The Problem of Pity by Joshua Hren


The Problem of Pity

Misguided Mercy & Dante's Infernal Purgation
by Joshua Hren

I, one man alone,
Prepared myself to face the double war
Of the journey and the pity.
—Dante, Inferno, Canto II

It is a pity that compassion has conquered our public conversations, our churches, and our hearts. (In this paper, I will at times use the words "compassion," "pity," and "mercy" as synonyms, even as I make necessary distinctions along the way.) Occasions for pity proliferate to the point that many of us experience what the protagonist of David Lodge's novel Therapy calls "compassion fatigue," which is "the idea that we get so much human suffering thrust in our faces everyday from the media that we've become sort of numbed, we've used up all our reserves of pity, anger, outrage, and can only think of the pain in our own knee." Alongside "compassion fatigue," others are plagued by misconstrued mercy, misplaced pity, and an abundance of attendant errors that are typically dignified by the claim that they are "pastoral."

The problem of pity brings to the fore our need to discriminate between poisonous pity and virtuous pity. Poisonous pity strives to persuade us that the emotional response that others elicit ought to be the lodestar of our ethical lives. Virtuous pity, or what Thomas Aquinas calls misericordia,is married to justice, regulated by reason, and structured by doctrine. Dante teaches us this necessary discrimination dramatically. In order to be cured of our pitiful plague of compassion, we must pass through The Inferno, putting ourselves under the tutelage of Virgil and Dante, and, more to the point, we must learn to measure our mercy against the just mercy of God.

In Canto V of The Inferno, in the circle of the carnal, Dante meets the famed Paolo and Francesca; in consequence of their illicit affair, these lovers glide through Hell's whirl like grotesque mating doves. Seeing Dante, Francesca immediately recognizes his pity—and she pounces on it, telling her own "piteous tale." Anticipating his question as to how they ended up in the Inferno, she three times proclaims that love led them there. Having read the rhyme of Lancelot, she and Paolo, "alone with innocence and dim time," lost custody of their eyes until they could hardly read further, and "one soft passage overthrew" their caution and their hearts. As she tells this tale, "out of pity," she says, even though it will make her weep, Paolo stands by her side, himself crying "so piteously," Dante writes, that "I felt my senses reel / and faint away with anguish." He swoons, falling as a corpse might to Hell's floor.

As he begins his descent into the Inferno, Dante prepares himself "to face the double war / of the journey and pity." In other words, taking up the metaphor of war Dante himself gives us, pity is, in a certain sense, the enemy. As such, it would seem that our aim must be to conquer or banish it. However, as we will see, it is possible to win this war by pressing pity into the service of the highest faculties God has given us. But before we take a look at the way pity plays out in The Inferno, it will be necessary to parse out several of its types, its perils, and its conditional goodness.

Manent's Distinctions

In A World Beyond Politics? Catholic political philosopher Pierre Manent takes up the task of distinguishing between the different versions of humanism and humanitarianism, in large part to demonstrate their indebtedness to—and incompatibility with—Christian love of neighbor. Manent's aim is to unveil the paucity and fragility of modern humanism's moral foundations. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the fathers of this humanism, pity is a moral sentiment that is able to unify human beings in a world witnessing the death of the common good. Christian love, however, is never aimed at the neighbor in and of himself, but at the imago Dei that is found in every human being. Even Nietzsche, writes Manent, "though furiously anti-Christian, nonetheless says that to love the neighbor for the love of God is the most refined moral sentiment attained by human beings" (p. 188).

Manent helps us distinguish humanitarianism from Christian love in part through a linguistic analysis, for the foundation of humanitarianism is not agape (sacrificial love) or caritas (charity) as much as it is compassion, or pity, in the sense that Rousseau uses the word. For Rousseau, the capacity for pity is universal because all human beings have a body that is subject to the strong possibility of suffering; human beings are inevitably objects of suffering. Further, because of the universality of suffering, human beings will undoubtedly be subjects of suffering. "Physical suffering is immediately grasped or imagined," Manent writes. "One sympathizes with a toothache, a nervous colic, and two days without eating or drinking more easily than with a moral humiliation, an intellectual preoccupation, or a spiritual anguish" (189).

In sum, the physicality of pity, rooted as it is in the senses, allows us to "communicate immediately with the other, without the mediation of complex ideas. Pity can be relied on to bind people because it is a sentiment, an affect, or a disposition that does not demand any moral transformation or transcendence of self" (189).

