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Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering
by Joseph A. Amato
Praeger, 223 pages, $14.95

It is not hard to imagine the common sense reaction to the news that a distinguished historian had attempted to cover the history of human suffering in a little over two hundred pages. What have humans ever thought, done, or made that is not directly or indirectly involved with suffering in one or other of its many categories? Even those moments when suffering seems to have been completely transcended are experientially defined by the preliminary suffering that was their point of departure, if not in some paradoxical way their cause. What would such a book be about if not simply the human condition, and would we not expect it to have strangled in the effort to ingest its subject?

I must report at once that in Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering,  Joseph A. Amato has turned his apparently impossible assignment into an exciting book that is multicultural and multidisciplinary in the best sense of those much-abused terms. It is a model of clarity, wit, and erudition. Without pretending to encompass its subject once and for all, it has the ability to structure creatively its readers’ thinking on that subject. Professor Amato begins with the hope that he will do “what few writers currently do: join philosophy and history . . . and integrate reflections on ethics with insights drawn from intellectual history.” What he produces is an anatomy of suffering the major axis of which is the irony that “battles over the value of suffering intensify in the contemporary world precisely at the same time people in ever greater numbers discard the notion that suffering is an inevitable part of human experience.”

Here in his introductory and forecasting pages we are at the heart of Amato’s quite Christian theory of suffering. What follows is in effect a history of theories of suffering, beginning with the ancient world. Subsequent chapters take up the relation between values and suffering in early Christian times, in the enlightened eighteenth century, in the Romantic and Victorian periods, in the Europe of both world wars, and in America. All of this material provides a rich background for a treatment of the political, social, moral, and personal consequences of attitudes toward suffering in the contemporary world. A splendid bibliographical essay supplies a proper postscript. The documentation is detailed throughout and is in effect a study guide for those who will be stimulated by the text to pursue further an immensely complex subject.

As his title might suggest, Amato is much concerned with that universal condition, victimization. In a thematic introductory sentence, he states that “the claim to the exclusive status of being an owed victim constitutes one of the great moral nihilisms of this century.” In elaborating this view, Amato offers perceptive treatments of such contemporary phenomena as the counterculture, affirmative action, the escalating reactions to the chauvinisms of race, class, and sex, and the continuing threat of the Nietzschean denigration of the past. We are living with a “victim language” that characteristically predicates a Manichean worldview, and that allows its users “a dramatic and superior moral posture, serving their desire for power.” And just as ascetics and Romantic poets were in the past reluctant to let their suffering go (it paid off in spiritual or aesthetic currency), so many contemporary victims have learned not to let their victimization go (having gained self-definition from it, a victimless condition becomes unthinkable). Indeed, the modern awareness of so much victimization imposes such a burden of sympathy and responsibility on the less victimized that they have learned to depend on the media to make the burden more tolerable by turning it into entertainment. 

The late-eighteenth-century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (we find him everywhere in the book) had a better way of alleviating suffering. Believing with the Greek philosopher Epicurus that all human experience and values could be reduced to pleasure and pain and treated as homogeneous and quantifiable, Bentham “sought to make himself the Newton of societal reforms.” Coleridge, for whom suffering and insight were as inseparable as civilization and its discontents were for Freud, abhorred utilitarianism. There was no room for the urgings of poetry or religion in Bentham’s passionless life; his pleasure/pain calculus looks forward to the triumph of Philip Rieff’s Therapeutic Man, as well as to all those psychologists who, in Amato’s conclusion, “reduce all suffering to calculable pain and attribute only negative meaning to it.”

Such people, defining suffering by the pleasure that it is not, are at least implicitly Utopian. For them, as Amato says, “the measure of justice has been replaced by the ideal of happiness.” Indeed, he sees the modern sensibility as increasingly invaded by the Utopian impulse and the victim of a paradoxical increase rather than reduction of suffering. He would agree with a remark made by that non-utopian, Franz Kafka:

You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.

Coleridge would have agreed with this and so would the Shakespeare who wrote King Lear, but for Epicurus and Bentham, it is high heresy. For the latter two the absence of suffering is the surest protection against the painful truths that the “unaccommodated” Lear discovers on the stormy heath. For Amato and Kafka our Utopian impulse is an attempt to escape from the freedom that can never be separated from the sweat, turmoil, and sacrifice of the human condition.

It is in this freedom that we tell the stories we must tell if we are to identify ourselves as human and “join ourselves to communities.” Eugene Weber in his Foreword thinks it especially appropriate that the book ends “with a paean in praise of stories.” To Amato the enemies of the stories we need are those who cannot believe that “suffering is not only a necessity and a test, but it is also”especially when concentrated on sacrifice”our risk for the good.” These enemies have never given up hope on Bentham’s calculus. They aspire to a condition beyond mere story where the good is never at risk. In a world that continues perversely to frustrate their aspirations, they are often honored with the sympathy reserved for suffering idealists.

John P. Sisk, emeritus Professor of English at Gonzaga University, is a frequent contributor to First Things .