Orthopathy. Really.

On November 16, 2008, Jason Walter, a first year student at the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, led a discussion on Louis Berkhof’s Summary of Christian Doctrine.  I had never heard of Jason or of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, but I claim him as a colleague today because he has stumbled over the want of a word and has regained his balance by inventing one.  My kind of guy.

The following note was written by “admin,” it says on the site.  It gives two looks at what the term orthopathy might mean.  Here’s admin:

Jason did not claim to have coined the term, but his use of it was especially appropriate. Curious of its origin, I checked the Oxford English Dictionary and did not find it…Maybe we need to begin to employ the term so that it will become a part of theological discourse

Sadly, it also seems to be a term used by Quacks to describe a kind of natural hygiene therapy. If you’re interested, just Google the term and look at the results. I don’t know if this use of the word would argue against a theological use–I wouldn’t want to give the idea that we support quackery!

When I googled the word,[1] having failed to find it in the OED, I found this:

Another word for Natural Hygiene is orthopathy. Dr Herbert Shelton, who wrote several books on orthopathy, says: “orthopathy comes from the Greek, Orthos, erect, regular, right, correct; and Pathos, to suffer. The word means Right or Correct Suffering, and is intended to convey the thought that when one is sick, his condition is governed by law as truly as when he is well.

I am certain that Dr. Shelton is the “quack” that admin was concerned about.  I don’t care all that much about Dr. Shelton’s alleged quackery, but I really don’t think he has the right to steer perfectly common Greek words into his own private field.  I’m really more on Jason Walter’s side of this one.

The Greek prefix ortho-, for instance, is pretty common.  It doesn’t just mean “straight,” the way an orthodontist would mean it.  It also means straight as in “going straight,” which is the way criminals used to describe their aspirations for a life after crime.  Or, as the OED says, it is used, sometimes, “in the ethical sense of ‘right, correct, proper’,” which is the use Jason and I have in mind.

Similarly the Greek pathetikos means “sensitive.”  It does derive, I don’t deny it, from pathos, orthopathy 1which means “suffering,” but etymology is just where you came from and lots of words, especially English words, have emigrated to other lands entirely.  The OED defines pathetic as “producing a stirring effect upon the emotions; exciting the passions or affectations; moving, stirring, affecting.”  And then, even better, “in modern use: affecting tender emotions; exciting a feeling of pity, sympathy, or sadness, full of pathos.”

I think a perfectly plausible and fully usable meaning of orthopathy would be, “having the right feelings,” and that is the way I want to use it.  There are two ways of defining just what feelings are “the right feelings,” but I’m going to turn that job over the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, author, most notably, of The Managed Heart.  The job left for me to do is to say how I want to use it and to reaffirm my appreciation of Jason Walter.

If orthopathy meant what Jason and I want it to mean, it would mean “having the right emotions.” orthopathy 3 I came to it by noticing the abyss between orthodoxy—having the right beliefs—and orthopraxy—taking the right actions.[2]  If you will set aside for the moment any question of just what “the right things” are, it will make sense that a person believes that certain things are true and has the emotions that his culture thinks ought to be associated with those beliefs, and that he does the things that those beliefs and those feelings impel him to do.

The ideal of personhood in the First Century C.E. was very integrated.  Persons were thinking-feeling-acting beings.  If you believed something, according to this notion, you acted in accordance with what you believed.  If you didn’t act the belief out, you probably didn’t have it.  Here’s a passage from James 2: that has always made me chuckle.

19You believe in the one God—that is creditable enough, but even the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear. 20Fool! Would you not like to know that faith without deeds is useless?

“Orthodoxy without orthopraxy?” says James.  Are you nuts?  The demons are perfectly orthodox and believing what they believe will do you just as much good as it does them unless you join it to the properly entailed practices.  Orthodoxy flows naturally, James thinks, into compassion, generosity, and social action.

Somewhere during and after the Enlightenment, we took those apart so we could study them separately.  It should not surprise you, for instance, to learn that there are sub-disciplines of sociology called: sociology of the emotions, cognitive sociology, and practical sociology.  But the scientific study of human beings has moved, lately, in the direction of fitting them back together.  We study and write about the effect of behaviors on emotions and cogitions; the effects of emotions on behaviors and cognitions; and the effects of cognitions on emotions and behaviors.

It’s like a family reunion.  Welcome home, everybody.

orthopathy 4Arlie Russell Hochschild is the writer I have trusted most about how emotions are socially managed.  Her  book, The Managed Heart was an in-depth study of Delta Airlines flight attendants—people who smile for a living.  Tucked into that book was a chapter on “repo men,” who take back from people goods they are using, but have not paid for.[3]  These are men who are required to scowl for a living.  The materials I am dealing with today come from “Two Ways to See Love,” Chapter 6 of Hochschild’s The Commercialization of Intimate Life: Notes from Home and Work.

She begins by postulating that for every cultural setting, there is a set of understandings that might be called “an emotional dictionary.”  Here’s what she says about it.  She cites a distressed bride whom she interviewed for The Managed Heart as saying, “This is supposed to be the happiest day of my life…”  Then she says:

The sociologist is not focusing on emotion, per se, injury or repair, but on the cultural and social context of individuals, healthy and injured alike.  Part of that context is a culture of emotion.  What did the bride expect or hope to feel before she felt what she felt?  She tells us, “I wanted to be so happy on our wedding day.  This is supposed to be the happiest day of one’s life.”

To expect or hope to feel a certain feeling, the bride had to have a prior idea about what feelings are feelable.  She had to rely on a prior notion of what feelings were “on the cultural shelf,” pre-acknowledged, pre-named, pre-articulated, culturally available to be felt.  We can say that our bride intuitively matches her feeling to a nearest feeling in a collectively shared emotional dictionary.[4]

It isn’t just a dictionary though, according to Hochschild.  It is also a kind of Bible.

“…what does the bride believe she should feel?  She is matching her experience not only to a dictionary but to a bible.  Our bride has ideals about when to feel excited, central, enhanced, and when not to.  She has ideas about whom she should love and whom not, and about how deeply and in what ways she should love…Does love loom larger for our bride than it does for her groom?  Or does she now try to make love a smaller part of her life, as men in her culture have tried to do in the past?  What are the new feeling rules about the place of love in a woman’s life?

Orthopathy, in the dictionary metaphor, is a set of “right feelings” based on the feelings that are orthopathy 2available in her culture—the ones everyone knows about; the ones she could talk about to her friends.  Orthopathy is also, in the Bible metaphor, a set of “right feelings” based on what she things she personally ought to feel, or that a woman in her situation ought to feel.  This isn’t just choosing from the buffet of possible emotions, which is what her society gives her; it is also matching how she does feel to how she thinks she ought to feel.

So I come to orthopathy not so much to spite Dr. Shelton—you remember, the quack?—as to address the logical void between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  Jason and I hope you will find this reason compelling.


[1] Many years before admin did, I will say.

[2] Both of which actually are in the OED, in case you were wondering.

[3] Leading to one of my favorite jokes.  Question: What happens when you fall behind in your payments to the exorcist?  Answer: You get repossessed.

[4] Or, as Sheryl Sandberg, of Lean In fame, said in today’s New York Times, “you can’t be what you can’t see,”

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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