by death. The trial was an absolute shit show. One of the key fundamentals of any trial, fair representation, was completely absent. The trial was basically a formality to accomplish killing her to send a message to the French with hopes of demoralizing them. Here is a sample from the court transcript:
“Question: Will you swear to speak the truth upon those things which are asked you concerning the faith, which you know?
Joan: Concerning my father and my mother, and what I have done since I took the road to France, I will gladly swear to tell the truth. But concerning my revelations from God, these I have never told or revealed to anyone, save only to Charles, my King. And I will not reveal them to save my head.”
What an incredible young woman she was. The corrupt English courts grew to hate everything she said. In this quote, she affirms allegiance to her true King, and suggests that she will die to keep the truth of her revelations. She is valuing truth above self-preservation.
And the sacrifice of self-preservation became very real when the trial ended and she was sentenced to death. She requested she have a crucifix in front of her, and she was tied to a pillar. Coals, hay, and wood were put around her and lit on fire. Her body burned in agony until she eventually died, and her ashes were tossed into the river (Fraioli, 2005).
Ancient Greece was a hotbed of philosophy, and has produced some of the greatest philosophical thought still employed today. Other societies, and many after, assumed many things about how society ought to operate, and did not really question them. Tyrants could commit all kinds of evil, but since there was no greater thought to morality, it was able to continue. The great thinkers of Ancient Greece questioned these assumptions, and spent extensive time thinking through them. Socrates is widely held as the greatest thinker of them all.
Socrates’ questioning concerned all kinds of things, but it was primarily centered around the ideas of justice. Socrates was bold enough to suggest that Athens (where he resided) failed to properly uphold the fundamentals of justice, or, at the very least, he questioned them so much that he may as well have been criticizing them. He showed a lack of allegiance to the state, and even praised Sparta, their arch enemy, at times. He criticized the idea that “might makes right” i.e. that someone can determine what someone ought to do by being more powerful than them. He wanted to improve the Athenians sense of justice, but they weren’t too quick to accept his ideas, to say the least (Waterfield, 2009).
His questioning of authority was so disliked, they eventually put him on trial for “corrupting the minds of the youth” and impiety (not believing in the gods). Now, Socrates was by far the smartest man in Athens, maybe the world, at that time. He could have easily argued his way out of it. However, he accepted his fate. Four main reasons were proposed in Reginald Allen’s fantastic book “Socrates and Legal Obligation”: he did not want to indicate a fear of death, he knew anywhere he went he would find similar persecution, he felt an obligation to the “social contract”, and he did not want others to suffer under the law.
Socrates’ last words were an ironic statement about owing a rooster to his friend. They let him choose his mode of death, and he decided to drink a poisonous drink called “hemlock”. It is common for people to refer to getting punished for questioning authority with good intent as “drinking the hemlock” (Allen, 1981).
Jesus and The Gang
1st century Israel is not the best place to question religious doctrine. Jesus of Nazareth did more than question doctrine, he claimed he was it. Basically, the Jewish people had been given all these laws to follow, and they followed them very rigidly in order to appease God. The Old Testament is basically a bunch of these laws, along with stories of people trying to follow them. Then Jesus came along and messed the whole thing up.
The Pharisees had a good gig going. They not only had power and superiority over the people, but they even had a divine right to do so. Then Jesus started breaking a bunch of the laws, and they were like, “hey Jesus, you can’t break these laws”, and Jesus was like, “you want the law? I AM THE LAW!”. I wasn’t there but it probably went down something like that. Basically, Jesus claimed that he literally was the way, the truth, and the life, and that accepting him as the embodiment of truth was the only way to get to God (John 14:6). That sounded crazy, and did not bode super well among the Pharisees.
And even worse, the Pharisees, who studied the law all the time and were supposedly experts in it, kept getting destroyed by Jesus. Like in the end of Luke 11, Jesus is just crushing the Pharisees. “Does this guy have a freaking death wish or something?” is what I would have asked if I was there. And according to Christian theology, Jesus did have a death wish, since it’s the reason he came to earth in the first place.
And once again, just like for Joan of Arc and Socrates, Jesus had an abhorrent trial. The whole thing was entirely ad hoc and void of any real quest for truth about Jesus. Whether he really was the savior or not is an important question, but it sure wasn’t to the Pharisees. They just wanted him dead to get rid of him and restore their power over the people.
Most historians believe that there were three charges brought forth by the Pharisees to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate against Jesus: perverting the nation, forbidding the payment of tribute, and sedition against the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did not follow Judaism, so they didn’t care about the supposed heresy of Jesus. Their only potential concern was of political threat. But Jesus was peaceful, and even said “my kingdom is not of this world” and “I came into the world to testify to the truth” (John 18). Both Herod and Pilate, the only people with real power to do anything lawfully, said that he was not guilty of any charge.
But the people did not like Jesus, which put Pilate into an awkward bind. He found a loophole though, that it was a custom during this time to release one prisoner. So he got Barabbas, a convicted murderer, and asked if they would rather let him or Jesus free. Choosing between a murderer and some peaceful cult guy should be simple, but the crowd chose to crucify Jesus. Like, holy crap these people hated him.
Jesus really believed that he was the truth, and that the truth was greater than self-preservation. More so, in Christian theology, it is believed that Jesus died for the sins of the world. Basically, every person is able to go to heaven because of the death of Jesus.
But the dying didn’t stop there. All of Jesus’ followers began dying for this truth as well. Jesus had inspired these people so much that they were willing to trade self-preservation for the truth they thought to be in Jesus. All of his disciples were killed, as well as many members of the early church.
And the system of law did not stop being terrible to these truth seekers. Stephen, an early follower, was charged with heresy, and gave a fantastic and eloquent speech about the history of his people and the importance of Jesus to fulfill the law. He never even made it to a proper court hearing. Instead, an angry mob grabbed him and stoned him to death (Acts 7). Then Saint George, about 250 years later, was told he must denounce Christianity. They even brought him a prostitute to undermine his resolve, but he ended up converting her instead. He was decapitated, and became a legendary martyr (Butler, 2008).
For crying out loud, pretty much everybody who follows Jesus ends up dying. John the Baptist, Paul, his disciples, the early missionaries, and even today, rich American people have to give up an hour of their time to sit through some boring service. All equally tragic examples of the sacrifice it requires to follow Jesus.
I hope you die. I mean it. I hope that I die too. However, I’d rather not die by sticking a fork in a toaster. Death is only the great equalizer if material things are the only things that exist. But according to the abstract concepts of things like justice, beauty, love, and truth, how you die, and more importantly, what you die for, is the great separator.
How we die is really a result of how we live. William Wallace and Joan of Arc died for freedom, precisely because they lived it. Same goes for Jack Dawson, who lived and died for love, or Socrates, who lived and died for justice, or Lester Burnham, who lived and died for beauty. The concept of Jesus in Christian theology is that he actually lived and died so that we could have all of these things: freedom from sin (Romans 6:18), the love of God (1 John 3:1), ultimate justice (Romans 12:19), perfect beauty (Psalm 27:4), and truth (John 8:32).
Don’t wait until you’re on your death bed to realize what’s important in life. Whether you’re literally on your death bed or not, we are all heading there. When the jury sentenced Socrates to death, he was not fearful, and he replied, “Do you not think that I have been preparing for it all my life?”.
The scriptures that testify to Jesus Christ are not a manual on how to live your life. They are a manual on how to die, so that you can find out what life really is. Jesus was kind of a morbid guy. He talked about his death all the time, and the disciples didn’t like it, as depicted at the end of Matthew 16. It’s counter-intuitive, isn’t it? That the best way to live is to accept death. Jesus says in the end of that chapter, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
That sounds like a good trade to me.
Allen, R. (1981). Socrates and Legal Obligation. University of Minnesota Press.
Butler, A (2008), Lives of The Saints. Benziger Bros. edition. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/lots/index.htm
Fraioli, D. (2005). Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years War. Greenwood Press. Retrieved from https://www.scribd.com/document/355664605/Deborah-A-Fraioli-Joan-of-Arc-and-the-Hundred-Years-War-2005-pdf
No Fear Shakespeare. (2017). Sparknotes. Hamlet, Act V, Scene I. Retrieved from http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/page_288.html
Waterfield, R. (2009). Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc