No Comment — August 15, 2007, 8:21 am

John Donne: Against the Abomination of Torture

Preached on April 17, 1625, on Easter Sunday, to the Congregation at St Paul’s Cathedral in London

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They therefore oppose God in his purpose of dignifying the body of man, first who violate, and mangle this body, which is the organ in which God breathes, and they also which pollute and defile this body, in which Christ Jesus is apparelled; and they likewise who prophane this body, which is the Holy Ghost, and the high Priest, inhabits, and consecrates.

Transgressors 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 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 problematically, 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 accuse himself, by confession, in torture. And if an innocent man be able to do so, why should we not 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? It is a slippery trial and uncertain (says Ulpian) to convince by torture. For many says (says St Augustine again) 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 time, 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. 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.

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