Category Archives: Sym, John


from Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing


John Sym, a zealous Calvinist minister born in Scotland and bred under its predestinarian theology, became rector of Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, England, where he remained until his death. He was much respected by his parishioners, though eventually hated by the government during its anti-Puritan periods. His treatise Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing (1637) was the first full-length work on suicide published in English; although John Donne had written Biathanatos [q.v.] nearly three decades earlier (1608), Donne’s work was not published until 1647, a decade after that of Sym.

Sym’s treatise is representative of the increasingly severe attitudes toward suicide developing from the 1530s and ‘40s to the time at which Sym was writing, a century later. Suicide was a felony at law, punished with increasing harshness beginning with the Tudors and Stuarts by forfeiture of property, burial restrictions, and body desecration, and with little mercy for suicide victims who were insane: non compos mentis verdicts were returned in less than two percent of suicide cases tried between the accession of Henry Tudor and the Restoration. There were other voices in the early 17th century: Montaigne’s A Custom of the Isle of Cea [q.v] had been translated into English in 1603, and the plays of Shakespeare [q.v.] had given some currency to Stoic and Epicurean ideas of suicide. Nevertheless, law, religion, and folk belief in England during this period remained adamantly opposed to suicide.

Sym was convinced that there was an epidemic of suicide in England at the time he was writing, and indeed the number of reported suicides had increased dramatically. His principal aim in Lifes Preservative is to show that deliberate self-destruction (including the very broad range of behavior he includes under this notion) is a heinous sin. In its full and direct form, suicide is a sin greater than murder—that is, self-destruction is a greater sin than the destruction of another person.

Sym’s conceptual analysis of self-killing distinguishes between direct and indirect self-murder, between self-murder by commission and by omission, and between spiritual and bodily self-murder. Thus, suicide as he understands it includes not only direct self-killing but parasuicidal behavior and risk-taking; it includes under the notion of suicidal behavior many forms of self-exposure and self-neglect: idolatry, perjury, self-starvation, lack of moderation in food or drink, unwarranted use of medicines or surgery, exposing oneself to lethal dangers due to inordinate desire for money and possessions, irrational risk-taking by soldiers on the battlefield or sailors at sea, dueling, keeping society with dangerous people, and breaking laws that have capital punishments. While Sym’s concept of suicide is extremely broad, he was actually prepared to be more tolerant in practice than many of his contemporaries, and he believed that it was possible to overcome suicidal despair. As one commentator writes, Sym’s work is “marbled with paradoxes.”


John Sym, Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing, ed. Michael MacDonald.  London and New York: Routledge, 1988 (facsimile of the original, 1637, spelling and punctuation modernized), from Chapter 7, 10, 11, pp. 53-57, 84-88, 90-95, 109-111; quotation in the introductory biography p. xliv.




Of the specific difference of self-murder

Besides the consideration of murder, in a man’s killing of himself, the third point in the general description of self-murder is the efficient cause, or means of it, and that is a man’s own self, by his own procurement, who is also the immediate object of that vile fact, whereof now I am to speak.

Here is now the specific difference of this sort of murder, whereby it transcends and is distinguished from all other murders, and consists in restraint of the act of killing, in regard of its individual object, to a man’s own life and self, which is the greatest and cruellestactof hostility in the world.  When a man, who by nature is most bound to preserve himself, reflects upon himself to destroy himself, the horribleness whereof is so monstrous that we read no Law made against it, as if it were a thing not to be supposed possible. And this sin, of all others, is most against the Law of Nature, for that self-preservation arms a man to turn upon others unlawfully invading him to kill him. And also, it is against that self-love, which is the rule of our love to others and therefore what we may not lawfully, in this case, do to others, we can less lawfully do it to ourselves against this general law of love; in breaking whereof, specially towards ourselves, we violate the whole law, the general sum whereof is love.

Of the evil and greatness of self-murder.

This is the malice of Satan, and our own wretchedness, to set us at division and enmity against our selves, and in a monstrous manner to make a man both the active and passive subject of his own action, and utter destruction of himself, the greatest mischief that can betide him in this world, and so a man’s self becomes his own executioner, by his own hands or means, principal or accessary, by command, or otherwise.

If parricide be a grievous sin, as wilfully to kill our own parents, children, wives, husbands, etc. who are distinctpersons from ourselves, much more is self-murder abominable. For, by unity, things are preserved, and individuals are principally one, and therefore, if individuals be divided against themselves, the world cannot stand; when things shall cease to be true and amicably disposed to themselves.

Of lawful self-killing.

There is a lawful and commanded killing of ourselves. For understanding whereof, it is to be observed, that every one of us hath in him a self-old-man of sinfulness, lively and powerful in manifold lusts and wicked actions, of which the Apostle tells us (Romans 7:5) that when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the Law, did work in our members, to bring forth fruit unto death. When the commandment came, sin revived. The living whereof does kill us.

In this case, even for our own preservation, it is necessary, and lawful for us to kill our self-old-man, with the lusts thereof. As the Apostle commands usto mortify our members, that the body of sin might be destroyed, we should put off the old man (Ephesians 4:22, Colossians 3:9) so that we should become dead to trespasses and sins, wherein formerly we were dead.

This killing of our selves is metaphorical and moral, by which death we are made alive. For, if we do not thus die, we cannot live. As the sown corn must first die, before it can live and grow.

This our self-old -man is slain by three several acts or blows. First, the same after a sort, was crucified in Christ (Romans, 6:6), that the body of sin might be destroyed, although not the individual persons, but the common nature of mankind assumed by Christ did suffer death in him.

Secondly, our self-old-man is killed, by change of our state, upon our grafting into Christ by faith, so that we are, in that respect, said to be dead to the law, by the body of Christ (Romans 7:4-6) and that we are dead to the law, that we might live unto God (Galatians 2:19). This is done at one entire act or blow, in the act of our justification; so by this death, freeing us from him that hath the power of death, even the devil.

Thirdly, our self-old-man and the lusts thereof are killed, as touching the dominion and corruption of them, by the Spirit of God, in the act of sanctification. Touching which, the Apostle tells us (Romans 8:13) that if we, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, which is the work of our whole life, we shall live.

This killing of our self-old-man should be done by ourselves, being the executioners of it, by assistance of divine power from God, in three several acts.

First, by our act of savingly believing in Christ, whereby our state is changed from death to life.

Secondly, by our constant endeavors to be conformed to God’s image and will by daily renovation.

Thirdly, by our continual warfare against our corruption and temptations, touching which, the Apostle says, that the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh (Galatians, 5:17). They are so contrary the one to the other, that there is no living for either of them but by the death of its opposite. Neither is there any peace, until one of them be dead.

We should therefore ever use our Christian armor, and employ our utmost endeavors to destroy our self-old-man. Against which, if we do turn the edge of our spiritual sword to slaughter it, with the lusts thereof, we shall be diverted, not only from unjustly killing of others, but much more from killing ourselves, in any other respect. But when we, as Saul, do spare the life of this Agag, or self-old-man, it causes us, by a just hand of God, to fall upon ourselves, to take away that life of our own which we should both spare and cherish.

Diverse observations from the general consideration of self-murder.

From the consideration of self-murder we may observe: first, that man stands in more danger of destruction than any other creature. For, no creature is subject to attempts against the life of it, by itself, but only man, who is environed also with mortal dangers from without, but specially of his own procurement, by opening the way for others to invade and hurt him, by breaches and arms of his own making.

Secondly, we here see that God wants not means of execution of his judgements upon man. Seeing, he can leave a man to fall upon himself and be his own executioner.

The use hereof is to make us afraid to offend God, or to provoke him to be our enemy, or to live unreconciled with him, destitute of the assurance of his peace and favor.

Neither are we over-confidently to trust ourselves with our selves, of whom we have so little assurance for security and safety from self-mischief. And therefore, we are carefully to cleave to God for preservation, praying him not to give us up to ourselves, who are mercilessly cruel to ourselves, when we fall into our own hands. For the nearer that any are linked and knit together in condition, or affection, the more desperately opposite they are when they fall into division, because of the want of a fit medium or mediator of reconciliation, between a man’s self and himself. What mean is there, either to keep himself from himself, or to reconcile himself to himself, when himself is fallen out into murderous resolutions against himself?

Of the kinds of bodily self-murder.

Direct and indirect self-murder defined.
The kinds of bodily self-murder are two: Direct and Indirect. Self -murder is not such a general, as in the schools is called Genus univocum, so predicated of them both, as equally communicating itself to both those species, or species under it. But is genus analogum ab uno; or commune genus kath hen or pros hen, for that the same does properly and primarily belong to direct self-murder.

Direct bodily self-murder is the killing of a man’s body or natural life by himself, or his own means, advisedly, wittingly, and willingly, intending and effecting his own death.

Indirect self-murder of the body is when a man advisedly, wittingly, and willingly intends, and does that which he knows may be of itself, the means of the destruction of his natural life, although he does not purposely intend to kill himself thereby. Or it is the killing of a man’s own body, by unlawful, either moral or natural means of his own using, without intending of his death thereby.

Of the differences between direct and indirect self-murder. The proper differences between direct and indirect self- murderers consists specially in three things.

First, in the ends, directly and immediately intended by the self-murderers of both kinds, in their several acts. The end that is immediately intended in direct self-murder is death itself of their bodies that kill themselves; although not for itself, but in respect of some benefit conceited to be had thereby, which is their ultimate end, whereunto death is in the murderer’s intention subordinate, as for a man to kill himself, that he may be out of trouble.

The end that in indirect self-murder is immediately aimed at is the attainment of some good, real or apparent in, or by the means that an indirect self- murderer does use, without any respect or expectation of death thereupon ensuing; as in surfeiting by drunkenness or gluttony.

Secondly, they differ in the means that are used by them for accomplishing those ends. In direct self-murder, the means abused to that effect and end are not proper of themselves, nor by God’s appointment, but are perverted by him that kills himself thereby, as knives or the like. For God never appointed means for any man lawfully to use for effecting that which he would never have man do. A direct self-murderer uses not the means for any pleasure he hath in them, but for the consequent effects that he intends by them.

In indirect self-murder, the means and course used are such, as do properly kill in the end, if that they be persisted in, as drunkenness, and the like. Although they have in them a show of present good, which gives the users of them a kind of delight and contentment in them. Whereof they shall be disappointed, when, in the end, they shall, instead thereof, find death, which they least expected and most abhorred, and would resist the same, if it were inferred or offered to them by others.

Thirdly, direct and indirect self-murder do differ in the good that is aimed at by them, and in the time wherein they look to enjoy it. A direct self-murderer does fancy his good intended by him, in his act of self-murder, not to be in the means that he uses to kill himself but, in or by death, in his freedom from evil, or enjoying of good, the time of his reaping of which benefit he conceives to be, after that he is dead and gone.

An indirect self-murderer conceits the good that he aims at, by his course, to be and rest in the very means themselves that he uses, therein expecting the present enjoyment thereof before, and not after his death. The cogitations, and inflicting whereof he abhors, although he does prosecute with eager delight, the courses that do hasten and bring his death.

How indirect self-murder is greater, in some respects, than direct.

It is demanded, whether direct, or indirect self-murder be the greater sin? I answer, if we consider the freeness of the will, with less enforcement, and with more delight, prosecuting those deadly courses of indirect self-murder, there can be, in that respect, less said to excuse it than for direct self-murder. An indirect self-murderer is last (in respect of the mortal means he uses, and persists in, until the effect be accomplished,) as sure of death, which he abhors, as a direct self-murderer is of the same, that he desires, and endeavors for, and longs after.

Again, an indirect self-murderer is more hardly diverted from his unlawful, dangerous course, than, at first, a direct self-murderer, because this man may be sooner convinced of the vileness of his purposed fact. In excuse whereof he hath so little to say, and also the danger of it is more apparent and ghastful to the mind that advisedly in cold blood considers of it.

