The title, and subject, of this piece is ‘satisfaction’, though its main locus in time is the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I chose the subject because it fitted in with our president’s preoccupations, and because it interested me; it turns out, to my surprise, to jog our elbow about some contemporary matters, as I guess he wished.
We had better start with the word, where there are two distinctions to be considered. The obvious one is between making up for, paying for, making amends, making reparation; and contentment, gratified desire, giving satisfaction, what you can’t get none of. I shall say that the first is the strong meaning, the second the weak one. The first is always other-directed, and entails an offence previously committed; the second is principally self-directed. ‘To content’ is a classical meaning of satisfacere, but it means to content someone else: to do something (facere), as against receiving something. A short history of the word in Latin and English records that the strong meaning emerged into late Latin as a description of church penance, and so passed into English in the fourteenth century. Its heyday was from then until the eighteenth. It referred to ecclesiastical penance (interrupted by the Reformation), the theology of the Redemption (encouraged by the Reformation), and in general public usage to the meeting of any kind of obligation, payment, atonement or compensation. From the eighteenth century it passed from public use, superseded by the weak meaning except in technical or professional fields. One professional usage, to which The Oxford English Dictionary gives a good deal of attention, is ‘to satisfy the examiners’: they think it is a case of ‘content’; may it be a case of ‘avert wrath’?