from LECTURE ON HOMICIDE
. . .The first proposition: Just as it is always sinful to commit suicide, so is it often a counsel, and sometimes a commandment, not only to suffer death patiently, but also to submit to it freely . . .
The first proposition is that suicide is sinful because contrary to natural human inclination, and to act against natural human inclination is a sin; therefore, suicide is a sin. The major premise is evident. Not only human beings and other animate creatures, but even objects resist their dissolution, employing the powers they have to preserve themselves in their natures, as is shown in Aristotle, De generatione 2. . . . That it is sinful to oppose natural human inclination has been well affirmed and is admitted by all. For if this inclination tends always to the good and the virtuous, and never to evil, then it must be sin to oppose it . . . But some respectable authors, especially commentators on Aristotle, think it wrong to claim that natural inclination leads always to the good and virtuous; they argue rather that nature and natural inclination, on the one hand, and grace and law, on the other, are opposed to one another.
In the first place, they argue that human desire naturally tends toward the good, but that this good is pleasure, and what is pleasurable is not always virtuous.
Second, they argue, on the authority of Aristotle, Ethics 2, that true virtue is achieved through strenuous effort, and if virtue is achieved naturally, then no strenuousness is required, since nature does not incline us to effort. In that sense, nature may incline to the opposite of virtue, that is, to evil, since good deeds are difficult. They find that virtue is not necessary for men to seek happiness and avoid misery.
In the third place, there are theologians who hold that sudden impulses in both the human will and the human appetite tend toward ill, hence nature inclines toward evil.
Fourth, it is argued that the only, or at least the main reason our first parents were endowed with the sense of rectitude was in order that their carnal appetites be bound within the limits of duty and be obedient to the rational will and divine law, for if there were no human capacity to oppose nature either by reason or obedience to divine law, then reward and punishment would make no sense.
Fifth, according to both virtue and divine law, human beings are obliged to love God more than they love themselves, and to prefer the common good to their personal good. Charity is not to seek one’s own good, according to St. Paul, yet human beings naturally love their own goods. Moreover, it is hard to love God more than oneself, because, as was pointed out earlier, human beings seek to preserve what is their own. Hence nature tends against charity and God’s law.
Sixth, desire is a natural inclination. If this is innate, then natural inclination is desire, and desire does not obey reason, but rather tends in the opposite direction. Hence natural desire leads to evil, which is proven by recognizing that the object of carnal desire is pleasure, which is for the most part contrary to virtue and God’s law. Therefore, natural desire leads to evil.
Seventh, bodily urges tend to sin, as the theologians claim, following Peter Lombard, Sentences 2. Urges of this kind are nothing if not natural, and the natural human faculties are destitute of primal rectitude, according to those who cite the same passage in this theologian. Therefore, innate human faculties lead to sin. Consider a man who acts purely according to nature, that is, without a sense of right and wrong; he will by that very condition incline to evil, as he is moved by a bodily urge.
Those who favor these arguments add the testimony of scripture. First they cite the words of God in Genesis 8:21, “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” which shows the proclivity of human nature for evil. Next is the Lord’s statement in Matthew 26:41, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” which the Apostle, Galatians 5:17, explains: “the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh.” Again, in Romans 7:23: “I see in my members another law.” . . . It is clear from all of these that the desires of the flesh are evil, opposed to the spirit and to the law of God. Desires of the flesh, if all experience them, are natural, and so natural human inclination leads to sin and evil. Aristotle in Ethics 2 observes that human beings are naturally desirous, and must work to save themselves from what their nature most inclines them to. This is cited by St. Thomas, ST II-II, q.166, art.2.
Such are the arguments used by these authors to support their case, whence derive their quarrels with nature. Some call her a cruel stepmother, others an enemy, others a wicked provider, still others the parent of evils . . . And from this comes the opinion that human beings in their nature can do nothing but evil. There is no error more odious and harmful to mortals than to hold that all human acts are sins and deserving of eternal punishment unless the mercy of God turns them into venial sins, which is one of the dogmas of those who admit no human worth. . . . Now I will argue in favor of natural human inclination . . .
In the first place: Natural human inclination originates immediately from God; therefore, it cannot be an inclination toward evil. Initially we note that since God is the author of nature, he is also responsible for what follows from nature, including natural inclination. To use the words of Aristotle, whatever gives form gives the consequence of form. God alone, then, is the author and cause of human inclination. We can prove the consequent. A natural motion or a motion from nature is attributed to its generator, that is, its author, which is the explanation that satisfied Aristotle in Physics 8, followed by many reputable philosophers. For heavy and light have their qualities from their generator, they do not move by themselves, but necessarily derive their motions upwards or downwards from their generator. Thus if man is by nature inclined to evil, then that inclination and the consequent motion toward sin must be imputed to God, which, in a word, is an impious thought. Surely, if the downward motion of a rock or the upward motion of fire were sinful, then there is no doubt that the sin would be attributed to God rather than to the qualities of weight or lightness which have their inclinations from God. Similarly, if it is sin to desire happiness, the sin would be not attributable to man but to God, who constituted man’s nature such to desire happiness naturally. It can be proven validly that an act is not sinful if it proceeds from the natural inclination provided to human beings by God . . .
The second proposition: To kill oneself violates the commandment in the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20, Deut. 5), and is therefore a mortal sin. So argues St. Augustine in De Trinitate 1, to prove that suicide is unlawful. But to show more clearly the force of this argument, it is necessary to examine what precisely is forbidden by the commandment, for it does not explicitly say it is wrong to kill oneself . . . How absolute is the commandment? In many cases it is lawful to kill, hence we properly ask what sorts of killing the commandment forbids. Some interpret the commandment as absolute, a prohibition of killing any person, whether a criminal or an innocent, whether by public authority or private. But in divine and general law, exceptions are recognized, as when a murderer is justly condemned by a magistrate. But it has been claimed that the power must be granted by God according to scripture. It is commanded that one who kills is to be killed (Levit. 19), hence the judge who condemns a thief to death violates the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” A king would not be empowered to kill criminals, had God not made homicide and certain other crimes the exceptions. According to this argument, in no case may public authority take life except in those cases where divine law expressly allows it, whence the opinion that the death penalty for an adulterous woman or a simple thief is impermissible. The former case is allowed in the Old Testament, but the Lord revoked this in John 8, when he said, “Woman, they have not condemned you. Neither do I condemn you.”