The other is taken up, with looking upon the present contentment in the means that he uses. Not considering death and danger, thereupon attending and ensuing, but self-deceives himself with excuses and colorable pretenses, and so does wink (as it were) that he may not see the blow of death that he is giving himself, with his own hands.

Of direct self-murder the cause or occasion is ordinarily from discontentment and sorrow, but, of indirect self-murder the cause commonly is pleasure and delight. Of these two motives, pleasure is the strongest, and their motion most violent and indivertable that are led by it because it moves with nature and not against it, and hath will in men more propense that way, which by grief is rather forced, than seconded.

How absolutely direct self-murder is the greatest.

Notwithstanding, Direct self-murder is the far more grievous sin, in three respects.

First, in respect of the direct intention of the will, and of its immediate object of murder of a man’s self, whereby it partakes, more properly and fully, of the nature of self-murder, than indirect self-murder does. For, what is under a common Genus, or general, directly partakes more of the nature of that Genus than that which is under it but by reduction, or indirectly. So then, although direct and indirect self-murder be both self-murder, yet they are not equal self-murder, but the former is the greater.

Secondly, for the consequences of the acts of them both, direct self-murder brings more certain and sudden inevitable destruction than indirect, which in this latter may be better prevented, by having time of repentance, than it can be in the former. And death in this is an accidental effect, besides the intention of the agent and nature of the means, which in the former is per se, and of the nature of the action so purposely ordered to that end.

Thirdly, direct self-murder hath more and greater sins complicated in it, than indirect hath, both by extension, in kinds and number against God, others, and ourselves, and also for intention, in degrees, by reason of circumstances of the party doing the same, against the light and reluctancy of nature, with direct intention to kill himself.


Of Indirect self-murder of the body.

Why Indirect self-murder is first treated of.
Although that by logical method I should treat first of Direct self-murder, because that which is directly under a Genus or general head should be handled before that which is but indirectly under it, for the nearness thereof unto the same, and for the light that it may afford, for the better understanding of the other. Yet, for all that, I will here begin with indirect self-murder for three causes.

First, because I will herein imitate nature, which proceeds from things less perfect, to things more perfect, because perfection is her ultimate end. Indirect self-murder is less perfect self-murder than direct self-murder because the Genus of self-murder agrees more properly, and primarily to direct self-murder, than to indirect.

Secondly, indirect self-murder is ordinarily, both the way and the cause of direct self-murder, and therefore, may be fitly treated of first. The rather because direct self-murder never goes before indirect; but this goes often before, and without that.

Thirdly, because my intention is to insist specially upon direct self-murder, and by means of it only do I speak of indirect self-murder. Therefore, I purpose first to dispatch it, as an accessory to the other; which I principally intend, as my last end in this treatise, therewithal to conclude the same.

Of Indirect self-murder by omission.
Having shown what indirect self-murder is, and how it is differenced from direct self-murder, I will now declare how men do fall into the same, which is done by two ways. First, by omission. Secondly, by commission.

By omission a man may indirectly murder himself, being the deficient cause of the preservation of his life, two ways: either in a physical natural manner, or in a moral meritorious course.

Of indirect self-murder, by omission physically wrought.
First, physically, and after a natural manner, a man may indirectly murder himself diverse ways as:

First, a man may indirectly murder himself, by way of omission, if out of sullenness, grief, or nigardize, or by indiscrete punishment of his body, he shall stubbornly and foolishly refuse to eat or drink, in that measure or kind that is requisite for his preservation, by abstinence, and sparing, either starving himself to death or breeding in himself and contracting that which kills him. Somewhat like hereunto was the practice of Ahab (1 Kings, 21:4) who, because Naboth would not let him have his vineyard, heavy and displeased, laid him down upon his bed and turned away his face, and would eat no bread. The contrary whereof Paul commanded Timothy.

Yet, to avoid this danger, men may not Gormandize, or excessively pamper themselves, indulgendo Genio, but may, and ought at set times to fast, both for civil and divine ends, with respect to the good both of soul and body.

