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Psychology from the pulpit

The colonial roots of understanding the national soul

Wikimedia CommonsMelancholy I, Albrecht DürerWikimedia Commons

In his Sermon on the fourth Sunday after Easter, Father Antônio Vieira (1608-1697) discusses the sadness of the biblical passage in which Jesus announces his death to the apostles, who grieve. For Vieira, however, the cause of that sadness was not the impending absence of the master, but the silence before his departure. If they had asked where Christ was going to, they would have understood that there was no reason to suffer. Thus, the cause of grief was the silence. In a curious parallel, in 1895, Freud said: “We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.” The basis of Freudian psychoanalysis was healing through words and self-knowledge of the soul. Something that, in 1676, Vieira (read more on page 86) had already alluded to in The five stones from the sling of David: “The prime motive for all of our actions is the knowledge of ourselves,” he adds in Sermon on the fourth Sunday of Advent: “Nothing is more forgotten, more behind us than ourselves.”

“In this first modernity there was a form of therapy that used words to treat heartache, though identifying it directly with current psychotherapy is still inaccurate,” explains psychologist Paulo José Carvalho da Silva, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), and author of the FAPESP supported study entitled, “Ideas on heartache in Brazil between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries” [Ideias sobre as dores da alma no Brasil entre os séculos XVI e XVIII]. “Even so, investigating the notion of heartache in this period is an offshoot of the original history of ideas in psychology, an emerging area of research in the history of science. Psychology, like the science of therapeutic practices, had not been systematized in the late nineteenth century, but since ancient times many thinkers have wanted to understand and treat the soul and one of the names for these areas of knowledge was medicine of the soul, “says the researcher. “Many of the concepts of modern psychology are rooted in the past and looking to the past enables us to recognize the continuous links to our present, the origins of our theories and methods on our own way of thinking.

“If we analyze all the Luso-Brazilian colonial production, highlighting the contributions of the Jesuits, we note the creation of forms and methods for the construction of a kind of knowledge of the subjectivity of human behavior that is very relevant to the definition of the foundations that give rise modern psychology,” says psychologist Marina Massimi, a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of São Paulo and author of, among other works, The History of Psychology in Brazil [História da psicologia brasileira] (E.P.U.). “The preoccupation with psychological phenomena is nothing new in Brazil and since colonial times they appear in works of philosophy, moral theology, medicine, politics etc. whose study shows a production that is often original and issues that are current even today,” agrees psychologist Mitsuko Makino Antunes of PUC-SP and author of Psychology in Brazil: historical readings on its constitution [A psicologia no Brasil: leitura histórica sobre sua constituição].

The psychologist and professor at USP, Isaiah Pessotti, observes in his study, Notes for a history of psychology in Brazil [Notas para uma história da psicologia brasileira], that “the evolution of modern psychology begins in colonial Brazil in which they conveyed ideas of interest to the area, in various areas of knowledge, even without the presumption of building psychology.” According to the researcher, these texts were explicitly about other issues, but dealt with questions such as teaching methods, emotional control, causes of madness, the differences in behavior between the sexes and races, etc. composing the thoughts of the cultural elite of the colonial era. “It’s a pre-institutional period, because what was published are works detached from institutions of psychology. They are individual works, not committed to the construction or dissemination of psychological knowledge, written by authors indifferent to the progress of psychology per se. Most are religious figures or politicians, men of salience and power, illuminated by European culture and interested in using this ‘psychology’ for the organization of society and the Brazilian state.”

Wikimedia CommonsNarcissus, Michelangelo CaravaggioWikimedia Commons

Treatments for diseases of the soul were assumed, in the beginning, by religious groups, in the case of colonial Brazil by Jesuit missionaries, and later by others, although this does not mean that medicine of the soul was a strictly religious endeavor. It was postulated in general, that there is a continuity between the pain of the body and the soul, identifiable as sadness, grief or discontent. “In the first modernity, philosophical debates about the definition of the nature of passions also included their relationship to violence. Many argued that passion was a dangerous element of human nature with enormous subversive potential. Philosophers of various traditions claimed that the passion is able to corrupt governments, ruin societies, or even cause death. Passion was a problem of the order of ethics, politics, aesthetics, medicine and theology,” notes Carvalho da Silva. For those who lived in Brazil in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to experience passion was synonymous with “feeling”, to have feelings, and to be affected by passion meant to become emotional, to live an emotion. “There is an elaborate cultural production in Brazil that shows a predominant interest in this powerful and fragile dimension of human experience. The knowledge, control, and manipulation of passions, in their theoretical and practical nature, were a particularly important tool in forwarding religious objectives, social and political, of the Society of Jesus [Companhia de Jesus], as revealed in the interest of the Jesuits on the subject,” says Marina Massimi.

