Meditations on Torture: John Donne

(For links to the other posts in this series, go here.)

I apologize for the delay in this second meditation. I had planned to write on Freidrich von Spee, but was unable to track down Cautio Criminalis in a convenient form. So, instead, we’ll move along this week to John Donne, a contemporary, and return to von Spee later.

John Donne (1572-1631), most famous as a poet of religious and romantic subjects, was ordained in the Church of England in in his forties. On Easter in 1625, as the Dean of St. Paul’s, he delivered this sermon, which discusses human transgressions against God’s dignificaton of the body of man. Donne cites torture as one such transgression. This point, that torture violates the dignity of the body of man, foreshadows the concern for human dignity in modern international human rights law. Indeed, the “inherent dignity of the human person” is cited as the source of human rights in preamble to the Convention Against Torture.

Follow me below the fold.

Transgressors in the first kind, that put God’s organ out of tune, that discompose, and tear the body of man with violence, are those inhuman persecutors, who with racks, and tortures, and prisons, and fires, and exquisite inquisitions, throw down the bodies of the true God’s true servants, to the idolatrous worship of their imaginary gods; that torture men into hell, and carry them through the inquisition into damnation. St. Augustine moves a question, and institutes a disputation, and carries it somewhat problematical, whether torture be to be admitted at all, or no. That presents a fair probability, which he says against it: We presume, says he, that an innocent man should be able to hold his tongue in torture; That is no part of our purpose in torture, says he, that he that is innocent, should accuse himself, by confession, in torture. And, if an innocent man be able to do so, why should not we think, that a guilty man, who shall save his life, by holding his tongue in torture, should be able to do so? and then, where is the use of torture? Res fragilis, et periculosa quaestio, says that lawyer, who is esteemed the law, alone, Ulpian: It is a slippery trial, and uncertain, to convince by torture: for, many times, says St. Augustine again, Innocens luit pro incerto scelere certissimas paenas; He that is yet but questioned, whether he be guilty or no, before that be known, is, without all question, miserably tortured. And whereas, many times, the passion of the judge, and the covetousness of the judge, and the ambition of the judge, are calamities heavy enough, upon a man, that is accused, in this case of torture, Ignorantia judicis est calamitas plerumque innocentis, says that father, For the most part, even the ignorance of the judge, is the greatest calamity of him that is accused: if the judge knew that he were innocent, he should suffer nothing; if he knew he were guilty, he should not suffer torture; but because the judge is ignorant, and knows nothing, therefore the prisoner must be racked, and tortured, and mangled, says that father.

There is a whole epistle in St. Hierome, full of heavenly meditation, and of curious expressions: it is his forty-ninth epistle, ‘ Ad innocentium: Where a young man tortured for suspicion of adultery with a certain woman, Ut compendio cruciatus vitaret, says he, For his ease, and to abridge his torment, and that he might thereby procure and compass a present death, confessed the adultery, though false: his confession was made ‘evidence against the woman*: and she makes that protestation, Tu testis Domini Jesu, Thou Lord Jesus be my witness, non ideo me negare velle, ne peream, sed ideo mentiri nolle, ne peccem: I do not deny the fact for fear of death, but I dare not belie myself, nor betray my innocence, for fear of sinning, and offending the God of truth; and, as it follows in that story, though no torture could draw any confession, any accusation from her, was condemned; and one executioner had three blows at her with a sword, and another four, and yet she could not be killed.


But what use soever there may be for torture, for confession, in the inquisition they torture for a denial, for the denial of God, and for the renouncing of the truth of his Gospel: as men of great place, think it concerns their honour, to do above that which they suffer, to make their revenges, not only equal, but greater than their injuries**; so the Roman church thinks it necessary to her greatness, to inflict more tortures now, than were inflicted upon her in the primitive church; as though it were a just revenge, for the tortures she received then, for being Christian, to torture better Christians than herself, for being so. In which tortures, the Inquisition hath found one way, to escape the general clamour of the world against them, which is to torture to that height, that few survive, or come abroad after, to publish, how they have been tortured***. And these, first, oppose God’s purpose, in the making, and preserving, and dignifying the body of man.

First, some context. In England, torture had always been prohibited by the common law, a position that would be reaffirmed in 1628 following the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham. However, it was used routinely in conjunction with the Star Chamber, a prerogative court that operated outside of the common law, though there is some dispute as to whether it was used by the court itself or by the Privy Council before hand. Regardless, under James I, Charles’s father, the use of the Star Chamber increased radically. Given this association of torture with the royal prerogative, Donne’s sermon contained considerable political meaning. The attack on the Inquisition and the Catholic church is clear.

However, this is not the aspect of the sermon that pertains to our project. Donne, unlike Montaigne and von Spee, does not address the issue of torture from a practical perspective. While, certainly, he discusses the possibilities of false confessions and its impact on judicial process, the core of his concern is with the moral aspects. Donne views torture as an attack on the dignity of the body of man. A concern with the dignity of man was the preoccupation of the Renaissance, and Donne, influenced by Pico della Mirandola, follows in this tradition. The dignity of man, however, whether in his body or in his free will was a product of God. An attack on the dignity of man is an attack on God.

Dignity, through the Enlightenment, secularized – it no longer carries exclusively religious overtones. Indeed, it is a belief in the dignity of man that connects secular humanists to their religious antecedents. Nevertheless, human dignity was religious in origin and remains an important part of Catholic dialogue on abortion and the death penalty. It is disappointing, then, to find that support for torture is higher among regular church-goers.

I’ll conclude with some brief comments on the highlighted portions of the sermon marked with asterisks. They are brief – elaboration is left as an exercise for the reader.

* Consider these articles, both from the first half of 2008.

[Colonel Morris] Davis also accused Brigadier General Thomas Hartmann, the legal adviser to the military official in charge of the tribunals, of tolerating evidence obtained from waterboarding, an interrogation method that simulates drowning and is widely condemned as a form of torture.

In the debate surrounding the Bush Administration’s use of torture, the focus has been primarily upon its use as an intelligence gathering method. However, in our justice system, torture taints all of the evidence it touches. We seek to avoid both false confessions and false accusation of others. Having tortured, however, we are left with the unsavory choices of abandoning commitment to fair trials, abandoning unlawful detention, or releasing dangerous terrorists. This choice could have been avoided by never torturing them to begin with.

** With regard to the last paragraph, Donne’s conclusion that torture is more a method of revenge than of interrogation is interesting in light of evidence that suggests the planning for the torture of detainees commenced before we had even captured anyone. (See also this timeline by Marcy Wheeler.)

*** My only comment on the last highlighted portion of the text is that at least eight detainees have died from injuries sustained during interrogation. At least 44 detainees have died while in custody.

Historical aside: While I am passingly familiar with this period of English history, I honestly know nothing about John Donne’s political leanings and had no time to research this sermon in a political context. I am inclined to view it as a shot across Charles’s bow. Charles took the throne on March 27, 1625, so at most a few weeks prior to this sermon, though he had already been more-or-less ruling in his father’s stead for a year. Given the association of torture with the Star Chamber, and Star Chamber with James, on the one hand, and the concerns over Charles’s Catholic sympathies and forthcoming marriage to Henrietta Maria on the other, it is difficult not to view the association of torture with the Catholic Church in last paragraph quoted above as an attack on or warning to Charles. At the same time, Donne himself had been a Catholic and joined the clergy at James’s behest – both of which would seem to make such an attack unlikely, especially so early in Charles’ reign.

So, if anyone has any thoughts, please share them – both actual knowledge and rank speculation are welcome.

Published in: on May 10, 2009 at 2:29 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: