Jan 192011

From the book, Pathology of the Elites by Michael Knox Beran:

For compassion, to be stricken with the suffering of someone else as though it were contagious, and pity, to be sorry without being touched in the flesh, are not only not the same, they may not even be related. Compassion, by its very nature cannot be touched off by the sufferings of a whole class or a people, or, least of all, mankind as a whole. It cannot reach out farther than what is suffered by one person and still remain what it is supposed to be, co-suffering. Its strength hinges on the strength of passion itself, which, in contrast to reason, can comprehend only the particular, but has no notion of the general and no capacity for generalizations. The sin of the Grand Inquisitor was like Robespierre, was “attracted toward les hommes faibles,” not only because such attraction was indistinguishable from lust for power, but also because he had depersonlized the sufferers, lumped them together into an aggregate – the people, etc. To Doesteyevsky, the sign of Jesus’ divinity clearly was his ability to have compassion with all men in their singularity, that is, without lumping themtogether into some such entity as one suffering mankind. The greatness of the story, apart from its theological implications lies in that we are made to feel how false the idealistic, high-flown phrases of the most exquisite pity sound the moment they are confronted with compassion. – Hannah Arendt

Pity, Arendt argued, is a concern for the misery of another unprompted by intimacy with, or love for, the sufferer. Compassion, by contrast, is a love directed “towards specific suffering” and concentrates on “particular persons.” It can be exercised only by individuals or small groups, not by agencies or bureaus. Pity, Arendt wrote, “may be the perversion of compassion.” Because the pitieris not stricken in the flesh,” because he keeps his “sentimental distance,” he has often shown “a greater capacity for cruelty” than the confessedly cruel.

The type of compassion liberals claim as their own peculiar virtue is really a form of pity, milder perhaps than that which lies at the heart of the socialist orthodoxies, but dangerous in its own right. David Hume said that pity was a “counterfeited” love. It is the false compassion that results when men exercise their kindness by committee it is the look in the eyes of the welfare clerk or the public housing official. To be pitied by another man is to stand humilated before him; however well intentioned programs grounded in pity may be, they always end by laying low their intended beneficiaries. Pity does not lead to a flourishing in the pitied, though it may provke their resentment, even their rage; the act of pitying is always a kind of strength condescending to weakness. Love awakens, pity oppresses.

 Posted by at 4:10 pm

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