The Art of Suffering

Ann Thompson, The Art of Suffering and the Impact of Seventeenth-Century Anti-Providential Thought (Ashgate, 2003).

This book gives a useful insight into the decline of the ‘art of suffering’ in the seventeenth century. As Thompson explains, during the earlier part of the century, writers like Richard Rogers, Paul Baynes, John Downame, Henry Scudder, Thomas Gouge, Nicolas Byfield, Thomas Taylor, Edward Reyner and Isaac Ambrose discourse on the ‘voluntaristic art of suffering’, teaching ‘both how to “cope with” and how to “grow from”’ affliction. From the 1640s on, though, she notes the emergence of a different kind of discourse, teaching the sufferer only how to ‘cope with’ affliction, not how to ‘grow from’ it. This kind of discourse is exemplified by writers like William Perkins, Joseph Hall, Jeremiah Burroughs, Thomas Watson, Jeremy Taylor, Simon Patrick, Thomas Brooks, Richard Baxter, William Bates, Richard Allestree and Nathaniel Spinckes.

The drawback to her work is that it feels rather too much like what it is – a PhD thesis worked up into a book.There’s an abiding sense that it was written to satisfy the examiners, rather than engage a more general readership. If you can get past that, though, it marshals quite a lot of evidence (admittedly from a fairly narrow range of sources) and makes some useful points.