Against this it is argued that that which is lawful and in itself a good is not condemned by divine commandment, and there are cases in which to kill another is in itself good, as to kill in self-defense, which is not forbidden by the commandment not to kill. Nor is it necessary to make exceptions from a rule if these were not meant to fall under the rule. Killing a thief who comes in the night does not fall under the commandment and so is not an exception to it. In the law of Moses it was sometimes lawful to kill and sometimes not. . . . And I may ask, before the law of Moses, was it not legitimate to kill a blasphemer or a homicide? If not, it would be against the principle that what is not permitted by natural law is never permitted. For neither the law of Moses nor the law of Grace dispenses with natural law. Much is allowed under natural law that is forbidden by the law of Moses. If natural law allows the condemnation of an adulterous woman, it does so not as an exception to divine law. Therefore some claim that the commandment forbids only the killing of the innocent, and the words in Exodus 20:13 are explained by the passage in Exodus 23:6, “Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.” But against this is the fact that a private person who kills either a criminal or a just person violates the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” . . .
The commandment no more forbids killing by public authority than it does killing by a private person. Another question is whom it is lawful to kill and under what circumstances, and further, to whom is permission given to kill, since on occasion it may be a wrong on the part of public authority.
A person may be killed in two ways. One way is by deliberate intention, as when a judge condemns a malefactor to death. The other way is unintentional. I do not mean by this only an accidental killing, but also a voluntary one in which the killer seeks some end that might be achieved without the killing, as in self-defense or the killing of a night thief whom one would not kill if he could defend himself otherwise. . . . Only homicide in conformity with natural and divine law is lawful for a polity, through its magistrates and rulers responsible to the polity. This is stated by Paul in Romans 13, “he who is in authority . . . does not bear the sword in vain . . . he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer.”
I do say that private persons are always forbidden to kill another intentionally, because they are not authorized to protect the public welfare. Finally, I conclude that all other intentional homicide is forbidden by the commandment, whether for a public or private person, except in the permitted situation where the life OF? a criminal is harmful to the polity. About unintentional homicide, whether in defense of self or of the polity, there is dispute . . .
From the above discussion, it appears plain that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” makes suicide unlawful. Because no one is allowed to be judge of himself, neither does anyone have public authority over himself, taking one’s own life is never permissible, even if one deserves death as one harmful to the polity.
Third proposition: To kill oneself injures the polity, and is therefore sinful. . . . A person, because human, is to the community as a part is to the whole. The suicide, then steals from the community what properly belongs to it.
Fourth and final proposition: killing oneself violates the precept of charity, and so is sinful. As argued above, one is obliged to love oneself no less than one is obliged to love one’s neighbor. To kill a neighbor is contrary to the charity owed him, and so to kill oneself is contrary to the charity owed oneself.
. . . the first objection to these arguments is based on the claim that no one can wish to kill himself, at least not on purpose and willfully; therefore, it is false to claim that some sin or crime is involved. In the first place, as Aristotle maintains and we accept, the human will cannot desire anything other than the good for itself, but non-being or ceasing to be is not a good, but rather an evil, so no one can wish to kill himself. To this, it is not a satisfactory answer to say that since the soul is immortal, at least the best part of him who kills himself does not cease to be. This answer might be valid for one who has no hope of a subsequent life, and so would not take his present life. But history gives us examples to the contrary. And the impossibility of not wishing to be happy is clear, as argued by Augustine, City of God 17. Whoever wishes to exist wishes his happiness, and he cannot be happy without existence. Hence no one can wish not to be, and, consequently, no one can wish to kill himself.
Second objection: It is argued that suicide harms no one, and so is not sinful. The first assertion is true, since the suicide does not will to harm himself, and so no harm is done. That the polity is injured is not a sufficient answer, at least where one may commit suicide with the state’s permission, as is the custom in some nations. And it is clear that one who wills to give up temporal goods harms neither himself nor his community, as, for example, if one kills his horse . . . In any case, temporal goods are more important to the commonwealth than one person’s life. So, suicide harms neither the person nor the community.
Third objection: If one is attacked by a robber and cannot save his own life otherwise than by killing his attacker, he may lawfully let himself be killed. But the same commandment that enjoins us not to kill enjoins us to defend our own lives if we can; thus one who does not defend himself would violate the commandment against suicide.
Fourth objection: Consider the case of two persons in extreme necessity; they have but one piece of bread, enough to sustain the life of only one of them. One may allow the other to have it, and he therefore counts as a suicide.
Fifth objection: A servant and a king are shipwrecked; they have a raft or a board large enough for only one. It is lawful for the servant to throw himself in the sea with no hope of survival, in order to save the king’s life. In this case, it is lawful for him to commit suicide.
Sixth objection: A man condemned to die of starvation may lawfully refuse to eat bread offered to him. This is clearly lawful, in that he merely submits to the sentence passed on him.
Seventh objection: Given an opportunity to escape, a man condemned to death may refuse it and await execution, thereby compassing his own death.
Eighth objection: A man condemned to death by poison may lawfully drink the poison himself.
Ninth objection: During plague times, one is permitted to visit friends despite the danger of death.
Tenth objection: It is permitted to undertake sea voyages despite the obvious danger of death.
