The Paradoxicality of John Donne’s “Biathanatos” (Part 2)


Continued from Part 1.

A.E. Malloch and Rosalie Colie defend the view that John Donne’s Biathanatos is generically a paradox. But in order to understand this claim, we need to unpack the term’s rather thorny semantics. In its present-day usage, the word “paradox” tends to be equated with what Colie calls the “logical paradox”—i.e., an argument that employs valid reasoning yet entails a self-contradictory or logically impossible conclusion (OED). However, such a usage did not appear until the early 20th century.[1] Two more senses—both of which hold more relevance to our current project—are defined by Colie in the capacious Paradoxia Epidemica. One of these is embedded in the word’s etymology. Tracing “paradox” back through its various forms, we eventually arrive at the ancient Greek “παρὰ δόξαν,” which meant “contrary to expectation” (OED). And ccording to Colie, the word “paradox”—when taken in this etymologically-disclosed “simple sense”—describes a proposition that runs counter to the common opinion (9).[2]

Certainly, the central thesis of Biathanatos—i.e., “that Self-Homicide is not so naturally a Sin that it may never be otherwise” (Donne, Biathanatos 1982 1)—ran contrary to the ordinary beliefs of its age. Yet Malloch and Colie’s claim is not that the work is paradoxical in this simple sense. Rather, they argue that Donne’s defence of suicide conforms to a third sort of paradox, one that is characterized by its ironic and duplicitous qualities. Colie calls this variety “the rhetorical paradox” (7). And unlike the simple paradox, which could be pursued with the utmost seriousness, the “rhetorical paradox as a literary form had duplicity built into it” (Colie 5).[3] This duplicity took the shape of a dialectical exchange between author and reader. As Colie explains, the rhetorical paradox was intended not only to test “the limitations and rigidity of argumentation” (Colie 7) and to challenge any attempts at “absolute judgement” or “absolute convention” (10), but also to “[stimulate] further questions, speculation, qualification, even contradiction on the part of [the] wondering audience” (22). A rhetorical paradox, therefore, made for an interactive and underdetermined text.

Taking a closer look their respective arguments, it becomes apparent that Malloch and Colie’s categorization of Biathanatos as a rhetorical paradox is the results of two inferences. The first of these begins with the work’s subtitle, which reads as follows:

A Declaration of that Paradox or Thesis, that Self-Homicide is not so naturally Sin that it may never be otherwise; wherein the Nature and the Extent of all those Laws which seem to be violated by this Act are diligently surveyed. (Donne, Biathanatos 1982 1)

From this, Malloch and Colie each deduce that the word “paradox” must hold generic significance.[4] Second, both draw a connection between Biathanatos and Donne’s early writings in and on the mode of the paradox, such as Paradoxes and Problems and various personal letters. Admittedly, the notion of paradox that these writings paint is remarkably similar to the rhetorical variety described above. Take, for instance, one particularly telling correspondence, in which Donne describes the dialectical and duplicitous nature of the paradox. Addressing an unknown recipient, he writes:

Only in obedience I send you some of my paradoxes; I love you and myself and them too well to send them willingly for they carry with them a confession of their lightnes. and your trouble and my shame. but indeed they were made rather to deceave tyme then her daughter truth: although they have been written in an age when any thing is strong enough to overthrow her: if they make you find better reasons against them, they do their office: for they are but swaggerers: quiet enough if you resist them. if perchance they be pretyly guilt, that is there best for they are not hatcht: they are rather alarums to truth to arme her then enemies: and they have only this advantadg to scape from being cald ill things that they are no things: therfore take heed of allowing any of them least you make another (quoted in Colie 37).[5]

In this letter, we find Donne confirming that the (rhetorical) paradox is constituted by a dialectical interplay between author and reader. Or to borrow Malloch’s gloss, the “office of the paradoxes themselves is not to deceive, but by a show of deceit to force the reader to uncover the truth” (“Techniques and Function of the Renaissance Paradox” 192).

