Category Archives: Sin


from Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing


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

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

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

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


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




Of the specific difference of self-murder

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

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

Of the evil and greatness of self-murder.

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

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

Of lawful self-killing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diverse observations from the general consideration of self-murder.

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

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

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

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

Of the kinds of bodily self-murder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How absolutely direct self-murder is the greatest.

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

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

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

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


Of Indirect self-murder of the body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Europe, Selections, Sin, Sym, John, The Early Modern Period


from Lecture on Homicide
Commentary on [Thomas Aquinas]    Summa Theologiae 2A 2AE, Q64, A.5


Francisco de Vitoria, a Dominican theologian and writer on a wide range of topics, was one of the most influential thinkers in 16th-century Catholic Europe. Born to a Basque family in Burgos, he became a member of the Dominican convent of San Pablo in about 1504. From 1509 to 1523, he studied and lectured at the University of Paris, returning to Spain to teach at the College of Saint Gregorio at Valladolid. In 1526, he secured the most honored academic position in Spain, the prima chair of Theology at Salamanca University. Despite his considerable originality, Vitoria published none of his own works, and most of his original lectures have been lost, surviving only in notes taken by students.

To Vitoria, theology included the study of all things under divine, as well as natural, law; he strove to create a moral philosophy compatible with natural law theory by interpreting the works of Aristotle [q.v.] and Thomas Aquinas [q.v.]. Vitoria has been variously called “the father of international law” and “the founder of global political philosophy,” thanks to his conception of a “commonwealth of the whole world” (res publica totius orbis), though his position may be closer to the traditional jus gentium, the law of nations, than to modern international law. Vitoria’s most influential writings deal with papal, civil, and monarchical power and the ethics of Spanish colonization in the Americas, especially with respect to the rights of the native population. Vitoria is also credited with restoring theological studies in Renaissance Spain through his writing and teaching. He inspired the next generation of Spanish jurists and theologians, including Soto, Molina, and Suárez. He died in 1546 after a long period of suffering.

Vitoria’s two principal types of works are his lectures to students (preserved through their notations) and a series of relectiones, formal lectures annually delivered to the entire university and preserved in manuscript form. Vitoria’s work in both categories formed the most extensive commentaries on suicide up to that time. This collection includes his Commentary on Summa Theologiae, 2a 2ae, q.64, a.5 of Thomas Aquinas and his subsequent relectio “On Homicide” (lecture delivered 1530, published 1557), which explores many of the same arguments at much more substantial length. Vitoria employs the same argumentative format that had been used by Aquinas–beginning by stating the conclusion, then adducing arguments against the conclusion, and only then rebutting them to confirm the conclusion. Vitoria’s argument, which begins with a sustained exploration of natural human inclination, analyzes a variety of cases that may seem to challenge Aquinas’s position against taking one’s own life (among them, failure to defend oneself against lethal attack, sacrificing one’s own share of bread to save another, leaping from a lifeboat to save the others in it, submitting to capital punishment when one might escape, killing oneself to avoid sexual violation, and the like), and then asserts Vitoria’s answers to these objections. Particularly important are specific cases, like that of Samson, which pose challenges to the accepted theological view that suicide is always wrong. Vitoria’s central concern is with the intention under which an act is done: Suicide is never licit if the intention is to kill oneself. However, one may lawfully kill oneself as a foreseen, though unintended, consequence of another intended act: Samson pulled the temple down on the Philistines, whom he intended to kill, but also on himself, whom he did not intend to kill, although he foresaw that his death would occur. In an argument that would become ubiquitous among Christian theologians in the context of suicide, Vitoria appeals to Aquinas’s principle of “double effect,” a principle used in medical ethics to distinguish between palliation and physician-assisted suicide: The physician gives a dying patient opiates to relieve pain, foreseeing—but not intending—that the drug may also hinder respiration and cause the patient’s death. Vitoria uses double-effect reasoning in examining whether one has an obligation to try to prolong one’s own life, to avoid all but the healthiest foods, to drink wine instead of water if one would live ten years longer, or to use expensive medicines in terminal illness.

Francisco de Vitoria, “Relectio De homicidio,” in Relecciones Theológicas del Maesro Fray Francisco de Vitoria, ed. P. Mtro. Fr. Luis G. Alonso Getino, vol. III, pp. 97-152 [Latin text], pp. 203-228 [Spanish text]. Madrid: Imprenta La Rafa, 1935. Tr. Michael Rudick.
Francisco de Vitoria, Relection On Homicide & Commentary on Summa Theologiae IIa IIae Q. 64 (Thomas Aquinas). Tr. John P. Doyle. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1997, pp. 169-185.



 . . .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 . . .



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.

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from Table Talk


The German religious reformer, Martin Luther, was born in Saxony, the son of a prosperous but strict entrepreneur and local politician. In 1505, Luther received a master’s degree from the University of Erfurt, one of Germany’s finest schools. According to his father’s wishes, he began to study law, but that same year, after being thrown to the ground from his horse during a violent thunderstorm, he vowed that he would become a monk if he survived. He was ordained to the priesthood in an Augustinian monastery in 1507, and in 1512, received his doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg. During this time, Luther, who suffered from depression, underwent an internal, spiritual crisis. He felt that no matter how well he lived his life, he was unable to please God. Out of this crisis was, he fashioned the essential theology of Protestantism: Faith, not good works, is the key to salvation.

In 1517, outraged by the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, or pardons that seemed to Luther to permit those who had sinned to buy their way out of punishment, he posted his famous “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. The Theses were widely distributed and aroused strong public reaction. He also published other works attacking the papal system as a whole, including his famous “Address to the Christian Nobles of Germany” (1520) and his treatise On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). Luther was called upon to recant his views, including his denial of the supremacy of the pope, but he refused, burning the papal bull in public. He was excommunicated in January of 1521. That spring, he was summoned to the Imperial Diet at Worms; again he refused to recant, holding that his position was supported by Scripture; the Edict of Worms declared him an outlaw and banned his writings. In the next years, under the protection of Frederick of Saxony, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, a project that would prove to be of central importance to both the standardization of the German language and the consolidation of the Protestant Reformation.

Following the German Peasants’ War, the Augustinian friars abandoned the Black Cloister in Wittenberg. In 1524, it was opened to Luther, his wife Katherine von Bora, a former nun whom he married in 1525, and their six children. For the rest of his life, Luther continued to teach and write, and in 1534, 12 years after his New Testament translation, he published a translation of the entire Bible, including the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. His works also include many letters, sermons, lectures, scriptural commentaries, catechisms, and hymns. On February 17, 1546, he suffered a heart attack and died the next day.

Luther’s theology, based largely on his studies of the New Testament and St. Augustine, changed the course of Western religious history. His turn from canon law to scripture as the center of faith, the justification of man by faith, and the belief in the priesthood of all Christians tried to move the Church away from the bureaucracy of the established clergy; it established not only Protestantism as a result of the Reformation, but found further effect in the Counterreformation within the Catholic Church.

The selection presented here is a group of three short notes drawn from different parts of the so-called Table Talk (1566). Luther frequently entertained visitors at dinner, and the opinions he articulated on these occasions were often noted by his visitors. The Table Talk was later assembled from different note-takers; over the years, more than a score of men had taken notes at Luther’s dinner table. In the short notes presented here, Luther comments on the etiology and consequences of suicide, and although he attributes suicide to the power of the devil, he insists that this does not entail that the victim is damned.


Luther, Martin, Table Talk entries DLXXXIX, DCCXXXVIII, in The Table Talk or Familiar Discourse of Martin Luther, tr. William Hazlitt, London: David Bogue, 1848, pp. 254, 303;  entry 222 (April 7, 1532),  in Luther’s Works, American Edition, vol. 54.  Ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967, p. 29.


It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ‘tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.

Mention was made of a young girl who, to avoid violence offered her by a nobleman, threw herself from the window, and was killed.  It was asked, was she responsible for her death?  Doctor Luther said: No: she felt that this step formed her only chance of safety, it being not her life she sought to save, but her chastity.

I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned.  My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber. However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc. Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned. However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.

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Filed under Devil, Europe, Luther, Martin, Middle Ages, Protestantism, Selections, Sin


from Utopia
from A Dialogue of Comfort Against    Tribulation


Born in London, the son of a prominent judge, Thomas More was educated at Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn, where he studied law. His humanist philosophy was influenced by his wide reading from scripture, the Church Fathers, classical literature, and the new learning of the Renaissance, as well as by his friendship with the noted philosopher and scholar Desiderius Erasmus. More spent some years in personal debate as he considered taking the priesthood at a Carthusian monastery; by the time of his election to parliament in 1504 and his first marriage in 1505, he had decided to live as a lay Christian. After some experience with trade negotiations, he was elected an undersheriff in 1510, a position that brought him recognition for his oratorical skills, as well as his impartiality and fairness in public affairs. In 1513, he began work on his historical narrative, The History of Richard III, to which William Shakespeare [q.v] is indebted, in Latin and English, and he wrote a series of Latin poems celebrating Henry VIII’’s accession to the throne.

More’s best known work is Utopia (1516), which attacks unjust economic and social conditions in Europe and depicts an ideal communal state founded upon principles of reason. The book was an immediate success; its intelligent, ironic commentary on a variety of controversial issues established More’s reputation as a leading humanist. More’s later writings include numerous religious essays defending the Roman Catholic Church against the writings of Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers and heretics.

More’s success in public and foreign negotiations led to his appointment in the royal service. In 1518, he joined the king’s council; he was knighted in 1521; and a series of honors and responsibilities led to his appointment as Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523. In 1529, More was named to the position of Lord Chancellor, the realm’s highest office, succeeding Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He resigned in 1532, in part because of ill health, but also because he saw that Henry VIII must break with Rome if he were to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. He refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, which would impugn the pope’s spiritual authority and grant the king authority over the English church, and was charged with high treason. He was beheaded on July 6, 1535; his head was displayed on the London Bridge. He was canonized in 1935.

In the selection from Utopia, More outlines the place of suicide in a rational, non-Christian society; it might be described as “encouraged suicide” for the hopelessly ill—but only after full medical care has been provided. Suicide in hopeless or terminal illness is never to be forced; suicide without official approval is rejected.

In A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1557), written while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1534–35, More uses the form of a lengthy dialogue between an older uncle, Anthony, and his nephew Vincent to distinguish between two types of suicide, one the result of pusillanimity or cowardice, and the other the result of boldness and pride. The latter case leads to a discussion of how to distinguish the devil’s illusions from true spiritual revelations. In this discussion, More is confronting Augustine’s justification of certain Biblical suicides, such as Samson, as a response to God’s direct command; here, More raises the question of how someone who feels that he is being directed to kill himself can know whether he is being tempted by the devil or commanded by God. He is particularly concerned with the ways in which the devil exploits personality traits, determined by bodily “humors,” to instill suicidal obsessions, casting erosive self-torment into the mind of the melancholic, or self-destructive fury into the choleric temperament. The central section of the Dialogue is organized to respond to the fears itemized in Psalm 91:5, “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday,” though there is no evidence that More himself was suicidal or was tempted to suicide, even while in the Tower of London awaiting execution. To be sure, he had deliberately chosen a course of action—refusal to sign the oath that Henry VIII demanded—almost certain to lead to his death. But as Frank Manley points out, More may have been uncertain of whether his choice could be evidence of spiritual pride—the same sort of temptation by the devil that, More believed, led so many others to suicide. More’s advice for dissuading a potential suicide from the act, in which he recommends both a “physician for the body” and a “physician for the soul,” shows a conception of suicide as partly due to psychophysiological causes.


Thomas More, Utopia, Book II. tr. Ralph Robinson, in Three Early Modern Utopias, ed. Susan Bruce. Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 89-90; Thomas More, Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation With Modifications to Obsolete Language, from chapters XV, XVI, ed. Monica Stevens,, 2005, available online from Project Gutenberg text # 17075. Quotations in introduction from A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, ed. Frank Manley, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977, p. xxxii.


Of Sick Persons

The sick (as I said) they see to with great affection, and let nothing at all pass concerning either physic or good diet, whereby they may be restored again to their health.  Such as be sick of incurable diseases they comfort with sitting by them, with talking with them, and, to be short, with all manner of helps that may be.  But if the disease be not only incurable, but also full of continual pain and anguish, then the priests and the magistrates exhort the man (seeing he is not able to do any duty of life, and by overliving his own death is noisome and irksome to other and grievous to himself), that he will determine with himself no longer to cherish that pestilent and painful disease.  And, seeing his life is to him but a torment, that he will not be unwilling to die, but rather take a good hope to him, and either dispatch himself out of that painful life, as out of a prison or a rack of torment, or else suffer himself willingly to be rid out of it by other.  And in so doing they tell him he shall do wisely, seeing by his death he shall lose no commodity, but end his pain.  And because in that act he shall follow the counsel of the priests, that is to say, of the interpreters of God’s will and pleasure, they show him that he shall do like a godly and a virtuous man.  They that be thus persuaded finish their lives willingly, either with hunger, or else die in their sleep without any feeling of death.  But they cause none such to die against his will, nor they use no less diligence and attendance about him, believing this to be an honourable death.  Else he that killeth himself before that the priests and the council have allowed the cause of his death, him as unworthy either to be buried or with fire to be consumed, they cast unburied into some stinking marsh.



VINCENT:  Verily, good uncle, you have in my mind well declared these kinds of the night’s fear.

ANTHONY:  Surely, cousin, but yet are there many more than I can either remember or find. Howbeit, one yet cometh now to my mind, of which I thought not before, and which is yet in mine opinion. That is, cousin, where the devil tempteth a man to kill and destroy himself.

VINCENT:  Undoubtedly this kind of tribulation is marvellous and strange. And the temptation is of such a sort that some men have the opinion that those who once fall into that fantasy can never fully cast it off.

ANTHONY:  Yes, yes, cousin, many a hundred, and else God forbid. But the thing that maketh men so to say is that, of those who finally do destroy themselves, there is much speech and much wondering, as it is well worthy. But many a good man and woman hath sometime–yea, for some years, once after another–continually been tempted to do it, and yet hath, by grace and good counsel, well and virtuously withstood that temptation, and been in conclusion clearly delivered of it. And their tribulation is not known abroad and therefore not talked of. But surely, cousin, a horrible sore trouble it is to any man or woman whom the devil tempteth with that temptation. Many have I heard of, and with some have I talked myself, who have been sore cumbered with it, and I have marked not a little the manner of them.

VINCENT:  I pray you, good uncle, show me somewhat of such things as you perceive therein. For first, whereas you call the kind of temptation the daughter of pusillanimity and thereby so near of kin to the night’s fear, me thinketh on the other hand that it is rather a thing that cometh of a great courage and boldness. For they dare with their own hands to put themselves to death, from which we see almost every man shrink and flee, and many of them we know by good proof and plain experience for men of great heart and excellent bold courage.

ANTHONY:  I said, Cousin Vincent, that of pusillanimity cometh this temptation, and very truth it is that indeed so it doth. But yet I meant not that only of faint heart and fear it cometh and growth always. For the devil tempteth sundry folk by sundry ways. But I spoke of no other kind of that temptation save only that one which is the daughter that the devil begetteth upon pusillanimity, because those other kinds of temptation fall not under the nature of tribulation and fear, and therefore fall they far out of our matter here. They are such temptations as need only counsel, and not comfort or consolation, because the persons tempted with them are not troubled in their mind with that kind of temptation. but are very well content both in the tempting and in the following.

For some have there been, cousin, such that they have been tempted to do it by means of a foolish pride, and some by means of anger, without any fear at all–and very glad to go thereto, I deny not. But if you think that none fall into it by fear, but that they have all a mighty strong stomach, that shall you well see to be the contrary. And that peradventure in those of whom you would think the stomach more strong and their heart and courage most bold.

VINCENT:  Yet is it marvel to me, uncle, that it should be as you say it is–that this temptation is unto them that do it for pride or anger no tribulation, or that they should not need, in so great distress and peril, both of body and soul to be lost, no manner of good ghostly comfort.

ANTHONY:  Let us therefore, cousin, consider an example or two, for thereby shall we better perceive it. There was here in Buda in King Ladilaus’ days, a good poor honest man’s wife. This woman was so fiendish that the devil, perceiving her nature, put her in the mind that she should anger her husband so sore that she might give him occasion to kill her, and then should he be hanged because of her.

VINCENT:  This was a strange temptation indeed! What the devil should she be the better then?

ANTHONY:  Nothing, but that it eased her shrewish stomach beforehand, to think that her husband should be hanged afterward. And peradventure, if you look about the world and consider it well, you shall find more such stomachs than a few. Have you never heard a furious body plainly say that, to see such-and-such man have a mischief, he would with good will be content to lie as long in hell as God liveth in heaven?

VINCENT:  Forsooth, and some such have I heard.

ANTHONY:  This mind of his was not much less mad than hers, but rather perhaps the more mad of the twain. For the woman peradventure did not cast so far peril therein. But to tell you now to what good pass her charitable purpose came:

As her husband (the man was a carpenter) stood hewing with his chip axe upon a piece of timber, she began after her old guise to revile him so that he waxed wroth at last, and bade her get herself in or he would lay the helm of his axe about her back. And he said also that it would be little sin even with that axe head to chop off the unhappy head of hers that carried such an ungracious tongue in it. At that word the devil took his time and whetted her tongue against her teeth. And when it was well sharpened she swore to him in very fierce anger, “By the mass, whoreson husband, I wish thou wouldst! Here lieth my head, lo,” and with that down she laid her head upon the same timber log. “If thou smite it not off, I beshrew thine whoreson’s heart!” With that, likewise as the devil stood at her elbow, so stood (as I heard say) his good angel at his, and gave him ghostly courage and bade him be bold and do it. And so the good man up with his chip axe and at a chop he chopped off her head indeed.

There were other folk standing by, who had a good sport to hear her chide, but little they looked for this chance, till it was done ere they could stop it. They said they heard her tongue babble in her head, and call, “Whoreson, whoreson!” twice after the head was off the body. At least, thus they all reported afterward unto the king, except only one, and that was a woman, and she said that she heard it not.

VINCENT:  Forsooth, this was a wonderful work! What became, uncle, of the man?