Eleventh objection: Military service and participation in bullfights are permitted, although there is danger of death. Therefore, suicide is permitted.
In the last three cases, the principle is the same; the commandment generally forbids killing another and exposing oneself to the peril of death.
Twelfth objection: It is permissible to shorten one’s life through fasting, minimal nourishment, and the rigors of an austere life, which amounts to taking one’s own life. The conclusion is supported by the words of St. Jerome, “It matters little how long or short a the time destruction requires.” It is well known that the life span in monasteries is shorter than in the outside world.
Thirteenth objection: One under the threat of death is not obliged to ransom his life with large sums of money or his entire patrimony; therefore, one is not obliged to save his own life. Likewise, if someone needs a certain medicinal herb, like Pontus root, to save his life, but must give up his kingdom to get it, he is not obliged to do so.
Fourteenth objection: It is always permissible to submit to a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater. Evils like infamy and shame are much worse than death, and so at least to avoid these, it is permissible to choose death by suicide.
Fifteenth objection: It is hardly evident that suicide is impermissible, since many persons reputed to be wise were unaware of the prohibition and were respected for their choice. At least these might be excused, who thought themselves acting more bravely and more praiseworthily by taking their lives, as did Cato, Brutus, and others.
Sixteenth objection: We read of certain holy women who, condemned by a persecuting tyrant to be burned to death, threw themselves into the fire. So it is permissible to kill oneself.
Seventeenth objection: Samson, Saul, and, in the books of Maccabees, Razis and Eleazar killed themselves. Not only are these acts not condemned in scripture, but Samson is numbered among the saints by the Apostle in Hebrews 11 and Eleazar is praised (1 Maccabees 6). The same argument applies to the virgins who escaped Roman abuse by throwing themselves off the Aquiline Hill into a river.
Much both useful and pleasant to hear can be adduced to answer these arguments, but the shortness of time constrains me to do so in few words.
For the first objection, we must recognize that the object of the will is not always a true good. Since an object does not excite the will except through the perceptions, the will does not concern itself with whether the object is a real good or is merely thought to be a good. To kill oneself may be thought a good, although it most certainly is not. This would not prevent someone from being ignorant and wishing to kill himself, his error being in the belief that it is good for him. But since this escape shows only that it is possible to wish in error not to be and to kill oneself, I say next that one may without error still wish not to continue his existence. We must, however, note that although something may be a good in itself, it may by circumstance become an evil, just as, to the contrary, something evil in itself can in certain circumstances become a good. The determination to end one’s existence may be absolutely bad, but to put an end to wretchedness, as a motive, may not only be believed a good, but in fact may be a good. And as much as existence is in itself a good, it may not only be thought an evil if conjoined with some evil circumstances, but may in fact be an evil. Whence I conclude that those who suffer terribly may wish for nonexistence without being in error. Although their existence is absolutely a good for them, yet if their situation is that of the most extreme wretchedness, this is truly an evil for them and nonexistence might be better for them than to exist in such misery. Speaking of Judas the traitor, the Lord makes this clear by his words, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). Some take this passage to mean that it were better Judas had not been born, not better that he had not been conceived or been in existence. But I do not think Christ referred to the difference between being born and being conceived in the sense of being in itself, but said specifically it were better for Judas not to have existed at all than so to perish. Thus Sirach 30:17, “Death is better than a wretched life.” Sufferers are not in error, but perfectly sensible in wishing not to be. This will suffice to answer the first argument, but it may be added in confirmation that all human beings necessarily desire happiness, which they cannot have if they do not exist. Hence it follows that they necessarily wish to live, and cannot wish their nonexistence. There are many ways to counter this argument, but for the present I will say that no one can truly desire that which he knows he cannot have, and so will not seek means to pursue what he cannot hope to attain. Whence sufferers firmly believe they will never be happy in the future, and so will wish not to exist, as existence is the only condition in which to achieve happiness. At the same time, sufferers desire to be happy, desire to avoid the miseries they cannot escape, and consequently desire not to be.
For the second objection, we note the difference between human life and material objects. Man is truly a master in that he may at will make use of all of them. The Lord placed everything under his subjection, and so man is not obliged to preserve temporal goods, but may, as he wishes, keep them or not. Hence to kill one’s own horse or burn down one’s own house is an injury to no one. But man is not the master of his own body or his own life; God alone is the Lord of life and death, and inasmuch as man is in a special manner the servant of God, by killing himself he kills the servant of another, thereby injuring God, from whom he accepted the gift of life as something to use and hold, not to throw away. And as one who kills another person is subject to punishment, even if that person asks for his death, for he is not himself master of life or death and has no power to take his life, so he who kills himself is subject to punishment. Cicero cites the words of Pythagoras, that mortals are not entitled to desert their posts in life unless ordered to do so by their ruler or their commander.
