You are here


Can we touch the pain of someone else? That touch has limitations as a means of experiencing the suffering of others is made clear in the surgeon René Leriche’s description of the physician’s empathetic impasse. Startled by a “storm” of pain descending on the patient, he writes, you reach out, “touching lightly with your hand the region of pain, surprised that you can feel nothing, and yet at times, by your touch, even exciting dreadful recurrent spasms of pain” (1939: 29). Touch, then, communicates nothing of pain to the one touching, even as it causes more pain to the one touched.

And yet, we do believe that we share in the suffering of others: we feel sympathy. Does sympathy stand in place of touch? Or does it rely on a different sense of touch? In this paper, I consider a case from the pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata where the logistics of contact at a distance are brought to bear on the question of shared suffering from a Peripatetic perspective: why is it, the author asks, that, seeing someone cut or tortured, we suffer in mind, dianoia (7.7, 887a15)? He offers two alternative answers: either we suffer because of a kinship (oikeiotês) with the sufferer, derived from a common nature; or, just as the nose and ears receive emanations (aporrhoias), so, too, does sight receive emanations from painful and pleasant things. These explanations reflect different models of physical causality that were developing in the fourth century bce: one mechanistic, the other informed by the concept of a commonality allowing communication between its parts. But the two answers, I argue, are also implicated in each other. For, if torture is as painful to watch as a flower is pleasant to smell, we need some kind of a concept of common nature that allows the pain of others to be translated into something painful to the spectator.

My analysis of Problemata 7.7 builds on recent research on ancient pity (Konstan 2001; Sternberg 2006). Yet pity differs from sympathy in that it “does not, in fact, require that we experience an emotion identical to that of the pitied,” as Konstan has written (2001: 13). Indeed, for Konstan, pity requires distance, not contact. In contrast, the phenomenon considered at Problemata 7.7 is part of a larger category of problems having to do with sympatheia in the sense of co-affection underwritten by a natural bond. The immediate context also bears on our understanding of oikeiotês. While the development of the concept in later Peripatetic thought has been much debated (e.g., Dirlmeier 1937; Pohlenz 1940; Brink 1956), I approach it primarily as an instance of sympathy, which primarily concerns affinities and resonances between non-human entities, rather than human bonds. I thus foreground the author’s framing of shared suffering in terms of contact as one of the most interesting features of his account.

I begin by sketching the immediate context for the passage in question: the problem of sympatheia. I then briefly consider the larger intellectual context for the two proposed models, keeping in mind the difficulty of securely dating the Problemata: the use of emanations to explain those senses that do not involve contact and the rise of the concepts of kinship and “common nature” in the later fourth century, with particular attention to Theophrastus. In the second half of the paper, I press the issue of what it would mean for emanations to communicate pain, with particular attention to the portrayal of sight elsewhere in the chapter as the most sensitive of the senses. I also consider how the idea of a common nature might shape the responsiveness of sight to pain. I close by reflecting on how concepts of touch at a distance unite not only the experiential realities of the sufferer and the spectator but also the materialist and human dimensions of feeling another’s pain.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy