The Archparadox of Death

Martyrdom as a Philosophical Category

by Dariusz Karłowicz (Author)
©2016 Monographs 274 Pages


The book deals with martyrdom understood as a philosophical category. The main question pertains to the evidential value of the Christian witness through death. The author approaches an answer through a philosophical interpretation of the belief in the evidential role of martyrdom. Numerous historical documents confirm that ancient martyrdom might have been considered as a kind of proof also by people unaffiliated with the Church. The author observes the theology and the reality of martyrdom through the perspective of the ancient philosophy of death and radical personal transformation. He believes that the Christian stance in the face of persecutions could have been understood as the realization of the unrealized ambitions of philosophy, thereby proving indirectly the veracity of the teaching revealed by Jesus Christ.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Dethroning Philosophy
  • 1. Paul at the Areopagus
  • Authenticity
  • An Appraisal of the Speech
  • Truth Facing the Tribunal of Opinions
  • Irony
  • 2. Letters
  • Knowledge-Acknowledgment-Conversion
  • Degradation and Development
  • The Possibility of Virtue before Christianity
  • Credibility and Proof
  • Several Observations about the Paradoxicality of the Truth
  • 3. Philosophy as a Conversion of Existence and Knowledge
  • Man against the Backdrop of the Whole
  • Man as the Whole (Integral Conversion)
  • Change and Permanence
  • Philosophy as a Spiritual Exercise
  • Christianity as Philosophy
  • Part II: Witness as Proof
  • 1. The Concept of Martyrdom
  • Evolution of a Concept
  • Jewish Sources
  • The Philosophical Tradition
  • 2. Knowledge and Witness
  • The Criterion of Laches
  • Skepticism and Praxis
  • The Sage as the Condition for the Meaning and Criterion of Truth
  • 3. The Witness of Deeds
  • The Problem of Philosophical Biography
  • Witness According to Epictetus
  • Martyrdom and Conversion
  • The Conditions of a Proof
  • Part III: Perfection and Death
  • 1. Dramatis Personae
  • 2. Preparing for Death
  • The Archparadox of the Phaedo
  • Death as a Way of Life
  • Exhortation to Martyrdom
  • An Evil World or the Evil of the World?
  • 3. The Problem of Suicide
  • 4. Death as a Proof
  • Philosophers and Philomaths
  • False Witness and an Attempt to Avoid the Impasse
  • Part IV: Martyrdom as a Complete Conversion
  • 1. Divinization
  • The Sage as God
  • Plato and Aristotle: The Issue Whether the Sage Exists
  • Continuation of the Discussion: Peripatetics and Stoics
  • 2. The Christian Homoiosis Theo
  • Affirmation of the Spirit
  • Affirmation of the Body
  • 3. The Martyr as God?
  • Teleioi
  • Foretaste of the Resurrection
  • Transformation of Knowledge
  • Transformation of Existence: Who is a Witness?
  • Conclusion: Faith, Knowledge, Witness
  • Index
  • Bibliography

← 12 | 13 →


It takes time for eyes accustomed to the sun to adapt to the dimness in the cave. This is why, as we read in Book VII of the Republic, the philosopher who returns to the world of appearances at first is disoriented. He hears laughter and voices of pity. However, when he stubbornly stands by what he has seen, and tries to convince others to liberate themselves, he evinces the passionate resistance of the prisoners who feel at home in their cave, “And would they not kill anyone who tried to release them […] if they could somehow lay hands on him?” (516e-517a). Plato has no doubts about the mission of philosophy being connected to the risk of death. After all, when he describes the scene of returning to the cave, he has the fate of his own intellectual master in mind, the master who was condemned to death by the verdict of an Athenian court. When during the middle of the 2nd century Christians looked for the appropriate word to describe those who gave their lives for their faith, they utilized the term witness, martys. Whatever we may judge about causes of this decision, it was a choice comprehensible to all who were raised on the metaphor of the cave and the legend of Socrates’ trial. Who is the sage, if not the witness who knows what he saw with his very own eyes? Does not the witness appear before a court as a representative of a reality that is beyond the reach of our experience, in Epictetus’ words, as that reality’s ambassador or messenger? Finally, are not the enemies of the truth after his life (“And would they not kill anyone who tried to release them […] if they could somehow lay hands on him?”)? Yes, the category of witness spoke clearly to the philosophical imagination of antiquity. Certainly, this does not mean that the theology of martyrdom can be merely reduced into the tradition of pagan philosophical categories. Even if we ought to resist the temptation of reductionism, we should also remember that the theory and practice of witnessing through death did not come about in a philosophical vacuum. It is indubitable that for many philosophers of antiquity martyrdom was the answer to the fundamental questions of ancient philosophy. Its interpretation as such was neither an abuse within the realm of philosophy nor Christian theology.

