John Donne, the English metaphysical poet and, after 1621, Dean of St. Paul’s, was a writer of sonnets, songs, elegies, satires, and sermons. It is for his poetic works, many with religious themes, that he is principally known today. Raised as a Roman Catholic in times of pervasive anti-Catholic sentiment, Donne was educated at home before attending Oxford and Cambridge; however, he did not take degrees there, probably because of the requirement of the Oath of Supremacy. In 1592, he pursued an education in law, but in 1596, joined a military expedition to Cádiz and later a treasure-hunting expedition in the Azores. It is not known precisely when he abandoned Catholicism, but by 1597, he had conformed sufficiently with the Church of England to hold a government position, becoming secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper and a member of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council. Donne served in Parliament and made friends and acquaintances in influential circles, but his excellent prospects collapsed early in 1602 when Donne—then 30 years old—revealed that he had secretly married Anne More, the 17-year-old niece and protegée of Egerton’s wife. Donne was briefly imprisoned, though the legal validity of the marriage was upheld, and he endured a long period of unemployment following his release.
Donne wrote Biathanatos, an extended essay on suicide, in 1608. A letter to his friend Henry Goodyer in the same year is often cited as evidence of his troubled mood during this period:
Every Tuesday I make account that I turn a great hourglass, and consider what a week’s life is run out since I writ. But if I ask myself what I have done in the last watch, or would do in the next, I can say nothing. If I say that I have passed it without hurting any, so may the spider in my window. . . . I have often suspected myself to be overtaken . . . with a desire of the next life, which, though I know it is not merely out of a weariness of this . . . [I suspect] worldly encumbrances have increased. . . .
One school of interpretation sees Biathanatos as an epiphenomenon of Donne’s morbid condition, though Donne’s argument in the work would not excuse a suicide from personal distress. Other commentators see in it an attempt by Donne to overcome temptation. But it is also a public work, though not actually published during Donne’s lifetime, one that shares with his Pseudo-Martyr (written no more than a year later) partisan and controversial aims addressed to a broad audience.
Biathanatos is a long and extremely difficult work with a challenging and, Donne says, “paradoxical” thesis. It undertakes an exhaustive analysis of both secular and religious argumentation against suicide, and argues that suicide is “not so naturally sin, that it may never be otherwise.” Most cases of suicide, including those committed from despair, self-protection, self-aggrandizement, fear of suffering, impatience to reach the afterlife, or other self-interested motives are indeed sinful. But, Donne argues, suicide is justified when, like submission to martyrdom, it is done with charity, done for the glory of God. Indeed, in Donne’s highly unconventional view, Christ himself, in not merely allowing himself to be crucified but in voluntarily emitting his last breath on the cross, was in fact a suicide. This is the model by which men ought to be willing to lay down their lives for their brethren. However, Donne argues elsewhere in Biathanatos, because suicide is so likely to be committed for self-interested reasons rather than wholly for the glory of God, it is appropriate for both civil and canon law to prohibit it.
Donne recognized that his unconventional thesis was “misinterpretable,” and it is probably for this reason that he did not allow Biathanatos to be published. He directed his friend Robert Ker, to whom he gave a copy, to “keep it . . . with . . . jealousy. . . . Publish it not, but yet burn it not.” While Donne’s Biathanatos was the first full-length book devoted to the topic of suicide written in the Western tradition, John Sym’s Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing (1637) [q.v.] was the first to be published; Donne’s work was not published until a decade later, in 1647, after his death and against his wishes, by his son.
John Donne, Biathanatos, A Modern-Spelling Edition, Part III, Distinction iv, sections 1-11, lines 4692-4992, eds. Michael Rudick and M. Pabst Battin. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982, pp. 166-176. Quotation in introduction, pp. xi-xii.
To Prepare us, therefore, to a right understanding and application of these places of Scripture, we must arrest awhile upon the nature, and degrees, and effects of charity, the mother and form of all virtue, which shall not only lead us to heaven, for faith opens us the door, but shall continue with us when we are there, when both faith and hope are spent and useless.