The visible suffering of another says to me, "You, too, could undergo this," and therefore I make an effort to assuage his suffering. But, Manent notes, I do not in truth experience this suffering that I perceive so vividly: "I know well that I do not effectively experience it and so I rejoice that I am exempt from it. I experience the pleasure of not suffering. Therefore, there is nothing idealistic or utopian in pity as the foundation of social morality." As Manent maintains, altruistic pity is morally economical, demanding very little from mankind: "there is nothing in pity that is heroic, since its wellspring is the selfishness of each person. Rousseau was giving us the blueprint that has effectively prevailed in liberal democratic society" (190).

The Catch

There is a catch, though, that casts us back to the nature of pity, and which prevents us from dismissing all forms of it as disordered. Jesus himself is regularly "filled with pity." We read that, as he walked through cities and villages, casting out demons and healing the sick, "seeing the people, he felt pity for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd" (Matt. 9:36). Later in Matthew's Gospel we read of two blind men who cry out to Jesus for mercy and that, "moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed him" (20:34). Or consider the following moving passage from the Gospel of Luke:

As he approached the gate of the city, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, he felt pity for her, and said to her, "Do not weep." And he came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And he said, "Young man, I say to you, arise!" The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. (7:12–15)

Pity precedes each of the aforementioned healings, which demonstrates that there are certain good acts that cannot come to be without pity. In The Inferno itself, Dante's first word is "miserere": "Have pity on me, whatever thing you are, whether shade or living man," Dante cries out at the sight of Virgil (I.65–66). Explaining "why I came to you and what I heard when first I pitied you," the author of the Aeneid recounts that Mary herself instructed him to work toward Dante's salvation with "high counsel, pity, and with whatever need be for his good" (II.50–67). "Blessed be that Lady of infinite pity," Dante exclaims as Canto II comes to a close; he recognizes that without her pity he would yet be lost in the wood.

In his Summa Theologiae (II-II, q.30), Thomas Aquinas asks how taking pity could be a defect in the person who pities, given that God himself pities. We cannot recognize dependence and respond rightly to disfigurement without pity—at the bare minimum—or something that is both similar to it and yet surpasses it. It would seem, though, that this something is misericordia. Aquinas probes the problem of misericordia, which can be translated as "pity," but which we ought to leave in Latin to avoid the connotative meaning of pity as pure sentiment, unguided by reason—as sentimentality, a sign of moral failure. Most literally, misericordia means miserum cor, or pitying heart. Misericordia, Aquinas teaches (citing St. Augustine), is a heartfelt grief or sorrow over another's distress, "impelling us to succor him if we can."

In order to establish the motives of pity, Aquinas turns to Aristotle, who in his Rhetoric defines pity as "sorrow for a visible evil, whether corruptive or distressing." Such evils, he writes, provoke pity even more if they are contrary to deliberate choice, "when it is the result of an accident, as when something turns out ill, whereas we hoped well of it." Finally, Aquinas argues, "we pity most the distress of one who suffers undeservedly." Pity rightly practiced hinges on this word undeservedly. Aquinas explains that it is of the nature of a fault to be voluntary, and insofar as it is voluntary, it "deserves punishment rather than mercy." However, because a fault "may be, in a way, a punishment, through having something connected with it that is against the sinner's will," it may call for misericordia, for pity.

Although pity can be felt or demonstrated wrongly, then, it would be wrong and deeply damaging for us to banish it from our hearts and minds. Both Aquinas and Aristotle note that a virtuous person looks upon his friend as another self, and so he counts his friend's grief as his own. But Aquinas also notes, as Rousseau did later, that a person can feel pity for those who are not his friends, especially when he realizes that what has happened to them may happen to himself. The old and the wise, he says, know well that they may fall upon evil times, and so they, "as also feeble and timorous persons, are more inclined to pity."

Others are naturally unlikely to know pity, especially "those who deem themselves happy, and so far powerful as to think themselves in no danger of suffering any hurt." The proud are inclined to think that those who suffer have merited it; thinking the suffering wicked, they refrain from pity. The angry also are bereft of pity, for, as we read in Proverbs 27:4: "Anger hath no mercy, nor fury when it breaketh forth."

Just versus Misguided Pity

How, then, can we learn to pity rightly? First, we must learn the parameters of pity rightly understood. In the Summa, Aquinas considers the objection that pity cannot be a virtue. As Aristotle teaches, he notes, virtue is above all else a choice, "the desire of what has been already counseled." But pity seems to hinder counsel. In addition, mercy seems to belong to the appetitive power; as a feeling, it cannot be an intellectual virtue, and because God is not its object, it cannot be a theological virtue. Finally, because it does not belong to justice, and is not about passions, pity cannot be a moral virtue.

