Category Archives: Ancient History

(fl. 920s)

from The Risala: By the River Volga, 922: Viking Ship-Burial


Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a Muslim diplomat and secretary to an ambassador for the Caliph of Baghdad, was sent in 921 to the Khaganate of Bulgars along the Middle Volga. His account of his travels with the embassy, The Risala, describes his confrontation with a people called the Rus or Varangians, who were traders and marauders of Swedish origin and Viking ideals. “I have never seen more perfect physical specimens,” he says of the Rus, “tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times.” Ibn Fadlan has been described as a keen observer and good narrator, and The Risala contains valuable ethnographic accounts of early Europe.

In 922, Ibn Fadlan recorded sacrifices and mortuary customs among the Rus. A leader has died; one of this man’s slave women volunteers to be killed and burned together with her master in the practice of ship burial. The voluntary death of a master’s slave will be echoed in later Norse sagas [q.v.], especially Gautrek’s saga, where a slave is “rewarded” for faithful service by being permitted to jump from the Family Cliff. What is at issue in these Viking practices that end in death, like those in many other cultures, is the sense in which they can be said to be voluntary and the degree to which the apparently free choices that lead to them are socially controlled.


Ibn Fadlan’s account quoted in Johannes Brøndsted, The Vikings,  tr. Kalle Skov, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1965, pp. 301-305.



I had been told that when their chieftains died cremation was the least part of their whole funeral procedure, and I was, therefore, very much interested to find out more about this.  One day I heard that one of their leaders had died.  They laid him forthwith in a grave which they covered up for ten days till they had finished cutting-out and sewing his costume.  If the dead man is poor they make a little ship, put him in it, and burn it.  If he is wealthy, however, they divide his property and goods into three parts: one for his family, one to pay for his costume, and one to make nabid [probably a Scandinavian type of beer] which they drink on the day when the slave woman of the dead man is killed and burnt together with her master.  They are deeply addicted to nabid, drinking it night and day; and often one of them has been found dead with a beaker in his hand.  When a chieftain among them has died, his family demands of his slave women and servants: ‘Which of you wishes to die with him?’  Then one of them says: ‘I do’; and having said that the person concerned is forced to do so, and no backing out is possible.  Even if he wished to he would not be allowed to.  Those who are willing are mostly the slave women.

So when this man died they said to his slave women: ‘Which of you wants to die with him?’  One of them answered, ‘I do.’ From that moment she was put in the constant care of two other women servants who took care of her to the extent of washing her feet with their own hands.  They began to get things ready for the dead man, to cut his costume and so on, while every day the doomed woman drank and sang as though in anticipation of a joyous event.

When the day arrived on which the chieftain and his slave woman were going to be burnt, I went to the river where his ship was moored.  It had been hauled ashore and four posts were made for it of birch and other wood.  Further there was arranged around it what looked like a big store of wood.  Then the ship was hauled near and placed on the wood.  People now began to walk about talking in a language I could not understand, and the corpse still lay in the grave; they had not taken it out.  They then produced a wooden bench, placed it on the ship, and covered it with carpets of Byzantine dibag [painted silk] and with cushions of Byzantine dibag.  Then came an old woman whom they call ‘the Angel of Death’, and she spread these cushions out over the bench.  She was in charge of the whole affair from dressing the corpse to the killing of the slave woman.  I noticed that she was an old giant-woman, a massive and grim figure.  When they came to his grave they removed the earth from the wooden frame and they also took the frame away.  They then divested the corpse of the clothes in which he had died.  The body, I noticed, had turned black because of the intense frost.  When they first put him in the grave, they had also given him beer, fruit, and a lute, all of which they now removed.  Strangely enough the corpse did not smell, nor had anything about him changed save the colour of his flesh.  They now proceeded to dress him in hose, and trousers, boots, coat, and a mantle of dibag adorned with gold buttons; put on his head a cap of dibag and sable fur; and carried him to the tent on the ship, where they put him on the blanket and supported him with cushions.  They then produced nabid, fruit, and aromatic plants, and put these round his body; and they also brought bread, meat, and onions which they flung before him.  Next they took a dog, cut it in half, and flung the pieces into the ship, and after this they took all his weapons and placed them beside him.  Next they brought two horses and ran them about until they were in a sweat, after which they cut them to pieces with swords and flung their meat in to the ship; this also happened to two cows.  Then they produced a cock and a hen, killed them, and threw them in.  Meanwhile the slave woman who wished to be killed walked up and down, going into one tent after the other, and the owner of each tent had sexual intercourse with her, saying: ‘Tell you master I did this out of love for him.’

It was now Friday afternoon and they took the slave woman away to something which they had made resembling a doorframe. Then she placed her legs on the palms of the men and reached high enough to look over the frame, and she said something in a foreign language, after which they took her down.  And they lifted her again and she did the same as the first time.  Then they took her down and lifted her a third time and she did the same as the first and the second times.  Then they gave her a chicken and she cut its head off and threw it away; they took the hen and threw it into the ship.  Then I asked the interpreter what she had done.  He answered: ‘The first time they lifted her she said: “Look!  I see my father and mother.”  The second time she said: “Look!  I see all my dead relatives sitting round.”  The third time she said: “Look!  I see my master inParadise, andParadiseis beautiful and green and together with him are men and young boys.  He calls me.  Let me join him then!”’

They now led her towards the ship.  Then she took off two bracelets she was wearing and gave them to the old woman, ‘the Angel of Death’, the one who was going to kill her.  She next took off two anklets she was wearing and gave them to the daughters of that woman known by the name ‘the Angel of Death’.  They then led her to the ship but did not allow her inside the tent.  Then a number of men carrying wooden shields and sticks arrived, and gave her a beaker with nabid.  She sang over it and emptied it.  The interpreter then said to me, ‘Now with that she is bidding farewell to all her women friends.’  Then she was given another beaker.  She took it and sang a lengthy song; but the old woman told her to hurry and drink up and enter the tent where her master was.  When I looked at her she seemed completely bewildered.  She wanted to enter the tent and she put her head between it and the ship.  There the woman took her head and managed to get it inside the tent, and the woman herself followed.  Then the men began to beat the shields with the wooden sticks, to deaden her shouts so that the other girls would not become afraid and shrink from dying with their masters.  Six men entered the tent and all of them had intercourse with her.  Therefore they laid her by the side of her dead master.  Two held her hands and two her feet, and the woman called ‘the Angel of Death’ put a cord round the girl’s neck, doubled with an end at each side, and gave it to two men to pull.  Then she advanced holding a small dagger with a broad blade and began to plunge it between the girl’s ribs to and from while the two men choked her with the cord till she died.

The dead man’s nearest kinsman now appeared.  He took a piece of wood and ignited it.  Then he walked backwards, his back towards the ship and his face towards the crowd, holding the piece of wood in one hand and the other hand on his buttock; and he was naked.  In this way the wood was ignited which they had place under the ship after they had laid the slave woman, whom they had killed, beside her master.  Then people came with branches and wood; each brought a burning brand and threw it on the pyre, so that the fire took hold of the wood, then the ship, then the tent and the man and slave woman and all.  Thereafter a strong and terrible wind rose so that the flame stirred and the fire blazed still more.

I heard one of the Rus folk, standing by, say something to my interpreter, and when I inquired what he had said, my interpreter answered: ‘He said: “You Arabs are foolish.”’  ‘Why?’  I asked.  ‘Well, because you throw those you love and honour to the ground where the earth and the maggots and fields devour them, whereas we, on the other hand, burn them up quickly and they go toParadisethat very moment.’  The man burst out laughing, and on being asked why, he said: ‘His Lord, out of love for him, has sent this wind to take him away within the hour!’  And so it proved, for within that time the ship and the pyre, the girl and the corpse had all become ashes and then dust.  On the spot where the ship stood after having been hauled ashore, they built something like a round mound.  In the middle of it they raised a large post of birch-wood on which they wrote the names of the dead man and of the king of the Rus, and then the crowd dispersed.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Ancient History, Ibn Fadlan, Ahmad, Islam, Middle East, Selections

(c. 890-c. 960)

from The Book of Lighthouses and Watchtowers


Ya’qub al-Qirqisani was a biblical scholar and a recorder of religious and secular law, writing during a period in which Jewish life had been heavily influenced by the rise of Islam and the centralization of Muslim rule in the caliphate at Baghdad. Al-Qirqisani was a member of the Karaite sect, a Jewish group living in what is now Iran. The Karaites (“karah” comes from the same  root as “scripture”) differed from most Jewish communities by refusing to acknowledge the postbiblical tradition of canonical inclusions into the Talmud based on oral sources, the tradition known as that of the “Two Torahs.” Instead, in the view of Anan, the sect’s founder, oral law merely reflected the interpretations of various rabbis, not divine word. By not recognizing the oral law as one of the Two Torahs, the Karaites also challenged the Talmud, and some commentators have compared them to Protestant Christian reformers inasmuch as Anan and his disciples held, respectively, both that they had the right to confront the text directly and that they could interpret it themselves.

Al-Qirqisani was the most significant chronicler of the code of Karaite law, and in a chapter of his work Kitab al-Anwar wa’l-Maraqib (The Book of Lighthouses and Watchtowers), he approaches the issue of suicide not from a moral point of view, but exclusively from the point of view of legality according to Old Testament law. Based on the scriptural evidence that he cites in his argument, al-Qirqisani concludes that a person “may not commit suicide under any circumstances.”


Ya’qub al-Qirqisani, “On Suicide” from The Book of Lighthouses and Watchtowers, ed. and tr. Leon Nemoy, The Journal of Biblical Literature,  Philadelphia: vol. 57, no. 4, December 1938, pp. 414-420.


On Suicide

This is an outlandish subject, and scarcely any writer has anything to say about it.  The reason I am mentioning it is that I have seen that some people who pretend to be adherents of pure reason maintain that suicide is permissible and that he who kills himself will incur no punishment [in future life], inasmuch as he has caused harm to no one [else], but has merely injured his own self, which is his [own] property [to do with as he pleases].

I say, therefore, that there is no difference between him who kills himself and him who kills someone else.  Should someone ask, why do I say this, I would answer, because the Scripture says [Ex 20:13] “thou shalt not kill,” in a general way, without specifying one object [of killing] to the exclusion of another.  In the same manner the Lord has said to Noah [Gen 9:6] “He that sheddeth the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” The command [to kill the shedder of blood] and the prohibition [of killing] having thus been given in a general way, we have no right to apply them to specific instances [only], or to make any exceptions, saving what God himself has excepted, either in the very place where He has prohibited [killing], or in another place.

But—the inquirer might continue—thou canst not deny that the expression “Thou shalt not kill” was intended to mean “Thou shalt not kill anyone else,” and that one’s own self is not included in this prohibition, just as the prohibition of destroying someone else’s property does not imply that one may not [lawfully] waste away one’s own possessions, since one is surely allowed to give away as much as he wishes of his own wealth, while at the same time one may not give away property belonging to someone else.  Similarily, one may seize a diham[‘s] or a dinar[‘s worth] of one’s own property, or more, and throw it away [if one is so minded], not withstanding that one may not waste as much as [the worth of] a grain of silver of someone else’s wealth.

There is also—the inquirer might continue—another way [of looking at the problem], to wit, the fact that the Scripture invariably speaks of things that customarily take place [in actual life].  Now it is not common for men to kill themselves, rather it is men’s custom to kill others, out of covetousness, fear, or [a desire for] relief [from oppression].  The prohibition of killing must, therefore, have been issued in this direction; and as for a man killing himself, this is not embraced by the prohibition, since it is an uncommon occurrence and is outside of the [three] varieties of [contributory causes for] killing mentioned above.  Moreover, the Scriptural dicta “He that sheddeth the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,” and [Lev 24:21] “He that striketh a man [to death], let him be put to death,” are [evidently] explanatory to “Thou shalt not kill,” meaning that it is forbidden to kill him whose murder can possibly be avenged by putting the killer to death [in retaliation] for the victim.  Whereas, when a man kills himself, no one else can possibly be held to account for it, nor can the suicide’s blood be required, or retaliation demanded, of anyone; this, therefore, does not enter into the prohibition.  A further proof of this assertion is the verse [Num 35:33] “And the earth shall not be cleansed of the blood that hath been spilled upon it, save by the blood of him who had spilled it,” which shows that the [kind of] killing which is forbidden and of which the earth cannot be cleansed is that of spilling [another man’s blood], whereas it is within the realm of possibility to spill the blood of the spiller.  Consequently, inasmuch as when a man kills himself it is impossible to spill another blood in retaliation for the spilling of his blood, the earth remains free of blame for his blood, and [it follows that] the [kind of] killing which is forbidden is that which renders it possible to spill the blood of the murderer.

The answer to this is as follows: Granting that all these dicta were uttered with reference to him who kills someone else, [the fact remains that] since the command “Thou shalt not kill” is a general one, I have no right to turn it into a specific one, unless I have proof which makes it specific and shows clearly that suicide is permissible.  Now inasmuch as I find nothing of the kind, and perceive no proof of the permissibility of suicide, the prohibition must remain in the state of generality, rendering suicide unlawful and making no distinction between it and murder of someone else.  Moreover, I see that the Scripture says [Ez 33:4] “If the listener should hear the sound of the trumpet and take no precaution, and the sword should come and take him away, his blood shall be upon his [own] head,” meaning that if one is warned of the sword, but uses no caution and is consequently killed, his blood is upon his own head.  Now the latter expression is the same as the one used in the verse [Jos 2:19] “And it shall be that whosoever shall issue from the doors of thine house into the outside, his blood [shall be] responsible for his own blood, which proves that a man may be held accountable for his own blood, but since retribution cannot possibly be visited upon him in this world, the intention must be that he shall be called to account for it in the next.  It is evident, therefore, that suicide is unlawful, and that the suicide is no different from the murderer.

Nevertheless—the inquirer might continue—all my foregoing arguments have shown that the Scriptural command “Thou shalt not kill” is a specific one, and does not cover suicide.  However, I shall [disregard it for the moment and shall] add another argument, to wit: the Scripture says [Lev 25:17] “Do ye not cheat one another,” forbidding fraud; and further [Deut 22:3] “And thus shalt thou do with what thy brother hath lost;” and also [ibid. 22:4] “thou mayest not ingnore,” all these making it unlawful for a man to ignore [his brother’s property] that has gone astray and has been lost.  Nevertheless, I cannot deduce therefrom that it is unlawful for a man to defraud himself for the benefit of someone else by accepting from him a small amount [of merchandise] than that which he had bought, or a lesser prices than that for which he ought to sell, just because it is unlawful for him to defraud someone else in his dealings with him.  In a similar fashion, it is not unlawful for a man to ignore that of his own property which he has dropped or has [otherwise] lost, and refrain from searching for it; by the same token, he ought not to be forbidden to take his own life, just because it is unlawful for him to take the life of someone else.  As for the injunctions “His blood [shall be] upon his [own] head” and “His blood shall be upon his [own] head,” they do not signify that he shall be held accountable for his own blood, but rather that inasmuch as he had not guarded his own life, notwithstanding the sentry’s warning, no one else shall be held responsible for his death, and his blood shall remain unavenged, since he himself was the cause of his own perdition.  And in fact, after the phrase “His blood [shall be] upon his [own] head” the Scripture goes on to say “And we shall be free of guilt,” explaining thereby that whosoever of them shall issue from the gate shall be [regarded as] one who has taken his own life, they being clear of all responsibility for his blood.

Furthermore, we see that [king] Saul has indeed committed suicide, without drawing upon himself the Scripture’s condemnation for it, which manifestly proves the truth of what we have said.

The answer to all this is as follows: As for the Scripture’s failure to condemn Saul for taking his own life, that is not proof whatsoever, for Saul had committed other sins without being condemned by the Scripture for them. Rather did the Scripture ascribe his peridition to [only] two of his [many] transgressions, to wity, [I Chr 10:13] “For the Lord’s command which he hath not observed,” referring to the affair of the Amalekites, and [loc. Cit.] “As well as inquiring of the soothsayer and seeking [guidance from him].” It mentions [in this connection] neither his assassination of the Gibeonites, nor his killing of the priests, nor his seeking the life of David, so that even if it were certain that he is free of sin in the matter of his suicide, this would not prove that all suicides are free of guilt. For, as a matter of fact, Saul killed himself because he knew that he was doomed to die anyway, but fearing that his enemies might torture him he chose to take his own life before his enemies would [be able to] take it, or inflict upon him that which is worse than death, and that is the [true] reason for his suicide having been held free of blame.

As for the verse “Do ye not cheat one another” and the passage concerning lost property, both of these have been bound up with specific things, to wit: “Do ye not cheat one” is followed by [the specifying word] “another,” so as not to make the command a general one; likewise, the injunction regarding lost property has not been left in an indefinite form, but has been made specific by means of the expression “thy brother”; as a result, both regulations forbid the [respective] actions [only] as applied to someone other than thyself.  In the matter of killing, however, the case is different, for the injunction there is a broad and general one, and has not been restricted to those other than thyself, as has been done in the preceding examples.  The prohibition “Thou shalt not kill” covers everyone, thyself as well as others than thyself.

As for the passage “His blood [shall be] upon his [own] head,” it is followed by “But whosoever shall be with thee within thine house, his blood [shall be] upon us,” stating [clearly] that should anyone be killed within [Rahab’s] house, they [the Israelite spies] would accept responsibility for it, in accordance with their oath.  We are to conclude therefrom that the foregoing “Whosoever shall issue from the doors of thine house, his blood shall be upon his [own] head” implies that such a person having been killed, is to be held accountable for his own blood.

Another proof—to continue our reply—that suicide is forbidden is that fact, discussed in a foregoing chapter of our work, that if a man seeks the life of another man, the pursued is permitted to kill the pursuer [as a matter of self-defense].  Were the killing of another man [the only kind of killing that is] forbidden, while suicide were permitted, it would have been unlawful for me to save him whose killing is permissible [meaning myself] by assassinating him whose killing is [otherwise] forbidden [meaning my pursuer].  Therefore, since the Scripture has permitted me to kill another man in order to preserve my [own] life [against his murderous designs], it is evident that the duty to save my [own] life and keep it from being lost is greater than the duty to refrain from killing someone else.

Another proof are the Scriptural statements regarding people who in times of famine took to eating their [own] children, e.g. [Thr (Lamentations) 4:10] “The hands of merciful women have cooked [the flesh of] their [own] children.”  Should someone retort that this took place only after the children had died of starvation, he will have to be confronted with the story of the two women, one of whom accused the other before [king] Jehoram, saying [II Kings 6:29] “And she had concealed her son.”  The [primary] source of these [accounts] is the Scriptural curse [Deut 28:53] “Thou shalt eat the fruit of thine [own] belly,” and if anyone should claim that this does not imply that it is permitted, but is rather a statement of the same nature as [Deut 4:28] “And you shall worship there gods fashioned by human hands,” his claim would be void, because the latter is a [simple] statement of their actions and their deliberate choice of evil [deeds], whereas “Thou shalt eat the fruit of thine [own] belly” is a forecast of the trials which are to fall upon them and the dire necessity which is to force them to [do] such [awful things].  For it is said [Deut 28:56] “Even the tender and delicate woman amongst thee,” and the rest of the story, to the effect that there shall befall them such calamity, [such] want and destitution, that [even] tender and delicate women will be driven to eat their [own] afterbirths and their [own] newly-born children, yea, even while the children are yet alive.

Another proof is that we find that some of the saintly Patriarchs, e.g. Job, Elijah and Jonah, have, on particular occasions, wished for death and have besought God, in time of [great] affliction, to grant it to them. Had they been permitted to take their own lives, they would have proceeded quickly to do so, and would have had no need to ask [God] for death.  Yet Job says [Job 3:21] “Those who wait for death, and yet it cometh not; who would dig for it more [eagerly] than for hidden treasures,” and further [ibid. 3:22] “They that rejoice at finding a grave.” This is an [especially] strong [piece of] evidence, showing that a man may not kill himself, any more than he may kill someone else, there being no difference between the two [cases].

At this point one may ask: If it is unlawful for a man to take his own life, on the ground of the verse “Thou shalt not kill,” suppose he had committed a crime calling for capital punishment, is he permitted in such a case to commit suicide for that [particular] reason?  For the Scripture, in saying [Ex 23:7] “Kill not the innocent and righteous,” forbids only the assassination of those free of crime or wrongdoing, and you [yourself] have said that he who kills a man who deserves killing is free of responsibility for it, even if this had happened without a judge[‘s authorization] and in the absence of witnesses [as required for a legal execution, but had taken place privately in the way of self-defense].  Moreover, the Scripture itself requires the execution of the murderer, the adulterer and the profaner of the Sabbath; therefore, if a man has committed one of these [capital] crimes, admit then that he may lawfully take his own life.

Our answer to this is as follows: If the one who kills himself for the sake of his [grave] sin and his disobedience [to God’s commands] does so solely in order to seek God[‘s forgiveness] and to undo that which he has wrought, there is [at his disposal] that which is more efficacious than suicide and which might undo many [capital] sins, to wit, repentance, for his suicide merely wipes out one of his sins, whereas repentance would undo all of them.  This being so, it is many degrees better for him to preserve his life in order to repent and come back to God, rather than take his own life, for by remaining alive it is within his power to perform various good deeds, such as would make his repentance doubly beneficial.  Suicide, on the other had, can perform nothing of the sort.  It is [clear], therefore, that he may not commit suicide under any circumstances.

Leave a Comment

Filed under al-Qirqisani, Ya'qub, Ancient History, Judaism, Middle Ages, Selections


from The City of God
from On Free Choice of the Will


Born to a small landholder, Patricius, and a pious Christian, Monica, in the small town of Thagaste in the Roman province of Numidia (modern Souk-Ahras, Algeria), Augustine of Hippo was of profound influence on the history of Western thought. Augustine studied rhetoric and classical philosophy at Carthage and was initially attracted to the dualistic religious philosophy of Manichaeanism. By the time he was 19, in 373, his mistress had borne him a son, Adeodatus. In 383, Augustine traveled to Rome where he was unsuccessful in establishing a school. He then moved to teach rhetoric in Milan for two years, where he met the bishop Ambrose and the community around him of Christian Neoplatonists. Augustine found within Christianity’s teachings satisfactory answers to questions about the being of God and the nature of evil, but—torn by his desires and the demands of chastity as a Christian sexual virtue—he did not undergo full conversion until 386. Ambrose baptized him, together with his son Adeodatus, on the night of Holy Saturday, before Easter of 387. After Adeodatus’s death, Augustine was ordained a presbyter of Hippo in 391; five years later, he became bishop of Hippo, and continued in that position until his death in 430, during the third month of the Vandals’ siege of Hippo.

Augustine’s principal works include the Confessions (397–400), an autobiographical account of his spiritual struggles and conversion to Christianity, and The City of God (413–426), a Christian vision of history. He also wrote many tracts against the Manichaeans, the Donatists, and the Pelagians. In his writings, Augustine addresses many issues, including original sin, grace, revelation, creation ex nihilo, the nature of time, divine foreknowledge, and predestination, and develops the idea of the church as a community of believers, just and predestined for immortality.

In The City of God, Augustine addresses the issue of suicide more directly and comprehensively than any previous writer in the Christian tradition. The full title of the work is Twenty-Four Books of the City of God Against the Pagans; within the framework of its more general effort to counter the accusation that it was Christianity that had led to the fall of Rome to the Ostrogoths in 410, the work also attacks the Roman—especially Stoic—conception of suicide as a matter of heroism and virtue, whether committed for political reasons, to protect chastity, or to avoid personal difficulties. Though antecedents of some of his views may be detected in earlier writers, Augustine’s overall treatment of the issues in suicide is strikingly original. With respect to the issue of whether a virgin threatened with sexual violation may kill herself to avoid it—the dispute already addressed by Eusebius [q.v.], Ambrose [q.v.], and other earlier writers—Augustine defuses the issue by asserting that sexual violation affects the body only, not the soul, and is a matter of the purity or impurity of the victim’s intentions rather than material, physical fact; this position remains definitive for the Christian tradition thereafter. Augustine’s treatment of Biblical suicides like Samson and Saul [q.v., under Hebrew Bible] is also novel; it relies on a divine-command theory in assessing the ethics of suicide and holds that only those suicides directly commanded by God are permissible. Not all later writers accept Augustine’s argument that in the cases of Samson and Saul, there must have been a “special commission” from God, but  Augustine’s treatment of them has been widely influential. Also significant in Augustine’s treatment of suicide is his “two-person” model, evoked by many later writers and associated with what contemporary writers now identify as the ambivalence of suicide: one part of a person or of a person’s psyche—in Augustine’s view, the guilty, murderous part—kills the other part of that same person, the (as he says of Lucretia [q.v., under Livy]) “guiltless, chaste, coerced part.” Finally, in the last portion of the selection provided here, Augustine addresses what some later thinkers have argued is the deepest issue about suicide for the Christian tradition as a whole, the tension between the promise of a personal afterlife and the wrongness of seeking death to achieve it. If Christian belief promises a heavenly afterlife for those without sin, but one is always at risk of sin while in the body in this life, why wouldn’t the believer commit suicide to reach that afterlife, just after confessing, repenting, and receiving absolution for all previous sins? Augustine’s reply to this question becomes definitive for virtually the entire remainder of the Christian tradition: suicide is a worse sin than any that can be avoided by it. It cannot be, so to speak, as later thinkers might call it, a shortcut to heaven.

In On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine considers a number of skeptical objections to the notion that life is a good: for example, that someone might wish not to exist because he is unhappy or because he fears the afterlife. Augustine interprets suicidal thinking as the desire for respite or peace, and asserts that the suicide thinks of himself as not existing after death—and so is clearly in error. The desire for respite is quite natural, but it leads to a conceptual mistake. To be at peace, whatever one’s sufferings have been, one must exist.


Augustine, The City of God, Book I, ch. 17–27, tr. Rev. Marcus Dods.From A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, Vol. II: St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, Edinburg: T & T Clark, Edinburgh, n.d. Available online from the Christian Classics Ethereal LibraryOn Free Choice of the Will, tr. Thomas Williams, Book III, sections 6–8, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1993, pp. 83–87.



