April 26, 2010

St Augustine and suicide

Augustine wrote the City of God against the Pagans in order to make an immediate political point. Rome was sacked in 410AD by Alaric and the Goths and some pagans argued that it had been sacked because one hundred years before, under Constantine, the Empire had finally opted for Christianity against paganism. Augustine's purpose was therefore to make a point about the sack of Rome and whether it was caused by Christianity. For a moment though, I want to leave the main point of Augustine's work, which was actually much greater than a mere defence of Christianity against its pagan opponents and became a positive statement that guided Christians in their interpretation of their own faith for the entire Middle Ages and still does even to this day.

The first book of the City of God, (the City of God is organised in books and subdivided into sections- this organisational structure is owed to a medieval scribe and probably not Augustine himself but as it makes different editions comparable I will stick to it), as I was saying, the first book of the City of God describes the fates of various people at the sack of Rome. It attempts to suggest the Christian answer to various exigencies. One of those that Augustine is very interested in is suicide: he is interested in it from a very particular perspective. One of the great stories of classical antiquity (discussed earlier on this blog) concerns Lucretia who committed suicide after she was raped by Servius Tarquinus, Augustine wants to distinguish himself from those pagans who admired Lucretia. Lucretia committed suicide because of the shame that she had had sex with a man who was not her husband, her suicide became moral because it was a way of convincing the outside world that she had not wanted to commit adultery.

Augustine contrasts that to a Christian morality. Lucretia being forced to have sex, could not have committed adultery. 'Who of sane mind' he asks 'will suppose that purity is lost if it so happens that the flesh is seized and overpowered' (1 18 see also 1 16). He goes further suggesting in the same passage that continence i.e. chastity is not a bodily but a mental thing. In the case of Lucretia, Augustine turns the example on its head. She committed suicide to demonstrate her innocence. He argues that if she was innocent, she had no reason to commit suicide. He asks his audience 'if she was an adultress, why is she praised, if she was innocent why was she slain' (1 19). Furthermore even if she had been guilty and slain herself, she would merely have committed an extra sin. Like Judas who slew himself and added to the sin of betraying Christ, the sin of murder: 'he ended his life guilty not only of Christ's death but of his own also' (1 17). The only legitimate murder for Augustine is contracted by the state in order to obey either a general law of God's or a particular order from the divine throne (eg. Abraham and Isaac) (1 21).

Augustine thereby is replacing a cult of shame with a cult of conscience. He is arguing that moral worth is an internal concept, therefore that the suicide of shame (beloved of classical culture) is actually a sin because it evidences not virtue but pride. The Christian move against shame, against the verdict of society, and in favour of the conscience of the individual is complete in this early passage in the City of God. Augustine imagines suicide as an analogy to just murder: the latter occurs to punish often, but he argues that there is no mandate from God for such self-punishment. Rather he suggests men must await redemption (see his discussion of Judas in 1 17) and it is only for the state obeying God's general rule to use force to end someone's life. This perspective takes us far away from those who thought Lucretia's death was justified: Augustine makes her death evidence of her pride or her guilt, not of her virtue, and he directs his audience who suffered much in 410 to think of the soul inside, not the appearance on the outside.