The topic of this book is martyrdom understood as a philosophical category. The main question pertains to the evidential value of Christian witness through death. We shall approach an answer through a philosophical interpretation of the belief in the evidential role of martyrdom. According to many ancient Christian thinkers, figures such as Tertullian, Justin Martyr or Clement of Alexandria, the witness of dying for the faith is an argument that inclines one to acknowledge ← 13 | 14 → the truth of Christian doctrine. Numerous other documents confirm how martyrdom might have been considered as such a proof also by people unaffiliated with the Church. The autobiographical narrative of Justin Martyr can serve as such an example. He eventually became a saint, however, during his early years he was a Platonic philosopher. Justin only converted to Christianity under the influence of the witness borne by Christians condemned to death. This same idea is expressed by the famous opinion of Tertullian—which will be taken up by many later authors, that, paradoxically—persecutions strengthen the Church, instead of destroying it (semen est sanguinis christianorum).

We need not convince anyone that we are not only dealing with a problem which is crucial for understanding the expansion of the ancient Church, but also with a crucial problem for Christian philosophy. It is not an exclusively historical problem. The credibility of Revelation is at stake. In Christian thought the concept of a witnessing death, which formed itself in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries, remains to this day a category that draws the focused attention of theologians. Unchangeably since the time of the Apologists witness is the core of the Christian concept of perfection—it is the fundamental challenge and calling of the followers of Christ. Unfortunately, nowadays we must deal with an obvious asymmetry between the meaning of witness and the attention devoted to it by modern philosophers. In order to learn about this matter we will have to turn to the old masters. I think the type of proof of doctrinal credibility we have introduced here is worthy of serious consideration, especially in our time when the tension between various forms of irrationalism, on the one hand, and minimalistic rationalism, on the other, seems insurmountable.

I will not consider the problem of martyrdom here within popular psychological or sociological categories (i.e. Durkheim’s altruistic suicide), but in light of the classic categories of ancient philosophy. Thus, the answer will take us through an attempt to understand what philosophical reasons were capable of making witnessing through death an intersubjective argument that attested to the veracity of Revelation. I will look upon theology and reality of martyrdom through the perspective of the ancient philosophy of death and radical personal transformation. I believe that there are sound bases for judging that the Christian stance in the face of persecutions could have been understood as the realization of the unrealized ambitions of philosophy, thereby proving indirectly the veracity of the teaching revealed by Jesus Christ.

The need to establish the mutual relationship between philosophy and Christianity is an essential condition of this undertaking. This is the reason why the first part of this book was devoted to an attempt of characterizing the stance of ← 14 | 15 → Christians toward philosophy and a definition of the notion of philosophy that ancient Christians faced which is as universal as possible. In the second part I will discuss the category of witness in Christian and pagan writings, and the specific role philosophical praxis might have played during a time of epistemological perplexity during late antiquity. The third and fourth parts constitute an attempt to capture the supra-confessional character of Christian martyrdom by situating it within the light of two great traditions of classically defining philosophy: preparing for death and likening oneself to God.

