Martyrdom and sainthood are religious terms, but they contain useful
concepts for classifying levels of commitment to secular causes, too.
Martyrs die for the cause.
Potential martyrs are willing to die for the cause, and show that
willingness by action, but through luck or skill, survive. Some
observers see this subcategory as inferior to full martyrdom, since
they never have to face the test. Others recognize the courage as being
equally noble, regardless of the consequences fate deals.
Saints change their lifestyle completely and permanently for the cause,
to the detriment of their health, safety, or comfort -- and that of
their families, if they have families dependent on them. This raises
the question of whether sainthood can be an unalloyed virtue in anyone
with children are too young to make the choice, or, for that matter,
any family members who don't want to take on such extreme privation.
Sainthood is, for many people, harder than martyrdom.
Activists are wiling to endure some discomfort or inconvenience for the
cause, or to change their lifestyle temporarily. Very few people can
keep up the energy and constant self-sacrifice at the level of youth
and the flowering of idealism for a full lifetime of activism. That's
why old activist are often famous -- they're rare.
Thomas Jefferson was a potential martyr when he wrote and signed the
Declaration of Independence -- all the signers faced execution if
caught. But for most of his life he was an activist. That should be
enough to judge him as admirable, but it seems that many people will
accept nothing less than absolute sainthood from him.
see: Doing Enough