The City of God: Book 1: Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter 22

Those who have put an end to themselves may possibly impress people with their courage, but are not to be commended for sound judgment. If you consider the matter rationally, courage is scarcely the right word to use when a man does away with himself because he is unable to endure adversity or the misdeeds of others. Surely, we should call it cowardice when a man is not brave enough to bear up when his body is in chains or when he has to face the folly of public opinion.

There is more courage in a man who faces rather than flees the storms of life, and who holds cheap the opinion of men, especially that of the rabble. For, what is public opinion but a cloud of error, compared with the light and purity of one’s conscience.

If taking one’s own life is to be regarded as greatness of soul, then this greatness was surely found in Cleombrotus. He is said to have read Plato’s book on the immortality of the soul and then to have thrown himself headlong from a wall to pass on to what he thought was a better life. He was not driven to self-destruction by calamity or guilt, true or imagined, which he had not the courage to face. It was greatness of spirit alone that prompted him to rush at death and thus sever the sweet links that bound him to this life. But, the Plato whom he read could have told him that the action was not good, whatever its greatness. Plato would have been the first to commit suicide, or even prescribe it, had not that same mind which saw that the soul was immortal seen that suicide was wrong and ought to be forbidden.

It will be objected that many men have taken their lives in order not to fall into the hands of their enemies. Here, we are not inquiring whether this was so, but whether it was right. Sound reason should come before examples and examples should be rooted in reason, as is the case with the great saints who are especially worthy of imitation.

Neither the Patriarchs nor the Prophets nor the Apostles offer any instance of suicide. Christ the Lord Himself, who instructed them to flee from city to city if persecuted, could have bidden them to do away with themselves in order not to fall into the persecutors’ hands. On the contrary, He neither bade nor counseled even those to pass out of life for whom He promised to prepare eternal mansions after their passage from earth.

So, let the pagans who know not God bring forward whatever examples they will. One thing is clear: Suicide is a sin for those who worship the one true God.

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII

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