Category Archives: Africa

(c. 160-c. 220)

from To the Martyrs
from The Crown of Martyrdom


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

(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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Filed under Africa, Ancient History, Christianity, Clement of Alexandria, Martyrdom, Selections, Sin

(c. 1937-1759 B.C.)

from Dialogue of a Man with His Soul


The didactic tale “Dialogue of a Man With His Soul,” also referred to as “A Debate Between a Man Tired of Life and His Soul” or “A Dispute over Suicide,” is believed to have been composed sometime during the 12th Dynasty (1937–1759 B.C.) of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt (2040–1759 B.C.), probably toward its end. The only copy of the papyrus scroll that survived is incomplete: the beginning of the text is missing and numerous lacunae make this text very difficult to translate, inviting sharp differences in interpretation. While scholars do not agree about the overall meaning of this masterpiece of the Egyptian literature, almost all, if not all, do agree that a man is tired of his life and is expressing his wish to go to the West, to the afterlife. His ba, most commonly translated as “soul,” is not willing to help him.

The Old Kingdom (c. 2700–2200 B.C.) had been under tight control by the pharaohs of the Fourth through the Sixth Dynasties and had seen Egypt reach the height of its material wealth and intellectual powers; earthly success and wealth were emphasized in its pragmatic, materialistic culture, and immortality could be assured with an imposing tomb, an ample mortuary endowment, the momentum of earthly success, and the favor of the divine king, the pharaoh. During that period, Egypt was subject to neither external threats from other groups nor internal instability, although after the end of the Fourth Dynasty the royal power had been gradually becoming more earthly than divine. However, with the death of Pepi II of the Sixth Dynasty, sometime around 2180—after what tradition claims was a 90-year reign—the Old Kingdom had begun to crumble, giving way to the anarchy of feuding warlords, ubiquitous violence, foreign incursion by displaced Asiatics (a focus of blame at the time), and above all intense internal strains. Responsible government had collapsed, and even the pyramids had been robbed of property belonging to the dead. Following this collapse, the First Intermediate Period had been an era of sudden and extreme disruption, its literature voicing bewilderment and despair as the stability of the Egyptian world was being overturned. This First Intermediate Period lasted until Egypt was reunited in the Eleventh Dynasty, about 2040 B.C. Whether the “Dialogue of a Man With His Soul,” stemming from the following dynasty, still reflects political anguish or is a largely personal document is not clear, but it does explore a way to escape troubles: ending one’s life.

In often obscure language, the Dialogue portrays an argument between a man and his ba; the beginning of the manuscript is lost, and the remaining portion of the dialogue opens with the man answering his soul. Plagued by misfortune, the man seems to contemplate suicide by fire. His ba, or soul, an essential element that would permeate the reanimation of the man’s living existence (akh) in another world through uniting with ka (“second self”) after the death of the physical body (khat), tries to dissuade the man. Since the concept of the ba itself is heavily disputed by Egyptologists, it is not very clear whether the man’s ba has already moved on to the West (as a separate non-physical element of its owner) or is still with the man. But it is clear what the ba fears: that if the man commits suicide as he seems to be planning, there will be no dwelling place left for it. Death by fire would mean that there could be no mummification, burial, tomb, or mortuary service. Egyptian belief held that only when a body was embalmed, given appropriate burial rites, and supplied with offerings for nourishment and other needs could its soul live on in the West, the land of the dead, and that the soul must return every night to its “house” in order to be renewed and reborn the following morning at sunrise. Thus to live eternally, the preservation of the corpse was essential.

The man, though, assures his soul that if it agrees, proper burial arrangements will be made. But the soul, concerned that these promises will soon be forgotten, says that his lot will be no better than that of a poor man, and suggests, instead of suicide, a life of wanton pleasure—perhaps a response to the political unrest that had been proposed in texts of the earlier First Intermediate Period.

The man replies with a four-part argument: (1) his name will be in evil odor if he follows the soul’s advice to adopt a life of pleasure; (2) the people of his day are wicked, goodness is rejected everywhere, and he has no true friend; (3) death will be welcome; and (4) the dead are among the gods. The soul, apparently convinced by this argument, says that whether the man chooses to remain alive or to commit suicide, it will remain with him, and that they “shall make a home together.”

