Friedenthal, in his recent book on Luther, refers to a description of the burning of the Hussite heretic Hieronymus, of Prague, a man of strong build who struggled and screamed in the flames for a long time. He goes on to speak of the multiplied horrors of that age of the wars of religion, and ends briefly: “There were many who screamed.” There are many today. Shakespeare lived then, and sometimes made jokes about the rack, or even appeared, as at the end of Othello, to approve of torture. A kind of myopia makes us wonder how such a man, or Erasmus, could have lived, could have eaten and slept and drawn daily breath in a Europe reeking with such things. We fail to notice that our own world is infested with them, even if they are now kept under cover. It is only a generation since the Gestapo went out of business, and its disciples or imitators are still active. The list of countries that have been alleged within the last twelve months, with more or less evidence or proof, to practice torture on political prisoners is terribly long. In the case of some–Greece, South Africa, South Vietnam, Guatemala, Brazil–there seems little room for doubt about the truth of the charges.
On a million happier planets other nervous systems may have developed a different warning device, but on ours evolution has made physical pain, for all conscious life, far the most intense of sensations. Whether or not Browning’s organist was right to call God the great C-major of this life, its great C-minor is pain. Our race grew up under this fatality, and has only lately begun learning to counter it with science; it has lurked obsessively in all our instincts, imprinting on nerve and brain the fear of cruelty, and also perverse craving for it. They would seem to have generated very early in human history an impulse to ritualize pain in one form or another, to invest it, since it was irremediable, with meaning; to turn it into ceremony, or act of faith, or even entertainment, and thereby reinforce the individual by binding him closer to a group of sharers.
Throughout history there has been a great deal of self-inflicted pain, and men have been almost as willing to torment themselves as one another. This lingered on in the shape of religious austerities, the Hindu expiating his sins by suspending himself in full view from an iron hook run through his flesh, processions of Christian penitents flogging themselves amid public admiration. Or the individual may welcome pain inflicted by his fellows. The initiation ceremonies of many primitive communities, including England’s “public schools,” have included ordeals, even mutilations; a man’s induction into a world of pain must itself be painful. Thesiger describes barbarous forms of adult circumcision performed publicly among modern Arabs, which must have descended from older initiation ordeals. In the ritual of Red Indian torture the same severity was turned outward, against an enemy of the tribe, and strengthened the tribe’s collective will and self-confidence by enabling it to perform what in common life would be monstrous, and exposing every member of it to the same fate, if ever captured. It was part of the spice of life; children were sometimes given training for it, at the expense of animals.
When, after the long twilight of prehistory, state and religion, wealth and class division arose, they inherited not only the many material inventions of the dim past but also its shadowy ideas or instincts, and built some of the most barbarous of these into their own foundations. To an extent that textbooks of political theory have never recognized, men learned to dominate one another, as they learned to dominate serviceable animals, by exploiting their sensitiveness to pain. Often torture and painful modes of killing sprouted from the wars of conquest that accompanied the rise of the state, the rational purpose being to strike terror and shorten resistance. Inscriptions of Assyrian kings boast of how they mutilated, impaled, or burned hosts of war captives. Conquest also brought in regiments of slaves, whom it was necessary to keep in physical fear; in Rome a man’s slaves were tortured as a matter of course if he died and there was any doubt as to the cause. War has always revived ancient barbarities. The memoirs of a Mughal officer in command of an expedition against Assam in the early 17th century narrate how he ordered wounded prisoners to be trampled under elephants; Nazis in Yugoslavia drove their tanks over wounded prisoners. Methods of terror were also a part of the building up of discipline in the armed rabbles that were gradually transformed into armies. Elizabethan generals drew up their own military regulations, and death by torture, was likely to be the penalty for all the gravest offenses.