The Angelic Doctor's Five Remedies for Pain and Sorrow


Should “Old Aquinas” be forgot and never brought to mind?

Rather, St. Thomas should be well remembered because he helps to form the mind. This is sufficient reason to remember and honor him on his Jan. 28 feast day. Apart from being a philosopher and theologian of unparalleled excellence, he, along with William Shakespeare, stands among the greatest psychologists of Western history.

A good example of the Angelic Doctor’s psychological acumen can be found in his Summa Theologiae (I-II, Q. 38, a.3), where he presents five remedies for pain and sorrow. Since pain and sorrow enter the lives of everyone born into this valley of tears, these remedies have great practical significance and should be of widespread interest. What is more is that they all have the virtues of being natural, readily available, cost-free and devoid of side effects.

The first of his quintet of remedies is delectation (pleasure). Aquinas reasons that pain or sorrow result from causes that are not natural to the human appetites, which, of themselves, are ordered to something good. Pleasure, on the other hand, “is a kind of repose of the appetite in a suitable good.” Therefore, because pleasure is, in this way, the opposite of pain and sorrow, which is a kind of “weariness,” it can assuage them. Food at a funeral, for example, can assist in relieving the sorrow caused by the loss of a loved one.

The second remedy Aquinas lists is tears (and also other outward expressions such as groans and spoken words). He offers two reasons that explain why tears can assuage pain or sorrow. The first is based on the notion that something hurtful hurts all the more “if we keep it shut up.” Weeping is an escape route for pain and sorrow in a way that lessens their torment. “Tears and groans,” he wrote, “naturally assuage sorrow.” The second reason is that any good action is a source of pleasure since it demonstrates that the sufferer is at least doing something to alleviate his condition.

Remedy No. 3 is the compassion of friends. Sorrow has a depressing effect and tends to weigh a person down. The compassion of friends tends to pick a person up — lighten his burden — as if these friends “were bearing the burden with him, striving, as it were, to lessen its weight.” Yet, for Aquinas, a more important reason has to do with the love his friends manifest. The recognition of this love offers a kind of blessing that mitigates the sufferer’s burden. He takes heart, so to speak, when he witnesses the love that others have for him. As Shakespeare writes in Timon of Athens, “A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities.”

The fourth remedy is the least corporal and most spiritual. It is the contemplation of truth. This remedy works “the more perfectly,” as St. Thomas notes, the more “one is a lover of wisdom.” In the contemplation of divine things, we are drawn to a higher region where God alone knows why certain difficulties and afflictions have arisen. We may not know exactly why certain torments occur, but the thought that God has his reasons is a source of consolation and comfort. The contemplation of truth can also be a source of pleasure, just as knowledge is a source of pleasure.

Aquinas’ final remedies are sleep and baths. He reasons that remedies that are good and natural for the body tend “to bring nature back to its normal state.” Sleep and bathing help to restore nature’s equilibrium. Pain and sorrow are naturally “repugnant to the vital movement of the body.” Therefore, the natural pleasures associated with sleep and baths offer a certain recovering pleasure.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare offers a virtual hymn to sleep’s natural benefits, noting “sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,” that is “sore labor’s bath, balm for hurt minds, great nature’s second course” and “the chief nourisher in life’s feast.” In the words of St. Ambrose, “Sleep restores the tired limbs to labor, refreshes the weary mind and banishes sorrow.”

Aquinas, a doctor of the Church, is also a doctor of common sense. He understands the nature of the body as well as the nature of the human being. He is more practical than theoretical, more clear and direct than abstruse and academic. His thought, though he lived and wrote in the 13th century, is permanent. He is to philosophy and theology what Michelangelo is to sculpture, what Beethoven is to music, what Leonardo is to painting and what Sir Isaac Newton is to physics.

In our present technological society, our first thoughts concerning the alleviation of pain and sorrow are often products that are not natural but commercial. We reach for Aleve, Advil, Tylenol and other painkillers, sometimes ignoring natural remedies that can be quite effective.

It is well documented that tranquilizers and the like are highly overprescribed. Aquinas would not oppose the use of synthetic drugs, but he would not want us to ignore natural remedies.

The Catholic Church has not forgotten St. Thomas. A more recent saint, St. John Paul II, has reminded us that “the Church has been justified in consistently proposing St. Thomas as a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology.”

We are on firm ground when we listen to what one saint has to say about another saint.

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at

St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada,

and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut.