Infliction of intolerable physical or psychological pain. Torture has been used by governments throughout history for punishment, coercion, and intimidation and for extracting confessions and information. A common practice in ancient times, it was defended by Aristotle but eloquently opposed by Cicero, Seneca, and St. Augustine. Beginning in the 12th century, torture was increasingly used in Europe; from the mid-14th through the 18th century it was a common part of the legal proceedings of most European countries. The Roman Catholic church supported its use by the Inquisition in cases of heresy. Common instruments of torture were the strappado (for repeatedly hoisting the body by the wrists behind the back and dropping it), the rack (for stretching the limbs and body), and the thumbscrew (for crushing the thumbs). By 1800 torture was illegal in many European countries, but it became common again in the 20th century, notably in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and it is still widely practiced in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. In 1984 the United Nations adopted an international convention against torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. By the early 21st century some 130 countries were party to the convention. The belief that only sadists are capable of committing torture was challenged by a study in the 1960s that found that ordinary people could be easily persuaded to inflict pain on others.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
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