For the third objection, nearly all agree that a person is obliged to save his life when he may lawfully do so, but I say that not only in this case, but in many others, one may preserve one’s life by lawful means, but is not obliged to so. I have no doubt that, if a man is attacked by a robber and cannot save his life otherwise than by killing him, it is a counsel of perfection for him to let himself be killed, for the robber in his state would be damned if killed. The following case is proof: If a Christian is attacked by a pagan in solitary place only because he is a Christian, he may defend himself against his assailant lawfully and with no stain on his faith, but no one will doubt that it would be a work of virtue for him to suffer death patiently as testimony of faith. A second proof: Christ could lawfully have defended himself against the tyrannical Jews and gentiles who persecuted him to death; therefore, one is not obliged to preserve one’s life, even lawfully. Likewise, the eleven thousand virgin martyrs who died for Christ; we are not told that they were unable to defend themselves lawfully, and they might have fought against their tyrannical foes, just as today Christians do so when they fight pagans. Whence I do not doubt that in most cases martyrdom is good counsel and many martyrs delivered themselves to death without being obliged to do so. This accords with the Apostle’s words, “Do not defend yourselves, beloved, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19), and to the Lord’s, “I say unto you, resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39). This was the error of Jews whom the Lord condemned for believing it was unworthy to suffer injury with patience. Therefore, it is to be considered that, although man is not the master of his own body or his own life as he is of other things, he nevertheless has some ownership of and right over his life, because bodily harm injures not only God, the supreme lord of life, but also injures the man himself. So, although he has the right of self-defense, he may laudably give up the right he has in his own body and patiently allow himself to be killed. It might be objected that everyone is obliged to defend an innocent life if someone tries to take it by violence, as God requires one do for a neighbor: “Save those who are being taken away to death; cease not to save those being dragged to destruction” (Proverbs 24:11). Whence he who, when he can, fails to save an innocent from the hands of an attacker is guilty of homicide. From this it is concluded that a man is more obliged to save his own life than that of a neighbor: if he must defend his neighbor against a malicious assailant, then he must also defend his own life. To the antecedent I say that it is not certain that one must defend a neighbor’s life in all instances. If a Christian offers himself to a persecutor in order to promote the faith, even when not forced to do so, other Christians may rescue him lawfully and without scandal, but I do not hold that they are obliged to do so. Therefore it is not a categorical truth that everyone must defend an innocent life, even if they may do so. The Lord rebuked St. Peter for wishing to free Him from the Jews (John 18:11). Against the consequent, I say it does not follow. If I am obliged to defend my neighbor’s life, I am obliged to defend my own. But, as said above, I may relinquish my own right, but not the right of my brother. The example is clear. It is certain that I am not held to the defense of my temporal goods. “If anyone would have your coat, give him your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40). Thus if I can, without peril to myself, save an innocent man’s temporal goods from a robber, it is certain that I am obliged to do it. In the same sense, if I cannot save my own life, I cannot not defend my neighbor’s life.
With respect to the fourth objection, there are many doubts about whether it is permissible to sacrifice one’s life for a private person, and while many prefer to say no to this, for my part, as I have suggested above, I hold it to be most probably praiseworthy, and it is praised in that passage where the Lord says, “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 16:12), not differentiating between private persons and public. Also in 1 John 3:16: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” John is not speaking only of our neighbors’ spiritual good, for he adds, “If anyone has worldly goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart, how does God’s love abide in him?” In the Song of Solomon 8:6, “Love is as strong a death,” because it makes one die for his friend. In Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and sacrificed himself for her.” And further on (5:28), “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies,” and then, “Let each of them love his wife as he does himself” (5:33). In Ethics 9, Aristotle says it is of the highest virtue to suffer death for friends, and even higher for a son to ransom his father rather than himself, and it is virtuous for the son to give his parent the bread he needs for himself. If he may in this case of a father’s extreme necessity give his life for his father, then surely he may give it for a friend. Thus I concede that, in the case proposed in the objection, one may indeed give bread to another even at certain danger to one’s own life. But there is a serious difficulty to this argument. Take the case of a son, his father, and a stranger, all in extreme necessity, but the son has one piece of bread. May the son neglect his father and give it to the stranger? This would be against the rule of charity, but it does not meet the objection. The son has the right to save himself with the bread, but if he relinquishes his right and gives the stranger the bread, he does no injury to his father, because the latter had no right to it. But I deny the consequent. The son may keep the bread for himself, or he may cede his right to it, but if does he gives it up, he may not give it to whom he will, but is obliged by the rule of charity to sustain his father, not the stranger. Because the bread belongs to the son, the father has more right to it than the stranger.
And this applies to the fifth objection. I hold in that case that the servant, though he is sure to die, may relinquish the raft or board, not only because it is praiseworthy to do so for a king, but as well for any friend or neighbor, as Lactantius, On justice 5.18, forcibly comments, “What would a just man do if he found himself in the jaws of a wild horse or on a board in a shipwreck? I think he would be more reluctant to kill than to die, though people will say, it is folly to save another life at the cost of your own, even to do it for friendship’s sake is judged foolish.” He goes on to discuss this most eloquently. To sacrifice your life for a friend is indeed folly for this world, but it is wisdom before God.
To the sixth objection, I say the man is obliged to eat. Thomas (ST II-II, q.69, art. 4) says that if he does not, he kills himself because he is obliged to use all means to preserve his life that are not forbidden by his judge, and the judge did not and could not prohibit him from eating the food offered. He condemned the man to suffer death, not to kill himself. It is clear that eating is not contrary to the sentence; therefore, it is not the punishment specified if the condemned man refuses to eat. And so if he can eat, as in this case he can, he is obliged to do so.
I deal with the seventh objection as I did with the sixth. The man is obliged to escape, since remaining in prison is not the punishment mandated by the judge. At a minimum, I maintain that the conviction applies to him whether he is a prisoner or at liberty; besides, whether the offender sins against the judge or against the imprisonment, he is a sinner in either case, whether he escapes or not.
For the eighth objection, I do not see why it needs to be denied. Other punishments may be decreed for criminals, so why may taking poison not be authorized? If there are other just punishments, but the only one that can be proposed is drinking poison, then it cannot be impermissible to drink the poison. If one is condemned to be hung, it is lawful that he ascend the scaffold, and if he is to die by the sword, he may expose his jugular vein, for he is not more the worker of his own death than another. But if it is claimed that such a punishment may not be applied, then it follows that it is unlawful for the condemned to drink the poison mandated by a tyrant, but neither would it be lawful to climb the scaffold or expose the jugular voluntarily. But this is not entirely certain. No one is obliged to inflict punishment on himself, only to be punished. Thus it seems that punishments may not be imposed if they require the cooperation of the condemned.
The ninth objection may be dealt with through the solutions to the fourth and fifth. If my friend needs my help, or my care in his sickness, or my advice in a case of conscience, I do not doubt that I may assist him, even if there is danger to myself. But if there is no need of my help, it appears I should not, for it would be a temerity to expose myself to grave danger for no purpose, although it is a worthy purpose to keep love and faith with friends. I would not condemn the wife who put herself at peril to care for her sick husband during a plague, even if this duty was of no use to him other than as consolation to him as he died.
For the tenth and the eleventh objections, we observe that, to know what is permissible in this case, we must know not only the circumstances at the specific time, but more importantly, also what generally obtains in such situations, and not emphasize the private good or ill more than the public and communal good or ill. Seafaring, even when dangerous, is good and useful for the community. Great benefits result for the commonwealth when there is intercourse among the peoples and regions, both in peace and war. There would be a loss of public good if the danger of storms deterred men from seafaring, since seldom or never is it possible to sail without danger. The same can be said of military service, for the commonwealth must have soldiers to defend the country; without exercises, they would be useless in war. There are certain military exercises that incur little danger, such as horsemanship and many others necessary to soldiers, but others carry great dangers, to the point of being impermissible. But even if there were no exercises with great and grave danger, we must not omit to mention warfare itself. A smaller temporal ill is to be tolerated in order to avoid a greater, like the loss of one’s country if a tyrant occupies it or if the winning army slays many more of the opponents because they are not as well trained as an army should be.
To the twelfth objection, I say that is never lawful to shorten one’s life, but . . . the difference between shortening a life and simply not prolonging it must be considered. Also to be considered is that, if a person is obliged not to abrupt his life, still, he is not obliged to use all lawful means to prolong it. It is clear that if one learns that the weather in India is milder and healthier such to make him live longer than he would in his own country, he is not obliged to sail to India, neither must he move from one city to another more healthy. Nor does God ask that we have a care for long life. Similarly with foods; some are improper because harmful to a person’s health, and to eat them would be to kill oneself. I speak not only of poisons, but also of other noxious foods like fungi, raw or acerbic herbs, and such like. Some foods may be less healthy than others but do not endanger life, like fish, eggs, and water. We ought, I think, to observe common experience. Many more youths die of luxurious excesses than from penitential fasts; gluttony kills more people than the sword. From all this, I conclude that it is not lawful to shorten one’s life by eating unhealthy foods. But neither is a man obliged to eat the best foods . . . Nor must he drink wine if a physician tells him he would live ten years longer on wine than on water. Drinking water is not lethal, nor does it shorten life; it simply does not prolong it, but one is not obliged to prolong life. This applies to the healthy and strong, since there are foods that are unhealthy and harmful to the ill that would be good for the healthy. Hence it is not lawful for the ill to eat them. . . .
The argument applies to the thirteenth objection. As I said, a person is not obligated to use all means to preserve his life; it is enough if he uses only the moral and appropriate means. Thus in the case proposed, I do not believe that a man must give up his entire patrimony to save his life. If there is a remedy for his sickness, the one who denies him that remedy is a homicide. From this we infer that if someone is terminally ill, and a certain expensive medicine might prolong his life for some hours, or even some days, he is not obliged to take it; it suffices if he takes only the usual medicines, and he is any case moribund.
For the fourteenth objection, I say that life itself is the greatest good, greater than temporal goods like glory, honor, and fame. It is said that a man will give all things he possesses for life, for all these things are arranged to serve the purpose of human life. Whence Solomon says, “Have a care for your good name, for this will remain for you longer than a thousand treasures.” He does not compare a good name with life, but with treasures. And in another passage he says, “A good name is better than great riches.” (Proverbs 22:1) “There is no wealth better than health of body” (Sirach 30:16). I hold, therefore, that it is not permissible to sacrifice one’s life for fame or glory. Hence it is not only the suicide who sins gravely, but also those who, without good cause, put themselves in serious danger for human glory. Aristotle says that death is the greatest of evils (Ethics 3).
In all these fourteen objections, we must note that the question of whether someone can willfully and actively kill himself is not treated, but only the question of the reason that lies behind the act. Therefore, they can prove nothing against the conclusions I have proposed. I concede only that they do not kill themselves with the intention to kill themselves. None of the deaths in these arguments, whether lawful or not, is suicide in the sense that I accept, that is, the suicide orders himself to die and the order entails the statement, “I wish to die.”
Hence the most crucial issue lies in the fifteenth objection. Could Brutus, Cato, Decius, and numerous others who killed themselves have been innocently ignorant of the fact that such a killing is unlawful, since they all believed it to be the best and most noble death, and were praised for it by men reputed to be wise? I respond by pointing out that there is the same issue with other divine commandments. There are many divine precepts which were by the pagans, and still are today, not unknown but ignored, such as those concerning fornication or the revenge of injuries, in which we do not suffer under an invincible ignorance, but we admit with St. Paul, “God gave them up to the lusts of their hearts,” and they committed all evil deeds, malice, fornication, homicide, etc. (Romans 1:24ff.). And to excuse such things is the wisdom of this world, but folly before God. The natural light of reason can teach that it is unlawful to commit suicide, because the philosophers most zealous of virtue taught this, as is evident from Aristotle (Ethics 3), who said that to kill oneself is not a courageous deed, but a cowardly one, in that the suicide cannot bear the rigors of life, and from Cicero: Why take my own life when I have no cause to do so? Why choose mistreatment? Although this may sometimes be wise, it is true wisdom neither to desire death nor to fear it.”