ANTHONY:  The king gave him his pardon.

VINCENT:  Verily, he might in conscience do no less.

ANTHONY: But lest you might reject…these examples, thinking they were but feigned tales, I shall put you in remembrance of one which I reckon you yourself have read in the Conferences of Cassian. And if you have not, there you may soon find it. For I myself have half forgotten the thing, it is so long since I read it.

But thus much I remember: He telleth there of one who was many days a very special holy man in his living, and, among the other virtuous monks and anchorites that lived there in the wilderness, was marvellously much esteemed. Yet some were not all out of fear lest his revelations (of which he told many himself) would prove illusions of the devil. And so it proved afterwards indeed, for the man was by the devil’s subtle suggestions brought into such a high spiritual pride that in conclusion the devil brought him to that horrible point that he made him go kill himself.

And, as far as my mind giveth me now, without new sight of the book, he brought him to it by this persuasion: He made him believe that it was God’s will that he should do so, and that thereby he should go straight to heaven. And if it were by that persuasion, with which he took very great comfort in his own mind himself, then was it, as I said, out of our case, and he needed not comfort but counsel against giving credence to the devil’s persuasion. But marry, if he made him first perceive how he had been deluded and then tempted him to his own death by shame and despair, then it was within our matter. For then was his temptation fallen down from pride to pusillanimity, and was waxed that kind of the night’s fear that I spoke of. And in such fear a good part of the counsel to be given him should have need to stand in good comforting, for then was he brought into right sore tribulation.

But, as I was about to tell you, strength of heart and courage are there none in that deed, not only because true strength (as it hath the name of virtue in a reasonable creature) can never be without prudence, but also because, as I said, even in them that seem men of most courage, it shall well appear to them that well weigh the matter that the mind whereby they be led to destroy themselves groweth of pusillanimity and very foolish fear.

Take for example Cato of Utica, who in Africa killed himself after the great victory that Julius Caesar had. St. Austine  [Augustine] well declareth in his work De civitate Dei [The City of God] that there was no strength nor magnanimity in his destruction of himself, but plain pusillanimity and impotency of stomach. For he was forced to do it because his heart was too feeble to bear the beholding of another man’s glory or the suffering of other worldly calamities that he feared should fall on himself. So that, as St. Austine well proveth, that horrible deed is no act of strength, but an act of a mind either drawn from the consideration of itself with some fiendish fancy, in which the man hath need to be called home with good counsel; or else oppressed by faint heart and fear, in which a good part of the counsel must stand in lifting up his courage with good consolation and comfort.

And therefore if we found any such religious person as was that father whom Cassian writeth of, who were of such austerity and apparent ghostly living as he was, and reputed by those who well knew him for a man of singular virtue; and if it were perceived that he had many strange visions appearing unto him; and if after that it should now be perceived that the man went about secretly to destroy himself–whosoever should hap to come to the knowledge of it and intended to do his best to hinder it, he must first find the means to search and find out the manner and countenance of the man. He must see whether he be lightsome, glad, and joyful or dumpish, heavy, and sad, and whether he go about it as one that were full of the glad hope of heaven, or as one who had his breast stuffed full of tediousness and weariness of the world. If he were found to be of the first fashion, it would be a token that the devil had, by his fantastical apparitions, puffed him up in such a childish pride that he hath finally persuaded him, by some illusion showed him for the proof, that God’s pleasure is that he shall for his sake with his own hands kill himself. …

ANTHONY:  Occasion, I say, you shall not lack to enquire by what sure and undeceivable tokens a man may discern the true revelations from the false illusions. A man shall find many such tokens both here and there in divers other authors and all together in divers goodly treatises of that good godly doctor, Master John Gerson, entitled _De probatione spirituum._ As, whether the party be natural in manner or seem anything fantastical. Or, whether the party be poor-spirited or proud. The pride will somewhat appear by his delight in his own praise; or if, of wiliness, or of another pride for to be praised of humility, he refused to hear of that, yet any little fault found in himself, or diffidence declared and mistrust of his own revelations and doubtful tokens told, wherefore he himself should fear lest they be the devil’s illusion–such things, as Master Gerson saith, will make him spit out somewhat of his spirit, if the devil lie in his breast. Or if the devil be yet so subtle that he keep himself close in his warm den and blow out never a hot word, yet it is to be considered what end his revelations tend to–whether to any spiritual profit to himself or other folk, or only to vain marvels and wonders. Also, whether they withdraw him from such other good virtuous business as, by the common rule of Christendom or any of the rules of his profession, he was wont to use or bound to be occupied in. Or whether he fall into any singularity of opinions against the scripture of God, or against the common faith of Christ’s Catholic Church.…

But now for our purpose: If, among any of the marks by which the true revelations may be known from false illusions, that man himself bring forth, for one mark, the doing or teaching of anything against the scripture of God or the common faith of the church, you may enter into the special matter, in which he can never well flee from you. Or else may you yet, if you wish, feign that your secret friend, for whose sake you come to him for counsel, is brought to that mind by a certain apparition showed unto him, as he himself saith, by an angel–as you fear, by the devil. And that he cannot as yet be otherwise persuaded by you but that the pleasure of God is that he shall go kill himself. And that he believeth if he do so he shall then be thereby so specially participant of Christ’s passion that he shall forthwith be carried up with angels into heaven. And that he is so joyful for this that he firmly purposeth upon it, no less glad to do it than another man would be glad to avoid it. And therefore may you desire his good counsel to instruct you with some substantial good advice, with which you may turn him from this error, that he be not, under hope of God’s true revelation, destroyed in body and soul by the devil’s false illusion.

If he will in this thing study and labour to instruct you, the things that he himself shall find, of his own invention, though they be less effectual, shall peradventure more work with him toward his own amendment (since he shall, of likelihood, better like them) than shall things double so substantial that were told him by another man. If he be loth to think upon that side, and therefore shrink from the matter, then is there no other way but to venture to fall into the matter after the plain fashion, and tell what you hear, and give him counsel and exhortation to the contrary. Unless you wish to say that thus and thus hath the matter been reasoned already between your friend and you. And therein may you rehearse such things as should prove that the vision which moveth him is no true revelation, but a very false illusion.…

ANTHONY:  Nay, Cousin Vincent, you shall in this case not need to ask those reasons of me. But taking the scripture of God for a ground for this matter, you know very well yourself that you shall go somewhat a shorter way to work if you ask this question of him: Since God hath forbidden once the thing himself, though he may dispense with it if he will, yet since the devil may feign himself God and with a marvellous vision delude one, and make as though God did it; and since the devil is also more likely to speak against God’s commandment than God against his own; you shall have good cause, I say, to demand of the man himself whereby he knoweth that his vision is God’s true revelation and not the devil’s false delusion….

VINCENT:  Yet then this religious man of whom we speak, when I show him the scripture against his revelation and therefore call it an illusion, may bid me with reason go mind my own affairs. For he knoweth well and surely himself that his revelation is very good and true and not any false illusion, since for all the general commandment of God in the scripture, God may dispense where he will and when he will, and may command him to do the contrary. For he commanded Abraham to kill his own son, and Sampson had, by inspiration of God, commandment to kill himself by pulling down the house upon his own head at the feast of the Philistines.

Now, if I would then do as you bade me right now, tell him that such apparitions may be illusions, and since God’s word is in the scripture against him plain for the prohibition, he must perceive the truth of his revelation whereby I may know it is not a false illusion; then shall he in turn bid me tell him whereby I can prove myself to be awake and talk with him and not be asleep and dream so, since in my dream I may as surely think so as I know that I do so. And thus shall he drive me to the same bay to which I would bring him.

ANTHONY:  This is well said, cousin, but yet could he not escape you so. For the dispensation of God’s common precept, which dispensation he must say that he hath by his private revelation, is a thing of such sort as showeth itself naught and false. For it never hath any example like, since the world began until now, that ever man hath read or heard of, among faithful people commended.

First, as for Abraham, concerning the death of his son: God intended it not, but only tempted the towardness of the father’s obedience. As for Sampson, all men make not the matter very sure whether he be saved or not, but yet therein some matter and cause appeareth. For the Philistines being enemies of God and using Sampson for their mocking-stock in scorn of God, it is well likely that God gave him the mind to bestow his own life upon the revenging of the displeasure that those blasphemous Philistines did unto God. And that appeareth clear enough by this: that though his strength failed him when he lacked his hair, yet had he not, it seemeth, that strength evermore at hand while he had his hair, but only at such times as it pleased God to give it to him. This thing appeareth by these words, that the scripture in some place of that matter saith, “The power or might of God rushed into Sampson.” And so therefore, since this thing that he did in the pulling down of the house was done by the special gift of strength then at that point given him by God, it well declareth that the strength of God, and with it the spirit of God, entered into him for it.

St. Austine also rehearseth that certain holy virtuous virgins, in time of persecution, being pursued by God’s enemies the infidels to be deflowered by force, ran into a water and drowned themselves rather than be bereaved of their virginity. And, albeit that he thinketh it is not lawful for any other maid to follow their example, but that she should suffer another to do her any manner of violence by force and commit sin of his own upon her against her will, rather than willingly and thereby sinfully herself to become a homicide of herself; yet he thinketh that in them it happened by the special instinct of the spirit of God, who, for causes seen to himself, would rather that they should avoid it with their own temporal death than abide the defiling and violation of their chastity.

But now this good man neither hath any of God’s enemies to be revenged on by his own death, nor any woman who violently pursues him to bereave him by force of his virginity! And we never find that God proved any man’s obedient mind by the commandment of his own slaughter of himself. Therefore is both his case plainly against God’s open precept, and the dispensation strange and without example, no cause appearing nor well imaginable. Unless he would think that God could neither any longer live without him, nor could take him to him in such wise as he doth other men, but must command him to come by a forbidden way, by which, without other cause, we never heard that ever he bade any man else before.

Now, you think that, if you should after this bid him tell you by what way he knoweth that his intent riseth upon a true revelation and not upon a false illusion, he in turn would bid you tell him by what means you know that you are talking with him well awake and not dreaming it asleep. You may answer him that for men thus to talk together as you do and to prove and perceive that they do so, by the moving of themselves, with putting the question unto themselves for their pleasure, and marking and considering it, is in waking a daily common thing that every man doth or can do when he will, and when they do it, they do it but for pleasure. But in sleep it happeneth very seldom that men dream that they do so, and in the dream they never put the question except for doubt. And you may tell him that, since this revelation is such also as happeneth so seldom and oftener happeneth that men dream of such than have such indeed, therefore it is more reasonable that he show you how he knoweth, in such a rare thing and a thing more like a dream, that he himself is not asleep, than that you, in such a common thing among folk that are awake and so seldom happening in a dream, should need to show him whereby you know that you be not asleep.

Besides this, he to whom you should show it seeth himself and perceiveth the thing that he would bid you prove. But the thing that he would make you believe–the truth of his revelation which you bid him prove–you see not that he knoweth it well himself. And therefore, ere you believe it against the scripture, it would be well consonant unto reason that he should show you how he knoweth it for a true waking revelation and not a false dreaming delusion.

VINCENT:  Then shall he peradventure answer me that whether I believe him or not maketh to him no matter; the thing toucheth himself and not me, and he himself is in himself as sure that it is a true revelation as that he can tell that he dreameth not but talketh with me awake.

ANTHONY:  Without doubt, cousin, if he abide at that point and can by no reason be brought to do so much as doubt, nor can by no means be shogged out of his dead sleep, but will needs take his dream for a very truth, and–as some men rise by night and walk about their chamber in their sleep–will so rise and hang himself; I can then see no other way but either bind him fast in his bed, or else essay whether that might hap to help him with which, the common tale goeth, a carver’s wife helped her husband in such a frantic fancy. When, upon a Good Friday, he would needs have killed himself for Christ as Christ did for him, she said to him that it would then be fitting for him to die even after the same fashion. And that might not be by his own hands, but by the hand of another; for Christ, perdy, killed not himself. And because her husband would take no counsel (for that would he not, in no wise), she offered him that for God’s sake she would secretly crucify him herself upon a great cross that he had made to nail a new-carved crucifix upon. And he was very glad thereof. Yet then she bethought her that Christ was bound to a pillar and beaten first, and afterward crowned with thorns. Thereupon, when she had by his own assent bound him fast to a post, she left not off beating, with holy exhortation to suffer, so much and so long that ere ever she left work and unbound him (praying nevertheless, that she might put on his head, and drive well down, a crown of thorns that she had wrought for him and brought him), he said he thought this was enough for that year. He would pray God to forbear him of the rest till Good Friday came again! But when it came again the next years, then was his desire past; he longed to follow Christ no further.

VINCENT:  Indeed, uncle, if this help him not, then will nothing help him, I suppose….

VINCENT:  I think, uncle, that folk fall into this ungracious mind, through the devil’s temptation, by many more means than one.

ANTHONY:  That is, cousin, very true. For the devil taketh his occasions as he seeth them fall convenient for him. Some he stirreth to it for weariness of themselves after some great loss, some for fear of horrible bodily harm, and some (as I said) for fear of worldly shame.

One I knew myself who had been long reputed for a right honest man, who was fallen into such a fancy that he was well near worn away with it. But what he was tempted to do, that would he tell no man. But he told me that he was sore cumbered and that it always ran in his mind that folk’s fancies were fallen from him, and that they esteemed not his wit as they were wont to do, but ever his mind gave him that the people began to take him for a fool. And folk of truth did not so at all, but reputed him both for wise and honest.

Two others I knew who were marvellous afraid that they would kill themselves, and could tell me no cause wherefore they so feared it except that their own mind so gave them. Neither had they any loss nor no such thing toward them, nor none occasion of any worldly shame (the one was in body very well liking and lusty), but wondrous weary were they both twain of that mind. And always they thought that they would not do it for anything, and nevertheless they feared they would. And wherefore they so feared neither of them both could tell. And the one, lest he should do it, desired his friends to bind him.

VINCENT:  This is, uncle, a marvellous strange manner.

ANTHONY:  Forsooth, cousin, I suppose many of them are in this case.

The devil, as I said before, seeketh his occasions. For as St. Peter saith, “Your adversary the devil as a roaring lion goeth about seeking whom he may devour.” He marketh well, therefore, the state and condition that every man standeth in, not only concerning these outward things (lands, possessions, goods, authority, fame, favour, or hatred of the world), but also men’s complexions within them–health or sickness, good humours or bad, by which they be light-hearted or lumpish, strong-hearted or faint and feeble of spirit, bold and hardy or timorous and fearful of courage. And according as these things minister him matter of temptation, so useth he himself in the manner of his temptation.

Now likewise as in such folk as are full of young warm lusty blood and other humours exciting the flesh to filthy voluptuous living, the devil useth to make those things his instruments in tempting them and provoking them to it; and as, where he findeth some folk full of hot blood and choler, he maketh those humours his instruments to set their hearts on fire in wrath and fierce furious anger; so where he findeth some folk who, through some dull melancholy humours, are naturally disposed to fear, he casteth sometimes such a fearful imagination into their mind that without help of God they can never cast it out of their heart.

Some, at the sudden falling of some horrible thought into their mind, have not only had a great abomination at it (which abomination they well and virtuously had), but the devil, using their melancholy humour and thereby their natural inclination to fear for his instruments, hath caused them to conceive therewith such a deep dread besides that they think themselves with that abominable thought to be fallen into such an outrageous sin that they are ready to fall into despair of grace, believing that God hath given them over for ever. Whereas that thought, were it never so horrible and never so abominable, is yet unto those who never like it, but ever still abhor it and strive still against it, matter of conflict and merit and not any sin at all.

Some have, with holding a knife in their hand, suddenly thought upon the killing of themselves, and forthwith, in devising what a horrible thing it would be if they should mishap to do so, have fallen into a fear that they would do so indeed. And they have, with long and often thinking thereon, imprinted that fear so sore in their imagination, that some of them have not afterwards cast it off without great difficulty. And some could never in their life be rid of it, but have afterward in conclusion miserably done it indeed. But like as, where the devil useth the blood of a man’s own body toward his purpose in provoking him to lechery, the man must and doth with grace and wisdom resist it; so must the man do whose melancholy humours and devil abuseth, toward the casting of such a desperate dread into his heart.

VINCENT:  I pray you, uncle, what advice would be to be given him in such a case?

ANTHONY:  Surely, methinketh his help standeth in two things: counsel and prayer.

First, as concerning counsel: Like as it may be that he hath two things that hold him in his temptation; that is, some evil humours of his own body, and the cursed devil that abuseth them to his pernicious purpose, so must he needs against them twain the counsel of two manner of folk; that is, physicians for the body and physicians for the soul. The bodily physician shall consider what abundance of these evil humours the man hath, that the devil maketh his instruments, in moving the man toward that fearful affection. And he shall proceed by fitting diet and suitable medicines to resist them, as well as by purgations to disburden the body of them.

Let no man think it strange that I would advise a man to take counsel for the body, in such spiritual suffering. For since the body and the soul are so knit and joined together that they both make between them one person, the distemperance of either one engendereth sometimes the distemperance of both twain. And therefore I would advise every man in every sickness of the body to be shriven and to seek of a good spiritual physician the sure health of his soul. For this shall not only serve against peril that may peradventure grow further by that sickness than in the beginning men think were likely, but the comfort of it (and God’s favour increasing with it) shall also do the body good. For this cause the blessed apostle St. James exhorteth men in their bodily sickness to call in the priests, and saith that it shall do them good both in body and soul. So likewise would I sometimes advise some men, in some sickness of the soul, besides their spiritual leech, to take also some counsel of the physician for the body….

The manner of the fight against temptation must stand in three things: that is, in resisting, and in contemning, and in the invocation of help.

Resist must a man for his own part with reason, considering what a folly it would be to fall where he need not, since he is not driven to it in avoiding of any other pain or in hope of winning any manner of pleasure, but contrariwise he would by that fall lose everlasting bliss and fall into everlasting pain. And if it were in avoiding of other great pain, yet could he avoid none so great thereby as the one he should thereby fall into.

