Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

by John Donne

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What is a summary of John Donne's Meditation 17?

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In this meditation, Donne asserts that all humans are interconnected. What happens to one person affects everyone else, because we are all part of God's kingdom and creation. Donne writes,

Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

Donne uses a famous geographic metaphor to describe the interconnectedness of all people, stating that

no man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent.

It is easy to visualize ourselves as a series of completely individual islands, a group of archipelagos, separate from each other, but Donne says that is not true. We are all part of a larger whole and dependent on each other.

Therefore, we all participate in everyone else's suffering. In Donne's time, a church bell was rung every time a person died to let the community know. Donne states in his meditation that every time he hears the bell toll, he considers it to be tolling for him. We, too, should do the same. He states,

therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

This isn't only because we all ultimately will die, but because we all lose out on gifts and talents when a member of the community dies—we as a whole are diminished.

Donne argues that it is not morbid to think of other people's sufferings as our own, because we all grow stronger and more compassionate as we take on suffering. Donne calls on his listeners to crawl out of their self-absorbed shells and realize they are part of a larger humanity.

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There are broadly two main ideas in Donne's "Meditation 17," each of which is distilled into a single famous phrase. The first theme is the fundamental unity and connectedness of all human beings. This is what Donne means when he says that "No man is an island." Because no matter how isolated we may think we are, we're still in some way connected to other people. We share a common fate on this planet of ours, and whatever we do in life will affect someone, somewhere, however far apart they are from us, geographically or emotionally.

The second theme is that of death. Donne lived at a time when mortality rates were much higher than they are today. It's not surprising, then, that death was a constant preoccupation for so many people. In fact, death is a common theme of Donne's poetry. In "Meditation 17," Donne uses the symbol of the bell in an expression that has become widely known and cited on numerous occasions ever since:

Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The bell is a particularly appropriate symbol for death. In Donne's time, it was customary for bells to be tolled at funerals to mark someone's death. But the bell to which Donne is referring isn't related to any one person's death; it's a reminder to all of us of our own mortality, that one day we too will pass on. So when we hear the bell tolling at someone's funeral, we should recognize the inevitability of our fate as finite earthly creatures.

The second theme is related to the first. It's only by recognizing that "No man is an island" that we can truly experience empathy when someone dies. Just as we are all connected to one another in life, so too are we all ultimately joined together in death.

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"Meditation 17" is about the unity of mankind through our faith in God.  The passage begins with a discussion of a bell tolling indicating that someone is dying.  That someone could be anyone, even the speaker.  We are all connected because we are all mortal, and therefore the church and its ceremonies--funeral or baptism--concern us all.  To show this idea, Donne uses the conceit of a book in which we are all chapters.  When we die, we are translated into another language, but we are not ripped out the book.  Therefore all mankind is united even in death, with God acting as the translator who calls us to the next world.  Since we are all as chapters in one volume, one man's death affects us all.  We do not live and die in isolation--we are part of a continent; we are not islands. 

The next point Donne makes concerns trouble or hardship.  He tells us that the suffering we endure enables us to prepare our souls for God.  If we die, though, without getting right with God, this suffering is still not in vain.  Others can watch this suffering, and realize that they  themselves are mortal and that they need to find peace with God.  In this way, suffering becomes a treasure that can be mined by the sufferer or those watching another suffer.  It is a treasure because it brings us closer to God. 

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