The Paradoxicality of John Donne’s “Biathanatos” (Part 4)


Continued from Part 3. Or start at the beginning.

In Parts 2 and 3, I have argued that John Donne’s Biathanatos is a serious work. But if the author had faith in the cogency of his arguments, why did he decline to share them with the general public? Although Michael Rudick and Margaret Pabst Battin note that it “is common to assume that self-protection was the motive for Donne’s not publishing” (xv), they nevertheless assert that “[h]eterodoxy […] is not likely to be the reason Donne suppressed the book” (xviii). To phrase this another way, Biathanatos is not a heterodoxical work, but rather one that is prone to misinterpretation.

Indeed, such an assessment seems to be shared by the author himself. In a letter addressed to Sir Edward Herbert, Donne expresses his wish to have Biathanatos included within his friend’s library. However, he suggests that his book might be suspected of “new or dangerous doctrine” (Biathanatos 1982 3).[1] And in correspondence with Sir Robert Key, he writes:

I send you another book, to which there belongs this history. It was written by me many years since, and because it is upon a misinterpretable subject, I have always gone so near suppressing it as that it is only not burnt. No hand hath passed upon it to copy it, nor many eyes to read it; only to some particular friends in both universities then, when I writ it, I did communicate it, and I remember I had this answer: that certainly there was a false thread in it, but not easily found. (Biathanatos 1982 4)

Yet as Rudick and Battin note, Donne does not claim that Biathanatos in fact has a “false thread in it,” but only that certain early readers thought as much (xvi). Nonetheless, if he felt that his work was “upon a misinterpretable subject,” which has been borne out by subsequent centuries of critical misapprehension, this seems reason enough to keep it from the press.

The fact that Biathanatos was never published during Donne’s lifetime presents a more significant problem for the view that the work is a paradox. If A. E. Malloch and Rosalie Colie are correct—and moreover, if the rhetorical paradox necessarily requires an audience—then why would Donne opt to keep Biathanatos private? In this case, the “fear of misinterpretation” defence does not work quite so well. For if the work is indeed “officially a paradox” and if (as Colie claims) the rhetorical paradox was a ubiquitous form in Renaissance literature (33), it seems that the only significant way it could be misinterpreted would be for readers to take it seriously. Yet that would imply that Biathanatos is not a conventional rhetorical paradox. In either case, a different defence is needed.

There is also the matter of Donne’s occasional but obvious forays into satire and black humour. Take, for instance, the lengthy list—or “martyrologe” (Biathanatos 1982 64)—of pagan suicides which occurs in the first part of the work. Three of the more blatantly humourous entries are as follows: (1) “Herennius the Sicilian could endure to beat out his own brains against a post, and, as though he had owed thanks to that brain which had given him this device of killing himself, would not leave beating till he could see and salute it”; (2) “Festus [killed himself] only to hide the deformity of a ringworm in his face”; and (3) “Hippionas the poet rhymed Bubalus the painter to death with his iambics” (65-6). Rudick and Battin, to their credit, acknowledge the presence of “features […] which might be made to serve paradoxical or satirical ends” (xl). But they chalk this up to merely Donne’s “individuality” as a writer (xl). What is more, they claim that “[s]uch elements […] are subject to interpretation in their own contexts, and no arguments have been offered to show that, taken together, these elements comprise adequate evidence for a pervasively ironic aim of the work” (xl). I hardly wish to suggest that satire and humour disclose the work’s duplicitous core. Yet the appeal to (only) authorial personality seems unsatisfying.[2]

Nevertheless, we can account for Donne’s uses of humour and satire if we view them as a means by which to mitigate the supposed heterodoxicality of the work. In Biathanatos, Donne employs several methods in order to prevent charges of “dangerous doctrine.” It is to this end that he furnishes an epigram drawn from John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, sive de nugis curialium: “Non omnia vera esse profiteor; sed legentium usibus inservire” (“I do not insist on the truth of everything herein, but I wish to serve the readers’ uses”) (Biathanatos 1982 1).[3] Of course, Policraticus—unlike Biathanatos—is seldom (if ever) suspected of being anything other than a serious work of ethical philosophy. It is significant, then, that a comparable qualification occurs in the final pages of Donne’s text, wherein he acknowledges that the church may someday issue an official prohibition of all self-homicide. If this occurs, then he freely admits that the argument has been advancing would cease to hold. He writes:

However, if Cassianus mistake that, and we this, yet as he and Origen and Chrysostom and Jerome are excused for following Plato’s opinion that a lie might have the nature of medicine, and be admitted in many cases, because in their time the church had not declared herself in that point, nor pronounced that a lie was naturally ill, by the same reason am I excusable in this paradox. (1982 194)

And finally, he makes explicit mention of his refusal to enter such contested areas of doctrine as “free will” and “God’s destiny.”[4]

Accordingly, it seems probable that Donne’s employment of humour and satire is meant to serve a similar purpose. But there is an alternative—yet in no way incompatible—explanation. Almost all of these instances of humour and satire are relegated to the first section of the work, which focuses on the tricky notion of natural law. Even if we take such instances at face value, it need not be the case that they are directed at the thesis that self-homicide is not necessarily a sin. On the contrary, the butt of Donne’s humour may simply be the exaggerated scholasticism of the contemporary natural law discourse.

The largest hurdle facing the view that Biathanatos is a serious work is the presence of the word “paradox” in both its subtitle and its conclusion. As we have seen, the word also appears in the earlier Paradoxes and Problems—a text which seems to satisfy Colie’s definition of the rhetorical paradox. Assuming that Donne intended for the word “paradox” to generically describe Biathanatos,[5] it appears that we are left with several options with regards to how we might interpret the word as it occurs within the later work. Either (1) “paradox” means “paradox qua simple paradox,” in which case Donne used the word in at least two different senses over the course of his career. Or (2) it means “paradox qua rhetorical paradox.” The latter option contains two additional possibilities: either (2a) Biathanatos is truly and generically a rhetorical paradox or (2b) it is merely described as such.[6] If my previous arguments have had any weight, we can rule out 2a. But this still leaves us with two options. I will now evaluate the merits and deficiencies of each.

Rudick and Battin suggest that we ought to interpret “paradox” to mean “simple paradox.” Such a reading appears to be borne out by the work’s subtitle, in which the word “paradox” is paired with “thesis.” Indeed, the simple paradox comprises a particular subspecies of the thesis—specifically, one that runs counter to common opinion. In addition, this reading is the most congruent with the seriousness of the text. But it also has its disadvantages. First, it seems to neglect Donne’s earlier use of the word in his Paradoxes and Problems. And second, it also seems to overlook the letter (quoted earlier) in which the author appears to explicitly discuss the paradox qua rhetorical paradox. As a result of this correspondence, we might suspect that some of Donne’s associates—perhaps even the very ones to first read Biathanatos—were familiar with the rhetorical paradox. And if this is the case, then it is likely that Donne intended for the word “paradox” to be read in this sense.[7] That being said, there are also significant dissimilarities between Paradoxes and Biathanatos. The former work consists of eleven short pieces; the latter text spans over 200 pages in its original edition. Furthermore, Paradoxes lacks the depth of learning that characterizes Biathanatos. Such considerations of these seem to support the possibility that these works are paradoxes in two different senses of the term.

We therefore have reasons both for and against these two readings. That being said, if Donne only wished to avoid the charge of heterodoxy, then each possibility would be equally well-suited to his purposes. In the case that a reader of Biathanatos failed to understand its arguments, the label of (rhetorical) paradox could shield the author against hostile criticism. At the same time, a more perspicuous reader would be able to see the work for what it really is: an earnest and lucid defence of a paradoxical (read: counterintuitive) thesis.

It makes little sense to probe a duplicitous or otherwise unserious text for moral insights. And considering the shortage of strictly literary graces in Biathanatos,[8] we can perhaps explain its long history of critical neglect. Nevertheless, the work represents a significant contribution to the philosophy of suicide. And this significance is not merely historical. In “The Rationality of Suicide,” Battin—herself a prominent bioethicist—has defended the (possible) rationality of suicide in much the same way that Donne defended its (possible) sinlessness.[9] And what is more, Donne’s claim that “positive” and “negative” actions are morally equivalent anticipates a key issue in the field of contemporary ethics.[10] Yet unless we view Biathanatos as a serious and straightforward work, we will remain blind to its philosophical merits.


[1] He writes, “Since it is content to live, it cannot choose a wholesomer air than your library, where authors of all complexions are preserved. If any of them grudge this book a room, and suspect it of new or dangerous doctrine, you, who know all of us, can best moderate” (Biathanatos 1982 3).

[2] Another potential issue is Donne’s invocation of pagan examples, regardless of their humorousness. However, Rudick and Battin argue—quite convincingly—that these examples offer empirical support to his claim that self-homicide is not strictly against the law of nature, for they show that “the desire of dying […] is operative in all sorts of circumstances, not just some. Were he to supply examples, say, of heroic suicides only, or only those with religious motivation, his argument would be open to the objection that only certain persons in certain circumstances exhibit a desire of dying, and thus that the desire is not ‘natural’ after all” (li-liii).

[3] Translated in Rudick and Battin 198.

[4] He opens the work’s conclusion with the lines, “And this is far as I allowed my discourse to progress in this way, forbidding it earnestly all dark and dangerous secessions and divertings into points of our free will and of God’s destiny” (1982 191).

[5] On the final page of the 1648 edition of Biathanatos that is housed in the University of Victoria Special Collections, an unknown hand has written the words “A Paradox.” Thus, at least some early readers viewed the term “paradox” to be representative of the work as a whole.

[6] I ignore—for obvious reasons—the possibility that Biathanatos is merely described as a simple paradox.

[7] Unless he seriously misunderstood his audience, which is possible but unlikely.

[8] Especially when compared to a work like Paradoxes and Problems.

[9] In particular, she borrows Donne’s a fortiori argumentative style, as well as his casuistic use of disparate examples. Battin’s essay was published in the wake of her and Rudick’s study of Biathanatos, which makes it unlikely that these similarities are accidental.

[10] This claim is entailed by Donne’s intentionalism. For a survey of the current literature on the topic, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Doing vs. Allowing Harm” (Howard-Snyder).

Works Cited:

  • Battin, Margaret Pabst. “The Concept of Rational Suicide.” Death: Current Perspectives. 3rd ed. Ed. Edwin Shneidman. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing, 1984. Print.
  • Colie, Rosalie. Paradoxia Epidemica. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. Print.
  • Donne, John. Biathanatos. London: 1648. 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.
  • Howard-Snyder, Francis. “Doing vs. Allowing Harm.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2011. Web.
  • Rudick, Michael and Margaret Pabst Battin. “Introduction.” Biathanatos. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982. Print.

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