He must also consider that a great part of this temptation is in effect but the fear of his own fancy, the dread that he hath lest he shall once be driven to it. For he may be sure that (unless he himself will, of his own folly) all the devils in hell can never drive him to it, but his own foolish imagination may. For it fareth in his temptation like a man going over a high bridge who waxeth so afraid, through his own fancy, that he falleth down indeed, when he would otherwise be able enough to pass over without any danger. For a man upon such a bridge, if folk call upon him, “You fall, you fall!” may fall with the fancy that he taketh thereof; although, if folk looked merrily upon him and said, “There is no danger therein,” he would pass over the bridge well enough–and he would not hesitate to run upon it, if it were but a foot from the ground. So, in this temptation, the devil findeth the man of his own foolish fancy afraid and then crieth in the ear of his heart, “Thou fallest, thou fallest!” and maketh the foolish man afraid that he should, at every foot, fall indeed. And the devil so wearieth him with that continual fear, if he give the ear of his heart to him, that at last he withdraweth his mind from due remembrance of God, and then driveth him to that deadly mischief indeed. Therefore, like as, against the vice of the flesh, the victory standeth not all in the fight, but sometimes also in the flight (saving that it is indeed a part of a wise warrior’s fight to flee from his enemies’ traps), so must a man in this temptation too, not only resist it always with reasoning against it, but sometimes set it clear at right naught and cast it off when it cometh and not once regard it so much as to vouchsafe to think thereon.

Some folk have been clearly rid of such pestilent fancies with very full contempt of them, making a cross upon their hearts and bidding the devil avaunt. And sometimes they laugh him to scorn too, and then turn their mind unto some other matter. And when the devil hath seen that they have set so little by him, after certain essays, made in such times as he thought most fitting, he hath given that temptation quite over. And this he doth not only because the proud spirit cannot endure to be mocked, but also lest, with much tempting the man to the sin to which he could not in conclusion bring him, he should much increase his merit.

The final fight is by invocation of help unto God, both praying for himself and desiring others also to pray for him–both poor folk for his alms and other good folk of their charity, especially good priests in that holy sacred service of the Mass. And not only them but also his own good angel and other holy saints such as his devotion specially doth stand unto. Or, if he be learned, let him use then the litany, with the holy suffrages that follow, which is a prayer in the church of marvellous old antiquity. For it was not made first, as some believe, by that holy man St. Gregory (which opinion arose from the fact that, in the time of a great pestilence in Rome, he caused the whole city to go in solemn procession with it), but it was in use in the church many years before St. Gregory’s days, as well appeareth by the books of other holy doctors and saints, who were dead hundreds of years before St. Gregory was born.

And holy St. Bernard giveth counsel that every man should make suit unto angels and saints to pray for him to God in the things that he would have furthered by his holy hand. If any man will stick at that, and say it needs not, because God can hear us himself; and will also say that it is perilous to do so because (they say) we are not so counseled by scripture, I will not dispute the matter here. He who will not do it, I hinder him not to leave it undone. But yet for mine own part, I will as well trust to the counsel of St. Bernard, and reckon him for as good and as well learned in scripture, as any man whom I hear say the contrary. And better dare I jeopard my soul with the soul of St. Bernard than with that of him who findeth that fault in his doctrine.

Unto God himself every good man counseleth to have recourse above all. And, in this temptation, to have special remembrance of Christ’s passion, and pray him for the honour of his death, the ground of man’s salvation, to keep this person thus tempted from that damnable death…

And I doubt not, by God’s grace, but that he who in such a temptation will use good counsel and prayer and keep himself in good virtuous business and good virtuous company and abide in the faithful hope of God’s help, he shall have the truth of God (as the prophet saith in the verse afore rehearsed) so compass him about with a shield that he shall not need to dread this night’s fear of this wicked temptation.

And thus will I finish this piece of the night’s fear. And glad am I that we are past it, and come once unto the day, to those other words of the prophet, “A sagitta volante in die.” For methinketh I have made it a long night!

VINCENT:  Forsooth, uncle, so have you, but we have not slept in it, but been very well occupied. But now I fear that unless you make here a pause till you have dined, you shall keep yourself from your dinner over-long…

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(c. 1225-1274)

from Summa Theologiae: Whether One is Allowed to Kill Oneself


St. Thomas Aquinas, the Italian scholastic philosopher and theologian, and the principal theological authority within the Roman Catholic Church and progenitor of the tradition known as Thomism, was the son of an Italian count, related through his mother to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. At the age of five, Thomas was placed in the care of the monks at the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino to be educated as a monk and later to become abbot, but after eight years, political circumstances forced him to leave. He then studied in Naples. In complete opposition to his family’s wishes, he became involved in the Dominican order, finding its emphasis on intellectualism more suitable to his interests. In 1245, Thomas escaped the house arrest he had been kept under by his family to prevent him from joining the Dominican order. As a Dominican, he was sent to Naples, then Rome, and then Paris, where he studied under the German philosopher and theologian Albertus Magnus. Thomas then followed his teacher to Cologne, where he was reluctantly appointed to be magister studentium. Thomas returned to the University of Paris to study for a master’s degree in theology in 1252 and was named master of theology in 1256. He wrote prolifically until December 1273, when a visionary experience changed him. When his secretary asked him why he had ceased to write, he said, “All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”

Thomas was greatly influenced not only by the Christian tradition but also by the works of Aristotle, which, preserved since antiquity in Arabic libraries, had remained mostly unknown in the Latin West until the end of the 12th century. In what is recognized as Thomas’s most important work, Summa Theologiae (1266–1273), he attempts to integrate Aristotelian thought with Catholic doctrine and to clarify many points of doctrine by synthesizing faith and reason into a coherent whole. Thomas believed that divine revelation and human reason were both aspects of the same uniform truth and that they could not conflict with one another; reason can discover some theological truths by observing the effects of God’s work in the world, yet the role of reason is limited, and faith is necessary to understand and believe what is unknowable by reason alone. Thomas also wrote a series of commentaries on Aristotle and the Bible, as well as Summa contra Gentiles (1260), a manual of concise arguments in defense of Church doctrine for use by missionaries attempting to convert Muslims and Jews.

Thomas often traveled between France and Italy, and on March 7, 1274, just a few months after his visionary experience, while en route to Lyon, he became ill and died at the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova. He was canonized in 1323 and proclaimed doctor of the church in 1567; he is often known as the Angelic Doctor.

The following selection is taken from the Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae, question 64, article 5. In this work, Aquinas begins each article by stating the reverse of his conclusion and the objections to a particular claim (“it appears that . . .”), then responds with a statement of the correct conclusion and the rebuttal to each of the previous objections in turn. In Question 64, article 5, Thomas argues against the legitimacy of suicide, incorporating the arguments of both Aristotle (referred to as “the Philosopher”) and Augustine. Thomas’s central argument appeals to Augustine’s inclusive interpretation of the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill”: since there is a prohibition against killing human beings and suicide is killing a human being, suicide is therefore a sin, to which Thomas adds three further reasons: an argument from the natural inclination to live, an argument based on social community, and the argument that life ought not be rejected because it is a gift from God.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, question 64, article 5, tr. Michael Rudick. Quotation in introduction from Angelico Ferrua, S[ancti] Thomae Aquinas vitae fontes praecipuae (Alba, IT: Edizioni domenicane, 1968, p. 318).


from SUMMA THEOLOGIAE, 2A 2AE, Q. 64, A. 5


We proceed to the fifth article.

1. It appears that one is permitted to kill himself.  Homicide is a crime in that it is contrary to justice, but, as proven [by Aristotle] in Ethics, Book V, no one can do an injustice to himself; therefore, no one sins by killing himself.

2. Moreover, those with public authority are allowed to kill criminals; but sometimes one with public authority is himself a criminal, and so he is allowed to kill himself.

3. Moreover, it is permissible to submit oneself voluntarily to a smaller danger in order to avoid a greater, as one may amputate an infected member in order to save the whole body.  Sometimes one may, by killing himself, avoid a greater evil, such as a wretched life or corruption through some sin; therefore, it is permissible for one to kill himself.

4. Moreover, Samson killed himself (Judges xvi), yet he is numbered among the saints, as is evident from Hebrews xi.  Therefore, it is permissible for one to kill himself.

5. Moreover, it is said in II Maccabees xiv that a certain Razis killed himself, “choosing to die nobly rather than be subject to sinners and to injuries unworthy of his birth.”  Therefore, it is not unlawful to kill oneself.

On the contrary is what Augustine says in Book I of The City of God:  “We understand the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to pertain to man.  Kill no other man, nor yourself; for he who kills himself kills another man.”

I respond by saying that to kill oneself is altogether unlawful for three reasons.  First, because every thing loves itself, it is thus proper for every thing to keep itself in being and resist decay as far as it can.  Therefore, to kill oneself is contrary to natural inclination, and contrary to the charity according to which everyone ought to love himself.  Hence self-killing is always a mortal sin, inasmuch as it stands against natural law and charity.

Second, because every thing that is a part belongs to a whole, every man is part of a community, and as such is of the community.  Therefore, he who kills himself injures the community, as is proven by the Philosopher in his Ethics, Book V.

Third, because life is a gift divinely given to man, and subject to the power of Him “who kills and makes to live.”  Therefore, he who deprives himself of life sins against God, just as he who kills another’s slave sins against the slave’s master, and just as he sins who arrogates to himself power over something not committed to him.  To God alone belongs the power over death and life, according to Deuteronomy xxxii: “I kill and I make to live.”

