The Anaesthetic Society


By the end of the last century, pain had become a regulator of body functions, subject to the laws of nature; it needed no more metaphysical explanation. It had ceased to deserve any mystical respect and could be subjected to empirical study in order to do away with it. By 1853, barely a century and a half after pain was recognized as a mere physiological safeguard, a medicine labeled as a “pain-killer” was marketed in La Crosse, Wisconsin. A new sensibility had developed which was dissatisfied with the world, not because it was dreary or sinful or lacking in enlightenment or threatened by barbarians, but because it was full of suffering and pain. Progress in civilization became synonymous with the reduction of the sum total of suffering. From then on, politics was taken to be an activity not so much for maximizing happiness as for minimizing pain. The result is a tendency to see pain as essentially a passive happening inflicted on helpless victims because the toolbox of the medical corporation is not being used in their favor.


In this context it now seems rational to flee pain rather than to face it, even at the cost of giving up intense aliveness. It seems reasonable to eliminate pain, even at the cost of losing independence. It seems enlightened to deny legitimacy to all nontechnical issues that pain raises, even if this means turning patients into pets. With rising levels of induced insensitivity to pain, the capacity to experience the simple joys and pleasures of life has equally declined. Increasingly stronger stimuli are needed to provide people in an anesthetic society with any sense of being alive. Drugs, violence, and horror turn into increasingly powerful stimuli that can still elicit an experience of self. Widespread anesthesia increases the demand for excitation by noise, speed, violence—no matter how destructive.


– Ivan Illich





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