Born sometime between 230 and 260 in proconsular North Africa to a non-Christian family who lived at Carthage, Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius became a rhetorician and professor of oratory in Nicomedia, in northwest Asia Minor. Known for his Latin prose style, he was sometimes called the “Christian Cicero” by Renaissance scholars. He had been appointed (c. 290) to his professorship at Nicomedia by the Roman emperor Diocletian, but when Diocletian began to initiate what came to be known as the Great Persecution, Lactantius, who had converted to Christianity by this time, resigned his professorship (c. 305) and began to write defenses of Christian theology for both Christians and non-Christian academics. He sought to refute polytheism and to show the falsity of pagan philosophy while demonstrating the truth of Christian tenets. After Constantine became emperor, he lifted Lactantius out of poverty and invited him to Trier to tutor his son, Crispus.
In The Divine Institutes (303–310), the first systematic summary in Latin of Christian teaching, Lactantius attacks Greek and Roman views of suicide. He addresses Plato’s view of the immortality of the soul and Cicero’s view that death will be better than life, or at least no worse. Lactantius replies, on the contrary, that death cannot be assumed to be good, but relative to a good or bad life lived. Lactantius also claims that the venerated Stoic examples of suicide, including such notable instances as that of Cato, were actually homicide victims of Stoic philosophy. Lactantius derides what he sees as an erroneous pagan “balance-sheet” mentality weighing pleasure against pain. Lactantius is the first writer in the Christian tradition to argue, as he does in this work, that killing oneself is worse than killing another person, a view that gains considerable currency in later Christian thought.
The dates of Lactantius’ life are not known. Estimates of his lifespan generally range between the years 240 and 330.
Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book III, chs. 18–19. Trans. Rev. William Fletcher. In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7. Buffalo: 1886; New York 1899–1900. Available online at Christian Classic Ethereal Library.
from THE DIVINE INSTITUTES
The Pythagoreans and Stoics, While They Hold the Immortality of the Soul, Foolishly Persuade a Voluntary Death
Others, again, discuss things contrary to these, namely, that the soul survives after death; and these are chiefly the Pythagoreans and Stoics. And although they are to be treated with indulgence because they perceive the truth, yet I cannot but blame them, because they fell upon the truth not by their opinion, but by accident. And thus they erred in some degree even in that very matter which they rightly perceived. For, since they feared the argument by which it is inferred that the soul must necessarily die with the body, because it is born with the body, they asserted that the soul is not born with the body, but rather introduced into it, and that it migrates from one body to another. They did not consider that it was possible for the soul to survive the body, unless it should appear to have existed previously to the body. There is therefore an equal and almost similar error on each side. But the one side are deceived with respect to the past, the other with respect to the future. For no one saw that which is most true, that the soul is both created and does not die, because they were ignorant why that came to pass, or what was the nature of man. Many therefore of them, because they suspected that the soul is immortal, laid violent hands upon themselves, as though they were about to depart to heaven. Thus it was with Cleanthes and Chrysippus, with Zeno, and Empedocles, who in the dead of night cast himself into a cavity of the burning Ætna, that when he had suddenly disappeared it might be believed that he had departed to the gods; and thus also of the Romans Cato died, who through the whole of his life was an imitator of Socratic ostentation. For Democritus was of another persuasion. But, however, “By his own spontaneous act he offered up his head to death”; and nothing can be more wicked than this. For if a homicide is guilty because he is a destroyer of man, he who puts himself to death is under the same guilt, because he puts to death a man. Yea, that crime may be considered to be greater, the punishment of which belongs to God alone. For as we did not come into this life of our own accord; so, on the other hand, we can only withdraw from this habitation of the body which has been appointed for us to keep, by the command of Him who placed us in this body that we may inhabit it, until He orders us to depart from it; and if any violence is offered to us, we must endure it with equanimity, since the death of an innocent person cannot be unavenged, and since we have a great Judge who alone always has the power of taking vengeance in His hands.
All these philosophers, therefore, were homicides; and Cato himself, the chief of Roman wisdom, who, before he put himself to death, is said to have read through the treatise of Plato which he wrote on the immortality of the soul, and was led by the authority of the philosopher to the commission of this great crime; yet he, however, appears to have had some cause for death in his hatred of slavery. Why should I speak of the Ambraciot [Theombrotus]who, having read the same treatise, threw himself into the sea, for no other cause than that he believed Plato?—a doctrine altogether detestable and to be avoided, if it drives men from life. But if Plato had known and taught by whom, and how, and to whom, and on account of what actions, and at what time, immortality is given, he would neither have driven Cleombrotus [Theombrotus] nor Cato to a voluntary death, but he would have trained them to live with justice. For it appears to me that Cato sought a cause for death, not so much that he might escape from Cæsar, as that he might obey the decrees of the Stoics, whom he followed, and might make his name distinguished by some great action; and I do not see what evil could have happened to him if he had lived. For Caius Cæsar, such was his clemency, had no other object, even in the very heat of civil war, than to appear to deserve well of the state, by preserving two excellent citizens, Cicero and Cato. But let us return to those who praise death as a benefit. You complain of life as though you had lived, or had ever settled with yourself why you were born at all. May not therefore the true and common Father of all justly find fault with that saying of Terence:—
“First, learn in what life consists; then, if you shall be dissatisfied with life, have recourse to death.”
You are indignant that you are exposed to evils; as though you deserved anything good, who are ignorant of your Father, Lord, and King; who, although you behold with your eyes the bright light, are nevertheless blind in mind, and lie in the depths of the darkness of….
…[T]hose who assert the advantage of death, because they know nothing of the truth, thus reason: If there is nothing after death, death is not an evil; for it takes away the perception of evil. But if the soul survives, death is even an advantage; because immortality follows. And this sentiment is thus set forth by Cicero concerning the Laws: “We may congratulate ourselves, since death is about to bring either a better state than that which exists in life, or at any rate not a worse. For if the soul is in a state of vigour without the body, it is a divine life; and if it is without perception, assuredly there is no evil.” Cleverly argued, as it appeared to himself, as though there could be no other state. But each conclusion is false. For the sacred writings teach that the soul is not annihilated; but that it is either rewarded according to its righteousness, or eternally punished according to its crimes. For neither is it right, that he who has lived a life of wickedness in prosperity should escape the punishment which he deserves; nor that he who has been wretched on account of his righteousness, should be deprived of his reward. And this is so true, that Tully also, in his Consolation, declared that the righteous and the wicked do not inhabit the same abodes. For those same wise men, he says, did not judge that the same course was open for all into the heaven; for they taught that those who were contaminated by vices and crimes were thrust down into darkness, and lay in the mire; but that, on the other hand, souls that were chaste, pure, upright, and uncontaminated, being also refined by the study and practice of virtue, by a light and easy course take their flight to the gods, that is, to a nature resembling their own. But this sentiment is opposed to the former argument. For that is based on the assumption that every man at his birth is presented with immortality. What distinction, therefore, will there be between virtue and guilt, if it makes no difference whether a man be Aristides or Phalaris, whether he be Cato or Catiline? But a man does not perceive this opposition between sentiments and actions, unless he is in possession of the truth. If any one, therefore, should ask me whether death is a good or an evil, I shall reply that its character depends upon the course of the life. For as life itself is a good if it is passed virtuously, but an evil if it is spent viciously, so also death is to be weighed in accordance with the past actions of life. And so it comes to pass, that if life has been passed in the service of God, death is not an evil, for it is a translation to immortality. But if not so, death must necessarily be an evil, since it transfers men, as I have said, to everlasting punishment….
…What, then, shall we say, but that they are in error who either desire death as a good, or flee from life as an evil? unless they are most unjust, who do not weigh the fewer evils against the greater number of blessings. For when they pass all their lives in a variety of the choicest gratifications, if any bitterness has chanced to succeed to these, they desire to die; and they so regard it as to appear never to have fared well, if at any time they happen to fare ill. Therefore they condemn the whole of life, and consider it as nothing else than filled with evils. Hence arose that foolish sentiment, that this state which we imagine to be life is death, and that that which we fear as death is life; and so that the first good is not to be born, that the second is an early death….