To the first [argument that suicide is permissible], it may be objected that homicide is not only a sin against justice, but is also a sin against the charity that everyone ought to have for himself; on that ground, self-killing is a sin with respect to oneself.  And with respect to the community and to God, it is a sin through its opposition to justice.

To the second, it may be objected that one with public authority may kill a criminal because he is empowered to judge him.  But no one is allowed to be the judge of himself, and so one with public authority is not allowed to kill himself because of some sin, although he is allowed to commit himself to the judgment of some other.

To the third, it may be objected that man is indeed lord of himself through his free will, and so may lawfully dispose of himself as far as what pertains to this life is concerned; that much is governed by man’s free will.  But the passage from this life to the other, happier one is not subject to man’s free will, but to divine power.  Therefore, it is not permissible for a man to kill himself in order to pass over into the happier life.  Neither, likewise, to avoid the present life’s miseries; the “ultimate” evil of this life, and the “most frightful,” is death, as the Philosopher shows in Ethics, Book III, and so to kill oneself to evade the other miseries of life is to assume a greater evil to avoid a less.  Neither, likewise, may one kill oneself on account of some sin committed; in that case one harms oneself as much as may be, by preventing the necessary time for penitence.  Besides, killing a criminal is not permitted except through the judgment of public authority.  Neither, likewise, is a woman permitted to kill herself to prevent another’s violating her; she ought not commit the maximal sin on herself, which is to kill herself, to avoid another, smaller sin (for it is no crime for a woman to be violated through force, without her consent, because “the body is not corrupted without the mind’s consent,” as Lucia said [Golden Legend, IV]).  And it is certain that fornication and adultery are less sins than homicide, especially self-homicide, which is the gravest of all because it injures the self to which is owed the greatest love.  And it is also the most dangerous, because there remains no time to expiate the sin through penance.  Neither, likewise, is one allowed to kill himself in fear of consenting to sin, for “we must not do evil in order that good come from it” [Romans iii 8], or to avoid evils, especially smaller and less certain ones, for it is not inevitable that one will in the future consent to sin; God is capable, whenever temptation arises, to free man from sin.

To the fourth, it may be objected that, as Augustine says in The City of God, Book I, “Neither may Samson be otherwise excused for crushing himself along with his enemies in the fall of the house, except that the Holy Spirit inwardly commanded this in order to perform a miracle through him”; and he gives the same reason for certain holy women who killed themselves in time of persecution, whose memory the church celebrates.

To the fifth, it may be objected that it is fortitude when one does not shrink from suffering death inflicted by another person, in the interest of virtue and the avoidance of sin; but when one kills oneself to avoid bad punishments, it has some appearance of fortitude, on account of which certain suicides are accounted to have acted bravely, Razis among them.  But this is not real fortitude, it is instead some weakness in a soul not strong enough to bear hardship, as is shown by the Philosopher in Ethics, Book III, and Augustine in The City of God, Book I.

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(12-14th centuries)

On Avodah Zarah 18a
On the Torah: Concerning Genesis    Rabbah (Genesis 9:5)


Tosafot, meaning “additions,” refers to a body of explanatory and critical remarks made by a group of Talmudic scholars known as the tosafists, who wrote in France and Germany from the late 11th–12th through the 14th centuries, during the time of the Crusades, and while Spanish Jewry in the 14th and 15th centuries was subject to the Inquisition and the Expulsion. The first recorded tosafists, Meir ben Samuel of Ramerupt and Judah ben Nathan, were sons-in-law to the famous 11th-century Talmudic scholar Rashi; it is debated whether the Tosafot were written as direct commentary on the Talmud [q.v., under Babylonian Talmud] or as a supplement to Rashi’s commentary. Another of the first recorded tosafists, Rashi’s grandson Jacob ben Meir Tam, was the leading figure in the French school of Tosafot. Many schools of Tosafot followed in the next two centuries; the commentaries they produced were gathered together to form a significant contribution to rabbinic literature. They were intended for those well advanced in the study of Talmud, and their seeming simplicity presupposes extensive familiarity with a complex prior tradition.

Two tosafist selections are included in this volume. The first is a commentary on the description of the death of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon in Avodah Zarah, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud [q.v.]. In the commentary, the tosafist states a general conclusion that despite Rabbi Chanina’s pronouncement that he should endure death by fire rather than “harming himself” {i.e., hastening his death by inhaling the flames}, it is proper to commit suicide to avoid sinning {i.e. apostasy} under great duress not only is such an act permissible, but in these circumstances, it ought to be done. The tosafist approvingly cites as precedent the suicides of the 400 boys and girls who drowned themselves to escape forced prostitution.

The second passage presented here is a 13th-century commentary from the Tosafot on the Torah [q.v., under Hebrew Bible], which reflects some of the arguments relating to the brief statements in Genesis Rabbah [q.v.] regarding the prohibition of suicide and some possible exceptions. In this passage, the tosafist raises questions about suicide and martyrdom, including opposing views about whether allowing oneself to be martyred or actively killing oneself in times of persecution are rightful acts. Some later commentators, such as Luria [q.v.] will argue no; others, like Margolioth [q.v.], appear to say yes, and the question raised here remains a pressing one throughout the later Jewish tradition.


Tosafot: On Avodah Zarah 18a, on Genesis 9:5. Trans. Baruch Brody.



R. Tam said: In those cases in which they are afraid that idolaters may force them to sin by tortures that they will not be able to withstand, then it is a mitzva to destroy themselves as in the case of the young people taken captive to be used as prostitutes who threw themselves into the sea.


This means that I might think that even people like they [Channanyah, Mishael, and Azaryah] who gave themselves to martyrdom could not kill themselves if they were afraid that they could not stand the test. “But” tells me that in times of persecution one can allow oneself to be killed and one can kill oneself. The same with Saul…And it is from here that those who killed the children in the time of persecution brought a proof [to justify their action]. Others prohibit the practice. They explain [the remarks of Breishit Rabbah] as follows; I might think that this prohibition applies even to Channanyah and his friends who are already sentenced to death. We are told otherwise by “but.” Even they, however, cannot kill themselves….Saul acted against normative opinion…There was one rabbi who killed many children in the time of persecution because he was afraid that they would be forcibly apostasized. A second rabbi who was with him was very angry and called him a murderer.  He [the first rabbi] paid no attention…Afterwards, the decree was lifted and if he had not killed the children, they would have lived.


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(traditional date c. 632-c. 650)

Surahs 2.54, 2.154, 2.195, 2.207, 3.145, 3.169-70, 4.29-30, 4.66, 4.74-80, 9.111, 18.6


The Quran (meaning “recital” in Arabic) is the sacred scripture of Islam, and Muslims believe that it is the direct word of God given through the archangel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad over a period of about 23 years, from 610 until 632. 

The traditional biographies (the sira literature) of Muhammad’s (c. 570–632) life holds that he was born in Mecca to a poor but respected clan, Hashim, within the powerful and influential tribe of Quraish, and that he was orphaned by the age of six and raised by his uncle. Muhammad is said to have displayed an acute moral sensitivity at an early age. He later impressed a rich widow, Khadija, with his honesty and ability in managing her caravan business, and so she offered him marriage, which he accepted at the age of 25. They had six children, of whom only one daughter survived. Muhammad is said to have experienced his first revelation in about 610 while on retreat in a cave on Mount Hira outside Mecca. Hostilities were raised against him because of his preaching against the polytheism of the Meccans, and in 622, he led his people on the flight known as the hijra from Mecca to Medina. His armies attacked Mecca and repulsed a retaliatory siege; he eliminated his internal enemies, including all of the men in one of three Jewish clans in Medina, and forced the Meccans to surrender. According to tradition, Muhammad eventually became the most powerful leader in western Arabia and enforced the principles of Islam, giving unbelievers the choice between the sword and the Quran. He granted Jews and Christians comparative autonomy as “peoples of the Book,” whose revelations and prophets—Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ—he saw as anticipating himself. Muhammad’s social teachings emphasized economic justice and improving the situation of women, slaves, orphans, and the poor.

The traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life are largely gleaned from the Prophet biographies, the sira, and the “sayings” of Muhammad or hadith [q.v.]. Muhammad preached what can be called an Abrahamic monotheism at the time of the Roman-Persian wars (603–630), a monotheism that Christians and Jews, among others, had interpreted according to their respective apocalyptic traditions. The developed tradition of Islam as it is known today is the work of religious scholars attempting to establish a viable, standardized form of written Arabic, living in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Iraq of the 800s and 900s—a period during which wine poetry, Greek philosophy, and the Sassanian royal cult were freely celebrated, and in which foreigners had arrived from lands subject to the Conquest—projecting, in the view of some scholars, a utopian religious community back into the earlier deserts of Arabia.