There are debts that cannot be repaid by a short bibliographic note. It really is difficult to evaluate how much—not only as a historian and philosopher—I owe to professor Juliusz Domański. Without his original vision of ancient philosophy it seems unlikely that even a step would be possible toward the hypotheses put forward by this book. I would venture to say that I have taken much more than other readers from his outstanding books and articles. Thanks to him I belong to a small group of those who have a real spiritual master. My sincere thanks also go out to professor Władysław Seńka, whose unfailing kindness has accompanied me for a long time. The especially insightful critiques advanced by professor Dobrochna Dębińska-Siury and the recently deceseased patrologist, Fr. Emil Stanula, saved me from many mistakes and oversights. Here I also cannot overlook my dear friend Paweł Paliwoda who often helped me with his erudition and perspicacity. Finally, I would like to warmly thank my parents and sister—without their support it would have been difficult to complete this work. ← 15 | 16 →

← 16 | 17 →

Part I:  Dethroning Philosophy

1.  Paul at the Areopagus

In the 17th chapter of Acts of the Apostles we find a speech made by St. Paul during his stay in Athens. It was delivered to philosophers who were gathered at the Areopagus. The facts that the speech comes from a canonical book of the New Testament, that it was written down by the hand of St. Luke, and finally, that its speaker is the Apostle to the Nations encourage us to see in it a model stance toward philosophy which is faithful to the Gospel; or, even more widely, such a stance toward all of pagan culture.1 Thus, there is nothing strange that in the Athenian episode recorded in Acts 17:16–33 (which took place in the Autumn of the year 50AD, during what is called Paul’s Second Apostolic Journey)2, scholars expect to find basic instructions for appraising the aims of, the mediation model for, and the essence of proper relations between Jerusalem and Athens. Unfortunately this, as Harnack calls it, “most beautiful fragment of the Acts of the Apostles”3, unexpectedly disappoints all those who expect a clear interpretation in the name of an Apostolic magisterium. ← 17 | 18 →


Let’s begin with the widely discussed issue of the speech’s authenticity. It is clear that the problem of ascertaining the degree of readiness to integrate elements of pagan culture in the Acts of the Apostles depends upon, above all, the perspective the interpreter chooses while deciding its authenticity.

In 1913, against Harnack’s opinion4, Norden judged the text to be from Hadrian’s time, therefore both a historical and literary forgery.5 Norden’s radical thesis no longer has many supporters. However, alongside the opinion of scholars who defend its complete authenticity6, the intermediary position is quite common. Its representatives maintain doubts with regard to the historical fidelity of the account, but they maintain that the speech is not a literary falsification, that it came from the pen of the author of Acts and is his own individual composition which utilizes some earlier account.7 Basically, we know Luke did not accompany Paul to Athens and we cannot be certain whether he possessed a record of Paul’s oratory. The character of the earlier writings remains a controversial issue which connects the problem of authenticity with the debate over ascertaining its inspiration and the factual contents of the speech.

We are dealing here with an ideal example of the problems which emerge from the borderlands between theology and textual criticism. Judging St. Paul’s stance must be preceded by an evaluation of the text’s authenticity, which in turn, to a ← 18 | 19 → great degree, is conditioned upon its conformity with what we consider Christian teaching. This is because historical authenticity is often evaluated on the basis of conformity with the spirit of the Gospel, which is reconstructed on the basis of texts acknowledged as indubitably authentic. Obviously, this puts fragments that are in some way atypical in a problematic situation—the lone account in the New Testament of the Apostle’s encounter with the philosophers just happens to be one of these fragments.8 The exemplum maius of the speech’s unique character is verse 28, in which scholars have found references to as many as three ancient poets: the semi-mythical wonder-worker, poet and sage Epimenides, who was admired by Norwid9, and two Stoic poet-philosophers, Aratus of Soli and Cleanthes.10 It bears repeating: the fragment can only be a noteworthy example of integrating Greek pagan elements when we, at the very least, acknowledge its literary authenticity. In turn, it can only be acknowledged as authentic through external criteria, when such criteria can be either other indubitable authentic witnesses, or the character of the sources from which it originates. The risk of an all-to-circular hermeneutic is apparent.

The matter complicates itself further when the integrity of the text is questioned, and only some fragments of Paul’s Athenian appearance are deemed inauthentic. This kind of stance expresses itself in the frequent tendency to oppose the two parts of the speech. The first so-called theological (or philosophical) main part (24–29) is marked by, as is often ascertained in such analyses, by suspect Christian discourse, whereas the second part (30–31) is admittedly ← 19 | 20 → in accordance with the spirit of the Gospels, but it is most often seen only as a Christianizing addition. Thus, for example, Schweitzer claims that in the structure of the speech the passages from the poets take the place of passages from the Bible used in other speeches. He puts forward a stringent thesis: in front of pagans Luke’s Paul puts himself forward as a monotheist, rather than as a Christian, as a theologian, rather than as a Christological-theologian.11 This is connected to a more general discussion about the already-mentioned materials which served as the sources for the speech, and the question of their Christian character. It is noteworthy that according to some scholars these sources can be derived from popular theses of Stoic theology12, whereas according to others it represents typical tropes of Judeo-Christian apologetics. We can see what shaky ground is furnished by this foundation for resolving an altogether fundamental question. For example, according to Martin Dibelius the content that is properly Paul’s voice is a Hellenistic discourse about God inspired by Stoicism (24–29), which was supplied with a Christian intercalation unconnected to the rest of the whole (30–31). Much like Schweitzer, Dibelius divides the speech into a theological part that is in some way foreign to the Gospel, and a Christian addition that is extraneous to it. Both express a contrast between what is philosophical and simultaneously non-Christian, and the Christological element which is at odds with the spirit of the speech.

Yet, there is a possibility of suspending the thesis that the Christological verses 30–31 are an artificial element added by a redactor. This becomes possible with a shift in opinion about the genesis of the Christian part. The path to preserving both the speech’s unity and defending its authenticity, is the one of acknowledging the role previous proselytic efforts of Hellenistic Judaism played in Christian teaching. When we assume the ultimate source of the first fragment is not Stoicism, but instead a Hellenized Jewish monotheism, the thesis of an irresolvable conflict between the two fragments is invalidated. This breakthrough occurred thanks to the work of Bertil Gartner who, against Dibelius, showed that all the themes in the first fragment could be found in the Old Testament or Hellenized Jewish literature without exception.13 From here we can interpret the combining of the testimony about Christ with the theological fragment which precedes it (24–29) as a conscious use of the proselytizing experiences of Jews who acted in a culture saturated by polytheistic elements. Thus, Christians drew from the ← 20 | 21 → experience of the monotheistic propaganda of Hellenized Judaism, whose proclamation of the existence of the One God and critique of idolatry preceded the Christian teaching. They did this because they believed that it did not marginalize the Gospel, but instead paved the way for the preaching of the Good News.

According to Legrand, contemporary trends in exegesis lean toward this stance. The Athenian episode of the Acts of the Apostles is interpreted as a Lucan composition and a generalization of a widely distributed type of Christian teaching directed to pagans and in tune with the main lines of monotheistic propaganda.14 We should note that this thesis—bracketing off the Pauline authorship of the speech—retains in place, and even amplifies, its typicality and rank as a standard text. The fact that St. Luke only relates three speeches to us, each one directed to a different community, that is, to the Jews (13:16–41), pagans (17:22–31) and Christians (20:17–35), supports the thesis that the speeches manifest three different ways of Christian preaching typical for addressing those specific communities.15 Resting upon these presuppositions, we will now make a short overview of the speech delivered by Paul at the Areopagus.

The introduction of the speech already causes serious interpretive difficulties. Paul begins with a phrase so ambiguous that it can be taken both as a slap on the face and as praise. This first verse of the speech (17:22) is translated as follows: “Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: ‘You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious.’”16 In the Polish translation the commentator adds the observation that the phrase “very religious” can also be understood pejoratively as “superstitious”. Parenthetically speaking this is how Fr. Jakub Wujek translates it: “You Athenians, I see that you are exceedingly supersitious in every respect.”17 The problem revolves around the term deisidaimonesterous, and more widely the reason why Paul uses such an ambiguous term in a very prominent part of his speech. In truth, most biblical scholars tend toward accepting the positive sense of the expression from verse 2218, however, we should remember that ← 21 | 22 → this has its source in one particular way of interpreting the whole speech. Even though Paul could not have known about the existence of Plutarch’s condemnation of superstition in Peri Deisidaimonias, it is difficult to accept that, without reason, the Apostle used a term which provokes its hearers precisely where ancient rhetoric dictated placing a captatio benevolentiae, which would unite one’s listeners.19 It is improbable Paul by wanted to win the benevolence of his listeners by utilizing such an obvious ambiguity.