Of Suicide Committed Through Fear of Punishment or Dishonor

And consequently, even if some of these virgins killed themselves to avoid such disgrace, who that has any human feeling would refuse to forgive them? And as for those who would not put an end to their lives, lest they might seem to escape the crime of another by a sin of their own, he who lays this to their charge as a great wickedness is himself not guiltless of the fault of folly. For if it is not lawful to take the law into our own hands, and slay even a guilty person, whose death no public sentence has warranted, then certainly he who kills himself is a homicide, and so much the guiltier of his own death, as he was more innocent of that offense for which he doomed himself to die. Do we justly execrate the deed of Judas, and does truth itself pronounce that by hanging himself he rather aggravated than expiated the guilt of that most iniquitous betrayal, since, by despairing of God’s mercy in his sorrow that wrought death, he left to himself no place for a healing penitence? How much more ought he to abstain from laying violent hands on himself who has done nothing worthy of such a punishment! For Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man; but he passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime. Why, then, should a man who has done no ill do ill to himself, and by killing himself kill the innocent to escape another’s guilty act, and perpetrate upon himself a sin of his own, that the sin of another may not be perpetrated on him?

Of the Violence Which May Be Done to the Body by Another’s Lust, While the Mind Remains Inviolate

But is there a fear that even another’s lust may pollute the violated? It will not pollute, if it be another’s: if it pollute, it is not another’s, but is shared also by the polluted. But since purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue, the fortitude which will rather endure all ills than consent to evil; and since no one, however magnanimous and pure, has always the disposal of his own body, but can control only the consent and refusal of his will, what sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity? For if purity can be thus destroyed, then assuredly purity is no virtue of the soul; nor can it be numbered among those good things by which the life is made good, but among the good things of the body, in the same category as strength, beauty, sound and unbroken health, and, in short, all such good things as may be diminished without at all diminishing the goodness and rectitude of our life. But if purity be nothing better than these, why should the body be periled that it may be preserved? If, on the other hand, it belongs to the soul, then not even when the body is violated is it lost. Nay more, the virtue of holy continence, when it resists the uncleanness of carnal lust, sanctifies even the body, and therefore when this continence remains unsubdued, even the sanctity of the body is preserved, because the will to use it holily remains, and, so far as lies in the body itself, the power also.

For the sanctity of the body does not consist in the integrity of its members, nor in their exemption from all touch; for they are exposed to various accidents which do violence to and wound them, and the surgeons who administer relief often perform operations that sicken the spectator. A midwife, suppose, has (whether maliciously or accidentally, or through unskillfulness) destroyed the virginity of some girl, while endeavoring to ascertain it: I suppose no one is so foolish as to believe that, by this destruction of the integrity of one organ, the virgin has lost anything even of her bodily sanctity. And thus, so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence done by another’s lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one’s own persistent continence. Suppose a virgin violates the oath she has sworn to God, and goes to meet her seducer with the intention of yielding to him, shall we say that as she goes she is possessed even of bodily sanctity, when already she has lost and destroyed that sanctity of soul which sanctifies the body? Far be it from us to so misapply words. Let us rather draw this conclusion, that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remains intact. And therefore a woman who has been violated by the sin of another, and without any consent of her own, has no cause to put herself to death; much less has she cause to commit suicide in order to avoid such violation, for in that case she commits certain homicide to prevent a crime which is uncertain as yet, and not her own.

Of Lucretia, Who Put an End to Her Life Because of the Outrage Done Her

This, then, is our position, and it seems sufficiently lucid. We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her. But do they against whom we have to defend not only the souls, but the sacred bodies too of these outraged Christian captives,—do they, perhaps, dare to dispute our position? But all know how loudly they extol the purity of Lucretia, that noble matron of ancient Rome. When King Tarquin’s son had violated her body, she made known the wickedness of this young profligate to her husband Collatinus, and to Brutus her kinsman, men of high rank and full of courage, and bound them by an oath to avenge it. Then, heart-sick, and unable to bear the shame, she put an end to her life. What shall we call her? An adulteress, or chaste? There is no question which she was. Not more happily than truly did a declaimer say of this sad occurrence: “Here was a marvel: there were two, and only one committed adultery.” Most forcibly and truly spoken. For this declaimer, seeing in the union of the two bodies the foul lust of the one, and the chaste will of the other, and giving heed not to the contact of the bodily members, but to the wide diversity of their souls, says: “There were two, but the adultery was committed only by one.”

But how is it, that she who was no partner to the crime bears the heavier punishment of the two? For the adulterer was only banished along with his father; she suffered the extreme penalty. If that was not impurity by which she was unwillingly ravished, then this is not justice by which she, being chaste, is punished. To you I appeal, ye laws and judges of Rome. Even after the perpetration of great enormities, you do not suffer the criminal to be slain untried. If, then, one were to bring to your bar this case, and were to prove to you that a woman not only untried, but chaste and innocent, had been killed, would you not visit the murderer with punishment proportionably severe? This crime was committed by Lucretia; that Lucretia so celebrated and lauded slew the innocent, chaste, outraged Lucretia. Pronounce sentence. But if you cannot, because there does not appear any one whom you can punish, why do you extol with such unmeasured laudation her who slew an innocent and chaste woman? Assuredly you will find it impossible to defend her before the judges of the realms below, if they be such as your poets are fond of representing them; for she is among those

“Who guiltless sent themselves to doom,
And all for loathing of the day,
In madness threw their lives away.”
And if she with the others wishes to return,
“Fate bars the way: around their keep
The slow unlovely waters creep,
And bind with ninefold chain.”(Virgil, Æneid, vi. 434)

Or perhaps she is not there, because she slew herself conscious of guilt, not of innocence? She herself alone knows her reason; but what if she was betrayed by the pleasure of the act, and gave some consent to Sextus, though so violently abusing her, and then was so affected with remorse, that she thought death alone could expiate her sin? Even though this were the case, she ought still to have held her hand from suicide, if she could with her false gods have accomplished a fruitful repentance. However, if such were the state of the case, and if it were false that there were two, but one only committed adultery; if the truth were that both were involved in it, one by open assault, the other by secret consent, then she did not kill an innocent woman; and therefore her erudite defenders may maintain that she is not among that class of the dwellers below “who guiltless sent themselves to doom.” But this case of Lucretia is in such a dilemma, that if you extenuate the homicide, you confirm the adultery: if you acquit her of adultery, you make the charge of homicide heavier; and there is no way out of the dilemma, when one asks, If she was adulterous, why praise her? if chaste, why slay her?

Nevertheless, for our purpose of refuting those who are unable to comprehend what true sanctity is, and who therefore insult over our outraged Christian women, it is enough that in the instance of this noble Roman matron it was said in her praise, “There were two, but the adultery was the crime of only one.” For Lucretia was confidently believed to be superior to the contamination of any consenting thought to the adultery. And accordingly, since she killed herself for being subjected to an outrage in which she had no guilty part, it is obvious that this act of hers was prompted not by the love of purity, but by the overwhelming burden of her shame. She was ashamed that so foul a crime had been perpetrated upon her, though without her abetting; and this matron, with the Roman love of glory in her veins, was seized with a proud dread that, if she continued to live, it would be supposed she willingly did not resent the wrong that had been done her. She could not exhibit to men her conscience but she judged that her self-inflicted punishment would testify her state of mind; and she burned with shame at the thought that her patient endurance of the foul affront that another had done her, should be construed into complicity with him. Not such was the decision of the Christian women who suffered as she did, and yet survive. They declined to avenge upon themselves the guilt of others, and so add crimes of their own to those crimes in which they had no share. For this they would have done had their shame driven them to homicide, as the lust of their enemies had driven them to adultery. Within their own souls, in the witness of their own conscience, they enjoy the glory of chastity. In the sight of God, too, they are esteemed pure, and this contents them; they ask no more: it suffices them to have opportunity of doing good, and they decline to evade the distress of human suspicion, lest they thereby deviate from the divine law.

That Christians Have No Authority for Committing Suicide in Any Circumstances Whatever

It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, “Thou shalt not kill.” This is proved especially by the omission of the words “thy neighbor,” which are inserted when false witness is forbidden: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Nor yet should any one on this account suppose he has not broken this commandment if he has borne false witness only against himself. For the love of our neighbor is regulated by the love of ourselves, as it is written, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” If, then, he who makes false statements about himself is not less guilty of bearing false witness than if he had made them to the injury of his neighbor; although in the commandment prohibiting false witness only his neighbor is mentioned, and persons taking no pains to understand it might suppose that a man was allowed to be a false witness to his own hurt; how much greater reason have we to understand that a man may not kill himself, since in the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” there is no limitation added nor any exception made in favor of any one, and least of all in favor of him on whom the command is laid! And so some attempt to extend this command even to beasts and cattle, as if it forbade us to take life from any creature. But if so, why not extend it also to the plants, and all that is rooted in and nourished by the earth? For though this class of creatures have no sensation, yet they also are said to live, and consequently they can die; and therefore, if violence be done them, can be killed. So, too, the apostle, when speaking of the seeds of such things as these, says, “That which thou sowest is not quickened except it die;” and in the Psalm it is said, “He killed their vines with hail.” Must we therefore reckon it a breaking of this commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” to pull a flower? Are we thus insanely to countenance the foolish error of the Manichæans? Putting aside, then, these ravings, if, when we say, Thou shalt not kill, we do not understand this of the plants, since they have no sensation, nor of the irrational animals that fly, swim, walk, or creep, since they are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses; if so, then it remains that we understand that commandment simply of man. The commandment is, “Thou shall not kill man;” therefore neither another nor yourself, for he who kills himself still kills nothing else than man.

Of the Cases in Which We May Put Men to Death Without Incurring the Guilt of Murder

However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Abraham indeed was not merely deemed guiltless of cruelty, but was even applauded for his piety, because he was ready to slay his son in obedience to God, not to his own passion. And it is reasonably enough made a question, whether we are to esteem it to have been in compliance with a command of God that Jephthah killed his daughter, because she met him when he had vowed that he would sacrifice to God whatever first met him as he returned victorious from battle. Samson, too, who drew down the house on himself and his foes together, is justified only on this ground, that the Spirit who wrought wonders by him had given him secret instructions to do this. With the exception, then, of these two classes of cases, which are justified either by a just law that applies generally, or by a special intimation from God Himself, the fountain of all justice, whoever kills a man, either himself or another, is implicated in the guilt of murder.

That Suicide Can Never Be Prompted by Magnanimity

But they who have laid violent hands on themselves are perhaps to be admired for their greatness of soul, though they cannot be applauded for the soundness of their judgment. However, if you look at the matter more closely, you will scarcely call it greatness of soul, which prompts a man to kill himself rather than bear up against some hardships of fortune, or sins in which he is not implicated. Is it not rather proof of a feeble mind, to be unable to bear either the pains of bodily servitude or the foolish opinion of the vulgar? And is not that to be pronounced the greater mind, which rather faces than flees the ills of life, and which, in comparison of the light and purity of conscience, holds in small esteem the judgment of men, and specially of the vulgar, which is frequently involved in a mist of error? And, therefore, if suicide is to be esteemed a magnanimous act, none can take higher rank for magnanimity than that Cleombrotus, who (as the story goes), when he had read Plato’s book in which he treats of the immortality of the soul, threw himself from a wall, and so passed from this life to that which he believed to be better. For he was not hard pressed by calamity, nor by any accusation, false or true, which he could not very well have lived down; there was, in short, no motive but only magnanimity urging him to seek death, and break away from the sweet detention of this life. And yet that this was a magnanimous rather than a justifiable action, Plato himself, whom he had read, would have told him; for he would certainly have been forward to commit, or at least to recommend suicide, had not the same bright intellect which saw that the soul was immortal, discerned also that to seek immortality by suicide was to be prohibited rather than encouraged.

Again, it is said many have killed themselves to prevent an enemy doing so. But we are not inquiring whether it has been done, but whether it ought to have been done. Sound judgment is to be preferred even to examples, and indeed examples harmonize with the voice of reason; but not all examples, but those only which are distinguished by their piety, and are proportionately worthy of imitation. For suicide we cannot cite the example of patriarchs, prophets, or apostles; though our Lord Jesus Christ, when He admonished them to flee from city to city if they were persecuted, might very well have taken that occasion to advise them to lay violent hands on themselves, and so escape their persecutors. But seeing He did not do this, nor proposed this mode of departing this life, though He were addressing His own friends for whom He had promised to prepare everlasting mansions, it is obvious that such examples as are produced from the “nations that forget God,” give no warrant of imitation to the worshippers of the one true God.

What We are to Think of the Example of Cato, Who Slew Himself Because Unable to Endure Cæsar’s Victory

Besides Lucretia, of whom enough has already been said, our advocates of suicide have some difficulty in finding any other prescriptive example, unless it be that of Cato, who killed himself at Utica. His example is appealed to, not because he was the only man who did so, but because he was so esteemed as a learned and excellent man, that it could plausibly be maintained that what he did was and is a good thing to do. But of this action of his, what can I say but that his own friends, enlightened men as he, prudently dissuaded him, and therefore judged his act to be that of a feeble rather than a strong spirit, and dictated not by honorable feeling forestalling shame, but by weakness shrinking from hardships? Indeed, Cato condemns himself by the advice he gave to his dearly loved son. For if it was a disgrace to live under Cæsar’s rule, why did the father urge the son to this disgrace, by encouraging him to trust absolutely to Cæsar’s generosity? Why did he not persuade him to die along with himself? If Torquatus was applauded for putting his son to death, when contrary to orders he had engaged, and engaged successfully, with the enemy, why did conquered Cato spare his conquered son, though he did not spare himself? Was it more disgraceful to be a victor contrary to orders, than to submit to a victor contrary to the received ideas of honor? Cato, then, cannot have deemed it to be shameful to live under Cæsar’s rule; for had he done so, the father’s sword would have delivered his son from this disgrace. The truth is, that his son, whom he both hoped and desired would be spared by Cæsar, was not more loved by him than Cæsar was envied the glory of pardoning him (as indeed Cæsar himself is reported to have said); or if envy is too strong a word, let us say he was ashamed that this glory should be his.

That in that Virtue in Which Regulus Excels Cato, Christians are Pre-Eminently Distinguished

Our opponents are offended at our preferring to Cato the saintly Job, who endured dreadful evils in his body rather than deliver himself from all torment by self-inflicted death; or other saints, of whom it is recorded in our authoritative and trustworthy books that they bore captivity and the oppression of their enemies rather than commit suicide. But their own books authorize us to prefer to Marcus Cato, Marcus Regulus. For Cato had never conquered Cæsar; and when conquered by him, disdained to submit himself to him, and that he might escape this submission put himself to death. Regulus, on the contrary, had formerly conquered the Carthaginians, and in command of the army of Rome had won for the Roman republic a victory which no citizen could bewail, and which the enemy himself was constrained to admire; yet afterwards, when he in his turn was defeated by them, he preferred to be their captive rather than to put himself beyond their reach by suicide. Patient under the domination of the Carthaginians, and constant in his love of the Romans, he neither deprived the one of his conquered body, nor the other of his unconquered spirit. Neither was it love of life that prevented him from killing himself. This was plainly enough indicated by his unhesitatingly returning, on account of his promise and oath, to the same enemies whom he had more grievously provoked by his words in the senate than even by his arms in battle. Having such a contempt of life, and preferring to end it by whatever torments excited enemies might contrive, rather than terminate it by his own hand, he could not more distinctly have declared how great a crime he judged suicide to be. Among all their famous and remarkable citizens, the Romans have no better man to boast of than this, who was neither corrupted by prosperity, for he remained a very poor man after winning such victories; nor broken by adversity, for he returned intrepidly to the most miserable end. But if the bravest and most renowned heroes, who had but an earthly country to defend, and who, though they had but false gods, yet rendered them a true worship, and carefully kept their oath to them; if these men, who by the custom and right of war put conquered enemies to the sword, yet shrank from putting an end to their own lives even when conquered by their enemies; if, though they had no fear at all of death, they would yet rather suffer slavery than commit suicide, how much rather must Christians, the worshippers of the true God, the aspirants to a heavenly citizenship, shrink from this act, if in God’s providence they have been for a season delivered into the hands of their enemies to prove or to correct them! And certainly, Christians subjected to this humiliating condition will not be deserted by the Most High, who for their sakes humbled Himself. Neither should they forget that they are bound by no laws of war, nor military orders, to put even a conquered enemy to the sword; and if a man may not put to death the enemy who has sinned, or may yet sin against him, who is so infatuated as to maintain that he may kill himself because an enemy has sinned, or is going to sin, against him?

That We Should Not Endeavor By Sin to Obviate Sin

But, we are told, there is ground to fear that, when the body is subjected to the enemy’s lust, the insidious pleasure of sense may entice the soul to consent to the sin, and steps must be taken to prevent so disastrous a result. And is not suicide the proper mode of preventing not only the enemy’s sin, but the sin of the Christian so allured? Now, in the first place, the soul which is led by God and His wisdom, rather than by bodily concupiscence, will certainly never consent to the desire aroused in its own flesh by another’s lust. And, at all events, if it be true, as the truth plainly declares, that suicide is a detestable and damnable wickedness, who is such a fool as to say, Let us sin now, that we may obviate a possible future sin; let us now commit murder, lest we perhaps afterwards should commit adultery? If we are so controlled by iniquity that innocence is out of the question, and we can at best but make a choice of sins, is not a future and uncertain adultery preferable to a present and certain murder? Is it not better to commit a wickedness which penitence may heal, than a crime which leaves no place for healing contrition? I say this for the sake of those men or women who fear they may be enticed into consenting to their violator’s lust, and think they should lay violent hands on themselves, and so prevent, not another’s sin, but their own. But far be it from the mind of a Christian confiding in God, and resting in the hope of His aid; far be it, I say, from such a mind to yield a shameful consent to pleasures of the flesh, howsoever presented. And if that lustful disobedience, which still dwells in our mortal members, follows its own law irrespective of our will, surely its motions in the body of one who rebels against them are as blameless as its motions in the body of one who sleeps.

That in Certain Peculiar Cases the Examples of the Saints are Not to Be Followed

But, they say, in the time of persecution some holy women escaped those who menaced them with outrage, by casting themselves into rivers which they knew would drown them; and having died in this manner, they are venerated in the church catholic as martyrs. Of such persons I do not presume to speak rashly. I cannot tell whether there may not have been vouchsafed to the church some divine authority, proved by trustworthy evidences, for so honoring their memory: it may be that it is so. It may be they were not deceived by human judgment, but prompted by divine wisdom, to their act of self-destruction. We know that this was the case with Samson. And when God enjoins any act, and intimates by plain evidence that He has enjoined it, who will call obedience criminal? Who will accuse so religious a submission? But then every man is not justified in sacrificing his son to God, because Abraham was commendable in so doing. The soldier who has slain a man in obedience to the authority under which he is lawfully commissioned, is not accused of murder by any law of his state; nay, if he has not slain him, it is then he is accused of treason to the state, and of despising the law. But if he has been acting on his own authority, and at his own impulse, he has in this case incurred the crime of shedding human blood. And thus he is punished for doing without orders the very thing he is punished for neglecting to do when he has been ordered. If the commands of a general make so great a difference, shall the commands of God make none? He, then, who knows it is unlawful to kill himself, may nevertheless do so if he is ordered by Him whose commands we may not neglect. Only let him be very sure that the divine command has been signified. As for us, we can become privy to the secrets of conscience only in so far as these are disclosed to us, and so far only do we judge: “No one knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him.”

But this we affirm, this we maintain, this we every way pronounce to be right, that no man ought to inflict on himself voluntary death, for this is to escape the ills of time by plunging into those of eternity; that no man ought to do so on account of another man’s sins, for this were to escape a guilt which could not pollute him, by incurring great guilt of his own; that no man ought to do so on account of his own past sins, for he has all the more need of this life that these sins may be healed by repentance; that no man should put an end to this life to obtain that better life we look for after death, for those who die by their own hand have no better life after death.

Whether Voluntary Death Should Be Sought in Order to Avoid Sin

There remains one reason for suicide which I mentioned before, and which is thought a sound one,—namely, to prevent one’s falling into sin either through the blandishments of pleasure or the violence of pain. If this reason were a good one, then we should be impelled to exhort men at once to destroy themselves, as soon as they have been washed in the laver of regeneration, and have received the forgiveness of all sin. Then is the time to escape all future sin, when all past sin is blotted out. And if this escape be lawfully secured by suicide, why not then specially? Why does any baptized person hold his hand from taking his own life? Why does any person who is freed from the hazards of this life again expose himself to them, when he has power so easily to rid himself of them all, and when it is written, “He who loveth danger shall fall into it?” Why does he love, or at least face, so many serious dangers, by remaining in this life from which he may legitimately depart? But is any one so blinded and twisted in his moral nature, and so far astray from the truth, as to think that, though a man ought to make away with himself for fear of being led into sin by the oppression of one man, his master, he ought yet to live, and so expose himself to the hourly temptations of this world, both to all those evils which the oppression of one master involves, and to numberless other miseries in which this life inevitably implicates us? What reason, then, is there for our consuming time in those exhortations by which we seek to animate the baptized, either to virginal chastity, or vidual [widowed] continence, or matrimonial fidelity, when we have so much more simple and compendious a method of deliverance from sin, by persuading those who are fresh from baptism to put an end to their lives, and so pass to their Lord pure and well-conditioned? If any one thinks that such persuasion should be attempted, I say not he is foolish, but mad. With what face, then, can he say to any man, “Kill yourself, lest to your small sins you add a heinous sin, while you live under an unchaste master, whose conduct is that of a barbarian?” How can he say this, if he cannot without wickedness say, “Kill yourself, now that you are washed from all your sins, lest you fall again into similar or even aggravated sins, while you live in a world which has such power to allure by its unclean pleasures, to torment by its horrible cruelties, to overcome by its errors and terrors?” It is wicked to say this; it is therefore wicked to kill oneself. For if there could be any just cause of suicide, this were so. And since not even this is so, there is none.


…Someone might say, “I would rather not exist at all than be unhappy.” I would reply, “You’re lying. You’re unhappy now, and the only reason you don’t want to die is to go on existing. You don’t want to be unhappy, but you do want to exist. Give thanks, therefore, for what you are willingly, so that what you are against your will might be taken away; for you willingly exist, but you are unhappy against your will. If you are ungrateful for what you will to be, you are justly compelled to be what you do not will. So I praise the goodness of your Creator, for even though you are ungrateful you have what you will; and I praise the justice of your Lawgiver, for because you are ungrateful you suffer what you do not will.”

But then he might say, “It is not because I would rather be unhappy than not exist at all that I am unwilling to die; it’s because I’m afraid that I might be even more unhappy after death.” I would reply, “If it is unjust for you to be even more unhappy, you won’t be so; but if it is just, let us praise him by whose laws you will be so.”

Next he might ask, “Why should I assume that if it is unjust I won’t be more unhappy?” I would reply, “If at that time you are in your own power, either you will not be unhappy, or you will be governing yourself unjustly, in which case you will deserve your unhappiness. But suppose instead that you wish to govern yourself justly but cannot. That means that you are not in your own power, so either someone else has power over you, or no one has. If no one has power over you, you will act either willingly or unwillingly. It cannot be unwillingly, because nothing happens to you unwillingly unless you are overcome by some force, and you cannot be overcome by any force if no one has power over you. And if it is willingly, you are in fact in your own power, and the earlier argument applies: either you deserve your unhappiness for governing yourself unjustly, or, since you have whatever you will, you have reason to give thanks for the goodness of your Creator.

“Therefore, if you are not in your own power, some other thing must have control over you. This thing is either stronger or weaker than you. If it is weaker than you, your servitude is your own fault and your unhappiness is just, since you could overpower this thing if you willed to do so. And if a stronger thing has control over you, its control is in accordance with proper order, and you cannot rightly think that so right an order is unjust. I was therefore quite correct to say, ‘If it is unjust for you to be even more unhappy, you won’t be so; but if it is just, let us praise him by whose laws you will be so’.”

Then he might say, “The only reason that I will to be unhappy rather than not to exist at all is that I already exist; if somehow I could have been consulted on this matter before I existed, I would have chosen not to exist rather than to be unhappy. The fact that I am now afraid not to exist, even though I am unhappy, is itself part of that very unhappiness because of which I do not will what I ought to will. For I ought to will not to exist rather than to be unhappy. And yet I admit that in fact I would rather be unhappy than be nothing. But the more unhappy I am, the more foolish I am to will this; and the more truly I see that I ought not will this, the more unhappy I am.”

I would reply, “Be careful that you are not mistaken when you think you see the truth. For if you were happy, you would certainly prefer existence to nonexistence. Even as it is, although you are unhappy and do not will to be unhappy, you would rather exist and be unhappy than not exist at all. Consider, then, as well as you can, how great is the good of existence, which the happy and the unhappy alike will. If you consider it well, you will realize three things. First, you are unhappy to the extent that you are far from him who exists in the highest degree. Second, the more you think that it is better for someone not to exist than to be unhappy, the less you will see him who exists in the highest degree. Finally, you nonetheless will to exist because you are from him who exists in the highest degree.”

So if you will to escape from unhappiness, cherish your will to exist. For if you will more and more to exist, you will approach him who exists in the highest degree. And give thanks that you exist now, for even though you are inferior to those who are happy, you are superior to things that do not have even the will to be happy―and many such things are praised even by those who are unhappy. Nonetheless, all things that exist deserve praise simply in virtue of the fact that they exist, for they are good simply in virtue of the fact that they exist.

The more you love existence, the more you will desire eternal life, and so the more you will long to be refashioned so that your affections are no longer temporal, branded upon you by the love of temporal things that are nothing before they exist, and then, once they do exist, flee from existence until they exist no more. And so when their existence is still to come, they do not yet exist; and when their existence is past, they exist no more. How can you expect such things to endure, when for them to begin to exist is to set out on the road to nonexistence?

Someone who loves existence approves of such things insofar as they exist and loves that which always exists. If once he used to waver in the love of temporal things, he now grows firm in the love of the eternal. Once he wallowed in the love of fleeting things, but he will stand steadfast in the love of what is permanent. Then he will obtain the very existence that he willed when he was afraid not to exist but could not stand upright because he was entangled in the love of fleeting things.

Therefore, do not grieve that you would rather exist and be unhappy than not exist and be nothing at all. Instead, rejoice greatly, for your will to exist is like a first step. If you go on from there to set your sights more and more on existence, you will rise to him who exists in the highest degree. Thus you will keep yourself from the kind of fall in which that which exists in the lowest degree ceases to exist and thereby devastates the one who loves it. Hence, someone who prefers not to exist rather than to be unhappy has no choice but to be unhappy, since he cannot fail to exist; but someone who loves existence more than he hates being unhappy can banish what he hates by cleaving more and more to what he loves. For someone who has come to enjoy an existence that is perfect for a thing of his kind cannot be unhappy.

Notice how absurd and illogical it would be to say “I would prefer not to exist rather than to be unhappy.” For someone who says “I would prefer this rather than that” is choosing something. But not to exist is not something, but nothing. Therefore, you can’t properly choose it, since what you are choosing does not exist.

Perhaps you will say that you do in fact will to exist, even though you are unhappy, but that you shouldn’t will to exist. Then what should you will? “Not to exist,” you say. Well, if that is what you ought to will, it must be better; but that which does not exist cannot be better. Therefore, you should not will not to exist, and the frame of mind that keeps you from willing it is closer to the truth than your belief that you ought to will it.

Furthermore, if someone is right in choosing to pursue something, it must be the case that he becomes better when he attains it. But whoever does not exist cannot be better, and so no one can be right in choosing not to exist. We should not be swayed by the judgment of those whose unhappiness has driven them to suicide. Either they thought that they would be better off after death, in which case they were doing nothing contrary to our argument (whether they were right in thinking so or not); or else they thought that they would be nothing after death, in which case there is even less reason for us to bother with them, since they falsely chose nothing. For how am I supposed to concur in the choice of someone who, if I asked him what he was choosing, would say “Nothing”? And someone who chooses not to exist is clearly choosing nothing, even if he won’t admit it.

To tell you quite frankly what I think about this whole issue, it seems to me that someone who kills himself or in some way wants to die has the feeling that he will not exist after death, whatever his conscious opinion may be. Opinion, whether true or false, has to do with reason or faith; but feeling derives its power from either habit or nature. It can happen that opinion leads in one direction and feeling in another. This is easy to see in cases where we believe that we ought to do one thing but enjoy doing just the opposite. And sometimes feeling is closer to the truth than opinion is, as when the opinion is in error and the feeling is from nature. For example, a sick man will often enjoy drinking cold water, which is good for him, even if he believes that it will kill him. But sometimes opinion is closer to the truth than feeling is, as when someone’s knowledge of medicine tells him that cold water would be harmful when in fact it would be harmful, even though it would be pleasant to drink. Sometimes both are right, as when one rightly believes that something is beneficial and also finds it pleasing. Sometimes both are wrong, as when one believes that something is beneficial when it is actually harmful and one is also happy not to give it up.

It often happens that right opinion corrects perverted habits and that perverted opinion distorts an upright nature, so great is the power of the dominion and rule of reason. Therefore, someone who believes that after death he will not exist is driven by his unbearable troubles to desire death with all his heart; he chooses death and takes hold of it. His opinion is completely false, but his feeling is simply a natural desire for peace. And something that has peace is not nothing; indeed, it is greater than something that is restless. For restlessness generates one conflicting passion after another, whereas peace has the constancy that is the most conspicuous characteristic of Being.

So the will’s desire for death is not a desire for nonexistence but a desire for peace. When someone wrongly believes that he will not exist, he desires by nature to be at peace; that is, he desires to exist in a higher degree. Therefore, just as no one can desire not to exist, no one ought to be ungrateful to the goodness of the Creator for the fact that he exists…

Leave a Comment

Filed under Africa, Ancient History, Augustine, Christianity, Europe, Selections, Stoicism


from Of Virgins: Letter to Marcellina


Born in the city of Trier (modern Germany), Ambrose of Milan became a noted theologian, biblical critic, and hymnist, later canonized as a saint and considered the father of liturgical music. He is also known as the spiritual teacher who converted and baptized Augustine of Hippo [q.v.]. Ambrose’s father, the praetorian prefect of Gaul, died soon after Ambrose’s birth, and he was taken by his mother to Rome, where he was educated in rhetoric, classical literature, and in Stoic thought. Ambrose entered politics and in about 370, he became governor of Aemilia-Liguria, a province in northern Italy. Four years later, Ambrose was unexpectedly acclaimed bishop of Milan by the people—he received baptism and was consecrated bishop one week later. He served as bishop for 23 years until his death in 397. As bishop, Ambrose was committed to establishing orthodox Christian doctrine, defining Church authority, and disestablishing pagan state religion. When in 388 a local bishop instigated a mob that burned and looted a synagogue at Callinicum in Syria, Ambrose held, against the emperor Theodosius’s order that the bishop rebuild it, that it would be apostasy for the bishop to rebuild a place of worship for the enemies of Christ and that religious interests should prevail over the maintenance of civil law; after a stadium massacre in Thessalonica engineered by Theodosius, Ambrose threatened to excommunicate the emperor, though he later became Theodosius’ ally in the Church.

Ambrose was extremely influential in forming Christian discussion of church-state relations. As a Christian intellectual, he was also influential in integrating faith and reason within church theology, and was an important figure in the Arian controversy. His principal works include “On Faith” (380), a defense of orthodoxy against Arianism; “On the Duties of the Clergy” (386), a treatment of Christian ethical obligations; numerous Biblical commentaries, including Hexaemaeron (“On the Six Days of Creation”); “On the Goodness of Death”; and sermons and hymns, including Aeterne rerum Conditor (“Framer of the earth and sky”) and Deus Creator omnium (“Maker of all things, God most high”).

The following selection from Ambrose’s Of Virgins is a letter to his elder sister Marcellina. In 353, on the feast of the Epiphany, in the presence of the Pope, Marcellina had dedicated her virginity to God and vowed to live an ascetic life; she and her mother formed the core of one of the first groups of patrician women in Rome who renounced the world for their Christian beliefs. As virginity became increasingly celebrated, the issue of whether a virgin might kill herself to escape sexual violation had become an increasingly controversial matter. The view that rape was the worst thing that could befall a Christian woman had become widespread; for Christians, as Tertullian [q.v.] had put it, “. . . a stain upon chastity is reckoned among us as more dreadful than any punishment and any death.” Eusebius [q.v.] had narrated the story of the woman of Antioch and her two daughters who had drowned themselves in the river to avoid rape; his implicit evaluation of the incident is equivocal. Here, Ambrose relates with similar imagery the story of the 15-year-old Pelagia, later venerated as a saint, who together with her mother and sisters also seek death by drowning rather than be raped. Ambrose, clearly regarding them as virtuous rather than sinful, interprets these suicides as a form of martyrdom to be revered.


St. Ambrose, “Concerning Virgins,” Book III, ch. 7:32-39. From A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, Vol. 10, pp. 386-387.  Available online from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library



As I am drawing near the close of my address, you [Marcellina] make a good suggestion, holy sister, that I should touch upon what we ought to think of the merits of those who have cast themselves down from a height, or have drowned themselves in a river, lest they should fall into the hands of persecutors, seeing that holy Scripture forbids a Christian to lay hands on himself. And indeed as regard; virgins placed in the necessity of preserving their purity, we have a plain answer, seeing that there exists an instance of martyrdom.

Saint Pelagia lived formerly at Antioch, being about fifteen years old, a sister of virgins, and a virgin herself. She shut herself up at home at the first sound of persecution, seeing herself surrounded by those who would rob her of her faith and purity, in the absence of her mother and sisters, without any defence, but all the more filled with God. “What are we to do, unless,” says she to herself, “thou, a captive of virginity, takest thought? I both wish and fear to die, for I meet not death but seek it. Let us die if we are allowed, or if they will not allow it, still let us die. God is not offended by a remedy against evil, and faith permits the act. In truth, if we think of the real meaning of the word, how can what is voluntary be violence? It is rather violence to wish to die and not to be able. And we do not fear any difficulty. For who is there who wishes to die and is not able to do so, when there are so many easy ways to death? For I can now rush upon the sacrilegious altars and overthrow them, and quench with my blood the kindled fires. I am not afraid that my right hand may fail to deliver the blow, or that my breast may shrink from the pain. I shall leave no sin to my flesh. I fear not that a sword will be wanting. I can die by my own weapons, I can die without the help of an executioner, in my mother’s bosom.”

She is said to have adorned her head, and to have put on a bridal dress, so that one would say that she was going to a bridegroom, not to death. But when the hateful persecutors saw that they had lost the prey of her chastity, they began to seek her mother and sisters. But they, by a spiritual flight, already held the field of chastity, when, as on the one side, persecutors suddenly threatened them, and on the other, escape was shut off by an impetuous river, they said, what do we fear? See the water, what hinders us from being baptized? And this is the baptism whereby sins are forgiven, and kingdoms are sought. This is a baptism after which no one sins. Let the water receive us, which is wont to regenerate. Let the water receive us, which makes virgins. Let the water receive us, which opens heaven, protects the weak, hides death, makes martyrs. We pray Thee, God, Creator of all things, let not the water scatter our bodies, deprived of the breath of life; let not death separate our obsequies, whose lives affection has always conjoined; but let our constancy be one, our death one, and our burial also be one.

Having said these words, and having slightly girded up the bosom of their dress, to veil their modesty without impeding their steps, joining hands as though to lead a dance, they went forward to the middle of the river bed, directing their steps to where the stream was more violent, and the depth more abrupt. No one drew back, no one ceased to go on, no one tried where to place her steps, they were anxious only when they felt the ground, grieved when the water was shallow, and glad when it was deep. One could see the pious mother tightening her grasp, rejoicing in her pledges, afraid of a fall test even the stream should carry off her daughters from her. “These victims, O Christ,” said she, “do I offer as leaders of chastity, guides on my journey, and companions of my sufferings.”

But who would have cause to wonder that they had such constancy whilst alive, seeing that even when dead they preserved the position of their bodies unmoved? The water did not lay bare their corpses, nor did the rapid course of the river roll them along. Moreover, the holy mother, though without sensation, still maintained her loving grasp, and held the sacred knot which she had tied, and loosed not her hold in death, that she who had paid her debt to religion might die leaving her piety as her heir. For those whom she had joined together with herself for martyrdom, she claimed even to the tomb.

But why use instances of people of another race to you, my sister, whom the inspiration of hereditary chastity has taught by descent from a martyred ancestor? For whence have you learnt who had no one from whom to learn, living in the country, with no virgin companion, instructed by no teacher? You have played the part then not of a disciple, for this cannot be done without teaching, but of an heir of virtue.

For how could it come to pass that holy Sotheris should not have been the originator of your purpose, who is an ancestor of your race? Who, in an age of persecution, borne to the heights of suffering by the insults of slaves, gave to the executioner even her face, which is usually free from injury when the whole body is tortured, and rather beholds than suffers torments; so brave and patient that when she offered her tender cheeks to punishment, the executioner failed in striking before the martyr yielded under the injuries. She moved not her face, she turned not away her countenance, she uttered not a groan or a tear. Lastly, when she had overcome other kinds of punishment, she found the sword which she desired.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Ambrose, Ancient History, Christianity, Europe, Martyrdom, Selections, Stoicism

(c. 260-339)

from Ecclesiastical History


Eusebius, referred to as Eusebius of Caesarea, was the first and most prominent historian of early Christianity. He lived most of his life in Caesarea Maritima. He was also known as Eusebius Pamphili, taking the surname from his friend and mentor Pamphilus of Caesarea, whose expansive library—founded by Origen—provided Eusebius with historical records for his later works. Eusebius fled to the Egyptian desert following the martyrdom of Pamphilus during the persecutions under Diocletian, but was arrested and imprisoned. After his release, Eusebius became bishop of Caesarea, around 313 or 314. As a supporter of Arius and the leader of the Origenist Semi-Arians, the middle party in the Arian conflict over the theological issue of whether belief in Christ as being fully God could be reconciled with strict monotheism, Eusebius held that the nature of the Trinity could not be rationally understood. He was excommunicated by the synod of Antioch for this view; however, he was later exonerated by the emperor Constantine I. Eusebius played a role in the council of Nicaea in 325, where he tried to reconcile the opposing parties while repudiating extreme Arianism.

Appointed under Constantine as court historian, Eusebius wrote both religious and secular histories, as well as several Christian apologies. He was an immensely prolific writer, although his treatments of some issues are inadequate and his historical accounts are often selective and difficult to distinguish from apologetics; some have denounced him as dishonest, though his works are nevertheless of great value, preserving in excerpts many sources that would have otherwise been lost. Eusebius was the author of the Chronicon, a history of the world from the famous peoples of antiquity to the year 303 (later continued to 325), and the Historia Ecclesiastica, a history of the Church from its beginning up to the year 324, as well as many apologetic, exegetical, and dogmatic works. The Ecclesiastical History is the first major attempt to explain the relationship of Christianity and the Roman Empire; its approach in describing the development of the church is primarily historical, and it has been described as both a political theology and a theology of history.

In Book 2 of the Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius narrates the suicide of a woman of Antioch—by legend, St. Pelagia—and her two daughters who, to avoid sexual violation by the Roman soldiers guarding them, ended their lives by throwing themselves into a river. This account occurs among reports of other martyrs who endured extraordinary suffering without resorting to suicide and, as does the more celebratory account of the self-drowning of Pelagia later given by Ambrose [q.v.], implicitly recognizes the challenges in distinguishing between suicide and genuine martyrdom among Christians who did kill themselves to avoid violence.


The Church History of Eusebius, Book 8, ch. 12, tr. Rev. Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff, ed., New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890, Vol. I: Eusebius Pamphilus.  Available online from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.



Many Others, both Men and Women, who suffered in Various Ways

Why need we mention the rest by name, or number the multitude of the men, or picture the various sufferings of the admirable martyrs of Christ? Some of them were slain with the axe, as in Arabia. The limbs of some were broken, as in Cappadocia. Some, raised on high by the feet, with their heads down, while a gentle fire burned beneath them, were suffocated by the smoke which arose from the burning wood, as was done in Mesopotamia. Others were mutilated by cutting off their noses and ears and hands, and cutting to pieces the other members and parts of their bodies, as in Alexandria.

Why need we revive the recollection of those in Antioch who were roasted on grates, not so as to kill them, but so as to subject them to a lingering punishment? Or of others who preferred to thrust their right hand into the fire rather than touch the impious sacrifice? Some, shrinking from the trial, rather than be taken and fall into the hands of their enemies, threw themselves from lofty houses, considering death preferable to the cruelty of the impious.

A certain holy person,—in soul admirable for virtue, in body a woman,—who was illustrious beyond all in Antioch for wealth and family and reputation, had brought up in the principles of religion her two daughters, who were now in the freshness and bloom of life. Since great envy was excited on their account, every means was used to find them in their concealment; and when it was ascertained that they were away, they were summoned deceitfully to Antioch. Thus they were caught in the nets of the soldiers. When the woman saw herself and her daughters thus helpless, and knew the things terrible to speak of that men would do to them,—and the most unbearable of all terrible things, the threatened violation of their chastity,—she exhorted herself and the maidens that they ought not to submit even to hear of this. For, she said, that to surrender their souls to the slavery of demons was worse than all deaths and destruction; and she set before them the only deliverance from all these things,—escape to Christ.

They then listened to her advice. And after arranging their garments suitably, they went aside from the middle of the road, having requested of the guards a little time for retirement, and cast themselves into a river which was flowing by.

Thus they destroyed themselves. But there were two other virgins in the same city of Antioch who served God in all things, and were true sisters, illustrious in family and distinguished in life, young and blooming, serious in mind, pious in deportment, and admirable for zeal. As if the earth could not bear such excellence, the worshipers of demons commanded to cast them into the sea. And this was done to them.

In Pontus, others endured sufferings horrible to hear. Their fingers were pierced with sharp reeds under their nails. Melted lead, bubbling and boiling with the heat, was poured down the backs of others, and they were roasted in the most sensitive parts of the body.

Others endured on their bowels and privy members shameful and inhuman and unmentionable torments, which the noble and law-observing judges, to show their severity, devised, as more honorable manifestations of wisdom. And new tortures were continually invented, as if they were endeavoring, by surpassing one another, to gain prizes in a contest.

But at the close of these calamities, when finally they could contrive no greater cruelties, and were weary of putting to death, and were filled and satiated with the shedding of blood, they turned to what they considered merciful and humane treatment, so that they seemed to be no longer devising terrible things against us.

For they said that it was not fitting that the cities should be polluted with the blood of their own people, or that the government of their rulers, which was kind and mild toward all, should be defamed through excessive cruelty; but that rather the beneficence of the humane and royal authority should be extended to all, and we should no longer be put to death. For the infliction of this punishment upon us should be stopped in consequence of the humanity of the rulers.

Therefore it was commanded that our eyes should be put out, and that we should be maimed in one of our limbs. For such things were humane in their sight, and the lightest of punishments for us. So that now on account of this kindly treatment accorded us by the impious, it was impossible to tell the incalculable number of those whose right eyes had first been cut out with the sword, and then had been cauterized with fire; or who had been disabled in the left foot by burning the joints, and afterward condemned to the provincial copper mines, not so much for service as for distress and hardship. Besides all these, others encountered other trials, which it is impossible to recount; for their manly endurance surpasses all description.

In these conflicts the noble martyrs of Christ shone illustrious over the entire world, and everywhere astonished those who beheld their manliness; and the evidences of the truly divine and unspeakable power of our Saviour were made manifest through them. To mention each by name would be a long task, if not indeed impossible.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Ancient History, Christianity, Eusebius, Martyrdom, Middle East, Selections

(c. 240–c. 320)

from The Divine Institutes


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.



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….

Leave a Comment

Filed under Africa, Afterlife, Ancient History, Christianity, Europe, Lactantius, Selections


from The Enneads
   On Happiness
   On the Primal Good and Secondary       Forms of Good
   ‘The Reasoned Dismissal’


Plotinus, the founder and principal exponent of the philosophical school known as Neoplatonism, was born in Egypt; it is not clear whether he was Greek, Roman, or a Hellenized Egyptian. He had a Greek education. He studied for 11 years with the philosopher Ammonius Saccas at Alexandria, and went on the expedition of the Roman emperor Gordian III against Persia in 242–244 in order to learn something about the philosophies of the Persians and Indians, though the expedition failed, Gordian was killed, and Plotinus escaped only with difficulty. Plotinus moved to Rome in 244 and, at the center of an influential circle of intellectuals, lectured on the thought of Plato and the Pythagorean school, as well as on the virtue of asceticism. Plotinus’ works were collected and edited by his student, Porphyry, and exist today in an arrangement of six groupings, each having nine books, called the Enneads. In his last years, Plotinus suffered from an apparently painful and repulsive disease that kept his friends away from him (now assumed to be tuberculosis or, more likely, leprosy), and died at his country estate with his physician Eustochius at his side.

Plotinus created a system of thought based on Plato’s dualism between material object and Form or Idea, dividing Plato’s realm of intelligibles into three: the One, Intelligence, and the Soul. For Plotinus, God’s power emanates through pure Intelligence to the world of matter; human beings occupy a unique place between the world of Ideas or Intelligence and the world of matter or sensation, belonging to both realms. However, human beings have the potential to relinquish matter and to achieve a union of Soul or Intelligence with God. Given these notions, Plotinus concludes that death is not an evil but actually a good. But this view raises an issue that confronted both Plato and the early Christians: If matter, body, and worldly things are inferior and/or painful and death is a desired good, then why not hasten the realization of this good through suicide? Plotinus argues against suicide; the “Proficient,” (i.e., the person who has mastered true philosophy) has learned not to attend to either positive or painful circumstances and will not commit suicide, an act motivated by passion, except perhaps if he feels he is losing his reason, and then only under “stern necessity.”


Plotinus, Enneads, Book I, Tractate 4.8, 4.14; Tractate 7.3; Tractate 9. Trans. Stephen MacKenna. New York: Pantheon Books, printed in Great Britain by Oxford University Press, 1954, pp. 47, 50–51, 66, 78–79. Available online from the Christian Classic Ethereal Library.


Book I, Fourth Tractate: On Happiness

As for violent personal sufferings, he [the Proficient] will carry them off as well as he can; if they overpass his endurance they will carry him off.

And so in all his pain he asks no pity: there is always the radiance in the inner soul of the man, untroubled like the light in a lantern when fierce gusts beat about it in a wild turmoil of wind and tempest.

But what if he be put beyond himself? What if pain grow so intense and so torture him that the agony all but kills? Well, when he is put to torture he will plan what is to be done: he retains his freedom of action.

Besides we must remember that the Proficient sees things very differently from the average man; neither ordinary experiences nor pains and sorrows, whether touching himself or others, pierce to the inner hold. To allow them any such passage would be a weakness in our soul.

And it is a sign of weakness, too, if we should think it gain not to hear of miseries, gain to die before they come: this is not concern for others’ welfare but for our own peace of mind. Here we see our imperfection: we must not indulge it, we must put it from us and cease to tremble over what perhaps may be.

Anyone that says that it is in human nature to grieve over misfortune to our household must learn that this is not so with all, and that, precisely, it is virtue’s use to raise the general level of nature towards the better and finer, above the mass of men. And the finer is to set at nought what terrifies the common mind.

We cannot be indolent: this is an arena for the powerful combatant holding his ground against the blows of fortune, and knowing that, sore though they be to some natures, they are little to his, nothing dreadful, nursery terrors.

So, the Proficient would have desired misfortune?

It is precisely to meet the undesired when it appears that he has the virtue which gives him, to confront it, his passionless and unshakeable soul.

For man, and especially the Proficient, is not the Couplement of Soul and body: the proof is that man can be disengaged from the body and disdain its nominal goods.

It would be absurd to think that happiness begins and ends with the living-body: happiness is the possession of the good of life: it is centered therefore in Soul, is an Act of the Soul—and not of all the Soul at that: for it certainly is not characteristic of the vegetative soul, the soul of growth; that would at once connect it with the body.

A powerful frame, a healthy constitution, even a happy balance of temperament, these surely do not make felicity; in the excess of these advantages there is, even, the danger that the man be crushed down and forced more and more within their power. There must be a sort of counter-pressure in the other direction, towards the noblest: the body must be lessened, reduced, that the veritable man may show forth, the man behind the appearances.

Let the earth-bound man be handsome and powerful and rich, and so apt to this world that he may rule the entire human race: still there can be no envying him, the fool of such lures. Perhaps such splendors could not, from the beginning even, have gathered to the Proficient; but if it should happen so, he of his own action will lower his state, if he has any care for his true life; the tyranny of the body he will work down or wear away by inattention to its claims; the rulership he will lay aside. While he will safeguard his bodily health, he will not wish to be wholly untried in sickness, still less never to feel pain: if such troubles should not come to him of themselves, he will wish to know them, during youth at least: in old age, it is true, he will desire neither pains nor pleasures to hamper him; he will desire nothing of this world, pleasant or painful; his one desire will be to know nothing of the body. If he should meet with pain he will pit against it the powers he holds to meet it; but pleasure and health and ease of life will not mean any increase of happiness to him nor will their contraries destroy or lessen it.

When in the one subject a positive can add nothing, how can the negative take away?


Book I, Seventh Tractate: On the Primal Good and Secondary Forms of Good

Life is a partnership of a Soul and body; death is the dissolution; in either life or death, then, the Soul will feel itself at home.

But, again, if life is good, how can death be anything but evil?

Remember that the good of life, where it has any good at all, is not due to anything in the partnership but to the repelling of evil by virtue; death, then, must be the greater good.

In a word, life in the body is of itself an evil but the Soul enters its Good through Virtue, not living the life of the Couplement but holding itself apart, even here.

Book I, Ninth Tractate: ‘The Reasoned Dismissal’

‘You will not dismiss your Soul lest it go forth taking something with it.’

Your dismissal will ensure that it must go forth taking something (corporeal) with it, and its going forth is to some new place. The Soul will wait for the body to be completely severed from it; then it makes no departure; it simply finds itself free.

But how does the body come to be separated?

The separation takes place when nothing of Soul remains bound up with it: the harmony within the body, by virtue of which the Soul was retained, is broken and it can no longer hold its guest.

But when a man contrives the dissolution of the body, it is he that has used violence and torn himself away, not the body that has let the Soul slip from it. And in loosing the bond he has not been without passion; there has been revolt or grief or anger, movements which it is unlawful to indulge.

But if a man feel himself to be losing his reason?

That is not likely in the Proficient, but if it should occur, it must be classed with the inevitable, to be welcome at the bidding of the fact though not for its own sake. To call upon drugs to the release of the Soul seems a strange way of assisting its purposes.

And if there be a period allotted to all by fate, to anticipate the hour could not be a happy act, unless, as we have indicated, under stern necessity.

If everyone is to hold in the other world a standing determined by the state in which he quitted this, there must be no withdrawal as long as there is any hope of progress.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Africa, Ancient History, Europe, Plotinus, Selections

(compiled 3rd-5th century)

Commentary on Genesis 9:5


Because of its age and significance, the expository commentary on the book of Genesis [q.v., under Hebrew Bible] Bereshit Rabbah, commonly known in English as Genesis Rabbah, is considered to be of primary position in the Midrash, a collection of scriptural exegesis and commentary that is part of the larger body of rabbinic literature. The Talmudic literature, including the Mishnah and the Babylonian [q.v.] and Palestinian Talmuds, along with the midrashic commentaries like Genesis Rabbah, forms the primary written authority for Jewish civil and religious law.

The midrashic writings of the rabbinic literature are a collection of biblical exegesis divisible into two main categories: the Midrash Aggadah, or exegesis with a didactic or edifying purpose, and the Midrash Halakha, or exegesis with the purpose of establishing law. The word “midrash” means “to study” or “to investigate,” and it is used to signal works of expository exegesis, either didactic or legal, from different periods of time.

The midrash Genesis Rabbah is attributed by tradition to the rabbinic teacher R. Hoshaiah, who lived in Palestine during the 3rd century a.d. However, there is evidence of numerous later additions to the work, and it is probable that the text was not fixed for several centuries after its original composition. Genesis Rabbah is of primary importance in the midrashim, and the biblical commentary it includes has exerted a significant influence on subsequent exegesis and Jewish law.