Aquinas admits that distress over another's distress may be a mere movement of the sensitive appetite. But we must not on these grounds discard it, as "in another way, it may denote a movement of the intellective appetite, inasmuch as one person's evil is displeasing to another. This movement may be ruled in accordance with reason, and in accordance with this movement regulated by reason, the movement of the lower appetite may be regulated." Augustine, too, knew that this was true, for in The City of God he argues that "this movement of the mind obeys the reason, when mercy is vouchsafed in such a way that justice is safeguarded"—for instance, when we give to the needy or forgive the repentant. Pity, then, misericordia, is a virtue, insofar as it is practiced justly, which is to say according to reason.

Crucially, Augustine notes that we can show pity through an act of forgiveness, but such could only meet the demands of justice if the object of our pity were repentant. It is here that we encounter one of the major flaws in Dante's misguided pity for Paolo and Francesca. As I demonstrated earlier, Francesca exploits Dante's error. Seeing that, though Italian, he has an Irishman's bleeding heart, that he assumes that these two lovers have been "brought to this sorry pass" through "sweetest thoughts" and "green and young desire," none of which he condemns, she thrusts upon him what we have come, in common parlance, to call a "sob story." Francesca's tone is self-pitying, and like Dante, Paolo is melted "to tears of pity and of pain." Crucially, whereas at the start of his journey Dante called out for miserere, here the Italian reads "lagrimar mi fanno tristo e pio." Thus does Dante the author of The Divine Comedy distinguish between right and wrong understandings of pity by employing different words to signify each.

Francesca places a large portion of the blame for her current state on the author of the Arthurian legend.

For when we read
how her fond smile was kissed by such a lover,
he who is one with me alive and dead
breathed on my lips the tremor of his kiss.
That book, and he who wrote it, was a pander.
That day we read no further. (V.130–135)

The author of Lancelot and Guinevere's affair, in this case Gallehault, was, as the very spelling of his name suggests, a galeotto, the Italian word for pimp. Francesca's allegation betrays her unrepentance, and Dante's dizzied response to her demonstrates his incapacity to discern the proper object and parameters of pity.

Is this not the case in so many of the contemporary conversations of our time? For many, pity is and should be indiscriminately expressed toward the other, whether that person has cancer or is a slothful student, whether he inhabits a district with heavy lead levels in the water or is actively engaged in a homosexual relationship that is purportedly unjustly condemned by the dominant culture. In an age of diminishing demands and disappearing duties, it makes sense that pity would ascend to the throne of liberal individualist morality. As Manent observes, pity is efficacious and relatively easy; as a sentiment it binds people easily and "does not demand any moral transformation or transcendence of self."

Like Dante, many practice pity as they do precisely because it "does not demand any moral transformation or transcendence of self." (I should note that some who are inclined to anger and pride may find themselves nodding, but only because they have made their deficit of pity something to extol.) Dante's transformation comes first through the instruction that Virgil provides, which tempers the poet's pain and helps him to see the parts within the whole. When the "sighs and cries and wails coiled and recoiled" overwhelmed Dante, and he was tempted to feel bad, Virgil "put forth his hand . . . with a gentle and encouraging smile."

Dante's pity is also purified through his encounters with the souls in Purgatory, who, though in a state of punishment, are entirely at peace with it. They have come to recognize that pity must not contradict the dictates of justice. As he moves from the Infernoto Paradise, Dante comes to see various punishments as merited; he sees that although the effects of sin may cause us sorrow, we ought not to pity the sinner to the point that we try to rearrange the architecture of Hell—or, I might add, to abolish Hell entirely, putting in its place a pitiful cosmos of our own making.

When Pity Is & Isn't Supreme

In mentioning justice, I cannot help but anticipate the objection that God's highest attribute is misericordia, "just mercy," or "just pity," and not justice per se. This would be welcome news to those who mistake a morally impoverished, misdirected pity for the misericordia of God. But, with Aquinas, we should take seriously the objection that can be formulated as follows: Since, in God, mercy takes precedence over all other virtues, so, in our practice, pity must take precedence in our own moral economies; while sin x might "in justice" merit punishment y, we ought "in mercy" to respond in a forgiving manner.

Aquinas would respond to this by acknowledging that one virtue can take precedence over another: first, in itself, and second, in comparison to its subject. He grants that, considered in itself, misericordia does take precedence over other virtues, as "it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others, and, what is more, to succor others in their wants, which pertains chiefly to one who stands above. Hence mercy is accounted as being proper to God: and therein his omnipotence is declared to be chiefly manifested."

