Trauma & Humanism: How the Humanities Can Contribute to the Treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

By Sheena M. Eagan Chamberlin.

Published by The International Journal of Critical Cultural Studies

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By exploring texts ranging from Cicero and Sophocles to modern pieces by O’Brien and Shay, this paper seeks to examine the role that war (specifically) and trauma (more generally) has played within the humanist tradition and what humanism can contribute to modern understandings of war trauma. This research begins with an exploration of how trauma shaped the work and lives of the early humanists. For instance, the inward turn of Montaigne and Petrarch can be understood as a response to the trauma of the plague and religious wars that surrounded them. These humanist thinkers responded to the loss of a special comrade by retreating from society and escaping to therapeutic reading and writing. The work of the ancients was useful in helping the early humanists respond to their own trauma. Similarly, the work of the ancients and early humanists is extremely useful within modern medial humanities. This value is perhaps best seen in Jonathan Shay’s work Achilles in Vietnam, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Brian Deorries work with the Theatre of War and the play Ajax. These ancient stories open a dialogue that crosses time and culture. We can see ancient examples of what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD), and trace common themes as Shay did in the book Achilles in Vietnam. When read in conjunction with The Things They Carried and the ancient plays Ajax, Philoctetes and Hecuba, the similarities between modern war trauma and the ancient stories studied by the humanists is clear and powerful. All the stories of trauma are individual, ambiguous and uniquely human. This emphasis on human experience and the ability to open a dialogue with the ancients—both present in the human experience and response to trauma—are at the very basis of the humanist project. Thus, the humanities can contribute to the treatment and understanding of PTSD.

Keywords: Humanism, Renaissance Humanism, Trauma, War, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, Veterans, Petrarch, Montaigne, Machiavelli, Erasmus, Theater of War

The International Journal of Critical Cultural Studies, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp.37-45. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 378.730KB).

Dr. Sheena M. Eagan Chamberlin

Doctoral Student, Institute for the Medical Humanities, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas, USA

Sheena Eagan Chamberlin recently graduated with her PhD from the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX. Sheena received her BA in philosophy and history from the University of New Brunswick, Canada before going on to complete her MPH at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD. Now, Sheena is continuing her research in medical ethics and the history of medicine, focusing on military medicine. Sheena’s other teaching and research interests include public health ethics, health policy, mind-body medicine, and the history of medicine during the Holocaust.