When it comes to attitudes about suicide, we Americans are Janus-faced. We are shocked and grieved when loved ones or famous people take their lives, and yet we show high approval ratings for euthanasia (72% in one Gallup Poll). We have observed National Suicide Prevention Week every September since 2005, and yet “assisted suicide” is becoming legal in more states and for more reasons. We devote increasingly more resources to mental health and suicide prevention, and yet our devotion to personal liberty and autonomy means we think people should make their own decisions about how to live and when to die. In short, we are horrified by suicide when it comes near us, while our (often unexamined) ideological commitments not only prevent us from taking a strong stand against suicide, but even encourage it.
In the last twenty years, the suicide rate has increased by 33%. Reversing this trend will require a concerted effort and a cultural shift. We must strengthen our communities and friendships, provide better access to mental health resources, continue to remove the stigma about mental illness, decrease access to the means of suicide, resist the spread of euthanasia, reduce our use of social media (which increases anxiety, loneliness, and cyberbullying), and improve our awareness and ability to respond to those in need. Still, our conflicted attitudes about suicide demand an additional solution: we must remind ourselves what is wrong with suicide and why Christians traditionally have opposed it.
This is, I confess, a painful approach to the issue. An increasing number of people have lost someone to suicide, including me. We are used to receiving consolation and not dispassionate analysis. It is difficult to look directly at what suicide is and means without feeling our loved ones are being attacked. While sensitive to these dynamics, this essay is not an attempt to comfort the grieving, but an effort to prevent more suicides by gaining clarity. Also, as will become clear below, a consolation-only approach to suicide has real limitations and even dangers.
Why Augustine on suicide?
This essay focuses on Augustine because he is the first author to systematically explore the question of suicide. He provided the first cogent synthesis of the Christian tradition up to his time, set the course for the next thousand years, and still frames much of the debate today. His most extended treatment of suicide occurs in the City of God where he argues that suicide is always wrong and there is no reason that could justify taking one’s own life.
In brief, Augustine’s argument looks like this: suicide violates the divine law against killing (Ex 20:13) and the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mk 12:31). It violates the natural law to seek the good, particularly, the good of existing. And it violates human laws against murder which are a reflection of the divine and natural law. His argument, though, is not simply legalistic. For Augustine, suicide is an attempt to control contingency and escape suffering. Therefore, it is a rejection of God’s plan for creation and redemption. As an alternative to suicide, Augustine presents the example of Christ’s suffering and exhorts us to imitate his patience and cultivate a society that empowers the sufferer to live with dignity.
Divine, natural, and human law
For Augustine, suicide is self-murder: “anyone who kills himself is certainly a murderer” (City of God, 1.17). The fifth commandment, “Thou shall not kill” (Ex 20:13), applies as much to oneself as to one’s neighbor. This is why there is no specification at the end of the command: it applies to the murder of any human being. Augustine argues that this command is intrinsically related to the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Mk 12:31). The love of neighbor takes its measure from the love of self. Suicide violates, indeed, undermines this command by destroying the foundation on which it is built. Suicide, then, is a sin against charity since it harms not only the victim (oneself), but also one’s neighbors who are harmed by the violence done to the bonds of love which make up the fabric of society.
This divine law is manifest in both natural and human law as well. Nature recoils from non-existence. Indeed, all things have a natural ‘desire’ to exist. Augustine approvingly quotes the Stoics who argue that
“the first and greatest urging of nature is that a man should be at one with himself and therefore should instinctively flee from death, that he should be so thoroughly a friend to himself that he vehemently wishes and desires to be alive, a living being, and to stay alive in this conjunction of body and soul” (City of God, 19.4).
Suicide is deeply unnatural. It does violence to our natural inclination to avoid evil and preserve our own good.
Human law also confirms that suicide is wrong and, in fact, can be considered a crime. According to the law, no one is permitted to kill another on his own private authority. Therefore, “anyone who kills a human being, whether himself or anyone else, is involved in the crime of murder” (City of God, 1.22).
Crime admits of degrees and the gravity of a crime can be increased or decreased by various factors. In suicide, the innocence of the victim makes the crime more serious. The victim, oneself, has committed no crime warranting death nor has he received a fair trial. (Even those guilty of serious offenses should not kill themselves, Augustine says, since they need time to repent and amend their lives.)
Further, many systems of law, including Augustine’s Roman one, judge the gravity of the crime more seriously the more closely the criminal is related to the victim. Augustine expands on this principle of propinquity in his treatise On Patience:
“For if a parricide [one who kills a parent or relative] be on that account more wicked than any homicide, because he kills not merely a man but a near relative; and among parricides too, the nearer the person killed, the greater criminal he is judged to be: without doubt worse still is he who kills himself, because there is none nearer to a man than himself”. (par 10)
This principle is an expression of the order of creation where God made the love of self the assumed basis for loving one’s neighbor. The closer the victim is to oneself the more one threatens not only the order of society, but the very order of the world God made. One undermines one’s own existence and the web of relations that flow from it.
Possible justifications for suicide
While the ancient world generally opposed suicide in law and custom, they made exceptions—and even praised and advocated suicide—in certain circumstances. The experience of poverty, mutilation, sickness, sudden misfortune, habitual vice, or disgrace were variously understood to be legitimate reasons to take one’s own life. Augustine, though, does not allow any exceptions.
In the City of God, Augustine considers five possible justifications for suicide: to escape temporal troubles (e.g. torture, poverty, sickness, etc.); to avoid another’s sin (e.g., rape); out of despair for past sins (e.g., Judas); to attain a better life after death (e.g., the ‘philosopher’ Theombratus who took his own life to gain immortality after reading Plato); and, lastly, to avoid falling into sin out of pleasure or fear (e.g., consenting to initially unwanted physical pleasure during rape or offering sacrifice to idols out of fear). For Augustine, none of these justifications holds up under examination.
He argues that we may escape temporal troubles by killing ourselves, but then we may fall into eternal troubles by committing a grave sin ourselves. We might avoid another person sinning against us, but we incur our own sin. We might end the feeling of despair about our past sins, but we cut off the possibility of repentance which we need so that we might not feel despair forever. By killing ourselves, we might think that we will attain a better life, but our sin may very well preclude us from that better life. The last reason—killing ourselves to avoid personally sinning in the future—is the strongest possible justification for Augustine, but it is a reductio ad absurdum. We commit a certain sin now (murder) to avoid an uncertain sin in the future. If this were a legitimate option, Augustine says, then pastors should advise mass suicides right after baptism so that the recently washed and forgiven neophytes might avoid all danger of future sins. “And because it is monstrous to say this,” Augustine concludes, “it is clearly monstrous to kill oneself” (City of God, 1.27).
Better to suffer than to sin
At work in Augustine’s argument is a principle first articulated by Socrates and readily incorporated into Christian morality, namely, that it is better to suffer evil than to commit evil (see Plato, Gorgias, 473a-475e). This principle rests on a couple of key insights. First, the soul is superior to the body (for the soul is immortal while the body perishes). Second, while the evil actions of another can harm the body, they cannot harm the soul of the one who suffers. Only the person herself can harm her own soul by doing something evil. Jesus himself articulates these same principles (albeit in very different contexts) when he says, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28) and “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person…For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt 15:11-19).
Thus, it is never right to do evil to avoid suffering evil. Augustine holds up the example of Job who preferred to suffer the loss of property, family, and bodily integrity rather than blaspheme God and die (a form of assisted suicide suggested by his wife). Rather, Augustine says, we should suffer patiently what God wants us to suffer and look to the examples of Christ and his followers.
Here, we touch the heart of the matter. For all eternity, God knew he would create a world which would contain the Fall and all the suffering that entails. He also knew, from all eternity, that Christ would come, suffer for us, and create a path back to God through suffering. For Augustine, suicide is an attempt to avoid the path God established. Suicide calls into question God’s whole project by taking matters into our own hands.
Consolation and eternal damnation
Augustine’s treatment of suicide can sound harsh, especially for those of us who have experienced the suicide of a loved one. We cannot help but ask, “If suicide is self-murder, does this mean that Augustine thinks all suicides are going to hell?” This is certainly a common interpretation. In many places, Augustine says such seemingly categorical things as, “it is a detestable crime and a damnable abomination for a person to kill himself” (City of God, 1.22). Yet, Augustine has the same reserve that the Church has always practiced about whether particular people are in hell and, indeed, he even leaves room for hope, at least in certain cases.
When speaking about women who killed themselves rather than suffer the evil of rape and the consequent experience of shame, Augustine says, “And if, for this reason, some of these women took their own lives rather than suffer anything of this kind, who with any human feeling would refuse to forgive them” (City of God, 1.17)? Augustine understands the psychological devastation that even the threat of something like rape can bring about. He sees this as a possibly mitigating factor in the moral evaluation of suicide. This is a great consolation, especially for the families and friends who have lost someone to suicide.
Imitation and the dangers of consolation
When we talk about suicide today, we tend to emphasize this consoling aspect. We look for mitigating factors and excuses: mental health, stress, depression, isolation, etc. We often blame ourselves for not doing more. There is wisdom and humanity in this approach which, as we just saw, Augustine shares to some extent. We also often hear consoling things like, “Now, he is no longer suffering. He is in a better place.” But, Augustine knows that there is also a real danger in this consolation. Consolation for families and friends can become a consolation, and therefore an enticement, for those currently contemplating suicide. If suicide ends pain and transfers one directly to heaven, then it should be considered a good choice. Why resist the temptation if such positive goods await one after the act?
There are cultural consequences to this attitude as well: consolation can become permission and permission can become an imperative. After his comment about the possibility of forgiveness for the women who killed themselves rather than be violated, Augustine states,
“And if some were not willing to kill themselves, because they did not want to escape another’s shameful act by committing a crime of their own, anyone who makes that charge against them will lay himself open to the charge of being a fool” (City of God, 1.17).
The people who make this charge likely do not do so in explicit ways. Rather, as Augustine knew, the culture of death conspires in a thousand ways to goad us toward death. Without saying anything directly, society can suggest that any number of people would be better off dead (think of pre-natal screening today or these poor women in Augustine’s day). In Augustine’s time at least, there were other subtle pressures for women who had been raped. Suicide heroines like Lucretia (who committed suicide after she was raped) were elevated as paragons of virtue. If violated women wanted to be virtuous, the unspoken logic goes, then they should follow her lead. To not follow Lucretia’s noble example suggests that victim is doing or has done something wrong. Augustine rejects this perverse logic of a perverse society.
Augustine sees another danger in focusing on consolation only: suicide is “contagious” (see here for the modern science around this). The Romans celebrated the exemplary virtue of figures like Lucretia and Cato (who killed himself to avoid having to submit to his mortal enemy). Augustine knew the power of perverse example and the imitation it inspired (see his critique of Roman theater). We know today that suicides tend to happen in clusters, often after the suicide of a famous person. It is as if the example of the one gives permission and encouragement to the next to do the same. The exemplar shows the way and the others follow, imitating what they see. Augustine knew—and wanted to prevent—this mimetic dynamic of death.
In the City of God, Augustine shows great compassion for the women who were violated. He insists that their lives are worth living. There is no cause for them to feel shame because of any evil done to them. They are not defiled or tainted. Their purity, their virtue, and, indeed, even their virginity was still intact. The respected place they held in society is the place they should still hold after this awful experience. Nor should they see themselves as mere victims of wicked men or a perverse society. They are moral agents who can still act with courage and dignity. In reading these sections closely, we can hear the pastor Augustine reaching out to his broken flock. “Do not let your lives become a burden to you,” he tells these women (City of God, 1.28). This is true consolation, a consolation that en-courages, that is, that puts the cor (heart) back into those who are suffering so that they might live.
The pagan world has always had a love affair with death, a libido moriendi. But Augustine shows that this is not the way for Christians. While Augustine believes there can still be hope for those who commit suicide, he wants to remove this as an option for those under his care. Rather, Christians live secundum Deum, “according to God.” And God’s way is not the impatient path of self-inflicted death, but the way of patient suffering. This is the alternative example set by Christ and imitated by his followers. It is the path that leads to life and a society that values life.
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