On a swelteringly hot and quiet afternoon in my Perth office at UWA, I am having a go at the superlative Latin of the Jesuits of La Flèche commemorating the death of Henri IV, their patron, in a solid volume of half a thousand pages: In anniversarium Henrici magni obitus diem lacrymae collegii Flexiensis regii (La Flèche, J. Rezé, 1611). Grieving and remembering can be a wordy business.
The book is a miscellany of funeral orations and occasional pieces in Latin, Greek, and French. It is a source of mild excitement for Cartesian scholars, as it might well contain the first published text by Descartes, then a schoolboy. Battling through ternary periods and exultant apodoses of the ‘Address to the reader,’ I come across this phrase expressing the grief of the Order when they lost their protector and the founder of the College: ‘gravissimus doloris sensus in universum societatis nostrae corpus redundavit’ (Lectori benevolo, p.3).
First, I marvel at the rhetorical skills of my author, who is getting the best out of his lexis. There is a very literal and organic meaning at work in this phrase: this is the heavy (gravis) pain (dolor) felt as a sensation (sensus) pouring in excess through the Order as a body (corpus). And there is also a very cultural and political meaning at work there: this is the venerable (gravis) grief (dolor) experienced as a collective affection, almost an opinion (sensus) by the Order as an organized body (corpus universum).
Then I ponder. Gravely? Not so much yet, but the question nags me – be it only because I need to work out a half decent translation of this passage for my ANZAMEMS paper (see here for info on the upcoming ANZAMEMS conference at Monash in Melbourne this February). Where is my author locating the ‘sensus dolor’ he is talking about? How to define it? Is it a ‘brute’ sensation in the body: the pangs of pain? Is it an elaborate cultural construct shared by a religious order and, beyond it, as my author would have it, a whole nation, united, constituted as such even, by the mourning of their king? Hurt is politically good here — it is a sign of allegiance of the Jesuit to the kingdom, and they need to give plenty of these. Are these two meanings accounted for by pinning one down as ‘literal’ and the other as ‘metaphorical’ – the good old body politic, Aesop, Livy and Plutarch’s ‘guts on strike’ etc.?
Another cause for pondering: this is 1611, and yet, my ‘sensus dolor’ is not labeled as a passion, not in that text at least.
So I turn to Lewis and Short online (thank you Tufts University and the Perseus project) and check sensus. My Jesuit author knew his classics, surely I’ll find the answer there, in all likelihood in Cicero, who defined the Jesuit standard of good Latinity. The entry reads like this, minus a few examples:
I. the faculty or power of perceiving, perception, feeling, sensation, sense, etc.
A. Corporeal, perception, feeling, sensation: “omne animal sensus habet: sentit igitur et calida et frigida et dulcia et amara, nec potest ullo sensu jucunda accipere et non accipere contraria: si igitur voluptatis sensum capit, doloris etiam capit. etc.,” Cic. N. D. 3, 13, 32
B. A sense, capacity for feeling: “ut idem interitus sit animorum et corporum nec ullus sensus maneat, etc.,” Cic. Lael. 4, 14: “tactus corporis est sensus,” Lucr. 2, 435: “oculorum,” id. 3, 361; so, “oculorum, aurium,” Cic. Tusc. 5, 38, 111; id. Fin. 2, 16, 52; id. Div. 2, 52, 107;
II. Mental, feeling, sentiment, emotion, affection; sense, understanding, capacity;
1. humor, inclination, disposition, frame of mind, etc.: “ipse in commovendis judicibus eis ipsis sensibus, ad quos illos adducere vellem, permoverer,” Cic. de Or. 2, 45, 189
2. Opinion, thought, sense, view: “animi,” Cic. de Or. 2, 35, 148: “valde mihi placebat sensus ejus de re publicā,” id. Att. 15, 7: “(orator) ita peragrat per animos hominum, ita sensus mentesque pertractat, ut, etc.
3. Esp., the common feelings of humanity, the moral sense, taste, discretion, tact in intercourse with men, often called in full sensus communis (sometimes with hominum), and often in other phrases of similar force: “ut in ceteris (artium studiis) id maxime excellat, quod longissime sit ab imperitorum intellegentiā sensuque disjunctum, in dicendo autem vitium vel maximum sit a volgari genere orationis atque a consuetudine communis sensus abhorrere,” Cic. de Or. 1, 3, 12
B. Transf. (in the poets, and also in prose after the Aug. per.), of the thinking faculty, sense, understanding, mind, reason (syn.: mens, ratio).
1. In gen. (rare): “misero quod omnes Eripit sensus mihi,” Cat. 51, 6; cf.: “tibi sensibus ereptis mens excidit,”
2. In partic., of discourse.
a. Abstr., sense, idea, notion, meaning, signification (syn.: sententia, notio, significatio, vis; poet. and post-Aug.; freq. in Quint.): nec testamenti potuit sensus colligi, Phaedr. 4, 5, 19
b. Concr., a thought expressed in words, a sentence, period (postAug.): “sensus omnis habet suum finem, poscitque naturale intervallum, quo a sequentis initio dividatur’, “verbo sensum cludere multo optimum est,” id. 9, 4, 26 et saep.—Hence, communes sensus (corresp. with loci), commonplaces, Tac. Or. 31.
My dictionary gave me a few answers.
• The distinction operating in this definition is not between a literal and a metaphorical meaning, but between corporeal and mental processes.
• Even in Ciceronian Latin, sensus encompasses the full range of activities of the soul, from sensation to perception and feeling, and finally to the elaborate ‘common sense’, ‘taste’ and ‘tact’, that is, the unspoken ethical rules of a community – ‘une police’ and ‘la politesse’ of a body of citizens. My humanist Jesuit author draws on all these strands of meaning — they inform his own conception of what the patriotic grief of the king is and should be. Sensus just falls short of purely intellectual, or analytical activities of the mind for Cicero.
• But fret not! Imperial Latin takes these over too, as well as their linguistic signifiers. The dictionary leaves us there, with sensus communes meaning the rhetorical commonplaces of classical culture that humanist teachers – among which, our Jesuits – were so fond of.
Will I translate sensus as ‘emotion’? I don’t think so.
My little lexical investigation has had me glimpse at a complex psychological terminology and its related conceptual panorama. They call for a reassessment of the traditional historiographical account of seventeenth-century Passions kept in check by a triumphant Reason.
This panorama reminds me once again that the past I am scrutinizing is foreign land; its disciplinary and conceptual landscapes are no longer mine. Digging them out in all their otherness is what I consider to be a primordial methodological caveat as well as a necessary ethical requirement of the intellectual historian – and, as far as I am concerned, her main pleasure.
Posted by Raphaële Garrod