To coin an aphorism, the more unprecedented an idea, the louder its claims of precedent. This is illustrated well by the example of “assisted dying”, that is, the intentional ending of life by voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. It is an idea that only emerges in the late nineteenth century and only becomes established in law and as an organized practice in the late twentieth century. Such innovation craves precedent and claims to find it in two Christian thinkers of the English renaissance: Thomas More and John Donne.
We are going to discuss two related claims, both frequently repeated: that the Catholic martyr Thomas More advocated euthanasia; and that the Anglican poet John Donne defended suicide. These claims are intertwined, not only in that they are both invoked by promoters of “assisted dying,” but also in that there is a link between these two historical figures. John Donne was the great-grandson of Thomas More’s sister and remained vividly aware of this family connection. It is not too much to say that he was haunted by it.
The word “euthanasia” in its present usage, meaning the act of deliberately ending a person's life to relieve suffering, was coined in the late nineteenth century. As Ian Dowbiggin shows, it is the child of an unhappy marriage between medical innovations in pain relief and the contemporary philosophical innovations of utilitarianism, social Darwinism and eugenics. As a legally-sanctioned practice it is even more recent. It emerges in slightly different forms in the Netherlands in the 1980s, and in Switzerland and the state of Oregon in the 1990s. Of course, an idea can be both original and good. Nevertheless, if an idea can be shown to have been defended by unimpeachable authorities this is something in its favor, especially when seeking to persuade a skeptical or conservative audience.
Invoking Donne and More
Advocates of euthanasia and of physician-assisted suicide have therefore looked back, past the late nineteenth century, and conscripted a number of renaissance and early modern writers to their cause. This purported crowd of witnesses typically includes St. Thomas More, Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Robert Burton (the author of Anatomy of Melancholy), and John Donne. Of these, More and Donne have special place because of their significance in the Christian tradition and in national life. Thus, when the Voluntary Euthanasia (Legalization) Bill was first debated in the House of Lords in 1936 Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede invoked both More and Donne.
I need not go back into the far centuries, to the time of Seneca, but I should like to quote one who wrote a special treatise on the subject in the seventeenth century. I have mentioned two Deans of St Paul's, I am going to quote another Dean of St Paul's, John Donne, who was in St. Paul's from 1621–1631. He said: “Since I may without flying or eating when I have means, attend an executioner or famine; since I may offer my life even for another's temporal good; since I must do it for his spiritual; since I may give another my hoard in a shipwreck and so drown, since I may hasten my arrival to heaven by consuming penances; it is a wayward and unnoble stubborness in argument to say, still I must not kill myself but I may let myself die.”
And then later Lord Ponsonby says that he would like to say:
To those who are adopting the Catholic position, that a very notable Catholic, so notable that recently he has been canonized, [the year before, in fact, 1935] Sir Thomas More, now St. Thomas More, said in his Utopia . . .
Then he quotes the following passage from Utopia:
If the disease be not only incurable, but also full of continual pain, and anguish; then the priests and the magistrates exhort the man, seeing he is not able to do any duty of life, and by over-living his own death is noisome and irksome to others, and grievous to himself: that he will determine with himself no longer to cherish that pestilent and painful disease. And seeing that his life is to him but a torment, that he will not be unwilling to die, but rather take a good hope to him, and either dispatch himself out of that painful life as out of a prison, or a rack of torment, or else suffer himself to be rid out of it by another. And in so doing they tell him he shall do wisely, seeing by his death he shall lose no commodity, but end his pain.
That very eloquent plea has been interpreted by some as meaning that Sir Thomas More did not agree with it. There is not a shred of evidence to show that that was not what he considered to be the ideal when he wrote his Utopia.
Later we will offer up some “shred of evidence” that Thomas More did not consider suicide or euthanasia to be “the ideal” when he wrote his Utopia. But first it is worth emphasizing that Lord Ponsonby was not alone in invoking More or Donne in favor of euthanasia or assisted suicide. The Voluntary Euthanasia (Legalization) Bill was thrown out in 1936 but in 1950 the topic was raised again in the House of Lords, this time by Lord Chorley, whose motion asked the government to consider introducing its own euthanasia bill. In this context Lord Chorley also appealed to Thomas More:
Although some classical philosophers like Epictetus and Seneca affirmed the right of a man who was suffering intense pain from an incurable illness to take his own life, so far as I am aware euthanasia, in the sense of a community-sanctioned taking of life, was first advocated by Sir Thomas More in the pages of that famous book, Utopia.
Lord Chorley’s motion was defeated and it was not until 2004 that the House of Lords next considered a bill to legalize euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. A select committee was established to consider Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. Amongst the evidence received by that committee was a memorandum from the Swiss organization Dignitas which had been founded in 1998 to “assist people to obtain a pain-free suicide.” That memorandum ended with an appeal to the authority of Thomas More.
Therefore, Dignitas would be grateful if the British legislator would approach the Swiss model. Dignitas is, in this respect, very near to one of the most brilliant British state philosophers of all the times, Thomas More, who, in his famous Utopia, has said as early as in 1517 [and then Dignitas proceeds to quote the same passage as Lord Chorley in 1950 and Lord Ponsonby in 1936].
Outside parliamentary discussion, the invoking of More and Donne by advocates of euthanasia and assisted suicide is similarly ubiquitous. It is found in a pamphlet of the late nineteenth century and is repeated up to the present day in popular internet sites. Thus, the Wikipedia entry on “voluntary euthanasia” states that:
In the sixteenth century, Thomas More, considered a saint by Roman Catholics, described a utopian community and envisaged such a community as one that would facilitate the death of those whose lives had become burdensome as a result of “torturing and lingering pain.”
This passage is lifted almost word for word [with acknowledgment] from the article on “voluntary euthanasia” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, also available online, by the philosopher Robert Young. This in turn is taken from Young’s earlier monograph Medically Assisted Death where he expands on the point as follows:
Individual thinkers within these traditions [of Judeo-Christian and Islamic thought] have sometimes challenged the supposed immorality of suicide. For example, in the sixteenth century Thomas More envisaged a utopian community that would facilitate the death of those whose lives had become burdensome as a result of “torturing and lingering pain”. Some modern scholars have claimed that More’s use of irony means that he cannot be taken as having endorsed assisted dying. According to their reading, Book II of Utopia ridicules it. Others acknowledge its ironic temper but believe Utopia “shows Christian humanism’s most attractive face”, and expresses qualified admiration for many of the practices it describes.
Young then goes on immediately from More to Donne:
John Donne’s defense of suicide in [the book] Biothanatos[sic] was more straightforward, but despite being prepared to countenance it in a narrow range of circumstances he was not willing to have the work (which was originally written c. 1606) published until after his death.
Wikipedia is a useful reference point not for what is true but for what is widely assumed to be true. It provides a second source for More’s view on euthanasia which is Derek Humphry and Ann Wickett, The Right to Die: Understanding Euthanasia published in 1986. Humphrey and Wickett make reference to More’s Utopia as follows: “In 1516, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was published. It depicted an ideal society in which voluntary euthanasia was officially sanctioned.”
They then quote the passage quoted above [by Ponsonby, and Chorley and Dignitas] and then, after mention of Francis Bacon turn their attention to Donne.
And in 1647, John Donne, in Biathanatos, argued in favor of suicide as a form of voluntary euthanasia. The taking of one's life, he insisted, is not incompatible with the laws of nature, of reason, and of God.
The same story is told by The Right Reverend Alastair Haggart, addressing a local meeting of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society in Edinburgh in 1991.
In Christian history the person who first clearly formulated what is regarded as the usual Orthodox attitude towards suicide is St. Augustine. He set the pattern which continued for many centuries, continuing through the Reformation too. There were a few exceptions: Thomas More’s Utopia included euthanasia; so did Bacon in New Atlantis. John Donne, who was Dean of St. Paul’s, London, in the seventeenth century, wrote a pamphlet called Biathanatos, which he subtitled, “Declaration of that paradox, or thesis, that self-homicide is not so naturally sin, that it may never be otherwise.”
Young, Humphry, Wicketts, and Haggart all write as advocates of assisted dying but a similar account is given by Kenneth Boyd who, while ambivalent, is no zealot for euthanasia and whose account occurs in a book edited by that most acute of critics of euthanasia, John Keown. According to Boyd in an essay from the collection Euthanasia Examined:
Hume was not the first to question the traditional Christian condemnation and consequent criminalization of suicide. This was done in earlier centuries by two of the greatest glories of the English Church: St. Thomas More by implication in a not unfavourable account of euthanasia in his Utopia, and John Donne, much more directly and using arguments similar to Hume’s, in his Biathanatos.
In summary, it has frequently been argued that Thomas More advocated euthanasia in his book Utopia and that John Donne defended suicide in his book Biathanatos, and that these “greatest glories of the English Church” therefore provide precedent for Christian approval of “assisted dying”. What then are we to make of these claims?
A View from Nowhere
Turning first to More, the first point to make is that while it was More who coined the word “utopia,” it has come to mean something rather different from what it meant originally. As people now use the word a utopian society is an ideal society, a perfect society, and the word sounds like it means a good place eu-topos, like the words euphonium, eulogy, eugenics, or indeed euthanasia. This is implied in the contrary term “dystopia.” However, there is no “e” in utopia. The word is not derived from eu-topos, good place, but ou-topos, no-place. The confusion is, of course, deliberate and More is raising the question as to how far this no-place is a good-place, but the answer to that question from More’s point of view is that it is only good in parts.
More sought to imagine what a pagan society that was seeking to be good might be like, but he actually believed in a world that is both better and worse than that, a world of grace and of sin, a world in which Christ died but where the devil still prowls for the ruin of souls. This alters what is “ideal.” Some customs of the Utopians were clearly ones that More rejected. They practiced divorce. More died rather than approve the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon. The Utopians tolerated different religions whereas More thought that the state should promote and protect the Christian religion. The Utopians actively encouraged suicide when a person was no more use to society whereas it is very clear, even at the time that More was writing Utopia, that he regarded suicide as an act of despair and as a temptation from the devil.
The historian Paul Green has set out More’s concern for people who had taken their lives or who were tempted to. There was a man called Richard Hunne whose child died in infancy and who got into a dispute with the parish priest about customary death duty. He was then accused of heresy by the priest and imprisoned and while in prison took his own life. This happened before More wrote Utopia. More knew of the case and, on Green’s account, he was deeply troubled by what had happened. He avoided sending others to the bishop’s prison lest the same happen to them.
More also met a man from Winchester who was prone to bouts of despair and thoughts of suicide. More talked with him, counseled him and prayed for him and while the man was able to come and see More, he kept in good spirits. However, when More was imprisoned and awaiting execution the man despaired and was again overcome with suicidal thoughts. As More was being taken to his execution the man pushed past the guards to speak with More, the conversation was reported as follows:
Maister More, doe you knowe me? I pray you, for our Lordes sake, help me. I am as ill troubled as ever I was.” Sir Thomas aunswred, “I remember thee full well. Goe thy waies in peace, and pray for me, and I will not faile to pray for thee.” And from that tyme after, so long as he lived, he was never troubled with that manner of tentation (Cited in Paul D. Green, “Suicide, Martyrdom, and Thomas More”).
When in prison, awaiting execution, More wrote A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation which contains an extended discussion of suicide, on why it should not be romanticized or thought noble, and how the temptation of suicide should be resisted. The prevention of suicide may involve not only seeking out wise and spiritual counsel but also availing oneself of the help of a physician who by diet, medicines, or purgatives might temper the melancholy humors.
More’s attitude to suicide is shown most clearly in the Dialogue of Comfort but is consistent throughout his life and shown both in his writings and in his dealings with others. More’s own view of suicide is presented in Utopia, not by the Utopian practice of euthanasia and encouragement of suicide but in Book I of Utopia where Hythlodaye attacks the unjust laws in England by which petty thieves are put to death.
For God having taken from us the right of disposing either of our own or of other people’s lives, if it is pretended that the mutual consent of men in making laws can authorize man-slaughter in cases in which God has given us no example, that it frees people from the obligation of the divine law, and so makes murder a lawful action, what is this, but to give a preference to human laws before the divine?
Thomas More does indeed imagine an Island the inhabitants of which encourage suicide and practice euthanasia but this island is not an ideal world and these practices and not ones that he advocates. He took such actions to be contrary to the divine law.
The Misencouragement of Martyrdom
If More was not a defender of euthanasia, was Donne at least a defender of suicide? He did indeed write a book entitled Biathanatos, and subtitled “Declaration of that paradox, or thesis, that self -homicide is not so naturally sin, that it may never be otherwise wherein the Nature and Extent of all those Laws which seem to be violated by the Act are diligently surveyed”. This book is almost universally described as “a defense of suicide” and is often compared with the treatise of David Hume on suicide, which is indeed such a defense.
However, with Donne’s book, as with More’s the first question to ask is what kind of book this is. It describes itself as a “paradox” and this has led to comparison with an earlier work Paradoxes and problems, which is a collection of witty and deliberately contrary defenses of paradoxical theses. That work included such theses as “that all things kill themselves”, “that it is possible to find some virtue in some women,” “that Nature is our worst guide,” “that only cowards dare die,” and “that the gifts of the body are better than those of the mind.” Biathanatos is altogether a more serious work but at times it does stray into the kind of provocatively perverse reasoning of the younger man.
The book implies though does not say in so many words, that Jesus’s death was a kind of self-homicide, while it leaves open the possibility that Judas’s death was meritorious and even a kind of martyrdom. This is beyond paradox. It is an understatement to say, as Donne does in a cover letter, that the book is “misinterpretable.” It is all too easy, though ultimately mistaken, to regard it as a defense of suicide. In that accompanying letter he asks “Let any that your discretion admits to the sight of it know the date of it, and that it is a book written by Jack Donne and not by Dr. Donne. Reserve it for me if I live, and if I die, I only forbid it to the press and the fire. Publish it not, yet burn it not; and between those, do what you will with it.”
It is true that David Hume’s book on suicide was also published posthumously, but the reason was different. Hume feared to publish lest it harm his reputation whereas Donne feared that people might be misled by the book into attempting or promoting suicide. There is admittedly a similarity to Hume in some of the arguments that are used, principally in those that seek to argue against Aquinas’s account of suicide. However, while Hume argues against Aquinas to make way for a doctrine close to the Stoics, Donne is interested rather in what it is to lay down one’s life, as Christ did on the cross.
He regards voluntary death as justified not to “escape the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (as his contemporary William Shakespeare once put it), but only as a means to give glory to God. What he defends is not suicide, as ordinarily understood, but martyrdom. In relation to suicide as the term is ordinarily understood, or euthanasia as envisaged by More, he is as strongly opposed as Augustine or Aquinas. He reserves judgment on the conscience of someone who takes their own life but considers that the path to avoiding sin in such a case to be, “obscure and steepy and slippery and narrow, and every error deadly.” Public approval of suicide cannot but lead to a “slippery” slope. Suicide is not an action to be encouraged or assisted.
Biathanatos was written around the same time as Pseudo-Martyr, a book that Donne wrote to persuade Catholics that they could, in good conscience, take the Oath of Allegiance to James I. Pseudo-Martyr is fiercely critical of the Jesuits whom Donne accuses of misencouraging an inordinate affection for martyrdom. True martyrdom does not seek out danger but accepts death only when it is necessary. The martyr bears witness to the truth for which he or she dies. Donne’s complaint is that the Catholic martyrs of the Reformation are dying not for a central doctrine of the faith but for the most speculative of doctrines, the power of popes to exercise secular authority by deposing princes.
Furthermore, Catholics are persecuted because they can no longer be trusted to be loyal to the Crown and they can no longer be trusted precisely because the pope has released them from their oaths of obedience to their sovereign. They thus suffer needlessly, in Donne’s view, and die not as martyrs but as “pseudo-martyrs.” In some ways the book Pseudo-Martyr is the mirror or complement of Biathanatos. One is about what appears to be martyrdom but is vitiated by inordinate love of death, the other is about what seems to be suicide but is justified by love of God. Natural love of life is corrupted by sin not only through inordinate love of life but also by inordinate love of death and in both cases, it is redeemed by a graced willingness to live as and for Christ and to die as and for Christ. Nevertheless, these dangers are not equal. Donne is happy publicly to discourage pseudo-martyrdom. He is unwilling publicly to encourage anything that might appear to be suicide.
To gain a deeper understanding of what Donne is seeking to achieve in these two books it is necessary to know about his background and his family. John Carey’s biography of Donne, one of the most well-known, though controversial, biographies of John Donne, begins with the line, “The first thing to remember about Donne, is that he was a Catholic; the second that he betrayed his faith.” It is true that Donne was an apostate, brought up in a faithful Catholic recusant family but embracing the established Church in his early twenties. It is also true that he was ambitious and sought patronage from Protestant nobles and from James I, and that he was rewarded ultimately with appointment as Dean of St. Paul’s, perhaps the most political of pulpits. He took the King’s shilling, if one will pardon the anachronism, and benefited from it.
Nevertheless, while Donne was a wayward Catholic he did not abandon his faith so much that it was not active in him. He struggled much with his conscience, and if he did not suffer physically for his faith, as his family did, he suffered much for the honest human love of his wife. For love of her he lost his career, and lived in poverty, and saw five of his twelve children die. His wife also died young, not long after he finally established a steady income by accepting ordination as an Anglican cleric. He cared for his close family and also for his extended family. At the beginning of Pseudo-Martyr Donne claims that:
I have beene ever kept awake in a meditation of Martyrdome, by being derived from such a stock 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, than it hath done. I did not therefore enter into this, as a carnall or over-indulgent favourer of this life, but out of such reasons, as may arise to his knowledge, who shall be pleased to read the whole worke.
Donne’s extended family certainly faced persecution. Two uncles were Jesuits who died in exile one of whom, Jasper Heywood, was a classical scholar at Oxford who translated Seneca’s plays. Donne’s elder brother, Henry died in prison of the plague. He was in prison for sheltering a Catholic priest. Soon after this occurred Donne’s mother, who remained faithful to the Catholic religion, fled into exile with her husband. Behind these contemporary examples is the towering figure of Thomas More.
John Donne was the great-grandson of Elizabeth More, Thomas More’s sister. If this seems a distant relation consider Donne’s mother, born in the early 1540s, only a few years after the execution of Thomas More. She would have known Thomas More’s children and his nephews and nieces. When Donne’s mother returned from exile and was widowed a third time she moved into the Deanery with her son. He only outlived her by three months or so. There is a story that the old woman brought with her into that house the head of Thomas More which she hid under the bed. This is almost certainly apocryphal as More’s head was rescued from the pike by his eldest daughter Margaret (Meg) Roper and is buried in the crypt of the Roper chapel.
Nevertheless, the story serves to illustrate how the presence of Thomas More remained with Donne even to the end of his life, and not least through the person of his mother. In Biathantaos Donne describes More, as “a man of [the most] tender and delicate conscience that the world saw since St. Augustine” and in Pseudo-Martyr, while relentlessly criticising the Jesuits he cannot criticize More but refers to him “of whose firmnesse to the integrity of the Romane faith, that Church neede not be ashamed”: tender, conscience, firmness, and integrity.
It is possible to think of Donne as trading on his family’s recusant credentials while deriding the faith for which they suffered and he did not. However, this is unduly harsh. The aim of Pseudo-Martyr is to persuade Catholics that, on Catholic principles, it is possible to swear the Oath of Allegiance in good conscience. This of course benefits the Crown but it would also alleviate the situation of those recusants, that is, of his own extended family. On his own account, which one should not too quickly dismiss, it was the activities of the Jesuits who “misencourage and excite men to this vicious affectation of danger” that Donne found most objectionable.
His apostasy seems to have occurred in the period immediately after the death of his brother and it is possible to see this as the catalyst for Donne’s alienation from the faith to which the rest of his family adhered. He became a soldier of fortune, fighting the Spanish with Walter Raleigh, he penned cleverly erotic verses, he sought a religion that was Christian but was not aligned either to Rome or to any other anchor, at least at first. He was not a Protestant by conviction, not anyhow to begin with, but gradually conformed to those around, having severed the links to a way of being Christian that seemed cruelly wasteful of human life and too easily in love with death. If martyrdom is the highest form of courage, as Aquinas argues, pseudo-martyrdom is an expression of the vice of rashness, and it was against this vice that Donne rebelled.
On this account, both Biathanatos and Pseudo-Martyr are deeply personal books in which Donne is arguing against himself. While Thomas More died as a martyr in defiance of the King and Donne became the King’s apologist, there are, nevertheless, points of contact. Thomas More was certainly not an excitable or inordinate lover of martyrdom, of a kind Donne abhorred, but sought to avoid execution while he could, by discretion.
Even while More refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, he remained reticent about his reasons and appealed to conscience. This may also have been to spare the consciences of others, who in their ignorance were happy to swear the oath, and whom More would not put in danger before his own courage was tested. While Donne’s conscience might seem a little more convenient to him, his criticism of the distorted cult of martyrdom among the recusants of his own generation was clearly heartfelt.
No Man Is an Island
Donne also suffered from melancholy and this gave him a great sympathy for those who take their own lives.
I have often such a sickly inclination . . . [which] hath won me to a charitable interpretation of their action who die so, and [not] pronounce peremptory judgments on them . . . Thou knowest this man’s fall, but thou knowest not his wrestling, which perchance was such that almost his very fall is justified and accepted of God. For to this end, saith one, God hath appointed us temptations, that we might have some excuses for our sins when he calls us to account.
Donne held out hope that God might accept the soul of one who died so. This was not because he thought that suicide, in the ordinary meaning of the term, was a good or noble death or to be encouraged. He does have an account of what a noble death would be, to the glory of God, a happy death. However, he also has a sense that even an unhappy death may still be accepted by God. It is a fall, but God and only God, knows the circumstances of the fall and how the person wrestled before he fell. Donne here, I think, anticipates the development of Catholic doctrine which, while remaining steadfast in valuing every person’s life, holds out hope that God can save even those who die badly. Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives (§2283).
There is thus in the work of More and of Donne, as in some others of the time, perhaps most notably Robert Burton, a concern for those who are so afflicted by melancholy and by the circumstances of their life, that they seek to end it. What there is not is an affirmation that somehow things would be better if there were a community sanctioned, organized and promoted form of suicide or euthanasia to which people could have access. This would amount to precisely that discouragement of death that Donne railed against. Neither More nor Donne provide precedent for the promotion of “assisted dying.”
If there is no advocacy of euthanasia or suicide, what is there instead? In place of seeking death by one’s one hand, or on request by the hand of another, both More and Donne enjoined an acceptance of death, howsoever it comes, as our return to God, and as a trial that is common to all humanity. It is indeed in the solidarity we have in death that we see why suicide, assisted or unassisted, cannot be a matter of indifference or leave us unaffected. It affects us all. This was something More understood as he awaited execution and expressed in A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation and it was something Donne understood too and expressed in his final illness in perhaps his most famous and most Catholic of mediations:
The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness . . .
He concludes this meditation with the following more famous words:
Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.