The Paradoxicality of John Donne’s “Biathanatos” (Part 3)


Continued from Part 2. Or start at the beginning.

Rather than constituting a defence of suicide as such, John Donne’s Biathanatos advances the far more restricted claim that self-homicide is morally justified in at least some cases, such as those involving “heroism” or “self-sacrifice.” It is not surprising, then, that Donne pays particular attention to martyrdom. Although critics A. E. Malloch and Rosalie Colie would suggest otherwise, his treatment of this subject is serious on two fronts. First, his argumentation here is careful and persuasive. Second, martyrdom held a special significance for Donne, which would make it an unlikely topic for him to treat ironically. This is evident in Biathanatos itself, wherein he makes his reverence of the act explicit: “God forbid,” he writes, “any should be so malignant so to misinterpret me, as though I thought not ‘the blood of martyrs to be the seed of the church,’ or diminished the dignity thereof” (Biathanatos 1982 74).[1] However, a stronger reason rests in Donne’s familial ties to martyrdom, which include both a great-uncle and a great-great-uncle who died the martyr’s death.

The perspicuity and cogency with which Donne treats the subject of martyrdom is evident in the following example, wherein he discusses the third century martyr Necephorus of Antioch. By this point in the text, he has already admitted the possibility of “diseased” martyrdom, in which man’s natural desire to die gets perverted or corrupted.[2] The Necephorus case, however, is taken to exemplify a situation in which self-homicide is not only justifiable but also morally prescribed. Donne’s argument turns upon the premise (surely a reasonable one) that it is possible for the various imperatives of divine law to be in conflict with one another. In the present case, Necephorus found himself faced with two divergent moral imperatives: (1) the prohibition against self-homicide and (2) the imperative to testify to “God’s truth” (Donne, Biathanatos 1982 169).

The specifics of the scenario, insofar as they are communicated by Donne, are as follows: Necephorus knew a fellow Christian named Sapritius. One fateful day, Sapritius’ religious affiliations became known to the relevant authorities and the unfortunate man was sentenced to death. But upon coming face to face with his executioner, he promptly renounced his faith, thereby saving his own skin at the expense of God’s glory. At this, Necephorus, who until then had remained hidden among the spectators, stepped forth and cried, “I am also a Christian!” And as Donne explains, this act “so provoked the magistrate to execute him, lest from the faintness of Sapritius the cause might have received a wound or a scorn” (Biathanatos 1982 169).

In other words, the particular circumstances in which Necephorus found himself were such that the adherence to one divine imperative (to preserve one’s person) could only come at the expense of another (to testify to the truth of God). Moreover, Donne argues that Necephorus was right to find the imperative of (2) to be stronger than the prohibition of (1). For “there may be cases,” he writes, “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” (Biathanatos 1982 169). Thus, insofar as Necephorus’ obligation towards (2) outweighed his obligation towards (1), he was under a moral obligation to compromise his own life.

In such a scenario, a self-homicide—dressed in the habits of martyrdom—functions as a means by which to promote the glory of God. Regarding this section of Donne’s argument, Michael Rudick and Margaret Pabst Battin offer the following gloss: “if an act of […] suicide will glorify God, and the only alternative acts will neglect the glory of God, then that suicide is not merely morally permissible, optional, or supererogatory; it is required” (lxxix, emphasis theirs). And as the Necephorus case makes clear, Donne supports this claim with focused and coherent argumentation, which in itself challenges the view of Malloch and Colie. Yet Donne’s defence of martyrdom also has a more personal dimension. Not only did he come from a Catholic background, but he was also the direct descendent of several martyrs, including the illustrious Saint Thomas More. Coupled with the coherence and cogency with which he defends martyrs such as Necephorus, Donne’s familial ties to martyrdom strongly challenge the position that Biathanatos is a duplicitous work.

In the section of Pseudo-Martyr titled “An Advertisement to the Reader,” Donne makes brief reference to the trials and tribulations of his Catholic ancestors. The relevant passage reads as follows:

[A]s I am a Christian, I have beene ever kept awake in a meditation of Martyrdome, by being derived from such a stocke and race, as, I believe, no family, (which is not of farre larger extent, and greater branches,) hath endured and suffered more in their persons and fortunes, for obeying the Teachers of Romane Doctrine, then it hath done. (99)

While the author’s paternal ancestry remains cloaked in mystery, he boasts at least two known martyrs on his mother’s side. The most distinguished of these is Saint Thomas More—Donne’s great-great-uncle. A Catholic under the reign of King Henry VIII, More refused to acknowledge the Oath of Allegiance and the Act of Succession, each of which asserted the authority of the King over that of the Pope (House). However, such a stance was judged to constitute treason and More was executed in the spring of 1534. A more immediate familial tie to martyrdom comes in the figure of Thomas Heywood. Heywood—Donne’s great-uncle—was arrested on Palm Sunday 1574 for saying mass (Flynn 70). And while the date has been debated,[3] it has been claimed that he was executed the very same year (Bald 24).[4]

As a result, Donne and his family would have been perfectly aware of the risks associated with recusancy. Yet this was not enough to prevent his older brother from fraternizing with a Catholic priest. In the May of 1593, William Harrington—a young priest—was discovered in the chambers of Henry Donne. Initially, Harrington attempted to deny his vocation. But he was betrayed by a rattled Henry, who had folded under the strains of cross-examination. Adjudged a traitor, the priest was summarily executed. The manner of his death was particularly brutal: as one spectator observed, he was “drawne from Newgate to Tyborne; and there hanged, cut downe aliue, struggled with the hang-man, but was bowelled, and quartered” (quoted in Bald 58). Donne’s brother was sentenced to Newgate prison, where he contracted the plague and died soon afterwards (Bald 58).

Such examples as these demonstrate that martyrdom held a personal dimension for Donne, which makes it unlikely that he would treat the topic with irony or with flippancy. Yet if we accept the argument of Biathanatos that individual intent is the ultimate measure of morality,[5] then it seems that the deaths of More, Thomas Heywood and Henry Donne all count as instances of self-killing. If this is the case, then Donne’s defence of the potential sinlessness of self-homicide has the corollary function of vindicating his martyred ancestors. In order to explain how this is so, I now return to More’s death, which I will analyze in accordance with the view set forth in Biathanatos.

The first step is to determine whether or not More’s death counts as an instance of self-homicide. To aid in such appraisals, Donne invokes Franciscus Toletus’ five-fold categorization of homicide. According to Toletus, a homicide may be perpetrated in one of five ways. A murderer may either command or advise an external party to carry out the act. Or they may refuse to hinder the death of another. Or they may assist someone else in an act of homicide. Or finally, they may commit the deed themselves.[6] Donne then restricts this categorization to encompass only those homicides directed against the self. Reframed in terms of self-homicide, to permit oneself to die therefore constitutes an act of self-killing. As a result, Donne is able to claim that a person who is “as sure that this medicine will recover him as that this poison will destroy him, is as guilty if he forbear the physic as if he swallow the poison” (Biathanatos 1982 115). In other words, the salient factor in establishing the nature of an act is the agent’s intent.

That is not to suggest that the primary intent behind a self-homicidal act must necessarily be the destruction of one’s own person. Necephorus, for example, did not design to die. Rather, his primary intent was to promote the glory of God. In his case, death constituted an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence. As a result, the condition of intentionality cannot be so strong as to require primary intentionality—i.e., the quality of being an agent’s desired outcome. The view put forward in Biathanatos is instead that an act is a self-homicide only insofar as the death of the agent numbers among its foreseeable consequences.

Armed with this criterion, we can now revisit the case of More. Did he suspect that his actions would bring about his own death? If so, then his death would count as a self-homicide under Donne’s view. Certainly, it would have been difficult for him not to. In the years leading up to his demise, he observed the executions of a number of his religious associates, including the nun and visionary Elizabeth Barton, who was executed for high treason in 1534 (Watt). As Seymour Baker House explains, “Once executions for political opposition had begun, More fully expected that his continued resistance would prove his end.” Such resistance therefore constituted an act for which death was a foreseeable outcome. And for that reason, we ought to count More’s death, which resulted from his obstinate silence in the face of Oath of Allegiance and the Act of Succession, as an instance of self-homicide.

The second step is to determine whether or not this act is sinful. In Biathanatos, More is referred to as “a man of the most tender and delicate conscious that the world saw since St. Augustine” (1982 83). While Donne never mentions More in the capacity of a martyr, it would not be a stretch to suppose that at least one of the motivations behind his theory was the vindication his illustrious ancestor. Yet such a task faces a potential difficulty. For unlike Necephorus, More died for a religion that was—at least seen through the eyes of an Anglican convert like Donne—fundamentally misguided. One solution to this problem is to take morality to be an epistemically relative notion, such that it is possible for a single act to be both just and erroneous. In Biathanatos, Donne suggests that this will be the case whenever an action results from the exercise of “all moral industry and diligence” (1982 136). But he quickly qualifies this condition: what is required is “not exquisite diligence,” but rather the more pragmatic requirement that it be “proportional to the person and his quality, and to the knowledge which that man is bound to have of that thing at that time” (136).[7] If this condition is met, then an act—even one that results from misinformation—will be free from sin.[8] Returning to More, insofar as his conscious was “tender and delicate,” which implies that the condition of “moral industry and diligence” has been met, we should view his death as a sinless self-homicide.

Henry Donne presents a more ambiguous case. Like More, Henry was likely aware of the risks carried by his actions. If so, then his decision to fraternize with a Catholic priest would have included death amongst its foreseeable outcomes, thereby rendering it a self-homicide. This is not to suggest that Henry was a martyr. Nor is it evident that he employed all of the “moral industry and diligence” needed in order to excuse such an act of self-killing. In fact, his betrayal of Harrington might be seen as indicative of moral weakness or capriciousness. But at the very least, Biathanatos provides the tools by which a death such as Henry’s could in theory be vindicated.

As the previous discussion has shown, Donne’s treatment of martyrdom possesses a personal dimension: not only did he come from a family of persecuted Catholics, but the moral theory put forth in Biathanatos allows for the exoneration of some of his martyred ancestors. Such a personal dimension is incongruent with the view that the text is duplicitous or otherwise unserious.[9] Yet the view that Biathanatos is a serious work is not without difficulties of its own. In what follows, I would like to bring to light some of these issues. These include Donne’s refusal to publish the work, his employment of the word “paradox” and his occasional forays into black humour and satire…

Almost done! Finish up with Part 4.


[1] A similar sentiment is expressed in Pseudo-Martyr, in which Donne writes, “I have a just and Christianly estimation, and reverence, of that devout and acceptable Sacrifice of our lifes, for the glory of our blessed Saviour” (99).

[2] Referring to profusion of martyrdoms among the early Christians, Donne writes that “those times were affected with a disease of this natural desire of such a death” (Biathanatos 1982 74). It is because of this discussion that Donne was prompted to defend his reverence of martyrdom.

[3] Peter Happé, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography page for John Heyward, notes that this date has been “challenged on the grounds that a letter from the privy council (dated August 1574) lists the friar as still alive and apparently in prison.” And Denis Flynn seems sceptical as to whether Thomas Heywood was even executed at all: in John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility, he only makes mention of Heywood’s arrest (69-70).

[4] Donne would have been only two years old at the time. However, the author went on to develop a friendship with John Heywood—the martyr’s older brother (Bald 24). Like Thomas, John was a steadfast Catholic who “suffered severely for his recusancy” (Bald 24). Furthermore, Donne’s uncle Jasper—his mother’s brother—was a Jesuit priest who had endured both imprisonment and exile (Bald 41).

[5] Rudick and Battin write that “the central premise of Donne’s moral theory” is that it is “the intention under which an act is performed which determines its character as a moral act” (lxx).

[6] Donne’s paraphrase is slightly more pithy: “And this homicide, says Tolet, may be done five ways: by (1) commandment, by (2) advice, by (3) permission, by (4) help, or by the fact itself” (Biathanatos 1982 116).

[7] Moreover, the agent is under a moral obligation to perform such acts that she erroneously but justly believes to be permissible. For Donne writes, “a conscious which errs justly […] is bound to do according to that misinformation and the mispersuation so contracted” (Biathanatos 1982 136).

[8] Donne writes, “If then, a man, after convenient and requisite diligence, despoiled of all human affections and self-interest, […] do in his conscious believe that he is invited by the spirit of God to do such an act as Jonas, Abraham, and perchance Samson was, who can by these rules condemn this to be sin?” (Biathanatos 1982 137).

[9] Another argument in favour of the work’s earnestness is the seriousness with which Donne tended to pursue matters of polemics. Following the 1609 publication of William Barlow’s Answer to a Catholike English-man, Donne complained that “the Divines of these times, are become meer Advocates, as though Religion were a temporall inheritance; they plead for it with all sophistications, and illusions, and forgeries” (quoted in Bald 216). Thus, it would appear suspiciously out-of-character were Donne himself to have penned a sophistic and illusionary tract just one year earlier.

Works Cited:

  • Bald, R. C. John Donne: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. Print.
  • Donne, John. Biathanatos. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982. Print.
  • Donne, John. Pseudo-Martyr. Ed. Anthony Raspa. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993. Web.
  • Flynn, Dennis. John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Print.
  • Happé, Peter. “Heywood, John (b. 1496/7, d. in or after 1578).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Web.
  • House, Seymour Baker. “More, Sir Thomas (1478–1535).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Web.
  • Rudick, Michael and Margaret Pabst Battin. “Introduction.” Biathanatos. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982. Print.
  • Watt, Diane. “Barton, Elizabeth (c.1506–1534).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Web.

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