Wednesday, August 31, 2016


ONE of the most characteristic features of this age is the popular view of the infliction or permission of physical pain. That it should be regarded with universal dread and dislike is of course natural; but for many years past people have gone far beyond this. That anybody should be in pain, and not be immediately relieved—that sharp pain should ever be inflicted on any one under any circumstances—that physical discomfort, in the shape of bad health, or habits tending to produce it, or in almost any other shape, should ever be allowed to exist undisturbed—shocks and scandalizes people in these days, and makes them exclaim against the contrast which such facts are said to bring to light between our professed Christianity and our real indifference to suffering. For many reasons, this state of mind is worth notice, especially because it is, comparatively speaking, new. Men have always shrunk from suffering, and possibly the inclination to do so is not stronger now than it has been at former periods; but the universal sensibility to it and intolerance of it which shows itself in all quarters in these days is comparatively modern. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries people were not less religious than they are at present, but they were not the least scandalized by scenes which in the present day would be intolerable. Flogging, branding, and other corporal punishments of the most severe kind—the pillory, for example—were exceedingly common, whilst an unhealthy prison excited no remark at all. "The Puritans," to quote one of Lord Macaulay's most pungent antitheses, "objected to bull-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bull, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators;" and several of them coupled a protest against the infliction of capital punishment for theft with a protest against the infliction of secondary punishment for manslaughter. The Mosaic law, they said, prescribed restitution in the one case and death in the other, and that was enough.

The grounds and the reasonableness of our present feelings on the subject afford a curious subject for inquiry. It should be observed, in the first place, that the object of our dislike and disapprobation is narrower than might have been supposed. There are many kinds of suffering to the infliction or permission of which no greater repugnance is felt at present than in former times. It is principally to acute pain and to physical pain that the objection is felt. If it is either mental or chronic, it troubles our humanity comparatively little. This is well illustrated by the tone which every one thinks it necessary to assume in writing or speaking of torture. The word itself is a reproach; and to assert that it is inflicted or permitted in any case whatever is to bring against those whose conduct is so described a heavy charge. However right this feeling may be, it is not reasonable, for there is no doubt whatever that practices equivalent to torture are constantly carried on without exciting scandal.

In France, the abolition of judicial torture was looked upon as one of the greatest and most unquestionable benefits of the Revolution, yet a proceeding essentially identical with it is in full practice without any sort of remonstrance at the present day. In the last century, when a man was strongly suspected of crime, wedges could, under certain circumstances, be driven between his legs and a case in which they were enclosed, until he confessed his guilt. This is no longer lawful, yet it not only is lawful, but is the ordinary course of criminal justice, to keep a suspected man without a trial in solitary confinement for the express purpose of getting evidence from him by reiterated interrogation as to the crime of which he is accused. It is obvious that many cases might arise in which a few turns of the thumbscrew or a certain number of wedges in the boot might be a far less evil than prolonged solitary confinement; yet a polished and susceptible nation, which was horrified at the one infliction, is indifferent to the other. Something of the same kind may be observed in our own country. A military flogging is not nearly so severe a punishment as penal servitude, and desertion is as great a crime as ordinary thefts; yet when a soldier is flogged for the former offence, far more attention is attracted and far more sympathy elicited than when a labourer is sentenced to penal servitude for the other. A parallel might be found in the case of exhibitions. A prize-fight is denounced as brutalizing and disgusting because two men severely beat and bruise each other in public, and because there is a good deal of blood to be seen; but if a man walks a thousand miles in a thousand hours, though he strains his bodily powers much more severely, and risks far more serious and permanent injury than the prize-fighter, the exhibition may be described as foolish, but is never stigmatized as brutal.

From these illustrations, which might be indefinitely multiplied, it appears to follow that the form of humanity which is so characteristic of the present day is averse not so much to all suffering as to suffering in its acute and picturesque form. We shrink not from the notion that a fellow creature is unhappy, but from the idea of cutting, tearing, or bruising flesh and limbs like our own. Tenderness for the sufferings of our own imaginations is constantly confounded with, and is probably at all times an element in, the disapproval which is excited in us by hearing of the infliction of pain on others. It is hard to say how far this feeling accounts for the language which is in common use amongst us in reference to such matters. That it has much more to do with it than people in general are willing to suppose, seems to follow from the fact that arguments are hardly ever brought forward upon the subject. People rely entirely upon two or three standard phrases to express their abhorrence of the permission or the infliction of acute bodily suffering. When, for example, we read of cruelties practised, or said to be practised, by despotic Governments, the " instincts of humanity" are appealed to. General Haynau, it was said, flogged women. The instincts of humanity, it was supposed —and to judge by the result it was rightly supposed — were revolted by the mere mention of such an act. No one asked what the woman who was flogged had done. The act in itself was considered as condemned by its own atrocity. If any one asked the question why women should not be flogged if they deserved it (a question to which there are, especially in our own time and country, a variety of sufficiently satisfactory answers), he was always met by an appeal to instinct. It never occurred to those who gave the answer that even in this country such an instinct is of modern growth, and that a hundred years ago the flogging of women was quite compatible with the instincts of Englishmen, and was not uufrequently practised. The instinct, therefore, is not an ultimate fact — an unchanging and perpetual element of human nature—but only the particular sentiment of the present generation; and thus the degree to which it ought to be allowed to prevail and extend is still a question for discussion. Another expression of the same kind, which comes a little nearer to being a reason, is found in the word " brutalizing." A prizefight, it is said, is a "brutalizing" exhibition. Flogging is a " brutalizing" punishment. It is no doubt true that to inflict pain on a man is to appeal to his animal nature in a direct and emphatic manner, and this may be done in a way and to a degree which will either ignore or supersede his spiritual nature; and it is also true that to come to look upon the suffering of another merely as a source of excitement, would be to reach a degraded condition. But neither of these is the necessary consequence of the use of sharp physical pain for particular purposes. They rather result from the mode and degree of its application. When the subject is approached with calmness and impartiality, it will probably be found that there are principles upon which the permission and infliction of the most severe sorts of physical pain may be regulated, and that our present habits of thought and feeling have gone a good deal too far in the direction of prohibiting its use in all cases whatever. The objections to pain as a punishment, or to exhibitions which involve pain, are no doubt substantial. No punishment varies so much in amount, none affords such scope for tyranny, for bad temper, or for malignity and cruelty. It is moreover irremissible when once inflicted; and it is usually too short to admit of much permanent influence being brought to bear on the person who suffers it. All this, and much more, is sufficiently familiar to persons who care to understand the principles of punishment. The other side of the question is not so familiar, and the fact that it has fallen out of sight is, on many accounts, to be regretted.

In the first place, it deserves a certain degree of notice that, according to the constitution of nature, pain may be expected to have its place. It is the great natural check by which men are governed; and it exercises, perhaps, a stronger moral influence than any other power in the world. No one can have witnessed the moral results of severe pain consequent upon illness or accident without seeing that no known power is so searching and so extensive in its range. The lessons which are taught by discomfort and suffering are wonderfully valuable. There is no other school in which things are set in their true light and rated at their true value so completely. In some respects, physical is even more instructive than mental pain. In every form of mental suffering, the operations of the mind are themselves the source of the pain felt, and thus, while it lasts, the mind does not reflect upon or confront it; but bodily pain, being external to the mind, by confronting and assaulting it, teaches it lessons which have more chance of being remembered than almost any others. It seems foolish to throw away this great resource in punishing those who are the proper objects of punishment merely because it pains those who inflict it as well as those on whom it is inflicted, especially when we remember that, as a form of punishment, it has many recommendations, such as brevity, emphasis, and great convenience and cheapness. The real reason which indisposes people to the infliction of pain is the suffering which the spectacle produces on society at large. This, however, so far from being a valid objection, is to some extent a positive advantage. It is right and desirable that people should see themselves and the world in which they live as they really are. It is not to be wished that whatever is wrong and bad should be penned off from the rest of the community in a moral cesspool. It is, on the contrary, a good thing that people should see the results of the bad influences which their conduct engenders, and should undergo the pain of witnessing or hearing of the infliction of the necessary penalties. A somewhat more precise acquaintance than is commonly possessed with some of the secrets of prisons and hospitals would make many of us sadder, and most of us wiser.

With regard to exhibitions which involve physical pain, a distinction may be suggested which it is well to bear in mind, though its application in practice may be difficult. There can be no doubt at all, on the one hand, that to learn to bear pain patiently, and to acquire a certain degree of indifference to it, is a most valuable accomplishment; and much of the admitted importance of athletic sports is derived from the fact that they have a considerable influence in this direction. To bear with good temper the kicks incidental to football, the bruises of a boxing-match, or the fatigue, distress, and sore feet which result from long walks and climbing over mountains, is a substantial advantage; but it is possible to carry such practices to a point at which they become evils, because they invest the power of enduring pain with more importance than it deserves. Pain is not the evil of evils and ought not to be recognized as such. If it is, the higher forms of courage are lost. This is well illustrated by the discipline of the Spartans and by the voluntary tortures of the North American Indians. The Athenians were an overmatch for the former, and Europeans for the latter, though an Indian will undergo, merely for the credit of the thing, tortures the description of which it is sickening to read, and which no white man could endure at all. Courage is not the mere absence of fear, but is an active principle, and can be fostered only by a generosity and liberality of treatment incompatible with a training by which too much importance is attached to mere physical suffering.

Saturday Review, May 5, 1860.

No comments:

Post a Comment