The system was based on theories formulated by Aristotle, revisited in the thirteenth century by Thomas Aquinas (hence the name “Thomistic Aristotelianism”), a basis reworked by later thinkers in treatises called Conimbrences (a term derived from Conimbrica, the Latin name for the city of Coimbra, where the studies were elaborated), which are commentaries on the works of Aristotle regarding passion. These scholars attached great importance to the states defined as passions of the soul, understood as stimulation of the sensitive desires, coming from the sense of good or evil, leading to some kind of unnatural mutation of the body. “The Jesuit philosophers reaffirmed, along the lines of Aristotle and Aquinas, the positive function of passion, if ordered by reason, which would help the survival of man and help him attain virtue. They would become diseases or disorders of the mind just as they departed from the rule of reason and moderation. Thus the ‘psychology’ of Conimbrences is expressive of the cultural position of the nascent modernity,” says Marina. In this movement, a deep analogy between the body of man, considered as something psychosomatic, and the socio-political body was established. “It is at this meeting that the control and therapy of the passions seem to find their theoretical and practical functions. In the dynamic of the social body, as well as in the individual body, the ‘despotism’ of the passions should be subjected to a ‘monarchy’ where the rule of reason and liberty is attributed to each aspect of the psychic life, its function and its peculiar place,” the researcher adds.

“Hence the importance of preaching, seen as a means of transmission of psychological concepts and practices, but also as an expression of the relationship between rhetoric, theory of knowledge and philosophical psychology, resulting in a very significant practice of speaking and, in a certain sense, precursor of the modern confidence in the power of words and discourse that is present in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in general.” The word of the preacher has the ability to change the judgments and attitudes of listeners, and one of the foundations of that power, notes the author, would be the ability of words to reach and mobilize the psychic dynamism of the recipients, in terms of the psychology formulated by Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine. “The spoken word aims to teach the act of knowledge involving the whole human psyche,” says Marina. A typical example of this would be the Sermons of Vieira, where it combines the Jesuit’s concern with the moral effects of grief among the Brazilian population, their apprehension with the melancholy dissatisfaction of the colonists and the long European tradition of medical meditations, philosophical and theological about this passion of the soul. “Vieira emphasizes the universality and severity of grief, to which even the kings of all lands, the most powerful emperors and the pope are subject. Grief is quite dangerous to the health of the body and salvation of the soul. More or less acute, grief is always mortal, it’s like a worm that eats its victim from the inside out, drying everything until the beginning of life is extinguished. Also according to him, hidden sorrows are the most oppressive, sensitive and dangerous,” said Carvalho.

Wikimedia CommonsDetail of the Dream of Constantine, Piero della FrancescaWikimedia Commons

“But pain was understood as a phenomenon of the human condition that goes beyond the imaginable limits of the soul, body and even the boundaries that would separate one individual from another. This reveals that there was a confluence of knowledge and fields that now appears dissociated, but at that time, was a more or less fluent dialogue. Talking about the pain involved not only addresses health and illness, but also subjects such as finitude and eternity, loss and separation, fantasy and reality, reason and affection, joy and suffering, life and death,”continues the researcher. “What is this world but a universal map of misery, work, peril, misfortune, and death,” wrote Father Vieira. Consolation came to be, then, a part of pastoral activities, and next to administration of the sacraments, priests offered medicine of the soul for those who were in pain. “Therefore, the identification of true and legitimate pain is a fundamental reference for the Christian comforter and a condition for the experience to go beyond pain, necessary for salvation of the soul. All comforters, like all confessors, must know how to name the pain of those who suffer,” says Carvalho. According to the researcher, sermons were the most used way to realize the art of consolation and medicine of the soul in its spiritual and psychological function, which presupposes a knowledge of the importance of memory in the experience of pain and its treatment, in particular, its role in the origin and permanence of heartache and, therefore, in overcoming it. “But it is important to remember that comfort is the result of a solitary and personal decision. To the extent that the notion of the individual and of inner life has gained more space in the modern mind, the relationship between self-knowledge and the experience of consolation was narrowed even more.”

Vieira, in particular, bet on the autonomy of human reason to master their passions and appetites when he says that “knowledge of self, and the concept that each person has this, is a powerful force over one’s own actions.” You need to turn your eyes, always open to outside things, back to the inside. “Frei Chagas, for example, recommended that it was better to devote time and intelligence not so much to the study of history, geography, and culture, but to the soul itself. This anatomy of self is the modern equivalent of what would be the analysis of the soul, ie, its decomposition into smaller parts in order to understand it better, “notes the author.”Knowledge of self is seen as functional for control over one’s own actions, based on the possibility of the subject representing one’s inner experience through discourse. The need of speech to formulate self knowledge makes this not possible, for example, in intense experiences just like crying. Self-knowledge is translated to discourse whose purpose is to communicate the living experience to others. The other is a listener. The listening, that one offers to the subject, allows a better articulation of verbal communication and catharsis. The interpersonal relationship and dialogue assumes a therapeutic function, the principle, indeed, of all modern psychotherapy,” says Marina. Thus, the subject occupies an active place, making knowledge for the transformation of inner experience into the speech elaborated by one’s own self possible. The phenomena of consciousness and verbal communication are the conditions for understanding this phenomenon.