For the final objection concerning Samson, Razis, Saul, and some others, we cannot say the same of all. It is necessary to excuse Samson, whom Paul lists among the just. Whence Augustine says Samson is excused for the reason that he was moved by the spirit of God, which is not speculative, but is made clear in Judges 17:28, where we are told that he asked God to restore his original strength so he could be revenged on his enemies. There is another solution: He did not kill himself intentionally, but he wished to kill and overthrow his foes, his own death being the necessary consequence of that. He might well have wished to save himself while killing the others, if this had been possible, and we may take this for lawful without needing further revelation. For who would doubt that some man in battle or defending his city can, though certain of death, perform a deed beneficial to his city and detrimental to the enemy. We read of Eleazar, who ran under the belly of the elephant he thought was carrying King Antiochus, stabbed it with his sword, and perished under its weight when it fell (1 Maccabes 6:43ff.). He suffered a noble death, for, as the scripture says, he freely sacrificed himself for his people. The deed is not rebuked; as Ambrose says in the chapter on courage in On duties, it honored Eleazar with wondrous praise. Thus Samson can be excused without recourse to heavenly inspiration. Eleazar killed himself in the same manner as Samson. But the same judgment may not be given on Saul. He was denied the grace of God, and it is not necessary to seek excuses for him. Sabellicus writes that Saul did not kill himself, but only considered taking his life. He knew suicide was sinful, and was suddenly killed by the Amalekite. This is a bad lapse on the part of Christian historians, because we read in 1 Samuel 31 that Saul fell on his own sword and died. Razis, on the other hand, may probably be excused, although St. Thomas (II-II, q.64, art. 5) does not excuse him . . .
COMMENTARY ON [THOMAS AQUINAS] SUMMA THEOLOGIAE 2A 2AE, Q. 64, A.5
Whether it is lawful for anyone to kill himself.
1.—St. Thomas answers that it is not. He proves this, inasmuch as it is against the natural inclination by which everyone is inclined to love himself and to keep himself in existence. He proves it, second, because [a person killing himself] does injury to the republic of which he is a part. He proves it, third, because a man is not the master of his own life in the way in which he is the owner of other things. For God did not give him life for any other reason but to live rightly, because God is the master of life and death. Hence, one who kills himself does injury [to God]. Therefore, he sins. Fourth, he argues, because it is against the charity by which everyone is obliged to love himself. One, therefore, who would kill himself, would commit mortal sin. The only doubt is whether one killing himself would be acting against this commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” For, as we have said, only one homicide is lawful, viz., the killing of a condemned pernicious man by public and not private authority. Since, therefore, one killing himself, even though he might be pernicious, would be doing so by private authority, it follows that he would be acting against that command, not to kill, and that he would consequently be committing a mortal sin. Therefore, it is not lawful to kill oneself.
2.—Nevertheless, there are some arguments against this conclusion — with respect to which we should first note that this conclusion of St. Thomas can be taken in two ways. First, is it to be so understood that it is not more lawful to kill oneself than to kill another, in such way that we do not extend it further [for one than the other]; but just as in some cases it is lawful to kill another, is it also lawful in some case to kill oneself? But it can be understood in a second way, by extending it most generally, viz., that in no case and in no way is it lawful to kill oneself. In which sense, then, is St. Thomas understanding it—in the first or in the second way? I answer that he understands it in the way that all say it is true, that is generally, so that in no way is it lawful for anyone to kill himself. And understanding the conclusion in this sense, there are against it several arguments to prove that in some cases it is lawful to kill oneself.
The first argument is as follows: It is lawful to prepare for death, and indeed to exhort another to kill oneself. Therefore, it is lawful to kill oneself. The consequence is clear from Paul saying that not only are they deserving of death who do evil, but also those who consent to those doing evil. The antecedent is proven: because we read of Vincent and many other martyrs that they exhorted others to kill them.—Oh, you will say that these others were prepared to do so.—Certainly, it would not be lawful for me to move another to kill me, even though he would be prepared to do so. Again, [the antecedent] is proven also because as a matter of fact [martyrs] did kill themselves. For it is said of St. Apollonia that, escaping from the hands of her oppressors, she hurled herself into the fire that was prepared for her. And this was not only lawful but honorable. Therefore, in some cases it is lawful to kill oneself.
The answer is that it is lawful—indeed, what the martyrs did was not only lawful, but it was also laudable that they exhorted others, etc.—But against this [it seems unlawful], because they consented in the sin of those oppressors.—I deny that. Indeed, they were dissuading others from killing Christians, and when they saw that this was gaining nothing, they admonished those others to kill them. Nor were they on that account consenting in the sin of those people, since the saints themselves were not doing this in order to move those others to evil, but in order to show and prove the truth of faith. For, in any event, they themselves were going to suffer, and that exhortation was only non-resistance.
3.—A second argument is: It is lawful to shorten one’s life; therefore, it is lawful also to kill oneself. The consequence is evident from St. Jerome: it makes no difference whether you kill yourself suddenly or over a long time. The antecedent is proven, since it is lawful to lead an austere and ascetic life by which one may come close to death. Indeed, it is lawful that someone shortens his bodily life through penance and abstinence. For it is lawful to eat and drink only bread and water; and, still, by so doing, one’s life is shortened; therefore. And if you say that such a one is not aware that he may shorten his life, I say that this is nugatory because he knows it well. And I stipulate that he knows that, and still he is acting licitly: therefore. Again, the same antecedent is evident, because Carthusians, even though they have been warned by a physician that they will die unless they eat meat, can both lawfully and knowingly not eat meat: therefore.
