A response to Thomas Aquinas.
|In Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the 13th century Dominican monk and theologian outlines his case against suicide. To defend his view, he notes five arguments in support of suicide, and then offers a rebuttal to each, but not before including his own three objections to committing this drastic act. It is my opinion that he falls well short of his intended goal of persuading the reader that suicide is, indeed, unnatural and immoral. It is very important to note that my essay solely responds to Thomas Aquinas and does not endorse suicide under all circumstances, and any time I defend suicide, it is because I don’t feel that Aquinas adequately supports his point.|
His first personal argument against suicide, in summary, is that, “Everything naturally loves itself, the result being that everything naturally keeps itself in being … suicide is contrary to the inclination of nature and to charity, whereby every man should love himself.” To illustrate the naturalness of suicide, we need only examine nature: the animal kingdom. Although no healthy and reproductively capable members of any other species will intentionally bring about an end to their own life, breaching either of these qualifiers changes the nature of the situation. The mass suicide of lemmings is a myth that probably began with Disney’s 1958 documentary White Wilderness and has been perpetuated by, among other things, an advertising campaign and a series of video games, but there are still genuine examples of animal suicide. For example, sick or injured whales will often willfully beach themselves to end their suffering, and termite workers and soldiers have the ability to explode themselves, thereby immobilizing their enemies with their sticky guts. The key fact about the second instance is that the worker and soldier termites are sterile. If suicide will not harm—or will even help to increase—the fitness of the species, then it is a perfectly natural course of action.
Aquinas’ second objection to suicide is that, “Every man is part of the community, and so, as such, he belongs to the community. Hence by killing himself he injures the community.” This is the least problematic of Aquinas’s three arguments against suicide, but nonetheless, it seems to place a value on someone’s life based on their status in the community, which is not in accordance with the traditional religious view of the intrinsic worth of human life. If someone who committed suicide had no friends and family left, would the community even immediately realize he or she was gone? And if they did, would they care? Also, if Aquinas is opposed to injuring the community, then this implies that if someone were a burden to the community, it would be better off for him not to live. For someone who is incurring hospital expenses for his family, even though he possesses a terminal illness and death is inevitable and near, it seems perfectly reasonable to contemplate and commit suicide. This is supported by the example of the impaired whale beaching itself, which, in addition to ceasing its own suffering, will “lessen the load” on those around it.
Lastly, Aquinas claims that, “Life is God’s gift to man … hence whoever takes his own life sins against God, even as he who kills another’s slave sins against that slave’s master … for it belongs to God alone to pronounce the sentence of death and life,” and each of these statements presents problems. First, if life is truly God’s gift to man, then man should be able to do as he pleases with that gift. People constantly return gifts that they receive, not necessarily because of there being something wrong with them, but simply because they aren’t satisfied with what they have obtained. When someone presents another with a gift, it is a symbol of love or friendship, so the giver is right to feel offended if that gesture is rejected, but even then, he will forgive the recipient. There is also, of course, the situation in which one receives a defective gift, in which case they will certainly take the gift back to its source and have it replaced. For those whose “gift” offers them constant suffering, why would it not be acceptable for them to return their body to their Creator? It’s not their fault that God created a substandard product. Whether a human’s soul would be reincarnated in a new and more functional gift, however, is a matter of personal belief.
In the second part of Aquinas’s objection outlined above, he makes an absolutely horrible analogy, which compares suicide as a sin against God to killing a slave as a sin against its master. Is this to say that we’re nothing but God’s slaves, and the only reason God prohibits suicide is because it means one less worker toiling in the field, one less mindless drone falling to its knees, praising Him and erecting monuments to His insecurity? It’s not as though He would care that we, as people, had killed ourselves. After all, the whole concept of slavery revolves around the view that someone is something less than an autonomous, freethinking person. There are probably more than a few people who would object to the notion that slavery and bondage are “gifts.”
In the last part of that argument, Aquinas remarks that only God can regulate life and death, so by taking one’s life, one is guilty of insubordination. Also according to this, though, one defies God each time he has children. In fact, all living things, down to microscopic bacteria, are guilty of “playing God,” seeing as how reproduction is the most basic, universal aim in existence. If it is our prerogative to create another life whenever we choose, then surely a human has the right to terminate his or her own life if so inclined.
