previous next

Pity, according to the popular definition, which is all that Rhetoric requires, is a feeling of pain that arises on the occasion of any evil, or suffering, manifest, evident (apparent, to the eye or ear), deadly or (short of that) painful, when unmerited; and also of such a kind as we may expect to happen either to ourselves or to those near and dear to us, and that when it seems to be near at hand: for it is plain that any one who is capable of feeling (lit. is to feel) the emotion of pity must be such as to suppose himself liable to suffer evil of some kind or other, himself or his friends; and evil of that kind which has been stated in the definition, or like it, or nearly like it.

On φαινομένῳ = φανερῷ, evident, unmistakable, see note on p. 10 (II 2. 1). Victorius understands it to mean “quod nobis malum videatur: possemus enim in hoc falli, atque eam miseriam esse iudicare quae minime sit.” But this surely would be expressed by δοκεῖν, not φαίνεσθαι: and to say nothing of the numerous examples by which the other interpretation is supported, (some of which are given in the note above referred to,) this seems to be more appropriate to what follows, and to the nature of the πάθος itself: for the feeling of pity is strong in proportion to the vividness with which the suffering is brought home to us1. The actual sight of it, when we see the effect of the injury (and perhaps also a graphic description of it from an eye-witness), gives it a reality and a force which intensify our sympathy. That this is Aristotle's meaning appears most clearly from a subsequent passage, § 8, where these painful things are enumerated, and are found to be all of them bodily affections: and still more perhaps from § 14, where the effect of πρὸ ὀμμάτων ποιεῖν is described. Aristotle has omitted, designedly or not, all mention of mental suffering: perhaps he thought that not being actually visible it was incapable of exciting pity. See further on this in note on II 8. 8.

Again, this view of the meaning of the word is in exact agreement with a preceding observation upon pain, II 4. 31, that ‘all painful things are objects of sense, (that is, all feelings which can properly be called painful are excited by sensible objects,)2 and the greatest evils, as wickedness and folly, are the least sensible; for the presence of vice causes no pain’. Victorius, who however does not refer to this passage, has pointed out that the kind of evil which excites pity is distinguished and limited by the epithets φθαρτικῷ καὶ λυπηρῷ; which upon the principle laid down in c. 4. 31 excludes the greatest evils, moral and intellectual, as objects of pity.

With τοῦ ἀναξίου τυγχάνειν comp. II 9. 1, ἀντίκειται τῷ ἐλεεῖν... καλοῦσι νεμεσᾷν: τῷ γὰρ λυπεῖσθαι ἐπὶ ταῖς ἀναξίαις κακοπραγίαις κ.τ.λ. When a bad man suffers we look upon it as a deserved punishment, and feel no pity, unless we deem the punishment to be excessive. ‘Alas’, says Carlyle, of the end of the Girondins, ‘whatever quarrel we had with them, has not cruel fate abolished it? Pity only survives.’ French Revolution, Pt. III. Bk. IV. c. 8, ult.

The last clause of the definition, κἂν αὐτός κ.τ.λ., expresses the compassion, sympathy with the sufferer, the fellow-feeling, implied in pity. Haud ignara mali miseris succurrere disco. It is only in this form, as ‘compassion’, that the emotion enters into Mr Bain's list; Emotions and Will, p. 112, [chap. VII § 22, ed. 1875]. Compassion, according to him, is one of the benevolent affections, a group subordinate to the family of Tender Emotions. This appears to be a juster view of the nature and connexion of the feeling than the account given by Aristotle. The fact is, as I have elsewhere stated3, that the conception of general benevolence and love and duty to our fellow-creatures, is of modern and Christian origin, and finds no place in Aristotle's Ethical System: the χάρις of the preceding chapter includes but a small part of it, being in fact confined to doing a service to a friend in need. Again the limitation of pity to those sufferings to which we ourselves or our friends are exposed, ascribes a selfishness to the emotion which seems not necessarily to belong to it. In fact if this were true, the God of the Christian, and the gods of the heathen would be alike incapable of it. Hobbes, in accordance with his theory of universal selfishness, goes beyond Aristotle in attributing the feeling solely to self-love. Leviathan, Pt. I. c. 6, ‘Grief for the calamity of another is Pity; and ariseth from the imagination that the like calamity may befall himself; and therefore is called also Compassion, and in the phrase of this present time a Fellow-feeling. And therefore’ (he continues, another point of contact with Aristotle,) ‘for calamity arising from great wickedness the best men have the least pity; and for the same calamity those have pity that think themselves least obnoxious to the same.’ [Hobbes, as is well known, analysed Aristotle's treatise in his Brief of the Art of Rhetorick, first printed with date in 1681. The Leviathan was published in 1651. S.]

The Stoic definition, quoted by Victorius from Diog. Laert., Zeno, VII 1, is in partial agreement with that of Aristotle, but omits the last clause; ἔλεός ἐστι λύπη ὡς ἐπὶ ἀναξίως κακοπαθοῦντι. Whence Cicero, Tusc. Disp. IV 8. 18, misericordia est aegritudo ex miseria alterius iniuria laborantis. But the Stoics, though they thus defined pity, nevertheless condemned the exercise of it: Diog. Laert., u. s., § 123, ἐλεήμονας μὴ εἶναι συγγνώμην τ᾽ ἔχειν μηδενί: μὴ γὰρ παριέναι τὰς ἐκ τοῦ νόμου ἐπιβαλλούσας κολάσεις, ἐπεὶ τό γ̓ εἴκειν καὶ ἔλεος αὐτή θ̓ ἐπιείκεια οὐδένειά ἐστι ψυχῆς πρὸς κολάσεις προσποιουμένη χρηστότητα: μηδ̓ οἴεσθαι σκληροτέρας αὐτὰς εἶναι. “Pity, anger, love—all the most powerful social impulses of our nature— are ignored by the Stoics, or at least recognised only to be crushed.” Lightfoot, Dissert. II on Ep. to Philip. p. 320.

1 A remark of Lessing, at the end of the first section of his Laokoon, will serve as a commentary on Aristotle's φαινομένῳ. “Alles stoische ist untheatralisch; und unser mitleiden ist allezeit dem leiden gleichmässig welches der interessirende gegenstand äussert. Sieht man ihn sein elend mit grosser seele ertragen, so wird diese gross seele zwar unsere bewunderung erwecken, aber die bewunderung ist ein kalter affekt, dessen unthätiges staunen jede andere wärmere leidenschaft, so wie jede andere deutliche vorstellung, ausschliesset.

2 This however seems to require some qualification: it is true of course of all bodily pain; but are not certain mental states, as doubt, suspense, uncertainty, disappointment, also painful? In the case of ἔλεος, Ar. probably means that at least some sensible image, a mental representative, or φαντασία, proceeding from some object of sense, is required to excite the painful feeling. But surely we can pity the mental as well as the bodily sufferings of a friend, provided he makes them sufficiently distinct and intelligible to us.

3 Review of Aristotle's System of Ethics, 1867, p. 52.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: