Close Read: Augustine’s City of God
Book 1 and Suicide

For what I’m up to see this. The book we are examining is City of God.

I”ve now managed, thanks to an LAX-MDW (Los Angeles -> Chicago) plane “ride” to skim over the first several books of Augustine’s City of God. Much of the first book, as Thomas Merton comments in the introduction are not specifically interesting to the modern reader. However, there are a number of topics worth our time. In book 1, Augustine considers suicide and why this is wrong.

Oddly enough in my youth (before “falling away”) I recall a church service in which the pastor tried in those heady (goofy?) ’70’s to step down from the pulpit and preach in a more informal dialogging fashion. When prompted for Q&A, I had asked “why if heaven is not so wonderful, don’t we promote suicide?” I did not get the answer I hoped for, but instead a prompt urgent sermonette on why I shouldn’t do this thing. My question was rhetorical, I wanted to know the theological arguments against it. Not a response which indicated the speaker was concerned I might consider doing it. Hmmph. Anyhow, an perfectly good answer that could have been given, would be to refer me to book 1 of City of God.

Augustine gets to suicide via rape. Well, actually in the wake of the rape, murder, and general mayhem associated with surviving the sack of Rome it was likely some amount of discussion ensued about whether or not women “defiled” by the victors in the aftermath should suicide. Augustine turns to literature, specifically the Aeneid. The story (according to Augustine I don’t recall and didn’t verify) is that Lucretia has been raped. She charges her kin to avenge her and then commits suicide. This brings the subject up for Augustine for discussion. Augustine raises a few arguments supporting why suicide might be considered.

Rape he argues should not be considered (from the point of view of the victim) as a sin.

But is there a fear that even another’s lust may pollute the violated? It will not pollute, if it be another’s: if it pollute, it is not another’s but is shared also by the polluted. But since purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue the fortitude which will rather endure all ills than consent to evil; and since no one, however magnanimous and pure, has always the disposal of his own body, but can control only the consent and refusal of his will, what sane man can suppose that his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity?

Therefore he holds that Lucretia (and others who follow suit) kill themselves not over loss of purity but an overwhelming burden of shame. It might be noted here that just tonight, in the Christian Carnival a post questioning the cultural significance of shame for Christian doctrine. Augustine thinks for the Christian, shame should not drive one to suicide.

Augustine next goes to Scripture. Thou shalt not kill certainly includes self in the list of things not to kill. There are, he admits, exceptions. Samson, Jephthah, for public justice he cites as examples of justified killing. However he notes the never in Scripture is suicide sanctioned. These are dealt with shortly. The more interesting part of the argument deals a parallel issue to the little anecdote I related above. How about suicide to avoid sin and reap the rewards of heaven? Augustine’s answer is short and sweet and certainly correct. Because to do so is wicked, foolish, and mad. I have to say, it is a fine thing an argument raised in some careful sophisticated way and dashed down because … well it’s just plain dumb. Interestingly enough in retrospect, that’s basically the same argument I got 30 years ago. 🙂 It might be interesting to look for a complex logical legalistic argument why it is wrong. But why? Do we need to marshall careful arguments against the foolish “wicked” ideas. Better to save such for things which require careful thought.

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