FOOLS, MARTYRS, TRAITORS by Lacey Baldwin Smith


The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World
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 A fine combination of collective biography and thematic study. Nine of Smith's previous books have been on English history, mostly Tudor England. This latest work is derived from a class he taught at Northwestern University, affectionately known by his students as ``Finks, Stinks, and Weirdos.'' As Smith implicitly recognizes in his title and first chapter, the students had stumbled on the first problem concerning this subject: the conundrum of definition. One person's martyr is another person's traitor. What is the difference between a martyr and a victim? What are we to make of those who actively seek self-destruction? When the subject is a remote figure from a different culture, we may analyze these questions with a critical and cool detachment; when we place ourselves in the realm of the Holocaust and ask the same question about the millions killed by the Nazis, the tenor of the debate changes radically. How is the historian to decide? ``Not even God can change history, but the historian can; his profession requires him to do so.'' Perhaps no other civilization has such a tradition of martyrdom as the West; from Socrates, the Maccabees, and Jesus to Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.--all of whom are examined by Smith--our culture has been shaped and determined by these holy fools. It is not death that transforms the person into a martyr, but the consciousness of a death freely chosen. A fascinating subtext of the work is the transformation of the martyr from the sacred to the secular: Sometime in early modern Europe, the heretic is superseded by the traitor. Politics have become our secular religion. Yet, as Smith notes, perhaps Camus hit upon the paradox when he wrote that martyrs must choose to be either forgotten, mocked, or made use of--but they can never be understood; and yet he also believed--paraphrasing Descartes, ``I rebel--therefore we exist.'' Human, dramatic stories, well told, with sympathetic insights. (12 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 20th, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-45124-2
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1997


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