In addition to Aquinas’s three objections to suicide, he also presents and attempts to refute five arguments that would each supposedly justify suicide. Although there are some new objections that are raised by Aquinas’s rebuttals, much of what he says can be answered with responses previously discussed. The first statement in support of suicide is that, “Murder is a sin in so far as it is contrary to justice. But no man can do an injustice to himself … therefore no man sins by killing himself.” Aquinas, however, claims that suicide is murder of oneself, so it is contrary to justice, but also violates the charity that one must have for oneself. There really doesn’t seem to be a satisfying response present here. Reexamining the response to Aquinas’s first objection to suicide, there is absolutely no basis for believing that there is not a natural predilection to end one’s life in certain cases.
Secondly, he presents the case of a public authority figure who sentences an “evildoer” to death, and in the process of taking another’s life has made himself an evildoer. Aquinas, however, insists that, “One who exercises public authority may lawfully put to death an evildoer … but no man is judge of himself … although he may lawfully commit himself to the judgment of others.” Once again, Aquinas fails to present any compelling argument to support his extremely paradoxical viewpoint. If humans are allowed to be the judge of others but not themselves, then there shouldn’t be anything morally unsound about euthanasia in Aquinas’ mind.
Third, there is the proposal that a man may kill himself in order to avoid a greater evil; that is, he may “cut off” his life, just as he would cut off a decaying limb. Although that analogy is physical in nature, Aquinas evades discussion of bodily anguish in his reply, conveniently dodging one of the major roots of suicidal inclinations. Instead, he opts for the examples of depression and the perpetration of a sin as conditions that would prompt someone to take his life. He notes that, “The ultimate and most fearsome evil of this life is death,” so there is nothing that you face in life that could possibly warrant suicide to avoid confronting it. However, Aquinas fails to consider that death is not a state of life, but rather the absence of it, so to claim that death is the worst thing that can happen in someone’s life is ludicrous.
In the fourth circumstance, Aquinas points out that the biblical figure Samson killed himself but was nonetheless made a saint, and also makes a general reference to “holy women” who have been commemorated by the Church despite committing suicide as a result of persecution. Knowing this, it seems that suicide is justified, possibly even admirable, but Aquinas responds to the case of Samson by indicating that, “The Holy Ghost … secretly commanded him to do this,” and offers the same qualification for the women’s actions. But if suicide is an unnatural and immoral act under any other condition, as Aquinas contends, then why would the Holy Ghost ask it of anyone? Those who believe that one shouldn’t question the “will of God” are, like Aquinas, attempting to elude the question that still looms large: why?
At last, Aquinas mentions Razias, another biblical character who killed himself, “choosing to die nobly rather than to fall into the hands of the wicked, and to suffer abuses unbecoming his noble birth.” Although doing such a thing might seem to be the result of bravery and fortitude, Aquinas says that it is quite the opposite. Those who elect to suffer the “greatest evil” of death, instead of suffering the lesser evils of life, are supposedly afflicted with “a weakness of the soul.” It seems strange to say that someone who elects to suffer the “greatest evil” of death is weak, for it’s precisely because the evils of life are so great and burdensome that someone would prefer death. Despite this, suicide is far from being a refuge of the weak and cowardly. A prime example of someone who might have a duty to kill himself is a captured spy or other person privy to sensitive information, whose captors could subject him to torture in order to extract secrets. If the spy didn’t divulge any knowledge, then he would only face extreme torment and probably be killed regardless. If he did speak—which would be due more to an inability of the human body to withstand excruciating pain than a weakness of the soul—then he would end up revealing delicate information and commit treason against his country. At this point, he is harming the “community,” something that Aquinas strongly opposes. Had the spy killed himself before being apprehended, this possibility would not exist.
Aquinas' objections to suicide, both theological and secular, are riddled with inconsistencies and counterexamples, while many of his rebuttals to the arguments advocating suicide contain little to no actual explanation to support his views. Suicide is most certainly “natural” under certain circumstances, but whether one views a particular suicide as moral and justified or immoral and unjustified, to say that suicide should receive the same punishment as murder in the afterlife is ridiculous. We don’t prosecute attempted suicide the same way we prosecute attempted murder, after all. Suicide is not self-murder because “self-murder” is an oxymoron. Murder refers to when one human kills another unlawfully and out of malice, whereas suicide involves killing oneself and does not physically harm others, except in cases like suicide bombings, which are tantamount to murder anyway. Suicide does, however, often harm others emotionally, even though that is not the intention, at least in most cases. Although Aquinas’ universal claim that “suicide injures the community” has its flaws, it is by far the most compelling argument he puts forth. Whether suicide is moral or immoral, staying alive for the sake of others can be a truly noble thing to do.