Meanings of Mourning: What Sense for Sensus?

The UWA office and its peacocks. Baroque!

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.

La Flèche, Bibliothèque Nationale de France,
La Flèche, Bibliothèque Nationale de France,

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).

The Culprit: In anniversarium Henrici magni obitus diem lacrymae collegii Flexiensis regii (La Flèche, J. Rezé, 1611)

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.

Assassination Henry IV (etching);, Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Assassination Henry IV (etching);, Bibliothèque Nationale de France

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

6 thoughts

  1. Terrific post Raph, and a fascinating ‘pre-history’ of the slippery and suggestive ‘sensibility’ of the eighteenth century I’m grappling with. Using slavery as a powerful metaphor for her own sense of entrapment at the fledgling colony of Sierra Leone in the 1790s, AnnaMaria Falconbridge exhorted her reader to try and imagine her feelings by sharing them: ‘Conceive yourself, pent up in a floating cage’. The injunction to ‘conceive’ has always seemed to me to capture just that complex of somatic and cognitive response you describe in ‘sensus’. It also seems to warn against trying to think them apart in any simplistic way!

  2. Thanks very much for this—fascinating stuff. Sensus does seem to traverse the traditional divide between reason and passion. I think “sense” carries a similar semantic range in contemporary English. We have physical “senses” that apprehend the material world. There’s an affective dimension—we speak of “sensitivity” as a disposition towards emotional responses—and a cognitive one: we can have a “sense” of an idea, prudent people have “good sense,” etc. There’s also, of course, the “sense” that you use in your title, suggesting something like a loose definition or meaning of a word—I imagine we speak of the “sense” of a word because we have a “sense” (a general apprehension) of its definition.

    I don’t think “sense” is ever used synonymously with “emotion,” but there are some connections. We say we have “a sense of longing” or “a sense of foreboding.” This construction, if I’m not mistaken, suggests a feeling in which the object is obscure or unknown. I believe the idea is that we are apprehending a feeling as if from a distance and can’t properly identify its cause or object. “A sense of longing” then is something like a loose cognitive awareness of an affective state.

    Just a few thoughts.

  3. Yes. I like what you’ve written about the physical senses; there’s definitely an affective dimension, as you put it, at least in terms of how the senses relate to points of the body that receive emotional stimuli… (I could give some banal examples, like the smell of a lover’s perfume, or the way the ear receives a familiar song, channeling it into more ‘intimate’, internal, cognitive or emotional parts of the body and consciousness.)

    I’ve been working my way through a fabulous edition of postmedieval on “the intimate senses” – intimacy adding another dimension, here – but it’s well worth a look for those who haven’t seen it:

  4. Funnily enough I’ve puzzled over how to translate this word in the eighteenth century, when the culture of sensibility was in full swing .. but does it carry different meaning in Latin? Forgive me for reproducing passage from my recent book, Prescribing Ovid, where I discuss the use of the term in the context of a Latin poem on the health of the learned:

    ‘The vernacular indications of Dr Heerkens’s Latin sensile, sensus etc. in the De valetudine literatorum are similarly vague; he is perhaps deliberately evasive. The successful man of letters is no impassive Stoic but must be endowed with a certain ‘sensitivity’ (‘sensus’) and feel himself the emotions he wishes to express: ‘Do you think that those who persuade the general mob, who have been its saving, who were able to consult the interests of their country, do you think their minds lacked sensitivity, and that they did not grieve themselves whilst others were grieving?’ (‘Et, qui hominum turbae suadere, salusque fuisse, / Consulere et patriae qui potuere suae, / Horum animos sensu caruisse, nec ex alienis, / Credis et hos propriis non doluisse malis?’, p. 144). This capacity for feeling is not a sign of mental weakness, however: ‘The more sensitive the mind is, and the more affected for worthy reasons, the sharper it usually is’ (‘Quo sensibilior mens est, affectaque dignis / Quo magis ex causis, acrior esse solet’, p. 144). Heerkens adduces the example of his revered compatriot, the poet Jacob Cats, who jumped into the grave of his deceased wife in order to put an end to his friends’ incessant entreaties that he re-marry (pp. 145–7). Sure, the mind of the sensitive man is ‘driven’ (‘acta’) by more ‘fibres’/‘nerves’ (‘nervisque’) (p. 213), but it is rare for a feeling heart to exist in a sickly body. Indeed, Cats’s pleasing bodily proportions disprove the theory of Jesuit Jacob Balde that intelligence and longevity are incompatible with good looks (p. 160 and nn. 30, 31). Special care must be taken, however, when the subject is young, and his ‘fibres’ are weaker.’

    So what do you reckon? Is ‘sensus’ here ‘sensibility’? Not really, or at least Heerkens is allowing the clash of connotations inherent in the ancient term to rewrite contemporary ideas about sensibility (inasmuch as it is associated with weakness, enfeebled nerves etc).


  5. I am particularly struck by the fact that, in the passages from Herkeen you are quoting, ‘sensitivity’ is the prerogative of the rhetorically skilled man, and allows him to empathize with his audience. The sensus of my Jesuits is very much the same as the sensus of your successful man of letters; it is a patriotic, political ability to ‘feel with’ the crowd he persuades, and even better than the crowd. In both the La Flèche Jesuit text and your quotations, I am also struck by the fact that sensus is used in relation to the collective and individual ability to mourn and grieve.
    So the healthier, brighter man of letters being also the one that is able to experience deeper, more painful feelings — but also to experience them in empathy with his audience — because he has a more nervous constitution seems to be very much part of your Herkeen picture. Yet I reckon it is already lurking behind my La Flèche Jesuits, even if the medical explanation is not part of the picture yet. Why not a rhetorical and political beginning to the notion of sensibility?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s