I answer, that just intentionally to shorten one’s life is a mortal sin. However, it is very lawful to shorten it in an incidental way by eating fish as a matter of abstinence, since of itself it is good to eat fish. And whatever may follow from that is lawful, even a shortening of life, for the one abstaining does not intend to shorten his life, but rather intends to do penance.—Butagainst this, [he does intend to shorten life] because he will become sick.—I say that I am well disposed toward him, because in eating that fish he is exercising his right, that is to say, it is lawful for him to eat it, since God created fish to be eaten. Thus, with regard to the Carthusians, I say that it is lawful for them not to eat meat, because they are exercising their right, inasmuch as they are eating foods which the Lord gave men to eat. It is not, however, lawful to eat poison or “something corrosive,” for the Lord did not give such to men to eat. But neither is it only by eating meat that death is held at bay, since there are other more healthful medicines and more fitting foods. Therefore, anyone can lawfully shorten life in that way. And I understand this when such a person is not noticeably aware that he is shortening it. Thus, if he were to see that he would be feverish from eating fish, then it would not be lawful for him to eat fish and shorten his life; but otherwise it would be lawful. So also if someone is sick in this country, he would not be obliged to go to another country, because it would be enough that he live in a country that is habitable. However, where someone would be living in a most austere and unusual way, for example, never consuming anything but bread and water, with the result that he would shorten his life, perhaps it would not be lawful. Or, again, eating only once a week would not be lawful. But this should be done in the usual way of good men, in such manner that death would follow unintentionally rather that intentionally.
4.—The third argument is as follows: It is lawful to hasten death, not only in an accidental way, but also by intention. Therefore, the solution of the previous argument is null, and consequently it is lawful to kill oneself. The antecedent is proven from St. Apollonia. For when the fire was prepared before her, although the executioners wanted to persuade her to abandon the Christian faith and to join their sect, she hurled herself into the fire. But this was killing herself intentionally; therefore. The question, then, is whether this was praiseworthy.
Some want to say that she acted rashly in not waiting for death to be inflicted by an oppressor, but that she was excused by her ignorance—so that it was not lawful and laudable to throw herself into the fire, but she should have waited for others to throw her in, and that she was excused by ignorance. But it is better to say that the Divine law is plain and fair and does not employ sophisms. Thus, I say that God is not looking for sophisms and occasions of sin in order to condemn people. Therefore, I say that it was lawful and laudable that she would hurl herself into the fire and not wait for them. The reason is that she was going to die [anyway]. For what matter that she, about to die in an hour’s time, might wish to hasten death before that? Therefore, that she should die now or an hour from now matters nothing with respect to God. Hence, we should be certain that she acted laudably, and that she did not cooperate in her own death, since that was already decreed by her oppressors. We read much the same about blessed Vincent, who did not wait to be thrown into the fire, but threw himself in—which was certainly a laudable deed, done to show both strength of soul and that he was voluntarily suffering for Christ, when he was about to die. Thus, if someone who is about to be hanged puts the rope around his own neck, he is not committing sin.
5.—But from this argument another doubt arises: whether it is lawful for one condemned to death to anticipate his executioners by taking poison, for which kind of death he has been condemned, viz., that he take poison—at least among the Athenians for whom it was the custom that poison be given to felons. It seems that it would not, for it would not be lawful to cut one’s throat, and so neither would it be lawful to drink poison.
I answer that it would first be necessary to see whether those laws about giving poison are just; and if they are, it is certain that it would be lawful to drink it. Since, therefore, that law existed not among barbarians, but within a well ordered republic, we can say it was lawful for him to drink poison when he was condemned to death.—But the opposite seems true: because such a person is actively killing himself.—I answer that, especially in a moral matter, it is necessary to look for equity and not to resort to sophisms. Therefore, I say that it makes no difference whether he is active or passive, for he would be as much a killer whether he is passive or active. This is clear: for if that man were to wait on a falling millstone, he would be working toward his heath just as if he were to take that stone upon himself and kill himself. So, when the law is just, it does not matter whether I, with my own hand, take poison and drink it, or that someone else pour it into my mouth. Thus I say that, if among the Athenians Socrates was justly condemned, he did the right thing in drinking poison. So, if someone were condemned to be thrown into a river, “which would drown dim,” this now can be said: it does not matter whether he waits to be thrown or that he throws himself. If you say the opposite, namely, that in no way is it lawful to be active and drink poison, you ought to say that no one should submit to any punishment until it is inflicted upon him by others. But it is better to speak in the first way.
6.—The fourth argument: Someone in dire necessity can lawfully give bread, which he needs to preserve his own life, to his father, or even to his neighbor, for instance, to a king suffering a similar necessity. But because of this he is killing himself; therefore, it is lawful for someone to kill himself.
I answer by conceding the antecedent, that it is lawful to give to another bread which I need in order to avoid death. But I deny that this is killing oneself, for such a one is not killing himself intentionally, but by accident through helping a neighbor. Hence, whatever may follow is lawful, since he is not intentionally killing himself. Indeed, it pains him greatly to die and be unable so survive.
7.—From this a doubt arises. Let there be, for example, twenty of us in a shipwreck, in such way that a lifeboat which can hold only ten, is sinking. Would it be lawful for ten to throw themselves into the sea so the other ten might be saved? Alternatively, lots may be cast among the whole twenty in the lifeboat with the chance that the lot falls on those ten. Then if they throw themselves in the sea, it is lawful; but this is to kill themselves; therefore.
In answer, some say that if they keep strictly to their own rights, it is not lawful to throw themselves in the sea, but they should wait for others to throw them in. It seems [however] that the others would [thus] certainly do injury to them; therefore, I say that by consent it is lawful for them to throw themselves in. Particularly, if in that situation they are slave and master, it is lawful for the slave to throw himself in to save his master. It would be the same if they are son and father, or a private man and a public person. Therefore, I say that it is lawful for those ten to cast themselves into the sea in order that the other ten be saved. This is clear, for just as it is lawful for me to throw myself into the sea in order that my father not perish but be saved, so therefore in that case it is lawful for the ten to throw themselves into the sea in order that the others be saved, because to destroy life is a temporal, and not a spiritual, evil.
8.—Furthermore it is argued: If someone is condemned to hunger, as for instance if someone is confined “in a cistern, and they feed him very little,” so that in this way his life will be shortened, then, when he has been justly condemned, it is lawful for him, even if he has bread, not to eat it. This is clear: just as it is lawful for him to patiently bear that sentence, so it is lawful for him to do this. And in doing so, he is intentionally killing himself. Therefore.
The answer is that although it is usual to speak to this in different ways, I, however, would prefer to think that he is obliged to eat. For by the sentence he has not been condemned to not eating; because if that were the case, then the sentence would be sinful which would say that though he had food he should not eat. And since in the sentence there is only a condemnation to hunger, it seems that if he has bread, he is obliged to eat, and thus he is acting badly in not eating. Nor is there similarity between this case and the others, for in the other cases, whether they do it or not, that is, whether they throw themselves into the sea or not, they will still without doubt die. But in this case that is not so, because if he does not eat, it is certain that he will die, while, on the other hand, if he eats, he will not die; and therefore, he is obliged to eat.
9.—But there is doubt about someone in prison who is condemned to death—even though he might be acting rightly to flee, still, is he obliged to flee if he can? It seems that he is, for, otherwise, he is cooperating in his upcoming death. About this we will speak below, but for now I say that even though it is lawful to flee, he is not, however, obliged to do so, even if he sees the prison door open. And this is not to kill himself, but rather to patiently bear the sentence imposed upon him for his crime. Moreover, through this it is possible to answer many other arguments, such as the common contention that because it is lawful to navigate with the risk of death, it is therefore lawful also to kill oneself. This is proven, because to place oneself in danger of killing another, and to kill that other, are judged to be the same. To this I reply by distinguishing the antecedent. It would not be lawful to sail, in face of an obvious and imminent risk, on a private enterprise in order to increase one’s family fortune. But it would indeed be lawful to sail for the good of the republic, v.g. that the community be saved, or for the Faith. Moreover, it would be very lawful to sail on private business, in face of reasonable danger—that is to say, it is lawful to sail when that danger is of the ordinary kind without which there can be no sailing—for, otherwise, trade and commerce would perish. [Furthermore, it is lawful] inasmuch as in that case [those sailing] intend a lawful thing, namely to increase their family fortune, and they are not looking for death.
And in reply to the common argument, which is: “It is lawful to engage in military exercises, such as jousts and tournaments,” although there is danger of death in them; therefore …”—I say that those exercises are useful for the republic in order that its soldiers act vigorously in war for the good of the republic. But neither is there in this any obvious danger of death, for only rarely and by accident does death follow. Hence, I say that these exercises are lawful, when they do not entail an imminent danger of death. And the same is true of bull fights, for if they entail danger it is by accident.
And in reply to the argument “If some rich man is a captive, and he is not willing to give anything to be saved from death, it seems that he is cooperating in his death; therefore”—the question is whether he is obliged to give something in order not to be killed? The answer in no, and therefore he is not intentionally killing himself. Certainly, he does not want to die, and it is not he who intends anything unlawful, for the deed will be imputed to another and not to him.
10.—Finally, it is argued: In order to avoid mortal sin, it is lawful to kill oneself. For example, if someone were to solicit a virgin, who knows for certain that she will consent and sin mortally, it is lawful for that virgin to kill herself in order to save herself from mortal sin, since it is less to suffer a corporal loss than a spiritual one. Therefore, it is lawful for her to kill herself.
The answer is that it is not lawful for her to kill herself, because if she consents, it will be of her own free will. Therefore, I say that for this reason it is absolutely unlawful for a man to kill himself, because the fact that he will sin follows from human malice and he could avoid it. Hence, the death of the body is never necessary in order to avoid mortal sin. Therefore, I say first, that it is never lawful for anyone intentionally ([saying] that is, “I will to die”) to kill himself. Second, I say, that accidentally it is indeed lawful—as when someone intends something lawful, if death follows from it, it is not a sin, because he was not intending death. For example, if from the fact that I go to help my father death comes to me, I am acting in a lawful way.
11.—With regard to this, it should also be noted, as St. Thomas in the First Part of the Second Part of his Summa advises, that there are two ways in which something is voluntary: in one way, formally, as when someone wills to eat or to read. In a second way, virtually, such that I do not will, but it is in my power to avoid and I do not avoid, as when I can avoid and impede death and I do not do so. And he says that in order that something be virtually voluntary, not only is it required that someone can impede it, but also that he be obliged to impede it—so that he who can impede and is bound to impede an evil, if he does not impede it, intends that evil. For example, the sinking of a ship in a storm is not voluntary nor is it imputed to one who, although he could have avoided it, was not, however, obliged to do so. But with respect to a sailor, who deserts a ship in a storm, it must be said that its sinking is called virtually voluntary, that is willed. For, although the sailor would not will that sinking, nevertheless, because he both could and was bound to avoid it, it is therefore virtually voluntary. Similarly in the case proposed, if someone is not obliged to impede death, granted he does not impede it and death follows, that death is not voluntary and consequently he does not sin. So also, when I
Again it is argued, because in I Machabees 6, Eleazar is excused, who did exactly the same thing, inasmuch as he put himself under an elephant in order to save his country. “He put himself under,” and he killed himself in order to also kill the enemy. As Augustine says, in killing the elephant, he well and lawfully killed himself. Therefore, Samson also acted lawfully.
I answer that I also think it would have been lawful for him to kill himself, even without a Divine command. But we do not doubt that Samson did that on an impulse of the Holy Spirit, for when he grasped the columns he did not have his natural strength and he prayed the Lord to restore his strength to him. Thus, it is evident that he did this miraculously from the impulse of the Holy Spirit, when by his natural strength he was unable to bring down the columns. I say, second, that even without such impulse of the Holy Spirit, it would have been lawful for him to do so. Just as it was lawful for Scaevola “to go to the camp,” because it was not intentional, so Samson, whatever would result. In this way, it can be said of Eleazar and of anyone else who has so killed himself for the republic: he should be excused.