“The words, while at the same time being aimed at the subjective phenomena, externalizing what was contained in the privacy of the individual, also favor the release of the painful emotions of those states.” Speaking about pain could alleviate the heart, while silencing it only causes the pain to accumulate, and become even greater. “It was possible to heal through words. It was also believed that the true orator, as a doctor of souls, healed their audiences of illness, combating the passions that are against them: they appease the pain, arouse the courage to succeed in making love from hate, and so on” says Carvalho. “It is worth remembering the importance of the image, which, together with speech, is a great resource for cultural transmission in societies marked by orality,” says Marina.

Wikimedia CommonsDetail of The Death of the Virgin, Michelangelo CaravaggioWikimedia Commons

The arrival of new scientific principles to colonial Brazil brought changes in this psychological view of man. “They develop an innovative psychology and psychopathology in relation to earlier cultural tradition. Reducible to the mind and body, which is governed by the laws of nature, it is possible to approach their study by means of the scientific method, which has proven effective in physics and biology. Mental disorders as well, which depend on the functioning of the body according to this new enlightened view, could be causally known, prevented and treated by modifying the variables for physical medicine and hygiene standards,” explains the researcher. “The treatment of heartache must now be carried out with pharmaceutical drugs that eventually subordinate moral theology to medicine, considered the discipline that ultimately can instrument treatment of the soul, including those traditionally cared for by confessors,” agrees Carvalho.

Such is the case, for example, of Francisco de Mello Franco (1757-1822), who in his Theological Medicine [Medicina teológica] postulates that the figure of the confessor is replaced by the doctor who has accurate knowledge of the causes of diseases of the soul and provides therapeutic methods as medicine, all the result of an objective and casual analysis. “The purpose of medical psychology in the eighteenth century, which would be consolidated in the nineteenth century, was to define a ‘truth’ about man, an alternative to that proclaimed by traditional knowledge of Christian origin. Happiness is identified with proper regulation of the physical body, according to the order of the system of nature,” says Marina. “It’s not treatment with speech, but a medicine itself. Works like that of Mello Franco propose the replacement of confessors with the new medicine of the nerves and argue that it is necessary to know the nerves, their structure, in order to treat human vices. Contrary to medicine of the soul, it opens a new pathway to medicine, founded on the basis of a new conception of man, science and rationality,” argues Carvalho.

After all, the ideal world advocated in sermons no longer holds. “The dream of a society ordered by truth and justice is replaced by an awareness of the inevitability of one’s destiny imposed by the colonial regime. So, the inner psychological dimension of man is no longer conceived as a mirror of universal harmony, as orderly reform was desired by Thomistic Aristotelianism, nor is the place in man where that divine spark that ensuring his immortality lives, but as the precarious refuge and passenger of the individual against the absolutism of power and disorder outside of society,” explains the researcher. Gradually, the ideology of the Brazilian national character that handles psychological features in the construction of theories to define the collective characteristics of the “Brazilian.” “In the nineteenth century, the process of organizing national society brought about the need to level social and cultural subjects. The new question is ‘who are we’? I believe that the occurrence of this process was one of the reasons that explain, in part, why the introduction and spread of modern psychology in the country, in their scientific aspects of behavior or the psychology of individual differences, with their techniques of evaluation and measurement of the human being, was greatly enhanced and supported as the appropriate and modern instrument to be used in this perspective.” Until the early nineteenth century there was no psychology itself as a recognized practice in Brazil. But the interest of the national elite in the production and application of psychological knowledge was increasing, especially in the newly established medical schools in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, where several theses on the subject were produced.

In Bahia, the main concern was with the application of psychology to social problems, such as mental hygiene and forensic psychiatry. In Rio, the concern was more about the relationship of psychology with neurology and neuropsychiatry, and with studies in experimental psychology. “Much of this production is linked to the movement that sought to improve sanitation in cities, which involved the elimination of both physical and moral ‘filth’ from urban centers. Physicians engaged in actions to eradicate these problems and create a healthy, organized, and normalized society, free of clutter and the deviation of social dregs. Hospices arrived with the aim of helping the insane, to be hygienic asylums based on moral treatment, but in practice served only to exclude undesirables from society,” notes Ali Mitsuko. A choice that has brought serious consequences to the national psychology. “A psychologist rooted in culture and society is an agent of social transformation, rather than standardization. Today we have a choice: to act in restricting the human being as a productive part of globalized society or to affirm it as the protagonist of society. I think that the knowledge of the psychological ideas raised at the core of the cultural history of our country has the obligation to illuminate this choice,” says Marina.