The Quran consists of 114 surahs or chapters of unequal length. According to tradition, secretaries and early followers of Muhammad began to collect his revelations before his death in 632, writing verses on palm leaves, bark, pieces of wood, parchment or leather, flat stones, and the shoulder blades of camels. Several hundred companions are said to have memorized the Quran by heart. Also according to modern research, the Quran was arranged and given diacritical marks definitively sometime in the mid 700s by Arabic scholars, and the final text was completed in the early 800s. The dates cited here for the Quran’s composition, c. 632–c. 650, are the traditional ones. The Quran, together with the hadith, contains the central theological and political doctrines of Islam. These texts differ in that the Quran, in its original Arabic form, is believed to be the direct word of God; first-person expressions such as “We” or “Our” refer to the voice of God, and Muslims accept the Quran as divinely authoritative and beyond fallibility or criticism. In Muslim belief, the Quran was revealed by God to Muhammad in the Arabic language; translations thus introduce interpretation and the possibility of error. In distinction from the Quran, the traditions or hadith are a collection of Muhammad’s sayings and actions. The hadith are understood as foundational, but they are not held to be divine revelation.

The main tenets of Islam established in the Quran hold that there is only one true God, Allah, and one true religion, Islam; that all human beings were created by Allah and belong to him; that all persons must make an accounting of their lives at a final judgment and will be rewarded with eternal happiness in a paradise among gardens and fountains, or punishment by fire in hell, predicated on their actions in this life; and that Allah sends prophets—the most important being Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—to lead all people to moral truth. The ideal of human endeavor is to “reform the earth” by leading people beyond their petty, self-interested, self-deceptive characters to altruism that involves concern for the poor, dedication to the benefit of humanity, and loyalty to the cause of Allah. In the Quranic view, resurrection and judgment are central. Death is the transition to a new life; it is willed by God, who has appointed a time for each individual to die. Repentance for sin is possible, but only immediately after the evil has been committed; deathbed repentance after a life of sin does not prevent punishment in the afterlife.

The Quran is taken to be the source of a divine proscription against self-killing, a prohibition that is not questioned or debated by most followers of Islam. Suicide is clearly forbidden in shari`ah, Islamic law. However, there is no fully explicit text in the Quran (understood as Muhammad’s recitation of the word of God), which states this prohibition unambiguously, though the prohibition is fully clear in Muhammad’s own sayings preserved in the hadith. Sunni or majority Islam has no central dogmatic authority; hence, the passages from the Quran presented here are those variously taken by different teachers, commentators, and scholars to pertain to the question of suicide. Several of the surahs (e.g., 2.154, 3.169–70, 2.07, 4.74, and 9.111) appear to distinguish martyrdom from suicide, although martyrs have knowingly and voluntarily sacrificed their lives; some hold that martyrs go directly to Paradise after death.

Surah 2.54 describes a rebuke from Moses to the people of Israel in which he commands them to seek forgiveness from the Creator and, in some translations, “kill yourselves” (Mawdudi), or in others, “slay the culprits among you” (Dawood). This passage is usually interpreted as an order to righteous Israelites to put to death those of their own number who, engaging in the cult of cow-worship absorbed from the Canaanites, had made a calf (the “Golden Calf”) and actually worshipped it. Some scholars read it as an exhortation to commit a form of spiritual destruction of the self by conquering the inner passions or lusts, appropriately translated “let each one of you slay the evil propensities of his mind” (Khan). Still others see the passage as referring to a different kind of “spiritual suicide,” a death through severe grief or self-condemnation.

Surah 2.195, “make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction,” forms part of a mandate requiring charitable spending to help the poor. According to one interpreter, the direct meaning of the verse is that to fail to give alms to the poor will eventually mean self-destruction of the community; according to another, it holds that self-interest rather than charity in spending will lead to one’s ruin both in this world and in the next: “do not push yourselves into ruin with your own hands” (Khan).

Surah 3.145, translated as “It is not given to any soul to die except with the leave of Allah, and at an appointed time” (Mawdudi), “No one can die except by Allah’s leave, that is a decree with a fixed term” (Khan), or “No one dies unless God permit. The term of every life is fixed” (Dawood), is cited by some contemporary commentators as grounds for the prohibition of suicide. However, it is not universally so cited; the passage is also understood to hold that it is not possible to hasten or escape death so that it occurs at a time earlier or later than that preordained for it by God.

Surah 4.29 is the passage most often cited as the authoritative proscription against self-killing in Islamic scripture, “do not kill yourselves (anfusakum)” or “do not destroy yourselves,” yet its direct meaning appears to refer to mutual killing (anfus- is understood as reciprocal), that is, “do not kill each other,” a reading that is supported by the context. This, according to a contemporary source, is taken to assume that “a Muslim’s killing another Muslim is tantamount to killing himself or herself.” Surah 4.30, “If any do that . . .” can be read as either complementary to 4.29 or independent; if the former, it means that to consume one’s own wealth in vanity (or to consume the property of others wrongfully) is to court one’s own destruction, since this corrupts society; if the latter, it can mean either that one should not kill others or that one should not kill oneself.

Surahs 4.66 and 4.74 may seem to condone suicide if it is committed with a worthy objective. Surah 4.66 concerns the possibility that followers of Islam might be required to “slay yourselves” (Mawdudi) or “kill yourselves in striving for the cause of Allah” (Khan) or “lay down your lives” (Dawood), though most Quranic commentators interpret the passage as a commandment to Muslims in general to be prepared to sacrifice their lives or seek death in jihad, “struggle in the cause of God” or holy war, and not as an appeal to individual suicide. Similarly, surah 4.74, about “those . . . who sell the life of this world for the hereafter,” appears to raise the issue of voluntary death sought in order to reach the afterlife—a matter that had also been an issue for early Christians. Some Quranic commentators understand this passage as concerning jihad [q.v., under Mutahhari], not suicide. Jihad is the only way a Muslim can—and is expected to—take and give life.

The third interpretation of surah 2.54, above, is related by some scholars to the final surah, 18.6, “Thou wouldst only, perchance, fret thyself to death, following after them, in grief, if they believe not in this Message,” which some scholars believe hints that Muhammad might torment himself to death through grief over disbelief among his people: “Wilt thou grieve thyself to death for sorrow over them, if they believe not in this Discourse?” (Khan). These scholars have held that on several occasions during the prolonged period without revelation (the “Fatra,” lasting some 2½ to 3 years) that followed his early divine inspirations, Muhammad—in desperation—ascended the highest hill near Mecca, intending to hurl himself from the top. Most scholars concur, however, that the passage was never intended to show that Muhammad would choose any form of suicide.

Regardless of these differences in translation and interpretation of the various surahs, however, a belief in the divine unlawfulness of suicide became a part of Islamic theology early in its history, and the Quran is most often cited as the original source of this doctrine.


Quran, tr. Yusuf Ali, online at See also The Yusuf Ali English text is based on the 1934 book, The Holy Quran, Text, Translation and Commentary (published in Lahore, Cairo, and Riyadh), a version widely used because it is a clear, modern, and eloquent translation by a well-respected Muslim scholar. The English text was revised in 2009-10 to more closely match the source book. Explanatory material and/or alternative translations in the bibliographical note from N. J. Dawood, tr., The Koran. London: Penguin Books, 5th rev. ed., 1990; Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi, Towards Understanding the Qur’antr. and ed. Zafar Ishaq Ansari.  Leicester, UK: The Islamic Foundation, vols. I-III, 1988, 1989, 1990;  Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, tr., The Quran, London and Dublin: Curzon Press,  1972, 2nd ed., rev., 1975;  and from Fazlur Rahman, Health and Medicine in the Islamic Tradition: Change and Identity, New York: Crossroad, 1987. References concerning surah 18.6 from Franz Rosenthal, “On Suicide in Islam,” Journal of the American Oriental Society  66 (1946): 239-259, p. 240, and Theodor Nöldeke, Geschichte des Qorans, Part I.  Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1961, pp. 84-85.  Material also supplied by Peter von Sivers and Lois A. Giffen.





And remember Moses said to his people: “O my people! Ye have indeed wronged yourselves by your worship of the calf: So turn (in repentance) to your Maker, and slay yourselves (the wrong-doers); that will be better for you in the sight of your Maker.” Then He turned towards you (in forgiveness): For He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.



And say not of those who are slain in the way of Allah: “They are dead.” Nay, they are living, though ye perceive (it) not.



And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction; but do good; for Allah loveth those who do good.



And there is the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah: And Allah is full of kindness to (His) devotees.



Nor can a soul die except by Allah’s leave, the term being fixed as by writing. If any do desire a reward in this life, We shall give it to him; and if any do desire a reward in the Hereafter, We shall give it to him. And swiftly shall We reward those that (serve us with) gratitude.



Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord;



They rejoice in the bounty provided by Allah: And with regard to those left behind, who have not yet joined them (in their bliss), the (Martyrs) glory in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they (cause to) grieve.



O ye who believe! Eat not up your property among yourselves in vanities: But let there be amongst you traffic and trade by mutual good-will: Nor kill (or destroy) yourselves: for verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful!



If any do that in rancour and injustice, soon shall We cast them into the Fire: And easy it is for Allah.



If We had ordered them to sacrifice their lives or to leave their homes, very few of them would have done it: But if they had done what they were (actually) told, it would have been best for them, and would have gone farthest to strengthen their (faith);



Let those fight in the cause of Allah Who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah – whether he is slain or gets victory – Soon shall We give him a reward of great (value).



And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)? Men, women, and children, whose cry is: “Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect; and raise for us from thee one who will help!”



Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject Faith fight in the cause of Evil: So fight ye against the friends of Satan: feeble indeed is the cunning of Satan.



Hast thou not turned Thy vision to those who were told to hold back their hands (from fight) but establish regular prayers and spend in regular charity? When (at length) the order for fighting was issued to them, behold! a section of them feared men as – or even more than – they should have feared Allah: They said: “Our Lord! Why hast Thou ordered us to fight? Wouldst Thou not Grant us respite to our (natural) term, near (enough)?” Say: “Short is the enjoyment of this world: the Hereafter is the best for those who do right: Never will ye be dealt with unjustly in the very least!



“Wherever ye are, death will find you out, even if ye are in towers built up strong and high!” If some good befalls them, they say, “This is from Allah”; but if evil, they say, “This is from thee” (O Prophet). Say: “All things are from Allah.” But what hath come to these people, that they fail to understand a single fact?



Whatever good, (O man!) happens to thee, is from Allah; but whatever evil happens to thee, is from thy (own) soul, and We have sent thee as a messenger to (instruct) mankind. And enough is Allah for a witness.



He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah: But if any turn away, We have not sent thee to watch over their (evil deeds).



Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth, through the Law, the Gospel, and the Qur’an: and who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah? then rejoice in the bargain which ye have concluded: that is the achievement supreme.



Thou wouldst only, perchance, fret thyself to death, following after them, in grief, if they believe not in this Message.

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(c. 150-c. 215)

from The Miscellanies (Stromata)
   The Praises of Martyrdom
   Those Who Offered Themselves for       Martyrdom Reproved


Titus Flavius Clemens, or St. Clement of Alexandria, was a Greek theologian of the early Christian church, the second known leader of the Alexandrian school of theology. He was born to a pagan family, allegedly in Athens, although his place of birth and the dates of his birth and death are uncertain. He studied under Pantaeus at the Catechetical School of Alexandria, the first Christian scholastic institution of its kind, known for promoting the allegorical method of biblical interpretation. Clement succeeded Pantaeus as its leader from about 190 until 203. Under the leadership of Pantaeus, Clement, and his pupil Origen, this school grew famous as a center of learning at the time.

Clement was the author of Exhortation to the Greeks, the three books of The Tutors, and the eight books of the Stromateis or Stromata, usually translated as Miscellanies, from which the selections here are taken. Clement also wrote Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? In 202 or 203, Clement left Alexandria as a new round of persecutions of Christians began.

In the short selections here, Clement addresses what had become a troubling issue for the church, especially during periods of persecution. Christians were committed to belief in God and the divinity of Christ, and would prefer death to denying this faith. But some writers, notably Ignatius [q.v.] and Tertullian [q.v.], stressed the desirability of martyrdom and exhorted Christians to become martyrs. Indeed, some Christians openly flaunted their faith as a way of courting or provoking their own martyrdom. Clement, in a view the church came to accept, opposes this excess; he honors the genuine martyr, the one who achieves perfection and performs “the perfect work of love” in voluntarily sacrificing his body, but excoriates those who have “rushed on death” or have “presented themselves for capture.” In Clement’s view, they are guilty in much the same way as the murderer and the self-killer, the suicide; while martyrdom is to be respected, the true Christian should do everything possible to avoid it, short of betraying one’s faith.


The Writings of Clement of Alexandria, Vol. II. Miscellanies (Stromata), Book IV, chs. iv, x. tr. Rev. William Wilson. Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Vol. XII.  Edinburgh: T &T Clark, 1869, pp. 145-148, 173-174.


Whence, as is reasonable, the gnostic, when called, obeys easily, and gives up his body to him who asks; and, previously divesting himself of the affections of this carcase, not insulting the tempter, but rather, in my opinion, training him and convincing him,

“From what honour and what extent of wealth Fallen,”

as says Empedocles, here for the future he walks with mortals.  He, in truth, bears witness to himself that he is faithful and loyal towards God; and to the tempter, that he in vain envied him who is faithful through love; and to the Lord, of the inspired persuasion in reference to His doctrine, from which he will not depart through fear of death; further, he confirms also the truth of preaching by his deed, showing that God to whom he hastes is powerful.  You will wonder at his love, which he conspicuously shows with thankfulness, in being united to what is allied to him, and besides by his precious blood, shaming the unbelievers.  He then avoids denying Christ through fear by reason of the command; nor does he sell his faith in the hope of the gifts prepared, but in love to the Lord he will most gladly depart from this life; perhaps giving thanks both to him who laid the plot against him, for receiving an honourable reason which he himself furnished not, for showing what he is, to him by his patience, and to the Lord in love, by which even before his birth he was manifested to the Lord, who knew the martyr’s choice.  With good courage, then, he goes to the Lord, his friend, for whom he voluntarily gave his body, and, as his judges hoped, his soul, hearing from our Savior the words of poetry, “Dear brother,” by reason of the similarity of his life.  We call martyrdom perfection, not because the man comes to the end of his life as others, but because he has exhibited the perfect work of love.  And the ancients laud the death of those among the Greeks who died in war, not that they advised people to die a violent death, but because he who ends his life in war is released without the dread of dying, severed from the body without experiencing previous suffering or being enfeebled in his soul, as the people that suffer in diseases.  For they depart in a state of effeminacy and desiring to live; and therefore they do not yield up the soul pure, but bearing with it their lusts like weights of lead; all but those who have been conspicuous in virtue.  Some die in battle with their lusts, these being in no respect different from what they would have been if they had wasted away by disease.

If the confession to God is martyrdom, each soul which has lived purely in the knowledge of God, which has obeyed the commandments, is a witness both by life and word, in whatever way it may be released from the body,—shedding faith as blood along its whole life till its departure.  For instance, the Lord says in the Gospel, “Whosoever shall leave father, or mother, or brethren,” and so forth, “for the sake of the gospel and my name,” he is blessed; not indicating simple martyrdom, but the gnostic martyrdom, as of the man who has conducted himself according to the rule of the gospel, in love to the Lord (for the knowledge of the Name and the understanding of the gospel point out the gnosis, but not the bare appellation), so as to leave his worldly kindred, and wealth, and every possession, in order to lead a life free from passion. “Mother” figuratively means country and sustenance; “fathers” are the laws of civil polity: which must be contemned thankfully by the high-souled just man; for the sake of being the friend of God, and of obtaining the right hand in the holy place, as the Apostles have done.

Then Heraclitus says, “God and men honour those slain in battle;” and Plato in the fifth book of the Republic writes, “Of those who die in military service, whoever dies after winning renown, shall we not say that he is chief of the golden race?  Most assuredly.”  But the golden race is with the gods, who are in heaven, in the fixed sphere, who chiefly hold command in the providence exercised towards men.  Now some of the heretics who have misunderstood the Lord, have at once an impious and cowardly love of life; saying that the true martyrdom is the knowledge of the only true God (which we also admit), and that the man is a self-murderer and a suicide who makes confession by death; and adducing other similar sophisms of cowardice.  To these we shall reply at the proper time; for they differ with us in regard to first principles.  Now we, too, say that those who have rushed on death (for there are some, not belonging to us, but sharing the name merely, who are in haste to give themselves up, the poor wretches dying through hatred to the Creator)—these, we say, banish themselves without being martyrs, even though they are punished publicly.  For they do not preserve the characteristic mark of believing martyrdom, inasmuch as they have not known the only true God, but give themselves up to a vain death, as the Gymnosophists of the Indians to useless fire.

But since these falsely named [gnostics] calumniate the body, let them learn that the harmonious mechanism of the body contributes to the understanding which leads to goodness of nature.  Wherefore in the third book of the Republic, Plato, whom they appeal to loudly as an authority that disparages generation, says, “that for the sake of harmony of soul, care must be taken for the body,” by which, he who announces the proclamation of the truth, finds it possible to live, and to live well.  For it is by the path of life and health that we learn gnosis.  But is he who cannot advance to the height without being occupied with necessary things, and through them doing what tends to knowledge, not to choose to live well?  I living, then, living well is secured. And he who in the body has devoted himself to a good life, is being sent on to the state of immortality.



When, again, He says, “When they persecute you in this city, flee ye to the other,” He does not advise flight, as if persecution were an evil thing; nor does He enjoin them by flight to avoid death, as if in dread of it, but wishes us neither to be the authors nor abettors of any evil to any one, either to ourselves to the persecutor and murderer.  For He, in a way, bids us take care of ourselves.  But he who disobeys is rash and foolhardy.  If he who kills a man of God sins against God, he also who presents himself before the judgment-seat becomes guilty of his death.  And such is also the case with him who does not avoid persecution, but out of daring presents himself for capture.  Such a one, as far as in him lies, becomes an accomplice in the crime of the persecutor.  And if he also uses provocation, he is wholly guilty, challenging the wild beast.  And similarly, if he afford any cause for conflict or punishment, or retribution or enmity, he gives occasion for persecution.  Wherefore, then, we are enjoined not to cling to anything that belongs to this life; but “to him that takes our cloak to give our coat,” not only that we may continue destitute of inordinate affection, but that we may not by retaliating make our persecutors savage against ourselves, and stir them up to blaspheme the name.

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