Secondly, in this kind of omission, a man may indirectly murder himself by wilful contempt of the lawful use of physic or surgery, either to cure or prevent apparent mortal diseases or griefs or, when he will not be ordered, by the wholesome direction of the skillful in their calling; or, does not depend upon God for a blessing upon the means, who, by his over-ruling providence, directs the course and blesses the means.

Yet, men must herein be careful that they slavishly enthrall not themselves to the means, nor anxiously perplex themselves, if they cannot have them or that the success answers not their expectation. Because the Lord disposes things so, as he also may effect his work and will, often by crossing ours.

Thirdly, a man may incur indirect self-murder, by regardlessness of preserving himself against mortal dangers, from without himself as, in not seeking to God for reconciliation, by humiliation and repentance, in some imminent judgements that threaten from God our destruction, that we may be preserved either from them, or in them. Or as, when we are in danger of invasion by enemies, for a man then regardlessly to shut his eyes from foreseeing the same, that it may suddenly surprise him, or, that he should not prepare himself and do his utmost endeavors in his own defense, to save his life, if by resisting it may be done, or otherwise to provide for himself by flight or other prudent diversion, or preventing of the evil; that he may not carelessly suffer his life to be lost. So then, the cowardice of men in extremities by sea or land, that will not do their utmost endeavors for their own preservation, as likewise the griplenesse of those that to spare their goods, endanger the loss of their lives, for want of military furniture and means to make opposition, are much to be blamed for this course of indirect self-murder.

But yet, touching this point, men should be wary that they neither be so careful to preserve their lives that they should spare to venture them where they ought, and may comfortably spend and lay them down. Nor yet, have their eyes and confidence so upon earthly means, of human strength and provision, that they should forget or neglect to seek to God, and to depend upon him for safety and victorious success.

Fourthly, of indirect self-murder a man may be guilty by not avoiding and fleeing from persons and places destined to destruction, which are under a curse or in a course of mortal judgements, when we are not necessarily tied by duty or calling to commerce and be with them. As is apparent by Lot’s forsaking of Sodom, and by the command of Moses to the Israelites, to depart from the tents of Corah, Dathan and Abiram, and by that divine commandment, charging all the godly to come out of Babylon, that they might not be partakers of her sins and that they might not receive of her plagues.

And therefore, such as out of unwarrantable presumption, or carnal security, avoid not persons and places infected with the pestilence or subjected to perdition, when their presence is unnecessary and not to be justified, and pernicious to themselves. They must be cast upon the indictment of indirect self-murder, if by the aforesaid means, they do miscarry.

Of indirect self-murder by omission morally wrought.
By the way of deficiency, or omission of indirect self-murder, a man may be guilty by a moral meritorious default two ways:

First, by his willful neglect or contempt to live and walk in the ways of godliness and obedience to God’s affirmative commandments, whereunto the promises of life and protection are annexed, and which we may certainly expect, so long as we keep ourselves within compass of moral obedience to the Law and Gospel, and within the limits and precincts of our special callings; so that if therein, or therefore, we should lose our lives, we shall be free of the imputation of self-murder anyway, in that respect.

Secondly, in meritorious moral manner, a man may miscarry, and be indirectly guilty of his own death, by wilful omission and neglect of commending himself in constant and ordinary prayer to God, for divine preservation and safety of his life, against all evils and dangers, which may hurt him, and over which, and over him, God hath a sovereign power and command. And also, by his unbelief and not trusting in God in all estates, for preservation, under whole wings he may securely rest, a man may be justly deserted, and given over to perish and sink, as Peter when he doubted, was in danger of drowning.

This neglect of thus depending upon God arises either from self-confidence in man’s own power and means, whereupon he rests as secure, or else from Atheistical conceits of the providence of God, as if he were regardless of human affairs, and that all things did fall out by chance and fortune, because they do see all things in this world fall out alike to all men. Which being more exactly considered, manifests rather the free and sovereign powerful providence of God over-ruling all things.

Yet this divine preservation, by faith and prayer to God, excludes not, but includes the conscionable use of lawful means, and walking in appointed courses, without which we can expect safety no more than Paul and his company could, if they did let the mariners forsake the ship. If a man by the aforesaid neglect of prayer and dependence on God does not perish, it is God’s special work, reserving him either for repentance and amendment of his life or for some worse end and heavier judgement.

From this degree of indirect self-murder, by omission of means, we may observe that when God gives means of life, if we use them not to that end, we tempt God, to follow our own wills, while we will not follow his. And if we use the means, with trusting in them, then we make gods of the means, and therefore, in that respect, it is just with God to disappoint us of our expectation, and to condemn us of indirect self-murder, upon our miscarrying, in not using the means.

For, all means, as they are means, have relation to the end, why and whereunto they are appointed. And so, in their use to that end consists their perfection, without which they were useless and needless, and therefore, by the omission of the use of the means of life, which men would enjoy, they either tempt God to do things otherwise than he hath ordained, or else they do show themselves regardless of God, preferring their own wills above his, expecting to have their own purposes without him, whereby many men deceive themselves.

Of indirect self-murder by commission.
The second means of indirect self-murder is by a course of commission, or of doing things, unlawfully tending to bring a man to his death, which is a degree grosser than the former, and consists in diverse branches.

First, by abusing lawful things in transgressing due moderation in their use for time, measure and manner, falling into extremes either of defect or of excess, or of unreasonableness, which is done two ways. First, in things both respecting the body, and in the acts about them: as in eating to gluttony and drinking to drunkenness, using labor and recreations to surfeiting, and also in things respecting the mind, as in the over straining and surcharging of the thoughts, fancy, and understanding, in the immoderate distemperature of the affections and passions of the mind, suffocating or wasting the spirits by excess of choler, grief, fretfulness, and the like; which being let loose, and extended beyond the banks of their due moderation, do often prove mortal, and means of indirect self-murder, when they are willingly and indulgently entertained, and given way to. It is a hard thing for a man to use means, and not to abuse them, which causes many a man’s table to become a snare to him, and a trap, and shortens his time upon earth.

Secondly, indirectly, a man may be guilty of self- murder by needless mutilating of himself and cutting off any of his members (as Origen did), to the hurt and danger of his life, which by the preservation of such a member might have been in more safety, for life’s perfection is in the perfection of the whole body. Notwithstanding, for the safety of the whole, a man may lawfully and necessarily cut off a member; which cannot be preserved without manifest danger of thereby losing his life, but neither to punish a sin past, nor to prevent a sin to come, may a man cut off or destroy any of his members, whereby he may be less able to do the offices and duties for which God hath given him the same. Seeing that both for chastisement and prevention of sin, God hath appointed other moral means, which we are to use, and therein to depend upon God for the success. For not in man’s forced disability to act sin, but in the renovation of the heart consists true sanctification. That of pulling out the right eye, and of cutting off the right hand (Matthew, 5:29- 30) is meant of moral mortification, whereby those members are made useless and as if they were not, to any unlawful use.

Of Indirect self-murder of commission by unwarrantable practice of Physic, etc.
Thirdly, a man maybe guilty of indirect self-murder, by practicing of physic or surgery unskillfully, immoderately, or dangerously upon himself, either above his strength or knowledge, killing himself by his unwarrantable endeavors to cure himself, or else by leaving those that they know to be skillful, careful and have lawful calling to practice, to put themselves into their hands, whom they neither know to have skill nor calling to undertake such cures, or are such as be desperate attempters, with small regard of men’s lives in their practice. If a man know the same and does wilfully choose and commit himself, specially in difficult cases, into the hands of such, he can look for no good success, and must be self-guilty of the mortal effects thereupon following. But of this see more in the abuses of taking physic,

Of indirect self-murder by unthriftiness, etc.
Fourthly, this indirect self-murder is committed by willful unthriftiness and prodigality, whereby a man provides not, but misspends the means of his livelihood and so subjects himself and his to the peril of famine, contrary to the light of nature and scripture.

Yet we are herein to be wary that for prevention of want of livelihood, we fall not into covetousness and carking cares, or that we follow the world with neglect of better things, or that we should spare more than is fitting and shut up the bowels of compassion with the overthrow of liberality and works of charity and piety.

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