The problem of the deisidaimonia is closely connected to the reference to the altar of the Unknown God (Agnosto Theo) which appears in the next verse. As is often said, Paul refers to the existence of such a cult in order to gain the favor of his listeners by pointing to pre-Christian intimations of the God whom he wants to proclaim to the philosophers. The words which conclude this verse, “What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you”, are a formula which introduces us into the speech proper. However, a somewhat different take is also possible here. Both archaeologists and Early Christian authors inform us about the existence of altars raised to unknown gods (agnostois theois), that is, of altars with a decidedly polytheistic character. Their emergence is connected to the legendary figure of Epimenides and related to anxiety about the wrath of nameless and unknown gods.20 St. Jerome thought Paul made a conscious decision in changing the plural into the singular. As he writes, “The genuine inscription did not read ‘to an Unknown God’, but to all the gods of Asia, Europe and Africa, all the unknown, foreign gods. Since Paul did not need many gods, but the one Unknown God, he used the singular.”21 This useful grammatical maneuver which monotheized the altars raised to unknown gods also has its very own critical dimension, close in intent to the earlier reprimand addressed to Athenian ← 22 | 23 → superstition. The change of quantity is something more than just a clever rhetorical trick. Here Paul very forcefully stresses that that the Unknown God is totally foreign to polytheistic religion, that he is an Unknown God in the full sense of the term and not one of the many unknown gods. The crux of the matter, as Legrand writes, is not the assertion that Greek religion has an implicit cult of the true God, but that, in accord with their own avowals, the one true God was totally unknown to them until then.22 After this appearance by Paul in Athens, which we cannot acknowledge as an example of openness toward pagans, there is a short explication of monotheistic theology that puts a strong emphasis on criticizing the cult of idols.

The first part of the speech (24–29) begins and closes with a critique of idolatry whose absurdity comes to the fore by way of a confrontation with the truth about the Unknown God. The self-sufficient God who is the Creator, Giver and Lord of everything (17:24–25), who “gives to everyone life and breath and everything” (dzoen kai pnoen kai panta) (17:25), who cannot dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands (17:24), cannot be considered similar to the work of human hands and imagination (17:29), and his self-sufficiency (in fact, he does not need anything) makes any type of sacrifice absurd (17:25).

Verse 26 introduces a description of man’s relation to God. Two main themes dominate here. The first theme is the purposefulness of human nature: man was created by God in order to search for God. We should add that this theme is completed by the teaching about the fallenness of human knowledge. The second main theme comes from Stoic sources, the theme of connaturalis of man and God, or more widely, of a certain kind of proximity between man and God. The God who marked out the seasons and boundaries for man made mankind from one (human being?), so that men would inhabit the earth (17:26) and, above all, that they would seek him (17:27). However, this searching occurs in a manner that is described as a “groping” (17:27), whereas God is not far from any one of us (17:27), “In him we live and move and have our being” (dzomen kai kinoumetha kas esmen) (17:28).

From these remarks, which we can acknowledge as a clearly formulated judgment about the state of human knowledge, the second part of the speech begins with a call to conversion and repentance. It is inaugurated by an unambiguously negative evaluation of an epoch labeled as “the times of ignorance” (17:30). God, the Apostle continues, calls all people everywhere to repent (17:30). He does so because he has established a day on which he will judge the world with justice. ← 23 | 24 → He will accomplish this through a man he has appointed, whom he destined for this day by confirming him for all by raising him from the dead (17:31).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
testimony likeness to God philosophical paradox preparation for death
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 274 pp.

Biographical notes

Dariusz Karłowicz (Author)

Dariusz Karłowicz is a philosopher, publisher and columnist. He works as an editor-in-chief of the Polish philosophical magazine Teologia Polityczna (Political Theology) and is President of the St. Nicolas Foundation.


Title: The Archparadox of Death
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276 pages