In Genesis Rabbah, the text of Genesis is explicated in an unbroken sequence, verse by verse, except for the genealogies and a few repetitious passages, which are omitted. The commentary on Genesis 9:5 presented here—just a few short sentences—is of signal importance in Jewish theology and law because it “creatively,” as Noam Zohar puts it, finds in this passage the basis for the prohibition of suicide. The commentary defines suicide as a form of murder. However, the fact that the verse is prefaced by “but” or “yet”(omitted in most translations) is taken, following midrashic practice, to signify that the prohibition may also allow for exceptions applies, as in cases like that of Saul, who first asked his armor-bearer to kill him and then fell on his sword to avoid capture and torture by the Philistines, and in cases like those of Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah (often called by their foreign names, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego) in the Book of Daniel, where they choose to die in the fiery furnace rather than worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. No explicit reason is given for such exceptions, though the distinction may refer to the motive for choosing death, rather than the causal manner of bringing it about. Nevertheless, the passage has been of signal importance in Jewish thought, serving to differentiate martyrs from suicides; whether martyrs may actively kill themselves would later be hotly debated in medieval Judaism.


Genesis Rabbah, tr. Baruch Brody. Material in introduction from Noam Zohar and Daniel J.H. Greenwood.



This [prohibition of murder (in Genesis 9:5, “for your life-blood I shall demand satisfaction,”)] includes the person who strangles himself. I might think it applies in the case like that of Saul. The verse says “but.” I might think that it applies to Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah. The verse says “but.”

Leave a Comment

Filed under Ancient History, Genesis Rabbah, Judaism, Middle East, Selections

(3rd century)

from The Way to Eternal Brahman


The Bhagavad-Gita, perhaps the best-loved of the Hindu religious texts, was probably composed in the 3rd century A.D. and later inserted into the great work of the Hindu epic period, the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata, a poem of some 100,000 verses composed between about 300 B.C. and 300 A.D., is an account of the origins, conduct, and consequences of a great war—said to have taken place in 900 B.C.—between two royal families, the Pandavas (the five sons of Pandu, of whom the third son Arjuna is the central figure) and the Kauravas (their cousins, the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra). Within this long epic, the portion known as the Bhagavad-Gita, or Song of God, opens just before the battle begins, as Arjuna, repulsed by the thought of the carnage the war would involve, decides to lay down his arms. Krishna, his friend and confidant, the god Vishnu in human form, who is serving as his charioteer, is disappointed, and thus begins a debate between the two over whether Arjuna should fight.

The Bhagavad-Gita stands as one of the most prominent and authoritative works in Hindu religious literature, and together with the Upanishads [q.v.] and the Brahma-Sutra is regarded as part of the basic trio of essential texts. Despite its primary significance in Indian thought, however, the Gita, like the entire Mahabharata, is not classified as shruti, or divine truth revealed by deity, but is instead considered to be smriti, or inspired teachings that explain or clarify divine truth. Regardless of its classification, the epic has profoundly influenced Hindu political, intellectual, and philosophical life throughout the centuries since its composition.

The majority of the Bhagavad-Gita consists of the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna occurring just before the great battle on the plain of Kurukshetra. In the Gita dialogue, Shri Krishna (“Shri” refers to his venerated status) embodies Brahman, or the ultimate reality, and at times, he speaks as God. In the selection presented here, Arjuna inquires about the nature of Brahman, and asks how it is revealed at death to a mortal who unites in consciousness with God. Krishna describes a technique to be used by a yogi at death that allows the person to unite with Brahman and thus to escape the cycle of death and rebirth to which all living things are otherwise subject. This escape, referred to as “the path of no return,” is called Deva Yana in the Upanishads, “the path of the bright ones,” as distinct from Pitri Yana, “the path of the fathers,” which does lead to rebirth. (It should be noted that the “realm of Brahma,” which is also subject to death and rebirth, is not the same as Brahman (the universal, changeless reality), but instead refers to the highest of the worlds of Hindu mythology, in which “Brahma” designates one of the Hindu trinity, with Vishnu and Shiva.) According to yoga technique referred to in this passage, the yogi must employ a special method of leaving his body at death: first, the vital force is drawn up the sushumna, the central spinal passage, and gathered in the brain “between the eyebrows”; the yogi then leaves his body through an aperture in the center of the brain called the sahasrara. The technique Krishna describes thus portrays the yogi as taking a voluntary, deliberate, and partly causal role in his own death.


The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, VIII: “The Way To Eternal Brahman,” trs. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, New York: New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1954, pp. 74–78. Also used for quotations in bibliographic note.



ARJUNA: Tell me, Krishna, what Brahman is. What is the Atman, and what is the creative energy of Brahman? Explain the nature of this relative world, and of the individual man.

Who is God who presides over action in this body, and how does He dwell here? How are you revealed at the hour of death to those whose consciousness is united with you? 

SRI KRISHNA: Brahman is that which is immutable, and independent of any cause but Itself. When we consider Brahman as lodged within the individual being, we call Him the Atman. The creative energy of Brahman is that which causes all existences to come into being.

The nature of the relative world is mutability. The nature of the individual man is his consciousness of ego. I alone am God who presides over action, here in this body.

At the hour of death, when a man leaves his body, he must depart with his consciousness absorbed in me. Then he will be united with me. Be certain of that. Whatever a man remembers at the last, when he is leaving the body, will be realized by him in the hereafter; because that will be what his mind has most constantly dwelt on, during this life.

Therefore you must remember me at all times, and do your duty. If your mind and heart are set upon me constantly, you will come to me. Never doubt this.

Make a habit of practicing meditation, and do not let your mind be distracted. In this way you will come finally to the Lord, who is the light-giver, the highest of the high.

He is all-knowing God, lord of the emperors,
Ageless, subtler far than mind’s inmost subtlety,
Universal sustainer,
Shining sunlike, self luminous.
What fashion His form has, who shall conceive of it?
He dwells beyond delusion, the dark of Maya.
On Him let man meditate
Always, for then at the last hour
Of going hence from his body he will be strong
In the strength of this yoga, faithfully followed:
The mind is firm, and the heart
So full, it hardly holds its love.
Thus he will take his leave: and now, with the life-force
Indrawn utterly, held fast between the eyebrows,
He goes forth to find his Lord,
That light-giver, who is greatest.

Now I will tell you briefly about the nature of Him who is called the deathless by those seers who truly understand the Vedas. Devotees enter into Him when the bonds of their desire are broken. To reach this goal, they practice control of the passions.

When a man leaves his body and departs, he must close all the doors of the senses. Let him hold the mind firmly within the shrine of the heart, and fix the life-force between the eyebrows. Then let him take refuge in steady concentration, uttering the sacred syllable OM and meditating upon me. Such a man reaches the highest goal. When a yogi has meditated upon me unceasingly for many years, with an undistracted mind, I am easy of access to him, because he is always absorbed in me.

Great souls who find me have found the highest perfection. They are no longer reborn into this condition of transience and pain.

All the worlds, and even the heavenly realm of Brahma, are subject to the laws of rebirth. But for the man who comes to me, there is no returning.

There is day, also, and night in the universe:
The wise know this, declaring the day of Brahma
A thousand ages in span
And the night a thousand ages.

Day dawns, and all those lives that lay hidden asleep
Come forth and show themselves, mortally manifest:
Night falls, and all are dissolved
Into the sleeping germ of life.

Thus they are seen, O Prince, and appear unceasingly,
Dissolving with the dark, and with day returning
Back to the new birth, new death:
All helpless. They do what they must.

But behind the manifest and the unmanifest, there is another Existence, which is eternal and changeless. This is not dissolved in the general cosmic dissolution. It has been called the unmanifest, the imperishable. To reach it is said to be the greatest of all achievements. It is my highest state of being. Those who reach It are not reborn. That highest state of being can only be achieved through devotion to Him in whom all creatures exist, and by whom this universe is pervaded.

I show you two paths.
Let a yogi choose either
When he leaves this body:
The Path that leads back to birth,
The path of no return.
There is the path of light,
Of fire and day,
The path of the moon’s bright fortnight
And the six months’ journey
Of the sun to the north:
The knower of Brahman
Who takes this path
Goes to Brahman:

He does not return.
There is the path of night and smoke,
The path of the moon’s dark fortnight
And the six months’ journey
Of the sun to the south:
The yogi who takes this path
Will reach the lunar light:
This path leads back
To human birth, at last.

These two paths, the bright and the dark, may be said to have existed in this world of change from a time without any beginning. By the one, a man goes to the place of no return. By the other, he comes back to human birth. No yogi who knows these two paths is ever misled. Therefore, Arjuna, you must be steadfast in yoga, always.

The scriptures declare that merit can be acquired by studying the Vedas, performing ritualistic sacrifices, practicing austerities and giving alms. But the yogi who has understood this teaching of mine will gain more than any who do these things. He will reach that universal source, which is the uttermost abode of God.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Ancient History, Asia, Bhagavad-Gita, Hinduism, Selections

(c. 160-c. 220)

from To the Martyrs
from The Crown of Martyrdom


Tertullian, born a Roman citizen at or near Carthage, was originally a pagan, the son of a Roman centurion. He was educated in rhetoric and law, the standard education of a well-to-do Roman, and converted to Christianity before the year 197. Following his conversion, Tertullian traveled through Greece and Asia Minor before settling in Carthage and marrying. According to St. Jerome, he served the church as a presbyter. He wrote numerous theological treatises, apologies, and attacks on various heresies, and was the first important Christian theologian to write in Latin. According to Augustine, Tertullian broke with Montanism and in his later years formed his own sect, the Tertullianists; some modern scholars assert that the sect was simply named after him. In either case, the sect survived some two centuries until the time of Augustine. Because of his apostasy, Tertullian was scorned in antiquity, but in the 19th and 20th centuries has been re-considered to be a seminal figure in early Christianity and, with Augustine, one of the preeminent formative fathers of modern Christianity.

Tertullian’s literary style was highly individualistic and original: he was witty, vehement, and eloquent, often employing puns and seeming contradictions. His work is often described as legalistic in character. Much of it falls into three main categories: attacks against Jews and other non-Christians (Apologeticum, an animated defense of Christians against Roman accusations of depravity and sedition, and Adversus Judaeos); denunciations of Christian heresies (Adversus Valentinianos, which attacked Gnosticism); and later writings in which he began to be critical of the “visible” Church and became sympathetic to the Montanists, a prophetic sect with a demanding moral code that had become well known from Asia Minor to Africa. Other writings (De cultu feminarum, on the proper dress of women, and De monogamia, concerning monogamy) dealt with practical and moral issues. Among his many contributions to Christian thought, Tertullian developed the concepts of the Trinity; of the dual nature, divine and human, of Jesus; and of Original Sin; as well as an early version of natural law and the view that Scripture can be interpreted rightly only within the Church, though he later emphasized private interpretation of scriptural texts. He promoted an extreme austerity in dress and fasting. In accordance with Montanist views, he strongly encouraged Christians to embrace persecution and even martyrdom.

In the early work entitled “To the Martyrs,” Tertullian praises past martyrs and invites Christians to accept the “harsher treatment” God has prepared for them and consider the “heavenly glory and divine reward” that awaits the willing martyr. This work and “The Crown of Martyrdom” together provide an account of the merits and benefits of martyrdom. Tertullian’s exhortation to martyrdom poses a challenge to the line between suicide and martyrdom; in it, he presents a number of examples of suicide that Roman culture would have respected—Empedocles, Lucretia, Regulus—and argues in effect that Christians too should be respected for their steadfastness in persecution and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for their faith.


Tertullian, “To the Martyrs,” chs. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, in Disciplinary, Moral, and Ascetical Works, trs. Rudolph Arbesmann, Emily Daly, and Edwin Quain, in The Fathers of the Church, ed. Roy Defarrari. New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1959, pp. 17-29; “The Crown of Martyrdom,” from The Christian’s Defense, in Fathers of the Church: A Selection of the Writings of the Latin Fathers tr. F. A. Wright, London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1928, pp. 48-51.


Blessed martyrs elect, along with the nourishment for the body which our Lady Mother the Church from her breast, as well as individual brethren from their private resources, furnish you in prison, accept also from me some offering that will contribute to the sustenance of the spirit.  For it is not good that the flesh be feasted while the spirit goes hungry.  Indeed, if care is bestowed on that which is weak, there is all the more reason not to neglect that which in still weaker.  Not that I am specially entitled to exhort you.  Yet, even the most accomplished gladiators are spurred on not only by their trainers and managers but also from afar by people inexperienced in this are and by all who choose, without the slightest need for it, with the result that hints issuing from the crowd have often proved profitable for them.

In the first place, then, O blessed, ‘do not grieve the Holy Spirit’ who has entered prison with you.  For, if He had not accompanied you there in your present trial, you would not be there today.  See to it, therefore, that He remain with you there and so lead you out of that place to the Lord.  Indeed, the prison is the Devil’s house, too, where he keeps his household.  But you have come to the prison for the purpose of trampling upon him right in his own house.  For you have engaged him in battle already outside the prison and trampled him underfoot.