However, with regard to its subject, misericordia is not the crowning virtue, unless its subject is greater than all others. For as man has God above him, charity, which unites him to God, is superior to misericordia, by which he "supplies the defects of his neighbor." With regard to his neighbor, though, mercy is the greatest, "even as it is higher and better to supply the defect of another, insofar as the latter is deficient."

He who promulgates the supremacy of compassion is right, then, in the sense that pity is the greatest virtue we can exercise toward our neighbors. He regularly errs, however, in his practice of this compassion. When a prominent church cleric, for instance, claims that the Catechism of the Catholic Church's description of homosexual acts as "intrinsically disordered" is "needlessly hurtful," he is implicitly appealing to the supremacy of pity, which is the sentiment so often affiliated with appeals that we be "pastoral." Indeed, the priest who suggested that "differently ordered" was preferable to "objectively disordered" did so because, he argued, the teaching would thereby be expressed "more pastorally." This example is paradigmatic of so many others in our time. It illustrates how appeals to pity that enunciate the affective elements often aim not merely to change feelings, but to alter truth.

Dante & the Sodomites

In the seventh circle of Hell, which is inhabited by the violent against nature, Dante must again reckon with the problem of pity, must discriminate between pity as mere affect and pity as directed, in justice, by the intellect. For here Dante meets a band of famous Florentine sodomites. His affectivity is not yet fully educated, even if he has made some gains since Paolo and Francesca. Still, the poet's interactions with the homosexuals are remarkable in that, as Robert Hollander notes, "Virgil, who so often warns Dante when the latter begins to admire or become sympathetic (or overly concerned with the damned), here is urgent in his approbation of these three sinners." "These are souls to whom respect is due," Virgil says. "Do as they ask."

Subsequently, we receive an extended description of the third round of the seventh circle. Darting flames hem the narrow passage through which Dante and Virgil walk. Forming themselves into a wheel, the sodomites begin "their ancient wail / over again." Iacopo speaks on behalf of all, perhaps courting Dante's pity by openly hoping that their scorched appearance and the misery of their place will not bring them into contempt. In response to Iacopo, Dante desires to embrace them:

I would have thrown myself to the plain below
Had I been sheltered from the falling fire;
And I think my Teacher would have let me go.

But seeing I should be burned and cooked, my fear
Overcame the first impulse of my heart
To leap down and embrace them then and there. (XVI.45–51)

Dante scholar Joseph Pequigney says, "Dante the pilgrim's reaction is rather one of sympathy than the usual and anticipated antipathy, and one that dramatizes Dante the author's outlook, which is, for the time and place, remarkably benevolent." Hollander concurs, arguing that "the fact that here, as in Purgatorio 26, he chooses to put homosexuals in a good light when there was no apparent compelling reason for him to do so surely should cause us to ask further questions about Dante's views concerning homosexuality."

We are right to read in these passages Dante's immortalization of pity for the sodomites. That being said, both Hollander and Pequigney fail to acknowledge a trinity of truths hidden in plain sight. Indeed, both their readings are forced to mute several elements of the text.

First, although Dante experiences a pronounced affective pity for them, this pity comes in the context of the canto's overwhelmingly political preoccupation. These Florentines are not merely sodomites, but members of the "good Guelphs," the lost cause, who could have saved Florence from the awful aftermath of the battle of Montaperti (1260).

Second, although Dante's disposition toward the sodomites may be strikingly compassionate given the norms of medieval culture regarding homosexuality—in Dante's day, penalties for sodomy could include confiscation of property and even capital punishment—we know clearly that Dante's own education into virtue, Dante's pilgrim conversion, is far from complete. Given this, we cannot regard his pity as evidence of the poet's "progressive views" concerning homosexuality.

Finally, and perhaps the most poignant point for our purposes, the sodomites are yet—for all the sentiment that Dante might feel toward them—in Hell. As I noted earlier, for Aristotle, those who are beset with anger and pride are often unable to pity. I should also note that those who detach pity from justice and make it their lodestar are particularly liable to pride, even as, because pity comes with such tenderness, it can be difficult to diagnose the arrogance with which it is often affiliated.

Unblurred Vision

Pitiful arrogance has moved many to make claims that would rearrange the architecture of the afterlife. For this, too, Dante provides a corrective. For whatever the poet's feelings toward the damned may have been, he knew that misericordia is married to justice, regulated by reason, and structured by doctrine, a truth that plays out in that his own pilgrimage takes place within the norms that take form through the Word of God. Pity souls he might, but this does not blur his vision: although he deems its inscription "harsh," Dante can still read—and teach us to read rightly—the sign affixed to the Gate of Hell: