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Compassion and Pity

The difference between compassion and pity is, I believe, significant: “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I do choose’” (Mk. 1:41). This is the translation of the Greek according to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which uses the word “pity.” The Authorized (King James) Version translates the word as “compassion,” which seems to me to express better the relationship that Jesus assumes in his conversation with the leper.

Pity is, I believe, inappropriate here because it is best thought of as a passive emotion in contrast to compassion. Jesus could pity the leper without any intention of healing him. Aristotle defines pity as pain at another person’s misfortune. He is right: an expression of pity is like saying that one is in pain. It implies no suggestion of commitment to ameliorate the position of the one who is suffering, though the recognition of another’s misfortune may be an occasion to inquire objectively as to what might be helpful. However, if so, it will be a second stage of the experience and not integral to the actual expression of pity. Hence the sufferer may petition a potential benefactor to take pity on him or her, but as I understand it, there is no implication, let alone presumption, that assistance will necessarily be forthcoming, since an expression of pity is not performative. This is clear when one reflects on the expression “Poor you.” A person may say, “You poor thing!” when informed that he or she has been made redundant, but there is no implication here of anything more than at most a personal expression of a general feeling of sympathy—“Tough luck, old boy!”

How do sympathy and empathy relate in this context? I suggest that when I express sympathy with another, I remain aware that we are two people; I express my feelings for him or her, but in so doing, we both remain ourselves, two independent persons: “I have sympathetic feeling for you.” On the other hand, if I say that I empathize with you, I imply that I feel what you feel to the extent that we share a common emotion (Krznaric, 2014, pp. x, 11). I am of course still free to choose whether to help you or not, but to express empathy and not at least inquire as to what I could do to assist brings the assertion of empathy into question.

Shakespeare offers a range of responses to feelings of pity following the death of Caesar. Mark Anthony points to Brutus’s ingratitude in stabbing Caesar to death, calling it “the most unkindest cut of all.” He was, Mark Anthony says, “Caesar’s angel” and calls upon the gods to witness “how dearly Caesar loved him.” He notices how the crowd is driven to weeping:

O now you weep, and I perceive you feel The dint of pity.

“Dint” is itself a revealing word. It usually signifies a blow brought about by an external cause. “The dint of pity” is the mark of a threat to which one reacts impulsively without much thought. It is not best understood as a feeling, or emotion. The response of the crowd is therefore a natural demand for revenge—an unlikely way to express one’s compassion, one would think.

All: Revenge!—About!—Seek!—Burn!—Fire!—Kill!—Slay!—Let not a traitor live. (Shakespeare, 1955, Julius Caesar, Act III, Sc. II, l. 170-207)

P. F. Strawson might well call this a “reactive response” insofar as it is an uncontrolled, instinctive response to a situation that is clearly unjust (Strawson, 2008, pp. 4-7). One cannot understand compassion in this way; there is something more considered, reasonable, and essentially human about being compassionate as opposed to pitying. Strawson does in fact suggest that gratitude comes into the same category of reactive response, but I think he is mistaken when gratitude is considered from a theological and psychological perspective. Humankind is not caused by God or by circumstances to express gratitude; it is free to be grateful or not. Strawson is discussing the many kinds of relationships we can have with other people “as sharers of a common interest.” For the Christian, the most essential common interest flows from one’s relationship with God and the human equality that is a consequence of that relationship.

Griswold points out that to say, “I pity you,” may amount to no more than a refusal to recognize a person as worthy of consideration: “I find you a miserable and worthless person, regardless of how pleased you feel about yourself’ (Griswold, 2007). In contrast, while someone calling on someone else to take pity on him or her may be a heartfelt request for mercy and healing, it may equally be no more than a self-pitying request for help by a person who has no sense of self-worth or is unwilling or unable to make any effort to help himself or herself. In the case of an appeal to God, it is to one whom the appellant believes has the authority, capacity, desire, and character to heal. Even here, however, there is an implicit misunderstanding.

God does not take pity on humankind; he is compassionate, utterly committed to loving his creation, and he can do nothing else, since that is his nature. Moreover, he does so in association with humankind, whom he has raised from the slavery of sin to full sonship as a member of the family. The position is dramatically presented in the person of Christ, in whom the Divine and the human are alive without compromise or confusion between his divine and human natures. God does not take pity on the human condition; he has compassion for it.

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