Let him, therefore, not say: ‘Now that they are in my domain, I will tempt them with base hatreds, with defections or dissensions among themselves.’  Let him flee from your presence, and let him, coiled and numb, like a snake that is driven out by charms or smoke, hide away in the depths of his den.  Do not allow him the good fortune in his own kingdom of setting you against one another, but let him find you fortified by the arms of peace among yourselves, because peace among yourselves means war with him.  Some, not able to find this peace in the Church, are accustomed to seek it from the martyrs in prison.  For this reason, too, then, you ought to possess, cherish and preserve it among yourselves that you may perhaps be able to bestow it upon others also.

Other attachments, equally burdensome to the spirit, may have accompanied you to the prison gate; so far your relatives, too, may have escorted you.  From that very moment on you have been separated from the very world.  How much more, then, from its spirit and its ways and doings?  Nor let this separation from the world that is more truly a prison, we shall realize that you have left a prison rather than entered one.  The world holds the greater darkness, blinding men’s hearts.  The world puts on the heavier chains, fettering the very souls of men.  The world breathes forth the fouler impurities—human lusts.  Finally, the world contains the larger number of criminals, namely the entire human race.  In fact, it awaits sentence not from the proconsul but from God.  Wherefore, O blessed, consider yourselves as having been transferred from prison to what we may call a place of safety.  Darkness is there, but you are the light; fetters are there, but you are free before God.  It breathes forth a foul smell, but you are an odor of sweetness.  There the judge is expected at every moment, but you are going to pass sentence upon the judges themselves.  There sadness may come upon the man who sighs for the pleasures of the world.  The Christian, however, even when he is outside the prison, has renounced the world, and, when in prison, even prison itself.  It does not matter what part of the world you are in, you who are apart from the world.  And if you have missed some of the enjoyments of life, remember that it is the way of business to suffer some losses in order to make larger profits.

I say nothing yet about the reward to which God invites the martyrs.  Meanwhile, let us compare the life in the world with that in prison to see if the spirit does not gain more in prison than the flesh loses there.  In fact, owing to the solicitude of the Church and the charity of the brethren, the flesh does not miss there what it ought to have, while, in addition, the spirit obtains what is always beneficial to the faith: you do not look at strange gods; you do not chance upon their images; you do not, even by mere physical contact, participate in heathen holidays; you are not plagued by the foul fumes of the sacrificial banquets, not tormented by the noise of the spectacles, nor by the atrocity or frenzy or shamelessness of those taking part in the celebrations; your eyes do not fall on houses of lewdness; you are free from inducements to sin, from temptations, from unholy reminiscences, free, indeed, even from persecution.

The prison now offers to the Christian what the desert once gave to the Prophets.  Our Lord Himself quite often spent time in solitude to pray there more freely, to be there away from the world.  In fact, it was in a secluded place that He manifested His glory to His disciples.  Let us drop the name ‘prison’ and call it a place of seclusion.

Though the body is confined, though the flesh is detained, there is nothing that is not open to the spirit. In spirit wander about, in spirit take a walk, setting before yourselves not shady promenades and long porticoes but that path which leads to God. As often as you walk that path, you will not be in prison. The leg does not feel the fetter when the spirit is in heaven. The spirit carries about the whole man and brings him wherever he wishes. And where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.  There, then, let our heart be where we would have our treasure.

Granted now, O blessed, that even to Christians the prison is unpleasant—yet, we were called to the service in the army of the living God in the very moment when we gave response to the words of the sacramental oath.  No soldier goes out to war encumbered with luxuries, nor does he march to the line of battle from the sleeping chamber, but from light and cramped tents where every kind of austerity, discomfort, and inconvenience is experienced.  Even in time of peace soldiers are toughened to warfare by toils and hardships: by marching in arms, by practicing swift maneuvers in the field, by digging a trench, by joining closely together to form a tortoise-shield.  Everything is set in sweating toil, lest bodies and minds be frightened at having to pass from shade to sunshine, from sunshine to icy cold, from the tunic to the breastplate, from hushed silence to the war cry, from rest to the din of battle.

In like manner, O blessed, consider whatever is hard in your present situation as an exercise of your powers of mind and body.  You are about to enter a noble contest in which the living God acts the part of superintendent and the Holy Spirit is your trainer, a contest whose crown is eternity, whose prize is angelic nature, citizenship in heaven and glory for ever and ever.  And so your Master, Jesus Christ, who has anointed you with His Spirit and has brought you to this training ground, has resolved, before the day of the contest, to take you from a softer way of life to a harsher treatment that your strength may be increased.  For athletes, too, are set apart for more rigid training that they may apply themselves to the building up of their physical strength.  They are kept from lavish living, from more tempting dishes, from more pleasurable drinks.  They are urged on, they are subjected to torturing toils, they are worn out: the more strenuously they have exerted themselves, the greater is their hope of victory.  And they do this, says the Apostle, to win a perishable crown.  We who are about to win an eternal one recognize in the prison our training ground, that we may be led forth to the actual contest before the seat of the presiding judge well practiced in all hardships, because strength is built up by austerity, but destroyed by softness.

We know from our Lord’s teaching that, while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.  Let us, however, not derive delusive gratification from the Lord’s acknowledgement of the weakness of the flesh.  For it was on purpose that He first declared the spirit willing: He wanted to show which of the two ought to be subject to the other, that is to say, that the flesh should be submissive to the spirit, the weaker to the stronger, so that the former draw strength from the latter.  Let the sprit converse with the flesh on their common salvation, no longer thinking about the hardships of prison but, rather, about the struggle of the actual contest.  The flesh will perhaps fear the heavy sword and the lofty cross and the wild beasts mad with rage and the most terrible punishment of all—death by fire—and, finally, all the executioner’s cunning during the torture.  But let the spirit present to both itself and the flesh the other side of the picture: granted, these sufferings are grievous, yet many have borne them patiently, nay, have even sought them on their own accord for the sake of fame and glory; and this is true not only of men but also of women so that you, too, O blessed women, may be worthy of your sex.

It would lead me too far were I to enumerate each one of those who, led by the impulse of their own mind, put an end to their lives by the sword. Among women there is the well-known instance of Lucretia. A victim of violence, she stabbed herself in the presence of her kinsfolk to gain glory for her chastity. Mucius burnt his right hand on the altar that his fair fame might include this deed.  Nor did the philosophers act less courageously: Heraclitus, for instance, who put an end to his life by smearing himself with cow dung; Empedocles, too, who leaped down into the fires of Mt.Etna; and Peregrinus who not long ago threw himself upon a funeral pile. Why, even women have despised the flames: Dido did so in order not to be forced to marry after the departure of the man she had loved most dearly; the wife Hasdrubal, too, with Carthage in flames, cast herself along with her children into the fire that was destroying her native city, that she might not see her husband a suppliant at Scipio’s feet. Regulus, a Roman general, was taken prisoner by the Carhaginians, but refused to be the only Roman exchanged for a large number of Carthaginian captives. He preferred to be returned to the enemy, and, crammed into a kind of chest, suffered as many crucifixions as nails were driven in from the outside in all directions to pierce him. A woman voluntarily sought out wild beasts, namely, vipers, serpents more horrible than either bull or bear, which Cleopatra let loose upon herself as not to fall into the hands of the enemy.

You may object: ‘But the fear of death is not so great as the fear of torture.’  Did the Athenian courtesan yield on that account to the executioner?  For, being privy to a conspiracy, she was subjected to torture by the tyrant.  But she did not betray her fellow conspirators, and at last bit off her own tongue and spat it into the tyrant’s face to let him know that torments, however prolonged, could achieve nothing against her.  Everybody knows that to this day the most important festival of the Lacedaemonians is the δίαμαστίγwσις, that is, The Whipping.  In this sacred rite all the noble youth are scourged with whips before the altar, while their parents and kinsfolk stand by and exhort them to perseverance.  For they regard it as a mark of greater distinction and glory if the soul rather than the body has submitted to the stripes.

Therefore, if earthly glory accruing from strength of body and soul is valued so highly that one despises sword, fire, piercing with nails, wild beasts and tortures for the reward of human praise, then I may say the sufferings you endure are but trifling in comparison with the heavenly glory and divine reward.  If the bead made of glass is rated so highly, how much must the true pearl be worth?  Who.  Therefore, does not most gladly spend as much for the true as others spend for the false?

I omit here an account of the motive of glory. For inordinate ambition among men as well as a certain morbidity of mind have already set at naught all the cruel and torturing contests mentioned above.  How many of the leisure class are urged by an excessive love of arms to become gladiators?  Surely it is from vanity that they descend to the wild beasts in the very arena, and think themselves more handsome because of the bites and scars.  Some have even hired themselves out to tests by fire, with the result that they ran a certain distance in a burning tunic.  Others have pranced up and down amid the bullwhips of the animal-baiters, unflinchingly exposing their shoulders.  All this, O blessed, the Lord tolerates in the world for good reason, that is, for the sake of encouraging us in the present moment and of confounding us on that final day, if we have recoiled from suffering for the truth unto salvation what others have pursued out of vanity unto perdition.

Let us, however, no longer talk about those examples of perseverance proceeding from inordinate ambition.  Let us, rather, turn to a simple contemplation of man’s ordinary lot so that, if we ever have to undergo such trials with fortitude, we may also learn from those misfortunes which sometimes even befall unwilling victims, For how often have people been burned to death in conflagrations!  How often have wild beasts devoured men either in the forests or in the heart of cities after escaping from their cages!  How many have been slain by the sword of robbers!  How many have even suffered the death of the cross at the hands of enemies, after having been tortured first and, indeed, treated with every kind of insult!  Furthermore, many a man is able to suffer in the cause of a mere human being what he hesitates to suffer in the cause of God.  To this fact, indeed, our present days may bear witness.  How many prominent persons have met with death in the cause of a man, though such a fate seemed most unlikely in view of their birth and their rank, their physical condition and their age!  Death came to them either from him, if they had opposed him, or from his enemies, if they had sided with him.



“Why do you Christians complain,” you say, “that we persecute you, if you wish to suffer, since you ought to love those by whom you suffer what you wish?” Certainly we wish to suffer, but in the way in which a soldier suffers war. Nobody indeed willingly suffers war, since both panic and danger there must inevitably be faced; but yet the man who just now was complaining about battle fights with all his strength and rejoices when he wins a victory in battle, because he gains both glory and spoil. Our battle is to be summoned before tribunals, where we fight for the truth at the risk of our lives. And our victory is to obtain that for which you strive, a victory which brings with it both the glory of pleasing God and the spoil of eternal life. But, you may say, we are convicted; yes, when we have won the day; we conquer when we are killed, and we escape when we are convicted. You may call us “faggoted” and “axle-men”, because bound to a stake half an axle’s length we are burned amid heaps of faggots; but that is our garb of victory, our chariot of triumph, our garment decked with palm-leaves. Naturally therefore we do not please those whom we have conquered, and so we are regarded as desperate and reckless men.

Among you, however, such desperation and recklessness raises the standard of virtue in the cause of glory and renown. Mucius, for example, willingly left his right hand in the altar fire: “Oh loftiness of spirit!” Empedocles freely gave all his body to the flames of Etna for the people of Catana’s sake: “Oh what strength of mind!” The queen who founded Carthage flung herself upon the pyre in accordance with her marriage vow: “What an encomium for chastity!” Regulus, rather that be the one of all the foemen spared, suffered tortures all over his body: “What a brave man, victorious even in captivity!” Anaxarchus, when he was being crushed to death with a barely pestle, kept saying: “Pound, pound away: it is Anaxarchus’ coating, not Anaxarchus himself, that your are pounding”: “What a magnanimous philosopher who could even joke about such a death as his!”

In these cases glory was lawful, because it was human, and no imputation of reckless prejudice or desperate conviction was cast upon them when they despised death and every sort of cruelty. They were allowed for country, for empire, and for friendship to suffer what we are not allowed to suffer for God. For all these you cast statues and write inscriptions on their portraits, and engrave them epitaphs to last for ever. Certainly, as far as records can do it, you yourselves confer a kind of resurrection from God, if he should suffer for God, you deem to be mad. Go on, good governors; the mob will think you all the better if you sacrifice Christians to them; crucify, torture, condemn, destroy us; your injustice is the proof of our innocence. For that reason God allows us to suffer these things. Just recently by condemning a Christian woman to the brothel rather than to the wild beasts, you acknowledged that stain upon chastity is reckoned among us as more dreadful than any punishment and any death. Your cruelties, though each be more elaborate that the last, do not profit you; they serve rather as an attraction to our sect. The more you mow us down the greater our numbers become; our blood is the seed from which new Christians spring.

Many men among yourselves have written exhortations for the endurance of pain and death; Cicero, for example, in the Tusculans, Seneca in the treatise On Chance, Diogenes, Pyrrho, and Callinicus. But their words do not find as many disciples as the Christians make by their deeds. The very obstinacy, with which you reproach us, is our best teacher. Who is there that is not roused by the sight of it to ask what there is really within it? Who does not join us when once he has asked? Who does not long to suffer, when once he has joined, that he may buy back the whole grace of God and procure all indulgence from Him by the payment of his own blood? To this action all sins are forgiven. Hence it is that even in court we thank you for your verdict. There is an enmity between what is of God and what is of man; and when we are condemned by you we are acquitted by God.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Africa, Ancient History, Christianity, Europe, Martyrdom, Selections, Tertullian