On Compassion

The word “compassion” means to “suffer with” someone, with the sense of coming to the person’s aid. It is an emotion in us caused by some evil or dire condition seen in someone else. The Good Samaritan is a memorable example. (Luke, 10:25-37) The word “pity” means a feeling of sadness or fear at the unavoidable lot of another, either deserved or undeserved.

The art of tragedy enabled us to expand our inner experience. Through beholding the drama of another’s suffering, we can contemplate and feel what we might not experience in our own lives. Both compassion and pity incite us to feel another’s suffering. This feeling of the sorrows or sins of others widens our universe beyond the narrow confines of our immediate experience. We become more human when we know more than ourselves. Both our knowledge and our feelings allow us to participate in what goes on in the souls of others. They are not alone.

But notions of compassion, sympathy, sincerity, mercy, and pity need to be watched very closely. They arise more from emotion than from thought. Each of these related concepts refers to a feeling inside of us. It is caused by our being confronted with the dire (or happy) situation of another. But we do not fully penetrate to the soul of the other for whom we have compassion. No one wants a cold heart. In Matthew (9:36), Christ has “compassion” on the multitudes who are like lost sheep. Luke speaks of “the tender compassion of our God.” (1:78)

The word compassion can border on the word “mercy,” which usually has something to do with what is beyond justice without denying it. God’s compassion obviously takes up where our sins leave off. We can speak of “pity” for the victims of an earthquake where no human being is really at fault. We can “pity” those struck by lightning. Mercy, however, begins where fault exists. God does not deny the freedom of someone who refuses to acknowledge that anything needs forgiveness.

“Compassion” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1897
“Compassion” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1897

Still, I am concerned here with something peculiar about compassion and sympathy. Compassion literally means to “suffer with” another because we see his own suffering and can imagine it in ourselves. Yet we have to ask: “What is the ‘cause’ of another’s suffering?” We need to do more than just notice that he is suffering. If I say that it is terrible that someone else suffers, no matter what the reason, I soon find myself separating the suffering from the cause of the suffering.

From here, it is but a short step to confuse the suffering with its natural cause. It is quite possible that my suffering is caused by my own choices or understandings. If I do certain things that are wrong, no matter what civil law or custom says, I ought to suffer. Indeed, I will suffer. Plato said that I should want to suffer for my sins. So if I divorce unjustly, procure abortions, practice homosexuality, kill, sell dope, bribe, tell lies, or steal, sooner or later, even in this life, I am going to suffer and cause others to suffer. Nature has its ways of punishing us.

If I do something that is against the natural order of my being, I will suffer for it. Nine times out of ten, I do not have to wait until the Last Judgment to experience the relative chaos I cause. But it is quite possible, even at the Last Judgment, for me to refuse to acknowledge that what caused my suffering was the result of my own acts that deny my own good.

I wanted to re-order the world so that my suffering is blamed, not on me, but on a disordered world. I am a “victim.” Sympathize with me. What compassion can do, quite subtly, is to shift our intellectual attention from what is going on, from the disordered cause to the natural sufferings that follow. I will argue and then try to convince others, invoking compassion, that my suffering is caused, not by my disordered choices and acts. It is caused by the claim that any acts, as such, are immoral.

Compassion started out by feeling the sufferings of another. It can lead step by step to the overturning of the natural order. It did this by making the suffering I feel to be the determinate factor, not the act from which the suffering follows. Aristotle was right. He taught us that our passions, feelings, or emotions need first to be ruled by our reason before they will support us in living well. Indeed, much of our moral life consists in ruling our passions, goods in themselves, by our reason to a proper end. Compassion has a place in a well-ordered soul. But it cannot, by itself, tell us what this order of soul is.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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