John Yamamoto-Wilson, an early modern historian who has published a recent book on pain and suffering in 17th c. England, has a fascinating blog post examining some of Olivia Weisser’s forthcoming work on pain, suffering, and gender in early modern England (go Wes!).

(Historians of pain are eagerly awaiting Dr. Weisser’s forthcoming book!)

I am interested in Dr. Yamamoto-Wilson’s conclusion, but I do want to first note the posture in which I approach this subject.

Namely, I’m a modernist through-and-through.  My expertise is deep but narrow, focused primarily on pain in its 19th and early 20th c. contexts.  However, my primary methodology for thinking about pain is through the history of ideas, and specifically focuses on changing ideas about objectivity from the early modern to the modern world.  I take very seriously the obligation to think about history dialectically, which means that if I want to responsibly discuss changing views about pain in the modern era in the West, I had better get a sufficient understanding of some of the attitudes, practices, and beliefs about pain that precede the modern changes.

So I read widely and voraciously on early modern pain, and there have been a number of outstanding works on the subject in the past 5-6 years (see, to name but a few, Lisa Smith’s work, Hannah Newton’s terrific book The Sick Child, this excellent 2011 anthology, and Sam Sandassie’s fascinating blog).

Nevertheless, I am absolutely an interloper in the period.  But given my emphasis on changing ideas about pain, I’m not entirely ignorant of the scholarship and the substantive complexities regarding pain and suffering in early modern contexts.  As they say, I know enough to be dangerous.

Dr. Yamamoto-Wilson discusses some excerpts from Dr. Weisser’s work alongside some rich primary sources, and concludes as follows:

What Weisser and Sanchez and, I think, my own work demonstrate is that the decline of faith in God’s providence – and a concomitant rejection of the concept of the inevitability, necessity and utility of suffering – can be observed across across a much wider spectrum of writings, opening the way, philosophically, to widespread acceptance of the pleasure principle – the Epicurean idea that it is both natural and right to avoid suffering – as an approach to life, and leading to a society sanitized of suffering by antibiotics, distanced from it by television cameras, toying with it as a means to achieving short-term objectives in sports and sadomasochistic role play, but largely incapable even of imagining the role it played in the lives of people like John Donne or Jeremy Taylor.

I am of course in no position to disagree intelligently with Dr. Yamamoto-Wilson’s assessment of attitudes towards pain and suffering in early modern contexts.  But given that he concludes by addressing changes in such attitudes to the modern era, I have some thoughts to share.

First, the idea that Western society has become less stoic, less capable of withstanding pain and suffering and the goods it can bring, is itself an ancient trope.  Indeed, the tension between Epicureanism and Stoicism at least in part revolved around this concern.  Marcus Aurelius had a great deal to say about pain, noting that it was neither everlasting nor intolerable and does not touch the soul (although he explicitly denies that pain is either good or evil).

This is not to suggest that Dr. Yamamoto-Wilson is mistaken in arguing that the modern world became more Epicurean than Stoic, that pain became less tolerable, but rather that where the historical narrative is ancient and powerful, we should proceed carefully and look closely to see if developments are more complex than that for which an overarching and dominant meta-narrative typically allows.

Second, presuming for the moment that Dr. Yamamoto-Wilson is largely correct in charting the broad changes in attitudes towards pain and suffering from early modern to modern, I think we should be extremely careful to avoid the hoary and increasingly dubious belief that relief of pain and suffering was not a priority in the medieval and early modern worlds, especially for healers.  As I noted previously, we have some sophisticated scholarship from medievalists and early modernists that undermines this long-held belief.  These historians have gathered significant evidence showing that lay people, theologians, and healers in medieval and early modern contexts were extremely concerned with practical relief of pain and suffering, even at the same time that endurance of such pain and suffering was thought to be a gift (of grace?) and an opportunity for redemption.

There is obviously a tension between the co-existing emphasis on the goodness and utility of pain and suffering and the focus on its alleviation, but that kind of ambivalence is itself emblematic of the phenomenon of pain.  As Emily Dickinson notes, pain has an element of blank.  It defies categories and descriptions, and generates a variety of paradoxes (I teach a class on the paradoxes of pain.  Seriously!).

Third, and again presuming that Dr. Yamamoto-Wilson’s assessment is correct in the broad strokes, we should be extremely careful in our interpretation of the modern end of the comparison (and as a modernist, I speak with a bit more confidence here).  That is, we late moderns may well be vastly more Epicurean than our more Stoic early modern predecessors.  But it does not follow that the notion of enduring pain and suffering, nor the redemptive potential of such pain and suffering, is either uncommon or enervated.  This, like most features of the meaning of pain and suffering, likely varies significantly among different societies in the West, but especially in the U.S., known for its reliogisity, we have a deal of evidence suggesting the typicality and power of beliefs in the significance of enduring pain and its redemptive potential, as well as the moral value of suffering in silence.

As ever, I come back to the tension between the aphorism that the past is a foreign country and the likelihood that we may nevertheless speak related languages of pain and suffering.


UPDATE: Do check out Dr. Yamamoto-Wilson’s fantastic response in the comments!!