However, both of these inferences are open to dispute. From the presence of the word “paradox” in its subtitle, it does not follow that Biathanatos is necessarily a rhetorical paradox. On the contrary, the word “paradox” might indicate that the work is instead of the simple variety. Or the term could even hold no generic significance at all. The second inference suffers from a similar worry: Unless we are able to find an independent reason for thinking that Biathanatos is a rhetorical paradox, it remains possible that Donne employed two distinct senses of the word “paradox” over the course of his literary career. And such a possibility seems all the more likely once we remember that Biathanatos and Paradoxes and Problems were written over ten years apart.[6] Thus, in order to categorize Biathanatos as a rhetorical paradox, we must be able to actively demonstrate that it exhibits all of the genre’s essential properties.

Now, if Malloch and Colie are correct to think that Biathanatos is a rhetorical paradox, then the primary function behind its arguments are to “make you find better reasons against them.” Assuming this fundamental telos, Colie is able to advance a further claim: to wit, that the work’s argumentative sophistication actually makes it an ineffective paradox. As she explains, “the convention of paradox is (paradoxically) denied, since this paradox in fact is not a fair invitation to refutation, but anticipates counterarguments and undercuts them as it goes” (500-1, emphasis hers). Of course, the fact that Biathanatos denies “the convention of paradox” might seem to suggest that a generic miscategorization has occurred, that the work is not a rhetorical paradox at all. But before I pursue this line of argument, it will be useful to explore the reasons that Colie and Malloch furnish in support of their view. The most cogent of these make reference to the carelessness with which Donne cites scholarly sources, the abstrusity of his prose and the absence of any positive or coherent argumentation.

Over the course of Biathanatos, Donne cites close to two hundred other writers (Rudick and Battin xxi). However, these citations often seem indiscriminate, with Donne referencing an esteemed authority (such as Augustine or Aquinas) alongside some far less reputable source (such as one of the casuists). A more serious charge is citational imprecision. According to D. C. Allen, “[o]ne of the characteristics of Donne as a citer of authorities is that he either quotes incorrectly or sets down the reference inaccurately” (324). And in “The Definition of Sin in Donne’s Biathanatos,” Malloch observes how the work seriously misrepresents Aquinas’s four-fold distinction of law, to the extent that Donne conflates lex aeterna (God’s eternal law) with lex divina (the law disclosed by means of revelation) (333). According to Malloch, this misreading is not the result of simple carelessness, but rather of conscious argumentative strategy. Á propos the possibility that such misrepresentation may simply be attributed to authorial negligence, he points out that “elsewhere in Biathanatos [Donne] shows that he is quite familiar with the Treatise on Law where the various sorts of law are distinguished” (333). Malloch is therefore led to the conclusion that the “authorities in Biathanatos are quoted for effect, and so it is more appropriate for us to ask what effect Donne is seeking in a given reference, and if this effect explains the inaccuracy of the reference, than to ask the sort of question which would suggest that Donne was at all concerned with accuracy per se” (334, emphasis his).

That being said, Donne’s citational “looseness” does not establish the proposition that Biathanatos is a duplicitous work. Even if the author was disingenuous in his employment of Thomistic legal theory, Michael Rudick and Margaret Pabst Battin have since demonstrated that this would count as an exception rather than the rule. In a meticulous survey of Donne’s sources, they conclude that ten percent of the work’s marginal citations “require some correction,” while only ten individual citations are “outright mistakes” (xl-xli). Finally, they figure that Donne engages in blatant “misrepresentation of authority” a meager seven times (xli). Of course, there is no infallible way of determining whether or not these misrepresentations were deliberate. But even if they were, it hardly follows that Biathanatos is thereby an unserious text, one that is fundamentally duplicitous in its intent. For as many present-day academic disputes amply demonstrate, misrepresentation and distortion may be found in the most sober of discourses. As a result, Donne’s citational negligence does not provide sufficient grounds for categorizing Biathanatos as a rhetorical paradox.[7] A stronger argument is needed.

Might such an argument be found in the abstrusity of Donne’s prose? In “A Critical Study of Donne’s Biathanatos,”[8] Malloch refers to Biathanatos as “two hundred purposely enigmatic pages” (37-8). Colie makes a similar assessment, pointing out “the self-protectiveness of its presentation” (500), as well as the “riddling syntax” and “equivocal style and method” in which the work was written (507). Summarizing the views of Malloch and Colie, as well as scholars such as Joan Webber, Rudick and Battin write that “[t]his school of interpretation […] holds that the work is not to be taken at face value, and that the naive reader must be on guard against subtle but treacherous argumentation, which is designed precisely to lead the reader away from the conclusion he might naively reach” (xx-xxi). For the members of such a “school,” the obscurity of the text’s style and argumentation is indicative of its paradoxical (in the generic sense of the term) duplicity. Accordingly, Colie declares that Donne “conceals the simplicity of his logical and syntactical strategy so that one loses the impetus of both his unimpeachable and his false logic” (501).

Let us take a moment to analyze this statement, which contains two separate claims. First, not only is Biathanatos written in an obscure and bewildering manner, but this was fully the result of Donne’s intentions. Or to borrow Colie’s phrase, the author “knew exactly what he wanted to do in this successfully confusing work” (501, emphasis hers). Yet such a claim seems to beg the question. As Rudick and Battin explain, “[t]he hypothesis of deliberate obfuscation has no more to recommend it than one which claims that Donne had not yet acquired—if he ever did acquire—the ability at syntactical organization in English prose necessary to discuss legal and moral theology with technical sophistication yet with art” (xli). In other words, far from being symptomatic of authorial dishonesty, Donne’s “riddling syntax” and “equivocal style and method” can just as easily be explained as stylistic deficiency. Once again, Colie and Malloch require a stronger argument. The second claim is that Donne employs “treacherous argumentation” and “false logic.” According to Malloch, the text “covers a multitude of equivocations” (“A Critical Study of Donne’s Biathanatos” 49). And in the words of Colie, “no single sentence or passage in the book precisely states the unequivocal case for suicide” (499).[9] Yet these assertions are not supported by any clear examples, which means that they fail to establish the work as a rhetorical paradox. Still, neither has this categorization been definitively refuted.

Malloch and Colie also take issue with the manner in which Donne argues, such that it often involves overdetermination—i.e., arriving at the same conclusion from many different (and possibly even incompatible) starting points. For Colie, Donne’s discourse is “slippery, […] even to internal self-contradiction” (501). And in a similar vein, Malloch writes that “[i]n a series of objections, qualifications, and distinctions Donne gnaws away at one premise of his opponent’s argument, and then when its force has been considerably reduced, he suddenly allows that premise of his opponent’s argument on quite other grounds” (“A Critical Study of Donne’s Biathanatos” 48). A possible example of this might be the apparent disconnect between the three parts of the work, in which we find Donne arguing against the following propositions: (1) that self-homicide is against the law of nature, (2) that self-homicide is against the law of reason and (3) that self-homicide is against the law of God.

But far from being inconsistent, Donne’s strategy is in fact a direct answer to Thomas Aquinas’s condemnation of suicide, as advanced in Summa theologiae. Taken together, the three parts of Biathanatos map onto Aquinas’s “tripartite definition of sin to the question of suicide,” according to which suicide is “wholly unlawful” because of (1) its polar opposition to “natural inclination,” (2) its damaging effect on the social community and (3) its repudiation of the “divine will that man shall live” (Rudick and Battin xlviii). Accordingly, each part of Biathanatos responds to one of Aquinas’s reasons, as subsumed under a particular species of Thomistic law—natural, rational or divine.[10] And while Donne suggests that not all of these reasons hold equal weight—he writes, for instance, that “the transgressing of the law of nature in any act doth not seem to me to increase the heinousness of that act (as though nature were more obligatory than divine law)” (Biathanatos 1982 53)—he nonetheless strives to refute each on its own terms. As a result, Donne’s argumentative strategy is not slippery or self-contradictory,[11] but rather precedes along a fortiori grounds.[12]

Biathanatos therefore remains in a limbo between rhetorical paradox and serious argument, with no piece of evidence strong enough to push it to one side or the other. However, the veracity of the “straightforward” thesis is confirmed by the seriousness of the work’s subject matter, which is incompatible with the duplicity of the rhetorical paradox. Here, we might contrast Biathanatos with the earlier Paradoxes and Problems—a work which is (ostensibly) paradoxical in the rhetorical sense. In Paradoxes, Donne argues for such ironic propositions as “That Nature is our worst Guide” or “That it is possible to find some vertue in some Women.”[13] Indeed, it might initially appear that Donne’s thesis in defence of suicide is of a comparable ilk. However, the phrase “defence of suicide”—despite being frequently employed by critics—is misleading,[14] for the scope of Biathanatos is actually far narrower than this.

First, the word “suicide” never once appears in the work, which may be explained by the fact that it did not enter the English language until some fifty years after Biathanatos was written (Rudick and Battin xlii). Rather, the text is concerned with the notion of “selfhomicide”—a broad concept encompassing “any self-killing and partial self-killing, regardless of the motivation behind it and the moral judgement which might be appropriate” (Rudick and Battin xliii). The term “suicide,” by contrast, tends to only be applied to those self-killings that result from mental illness or despair, which Donne himself would be likely to consider sinful.[15] In Biathanatos, he investigates various scenarios in which the line between probity and sinfulness is more ambiguously drawn. Is it sinful to be threatened and yet decline to act in self-defence (1982 122)? Or to fast inordinately (125)? Or to give up one’s life in order to save that of another (124)?—and so on and so forth. Therefore, Biathanatos strives to vindicate what we might call “heroism” or “self-sacrifice” (Rudick and Battin xlii). A far cry from a defence of suicide, its central argument is instead that there exist at least some situations in which the intentional forfeiture of one’s own life is morally permissible.

Once we take its limited scope into account, the thesis of the work is not as outlandish as it may have first appeared.[16] Nor was Donne the first person to defend particular instances of self-homicide—especially those of biblical figures such as Samson and Saul.[17] Saint Augustine had long since argued that self-homicide was permissible in these two cases, but only because the act had been explicitly willed by God.[18] Indeed, Biathanatos makes explicit mention of Augustine’s solution, although it is criticized on the grounds of its post hoc nature.[19] Like most Christians of his day, Donne took the sinlessness of such figures as a given.[20] The question—as much for Donne as for Augustine—was how to square this innocence with the purported sinfulness of self-homicide. We should therefore read Biathanatos as an attempt to resolve the paradox between the innocence of these figures and the (putative) sinfulness of their acts, which is—of course—quite a different matter than actually being a paradox.

Onwards to Part 3!


[1] According to the OED, it dates back to the 1903 publication of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica.

[2] It is in this sense that Zeno’s philosophical problems are “paradoxical.” For although highly counter-intuitive, the philosopher’s conclusions are not strictly impossible.

[3] Colie traces this duplicity back to the rhetorical paradox’s oratorical roots. Originally, the form was designed “to show off the skill of an orator and to arouse the admiration of an audience, both at the outlandishness of the subject and the technical brilliance of the rhetorician” (Colie 3). Thus, the crafter of a particular rhetorical paradox did not intend—at least not principally—to persuade the audience into accepting his thesis, even if such a result may well have been epiphenomenal to a successful execution. As it moved into the Renaissance, the rhetorical paradox retained this duplicitous aspect, although its purpose was no longer strictly to impress.

[4] Colie takes the validity of this inference as self-evident. “As the subtitle states,” she writes, “Biathanatos is officially a paradox” (497).

[5] Malloch tentatively dates this letter from 1600 (“Techniques and Function of the Renaissance Paradox” 192).

[6] Carey places the composition dates for Donne’s Paradoxes between the years 1593 and 1596 (422).

[7] According to Rudick and Battin, the “ironic representation of sources in the interest of discrediting the discourse is no more plausible an interpretation than either that of unscrupulous misrepresentation with the aim of strengthening it, or that of honest error” (xli).

[8] Despite its significance in the field of Biathanatos scholarship, Malloch “A Critical Study,” which constituted his Ph.D dissertation, has yet to be published.

[9] Elsewhere, she writes that Donne never “overtly argues the case for suicide” (499). And moreover, that there is an “equivocation by which the author defers his own judgement so that no decision is ever firmly expressed on the question debated” (500).

[10] Donne writes, “Through this definition, therefore, we will trace this act of self-homicide, and see whether it offend any of those three sorts of law” (Biathanatos 1982 51). According to Rudick and Battin, Donne’s construal of Aquinas’s tripartite definition of sin as relating to the laws of nature, reason and God is his own invention (xlviii).

[11] In my several readings of Biathanatos, I could find no two claims—at least not significant ones—that were strictly contradictory. And unfortunately, Colie provides no indications as to where they might be found.

[12] Donne’s method of a fortiori argumentation is particularity evident in his treatment of natural law—a category of which he is reasonably wary. Alluding to the competing notions that were in circulation during the Renaissance, he observes that “[t]his term ‘the law of nature’ is so variously and unconstantly delivered, as I confess I read it a hundred times before I understand it once, or can conclude it to signify that which the author should at that time mean” (Biathanatos 1982 52-3). Accordingly, he investigates the prohibitions that might be generated by several notions of the term, including recta ratio (55), jus gentium (56) and the law of self-preservation (59). However, he suggests that even if the law of nature were to prohibit self-homicide, it would not necessarily follow that the act was thereby sinful. This is because the sinfulness or sinlessness of an act ultimately resides in its relation to divine law, which Donne believes to override both natural law and the law of reason. In one especially poetic passage, Donne equates the law of nature to the light of the moon, the law of reason to the light of fires and candles and the law of god to the light of the sun (145-146). The upshot of all this is that if self-homicide can be shown to be consistent with the law of god—which Biathanatos purports to accomplish—then the reader has been provided with the strongest reason possible for accepting its thesis.

[13] This latter proposition argues against the topos—popular in the 16th and 17th centuries—that women were necessarily inconstant or otherwise immoral. Accordingly, Donne’s Renaissance audience would have viewed the paradox as rather tongue-and-cheek. Cf. “Woman’s Constancy,” in which the poet writes, “Now thou hast loved me one whole day, / Tomorrow when thou leav’st, what wilt thou say?” (John Donne: The Major Works 91).

[14] Colie, for instance, writes that Biathanatos “plays with the notion of suicide” (497).

[15] He writes, for instance, that “it [would] be a sin to offer myself even to martyrdom only for weariness of life, or to wish death simply for impatiency, anger, shame, poverty, or misfortune, yea, to wish heaven merely for mine own happiness” (Biathanatos 1982 119).

[16] However, the outlandishness of Donne’s Paradoxes does not similarly diminish the moment that we understand the scope of their claims.

[17] That being said, Biathanatos holds the distinction of being the first English-language critique of the traditional Christian prohibition of suicide (Rudick and Battin ix).

[18] He writes, “And so one who accepts the prohibition against suicide may kill himself when commanded by one whose orders must not be slighted; only let him take care that there is no uncertainty about the divine command” (quoted in Rudick and Battin lxxv).

[19] Donne explains that “to justify this fact in Samson, St. Augustine, equally zealous of Samson’s honor and his own conscious, builds still upon his old foundation, that this was by the special inspiration of God, which, because it appears not in the history, nor lies in proof, may with the same easiness be refused as it is presented” (Biathanatos 1982 181).

[20] For instance, he points out that Samson “was a type of Christ,” one who possessed a “privilege and safeguard from sin” (Biathanatos 1982 182).

Works Cited:

  • Allen, D. C. “John Donne’s Knowledge of Renaissance Medicine.” JEGP, 24 (1943): 324. Web.
  • Carey, John. John Donne: The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
  • Colie, Rosalie. Paradoxia Epidemica. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. Print.
  • Donne, John. Biathanatos. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982. Print.
  • Donne, John. “Juvenilia: Or Certain Paradoxes and Problems.” Renaissance Editions. The University of Oregon, 2003. Web.
  • Malloch, A. E. “A Critical Study of Donne’s Biathantos.” Unpublished, 1958. Print.
  • Malloch, A. E. “The Definition of Sin in Donne’s Biathanatos.” Modern Language Notes, 72.5 (1957): 332-335). Web.
  • Malloch, A. E. “The Techniques and Functions of the Renaissance Paradox.” Studies in Philology 52.3 (1956): 191-203. Web.
  • “paradox, n. and adj.” OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. Web.
  • Rudick, Michael and Margaret Pabst Battin. “Introduction.” Biathanatos. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982. Print.

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