John A. Wilson describes this text as “thoroughly un-Egyptian in spirit,” insofar as it abandons life and embraces death, gives up the customary funerary ceremony and psychology, and accords the individual the liberty to question the existing order. However, he acknowledges, the language of the text and its conception of the ba are purely Egyptian; the problem is that the text belongs to an atypical period of pessimism that is itself not characteristic of Egyptian culture or history.


“A Dispute Over Suicide,” from Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard, tr. John A. Wilson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950. Descriptive material in introduction from John A. Wilson, The Burden of Egypt, republished as The Culture of Ancient Egypt (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1951, 1956); Ahmed Okasha and Farouk Lotaief, “Egypt,” in Lee A. Headley, Suicide in Asia and the Near East (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1983), p. 335; and from Ewa Wasilewska.



I opened my mouth to my soul, that I might answer what it had said: “This is too much for me today, that my soul no (longer) talks with me. It is really too great to be exaggerated. It is like abandoning me. Let [not] my soul go away; it should wait for me because of. . . . There is no competent person who deserts on the day of misfortune. Behold, my soul wrongs me, (but) I do not listen to it, dragging myself toward death before I come to it and casting (myself) upon the fire to burn myself up. . . . May it be near to me on the day of misfortune and wait on that side. . . . My soul is stupid to (try to) win over one wretched over life and delay me from death before I come to it. Make the West pleasant for me! Is that (so) bad? Life is a circumscribed period: (even) the trees must fall. Trample down wrongs—(yet) my wretchedness endures. Let Thoth, who propitiates the gods, judge me. Let Khonsu, the scribe in truth, defend me. Let Re, who pilots the sun barque, hear my speech. Let Isdes. . .defend me. My wretchedness is heavy. . . . Pleasant would be the defense of a god for the secrets of my body.”

What my soul said to me: “Art thou not a man? Art thou. . .whilst thou livest? What is thy goal? Thou art concerned with [burial] like a possessor of wealth!”

I said: “I have not departed as long as these things are neglected. He who carries (men) off forcibly will take, without caring about thee, (like) any criminal saying: ‘I shall carry thee off, for thy (fate) is still death, (though) thy name may live.’  (But) yonder is a place for setting down, the guide of the heart; the West is home. . . . If my soul will listen to me, an in[noc‌]ent man, and its heart agrees with me, it will be fortunate. (Then) I shall make it reach the West like one who is in his pyramid, at whose burial a survivor has stood. I shall make a shelter [over] thy corpse, (so that) thou mayest scorn another soul as inert. I shall make a shelter—now it must not be (too) cool—(so that) thou mayest scorn another soul which is (too) hot. I shall drink at the watering place and shall. . ., (so that) thou mayest scorn another soul which is hungry. If thou delayest me from a death of this fashion, thou wilt not find a place where thou canst settle down in the West. (So) be [patient], my soul and my brother, until my heir has appeared, he who will make offerings and will stand at the grave on the day of burial, so that he may prepare the bed of the cemetery.”

My soul opened its mouth to me, that it might answer what I had said: “If thou art thinking of burial that is heart’s distress. It is a bringing of tears, making a man sad. It is taking a man out of his house, (so that) he is left on the hillside, (whence) thou shalt never go up above that thou mightest see the suns. They who build in granite and who hew out chambers in a pyramid, good men in good work, as soon as the builders have become gods, their offering-stones are as bare, for lack of a survivor, as (those of) the weary ones, the dead on the dyke—the waters take hold of an end of him, and the sunlight as well, and the fish of the water-banks talk to them. Listen to me. Behold, it is good for men to listen. Pursue the happy day and forget care!

“The poor man plows his plot of ground and loads his harvest into a ship’s hold.  He makes the journey by towing (the boat), (because) his feast day is approaching. When he sees the forthcoming of an evening of high water, he is vigilant in the ship when Re retires, (and so) comes out (safely), with his wife. (But) his children are lost on the lake, treacherous with crocodiles in the night. At last he sits down, when he can take part in speech, saying: ‘I am not weeping for that girl, (although) there is no coming forth from the West for her, for another (time) on earth. (But) I am concerned about her (unborn) children, broken in the egg, who saw the face of the crocodile-god before they had (even) lived!’

