The full title of the book is Βιαθανατος : a declaration of that paradoxe, or thesis, that selfe-homicide is not so naturally sinne, that it may never be otherwise. Wherein the nature, and the extent of all those lawes, which seeme to be violated by this act, are diligently surveyed. The paradox was a literary genre popular during the English Renaissance in which the author puts forth an argument in support of a thesis which contradicts common sense or questions a commonly-held belief. As a young man, Donne wrote several paradoxes, generally on comparatively trivial subjects such as, “That old Men are more Fantastique then younge,” or “Why have Bastards best fortune.” In his personal correspondence, Donne claims that his paradoxes were made “rather to deceive time than her daughter truth,” and “are rather alarums to truth to arme her then enemies.” Donne’s use of the genre for a discussion of suicide suggests that it is not intended to be taken at face value, but rather to encourage thoughtful discussion and contradiction.
Biathanatos was written during a lengthy period of unemployment, during which Donne suffered from low spirits. In 1608, around the time that Biathanatos was originally composed, Donne wrote to his friend Henry Goodyer, “Every Tuesday I make account that I turn a great hourglass, and consider that a week’s life is run out since I writ. But if I ask myself what I have done in the last watch, or would do in the next, I can say nothing.” Although John Sym’s Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing (London, 1637) was published earlier, Biathanatos was the first book written in the Western tradition on the subject of suicide.
Donne’s treatise is divided into sections discussing the rational, legal, and theological arguments against suicide. Its controversial thesis proposes that while most motivations for suicide (including despair, self-aggrandizement, fear of suffering, or impatience to reach the afterlife) are selfish and sinful, suicide is justified when, like submission to martyrdom, it is done with charity and for the glory of God. Donne even goes so far as to say that Christ himself, in allowing himself to be killed on the cross, was in fact a suicide. Donne’s case is supported by thousands of citations from more than 170 authors (though Donne admits in the introductory matter that, “In citing these Authors…I have trusted mine owne old notes; which though I have no reason to suspect, yet I confesse here my lazines; and that I did not refresh them with going to the Originall”).
Although the subject matter may be uncomfortable to some, this treatise has an intriguing history. Aware that Biathanatos dealt with “a misinterpretable subject,” Donne carefully controlled its circulation in a small number of manuscript copies which he distributed among his close personal friends.
Donne’s reluctance to publish Biathanatos is not remarkable in itself; many of Donne’s works, including the poems for which he is best known today, were not published during his lifetime. Nevertheless, his attitude toward Biathanatos seems particularly ambivalent. In entrusting the manuscript to to Sir Robert Ker, he writes:
“I have always gone so near suppressing it, as that it is onely not burnt: no hand hath passed upon it to copy it, nor many eyes to read it: onely to some particular friends in both Universities, then when I writ it, I did communicate it … Keep it, I pray, with the same jealousie; 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 D. Donne: Reserve it for me, if I live, and if I die, I only forbid it the Presse, and the Fire: publish it not, but yet burn it not; and between those, do what you will with it.” (from Letters to severall persons of honour).
He is eager to distance himself from the work, ascribing it to the his younger self, Jack Donne, rather than the mature Doctor Donne, but he still insists on preserving its existence. Equally fearful that his work would be either lost or misunderstood, Donne never sent it out unaccompanied by letters of introduction like the one quoted above. The transmission of the manuscript copies is a fascinating story in itself, discussed in detail in Peter Beal’s book, In praise of scribes: manuscripts and their makers in seventeenth-century England.
After Donne’s death, his son published Biathanatos against his father’s wishes, writing in the dedicatory epistle, “Two dangers appeared more eminently to hover over this, being then a Manuscript; a danger of being utterly lost, and a danger of being utterly found.” The first edition appeared in 1644, followed by a re-issue with a new title page in 1648 and a new edition in 1700. Both the 1644 and 1700 editions can be found in the Cardiff Rare Books collection.
Following its publication, a number of outraged rebuttals appeared, most notably John Adams’ An essay concerning self-murther. Wherein is endeavour’d to prove, that it is unlawful according to natural principles. With some considerations upon what is pretended from the said principles, by the author of a treatise, intituled, Biathanatos, and others. (London, 1700). More than 300 years later, scholars still debate whether the argument set forth in Biathanatos was intended to be sincere or satirical. Either way, Donne’s paradoxical essay has succeeded in its goal of stimulating thoughtful conversation on a topic which remains controversial even today.