We shall nowhere find a better portrait of charity than that which St. Augustine hath drawn: “She loves not that which should not be loved, she neglects not that which should be loved, she bestows not more love upon that which deserves less, nor doth she equally love more and less worthiness, nor upon equal worthiness bestow more and less love.” To this charity, the same blessed and happy father proportions this growth: Inchoated, increased, grown great, and perfected, and this last is, saith he, when in respect of it we contemn this life. And yet he acknowledgeth a higher charity than this; for, Peter Lombard allowing charity this growth, beginning, proficient, perfect, more and most perfect, he cites St. Augustine, who calls that perfect charity to be ready to die for one another. But when he comes to that than which none can be greater, he says then, the Apostle came to cupio dissolvi. For as one may love God with all his heart, and yet he may grow in that love, and love God more with all his heart, for the first was commanded in the Law, and yet counsel of perfection was given to him who said that he had fulfilled the first commandment, so, as St. Augustine found a degree above that charity which made a man paratum ponere, which is cupere, so there is a degree above that, which is to do it.
This is that virtue by which martyrdom, which is not such of itself, becomes an act of highest perfection. And this is that virtue which assureth any suffering which proceeds from it to be infallibly accompanied with the grace of God. Upon assuredness, therefore, and testimony of a rectified conscience that wehave a charitable purpose, let us consider how far we may adventure upon authority of Scripture in this matter which we have in hand.
First, therefore, by the frame and working of St. Paul’s argument to the Corinthians, “though I give my body that I be burned, and have not love, it profiteth nothing,” these two things appear evidently; first, that in a general notion and common reputation, it was esteemed a high degree of perfection to die so, and therefore not against the law of nature; and secondly, by this exception, without charity, it appears that with charily it might well and profitably be done.
For the first, if any think that the Apostle here takes example of an impossible thing, as when itis said, “if an angel from heaven teach other doctrine,” he will, I think, correct himself if he consider the former verses and the Apostle’s progress in his argument, wherein, to dignify charity the most that he can, he undervalues all other gifts which were there ambitiously affected. For eloquence, he says it is nothing to have all languages, no, not of angels, which is not put literally, for they havenone, but to express a high degree of eloquence, as Calvin says here; or, as Lyra says, by language of angels is meant the desire of communicating our conceptions to one another. And then headdsthat knowledge of mysteries and prophecies is also nothing which was also much affected. And for miraculous faith, it is also nothing. For the first of these gifts doth not make a man better, for Balaam’s ass could speak and was still an ass; and the second Judas had, and the Pharisees; and the third is so small a matter that as much as a grain of mustard seed is enough to removemountains. All these, therefore, were feasible things, and were sometimes done. So also, after he had passed through the gifts of knowledge and gifts of utterance, he presents the gifts of working in the same manner; and therefore, as he says, “if I feed the poor with all my goods,” which he presents as a harder thing than either of the other (for in the other, God gives me, but here I give other), yet possible to be done, so he presents the last, “if I give my body,” as the hardest of all, and yet, as all the rest, sometimes to be done.
That which I observed … secondly to arise from this argument was that, with charity, such a death might be acceptable. . . . And though I know the Donatists are said to have made this use of these words, yet, because the intent and end conditions every action and infuses the poison or the nourishment which they which follow suck from thence, and we know that the Donatists rigorously and tyrannously racked and detorted thus much from this place that they might present themselves to others promiscuously to be killed, and if that weredenied to them, they might kill themselves and them who refused it, yet, I say, I doubt not but thus much may naturally be collected from hence, that by this word “if I give my body” is insinuated somewhat more than a prompt and willing yielding of it when I am enforced to it by the persecuting magistrate; and that these words will justify the fact of the martyr Nicephorus’ being then in perfect charity, whose case was that, having had some enmity with Sapritius, who was brought to the place where he was to receive the bloody crown of martyrdom, he fell down to Sapritius and begged from him then a pardon of all former bitternesses; but Sapritius, elated with the glory of martyrdom, refused him, but was presently punished, for his faith cooled, and he recanted, and lived. And Nicephorus, standing by, stepped in to his room and cried, “I am also a Christian!” and so provoked the magistrate to execute him, lest from the faintness of Sapritius the cause might have received a wound or a scorn. And this I take to be “giving of his body.”
Of which, as there may be such necessity, for confirming of weaker Christians, that a man may be bound to do it, as in this case is very probable, so there may be cases, in men very exemplary, and in the cunning and subtle carriage of the persecutor, as one can no other way give his body for testimony of God’s truth, to which he may then be bound, but by doing it himself.
As, therefore, naturally and customarily, men thought it good to die so, and that such a death, with charity, was acceptable, so is it generally said by Christ that “the good shepherd doth give his life for his sheep,” which is a justifying and approbation of our inclination thereunto, for to say “the good do it” is to say “they which do it are good.” And as we are all sheep of one fold, so in many cases we are all shepherds of one another, and owe one another this duty of giving our temporal lives for another’s spiritual advantage, yea, for his temporal. For that I may abstain from purging myself when another’s crime is imputed to me is grounded upon such another text as this, where it is said the greatest love is to bestow his life for his friends; in which, and all of this kind, we must remember that we are commanded to do it so as Christ did it, and how Christ gave His body we shall have another place to consider.
Hereupon, because St. Peter’s zeal was so forward, and carried him so high that he would die for the Shepherd, for so he says, “I will lay down my life for Thy sake,” and this, as all expositors say, was merely and purely out of natural affection, without examination of his own strength to perform it, but presently and roundly, nature carried him to that promise. And, upon a more deliberate and orderly resolution, St. Paul witnesseth of himself such a willingness to die for his brethren: “I will be gladly bestowed for your souls.”
A Christian nature rests not in knowing thus much, that we may do it, that charity makes it good, that the good do it, and that we must always promise, that is, incline, to do it and do something towards it, but will have the perfect fullness of doing it in the resolution and doctrine and example of our blessed Savior, who says de facto, “I lay down my life for my sheep.” . . .And, saith Musculus, He useth the present word because He was ready to do it, and as Paul and Barnabas, men yet alive, are said to have laid down their lives for Christ. But I rather think, because exposing to danger is not properly called a dying, that Christ said this now because His passion was begun, for all His conversations here were degrees of examination.
To express the abundant and overflowing charity of our Savior all words are defective, for if we could express all which He did, that came not near to that which He would do if need were. It is observed by one . . .(I confess, too credulous an author,but yet one that administers good and wholesome incitements to devotion) that Christ, going to Emmaus, spake of His passion so slightly, as though He had in three days forgot all that He had suffered for us, and that Christ, in an apparition to St. Charles, says that He would be content to die again, if need were; yea, to St. Bridget He said that for any one soul He would suffer as much in every limb as He had suffered for all the world in His whole body. And this is noted for an extreme high degree of charity, out of Anselm, that His blessed Mother said, rather than He should not have been crucified, she would have done it with her own hands, and certainly His charity was not inferior to hers: He did as much as any could be willing to do.
And therefore, as Himself said, “No man can take away my soul,” and “I have power to lay it down.” So without doubt, no man did take it away, nor was there any other than His own will the cause of His dying at that time . . , many martyrs having hanged upon crosses many days alive; and the thieves were yet alive, and therefore Pilate wondered to hear that Christ was dead. His soul, saith St. Augustine, did not leave His body constrained, but “ because He would, and when He would, and how He would”; of which St. Thomas produces this symptom, that He had yet His body’s nature in her full strength, because at the last moment He was able to cry with a loud voice; and Marlorate gathers it upon this, that whereas our heads decline after our death by the slackness of the sinews and muscles, Christ did first, of Himself, bow down His head, and then give up the ghost. So, though it be truly said, after they have scourged Him, they will put Him to death, yet it is said so because maliciously and purposely to kill Him they inflicted those pains upon Him, which would in time have killed Him, but yet nothing which they had done occasioned His death so soon.
And therefore St. Thomas, a man neither of unholy thoughts nor of bold or irreligious or scandalous phrase or elocution (yet I adventure not so far in his behalf as Sylvester doth, that it is impossible that he should have spoken anything against faith or good manners ), forbears not to say that “Christ was so much the cause of His death as he is of his wetting, which might and would not shut the window when the rain beats in.”
This actual emission of His soul, which is death, and which was His own act, and before His natural time (which His best beloved apostle could imitate, who also died when he would and went into his grave, and there gave up the ghost and buried himself, which is reported but of very few others, and by no very credible authors), we find thus celebrated: that thatis a brave death which isaccepted unconstrained, and that it is an heroic act of fortitude if a man, when an urgent occasion is presented, expose himself to a certain and assured death, as He did; and it is there said that Christ did so as Saul did, who thought it foul and dishonorable to die by the hand of an enemy; and that Apollonia, and others who prevented the fury of executioners and cast themselves into the fire, did therein imitate this act of our Savior, of giving up His soul before he was constrained to do it. So that, if the act of our blessed Savior, in whom there was no more required for death but that He should will that His soul should go out, were the same as Saul’s and these martyrs’ actual furtherance, which could not die without that, then we are taught that all those places of giving up our bodies to death, and of laying down the soul, signify more than a yielding to death when it comes.
And to my understanding there is a further degree of alacrity and propenseness to such a death, expressed in that phrase of John, “he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal,” and in that of Luke, “except he hate his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Such a loathness to live is that which is spoken of in the Hebrews: “some were racked and would not be delivered, that they might receive a better resurrection.” This place Calvin interprets of a readiness to die, and expresses it elegantly: to carry our life in our hands, offering it to God for a sacrifice. And this the Jesuits in their rule extend thus far, let everyone think that this was said directly to him: Hate thy life. And they who in the other placeaccept this phrase “No man hateth his own f1esh” to yield an argument against self-homicide in any case, must also allow that the same hate being commanded here authorizes that act in some case. And St. Augustine, apprehending the strength of this place, denies that by the authority of it the Donatists can justify their self-homicide when they list to die; but yet in those cases which are exempt from his rules, this place may encourage a man not to neglect the honor of God only upon this reason, that nobody else will take his life.
And therefore, the Holy Ghost proceeds more directly in the first Epistle of St. John, and shows us a necessary duty: Because He laid down His life for us, therefore we ought to lay down our lives for our brethren. All these places work us to a true understanding of charity, and to a contempt of this life in respect of it. And, as these inform us how ready we must be, so all those places which direct us by the example of Christ to do it as He did, show that in cases when our lives must be given, we need not ever attend extrinsic force of others. Bbut, as He did in perfect charity, so we, in such degrees of it as this life and our nature are capable of, must die by our own will, rather than His glory be neglected, whensoever, as Paul saith, Christ may be magnified in our bodies, or the spiritual good of such another as we are bound to advance doth importune it.
To which readiness of dying for his brethren St. Paul had so accustomed himself, and made it his nature, that, but for his general resolution of doing that ever which should promote their happiness, he could scarce have obtained of himself leave to live. For at first, he says, he knew not which to wish, lifeor death (and therefore, generally, without some circumstance incline or avert us, they are equal to our nature); then, after much perplexity, he was resolved, and desired to be loose, and to be with Christ (therefore, a holy man may wish it); but yet, he corrected that again, because, saith he, “to abide in the flesh ismore needful for you.” And therefore charity must be the rule of our wishes and actions in this point.
There is another place to the Galatians which, though it reach not to death, yet it proves that holy men may be ready to express their loves to one another by violence to themselves, for he saith, “if it had been possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given me”; and Calvin saith this was more than vitam profundere. And this readiness St. Paul reprehends not in them.
But of the highest degree of compassionate charity for others is that of the Apostle in contemplation of the Jews’ dereliction: I would wish myself to be separated from Christ for my brethren. The bitterness of which anathema himself teaches us to understand when, in another place, he wishes the same to those which love not Jesus Christ. And this fearful wish, which charity excused in him, was utter damnation, as all expositors say. And though I believe with Calvin that at this time, in a zealous fury, he remembered not deliberately his own election, and therefore cannot in that respect be said to have resisted the will of God, yet it remains as an argument to us that charity will recompense and justify many excesses which seem unnatural and irregular and enormous transportations.
As in this Apostle of the gentiles, so in the lawgiver of the Jews the like compassion wrought the like effect, and more; for Moses rested not in wishing, but face to face argued with God: “If thou pardon them, thy mercy shall appear, but if thou wilt not, I pray thee, blot my name out of the book which thou hast written. I know that many, out of a reasonable collection that it became Moses to be reposed and dispassioned and of ordinate affections in his conversation with God, are of opinion that he strayed no further in this wish and imprecation than to be content that his name should be blotted out of the Scriptures, and so to lose the honor of being known to posterity for a remarkable instrument of God’s power and mercy. But, since a natural infirmity could work so much upon Christ, in whom there may be suspected no inordinateness of affections, as to divert Him a little and make Him slip a faint wish of escaping the cup, why might not a brave and noble zeal exalt Moses so much as to desire to restore such a nation to the love of God by his own destruction?
For, as certainly the first of these was without sin, so the other might be, out of an habitual assuredness of his salvation. As PauIinus says to Amandus, thou mayst be bold in thy prayers to God for me to say, “Forgive him or blot out me,” for thou canst not be blotted out; iuslum delere non potest iustilia. And thus, retaining ever in our minds that our example is Christ, and that He died not constrained, it shall suffice to have learned by these places that, in charity, men may die so, and have done, and ought to do.