“The poor man asks for an afternoon meal, (but) his wife says to him: “It’s for supper!’ He goes out-of-doors to grumble for a while. If he comes back into the house and is like another man, his wife is (still) experienced in him: that he does not listen to her (but) grumbles, unresponsive to communications.” I opened my mouth to my soul, that I might answer what it had said:

Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than the stench of bird-droppings
  On summer days, when the sky is hot.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  (More than) a fish-handler
  On the day of the catch, when the sky is hot.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than the stench of bird-droppings,
  More than a covert of reeds with waterfowl.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than the stench of fisherman,
  More than the stagnant pools which they have fished.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than the stench of crocodiles,
  More than sitting in the assembly among the crocodiles.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than a (married) woman
  Against whom a lie has been told because of a man.
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  More than a sturdy boy of whom it is said:
  “He belongs to his rival!”
Behold, my name will reek through thee
  (More than) a treacherous town, which plots rebellion,
  Of which (only) the outside can be seen.


To whom can I speak today?
  (One’s) fellows are evil;
  The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
  Hearts are rapacious:
  Every man seizes his fellow’s goods.
(To whom can I speak today?)
  The gentle man has perished,
  (But) the violent man has access to everybody.
To whom can I speak today?
  (Even) the calm of face is wicked;
  Goodness is rejected everywhere.
To whom can I speak today?
  (Though) a man should arouse wrath by his evil character,
  He (only) stirs everyone to laughter, (so) wicked is his sin.
To whom can I speak today?
  Men are plundering;
  Every man seizes his fellow’s (goods).
To whom can I speak today?
  The foul friend is an intimate,
  (But) a brother, with whom one worked, has become an enemy.
To whom can I speak today?
  No one thinks of yesterday;
  No one at this time acts for him who has acted.
To whom can I speak today?
  (One’s) fellows are evil;
  One has recourse to strangers for uprightness of heart.
To whom can I speak today?
  Faces have disappeared:
  Every man has a downcast face toward his fellows.
To whom can I speak today?
  Hearts are rapacious;
  No man has a heart upon which one may rely.
To whom can I speak today?
  There are no righteous;
  The land is left to those who do wrong.
To whom can I speak today?
  There is lack of an intimate (friend);
  One has recourse to an unknown to complain to him.
To whom can I speak today?
  There is no one contented of heart;
  That man with whom one went, he no (longer) exists.
To whom can I speak today?
  I am laden with wretchedness
  For lack of an intimate (friend).
To whom can I speak today?
  The sin which treads the earth,
  It has no end.

Death is in my sight today
  (Like) the recovery of a sick man,
  Like going out into the open after a confinement.
Death is in my sight today
  Like the odor of myrrh
  Like sitting under an awning on a breezy day.
Death is in my sight today
  Like the odor of lotus blossoms,
  Like sitting on the bank of drunkenness.
Death is in my sight today
  Like the passing away of rain,
  Like the return of men to their houses from an expedition.
Death is in my sight today
  Like the clearing of the sky,
  Like a man fowling thereby for what he knew not.
Death is in my sight today
  Like the longing of a man to see his house (again),
  After he has spent many years held in captivity.

Why surely, he who is yonder
  Will be a living god,
  Punishing a sin of him who commits it.
Why surely, he who is yonder
  Will stand in the barque of the sun,
  Causing that the choicest (offerings) therein be given to the temples.
Why surely, he who is yonder
  Will be a man of wisdom,
  Not hindered from appealing to Re when he speaks.

What my soul said to me: “Set mourning aside, thou who belongest to me, my brother! (Although) thou be offered up on the brazier, (still) thou shalt cling to life, as thou sayest. Whether it be desirable that I (remain) here (because) thou hast rejected the West, or whether it be desirable that thou reach the West and thy body join the earth, I shall come to rest after thou hast relaxed (in death).  Thus we shall make a home together.”

It has come (to its end), its beginning to its end, as found in writing.

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