The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


The courts of classical Athens were not much like our own. Judges and juries expected to be reduced to tears. In On Invention, a manual on rhetoric, Cicero advised plaintiffs on the arts of arousing pity. He suggested striking a “humble expression” and “weeping as you remember your lost loved ones,” reminding the jury “that they have children too.” But a moved judge and jury was no guarantee of going free. “Nothing,” warned Cicero, “dries more quickly than a tear.”

While COMPASSION entails the willingness to become involved in another’s suffering, pity is more of a spectator sport. For the Greeks, pity implied an asymmetry of power: those who pitied also had the capacity to release or pardon, to offer charity (the Greek word for pity, eleos, gives the English “alms”). The philosopher Aristotle also thought pity rather enjoyable, its tears giving a pleasant feeling of being cleansed and drained (see: RELIEF). In medieval Christian Europe, pity became an important part of devotional practice (in fact, pity and piety were at this time the same word, variously spelt as pieté, pietie, pyete and so on). From around the 1000s, artists began to represent the Son of God not as a heroic figure, but as torn and skeletal, hanging on the cross. These altarpieces and icons were an important part of worship, with the devout encouraged to “beholde him with sorrowe of herte,” and be filled with grief for his suffering and sorrow for their own wrongs (see: REMORSE).

The superiority and capriciousness of those weeping Greek jurors, however, was not altogether forgotten. For philosophers in the eighteenth century such as Kant, pity was a way of looking down on the needy, fixing them in a lowly position, a kind of CONTEMPT. In the twentieth century, Stefan Zweig’s novel Beware of Pity offered an important critique of the emotion. Its heroine, who uses a wheelchair, describes being pitied as stifling, suffocating, pinning a person into a position of inferiority: “How well you’re looking today, and how splendidly you’re walking…” But most of all, it is temporary, a kind of theater: “Do you think I’m so stupid that I don’t understand that you’re bound to get bored here playing the Good Samaritan?”

Though it’s not usual to talk of compassion being repressed—DESIRE and ANGER are the more familiar candidates—the historian Theodore Zeldin has argued that “since the world began, compassion has been the most frustrated of emotions, more so than sex.” Another’s suffering can be difficult to witness, one reason why so many of us draw up short at pity, keeping ourselves safe at a distance. Perhaps we might feel overwhelmed by the extent of practical support required, and so console ourselves with a tear and move on. Perhaps too, we might feel revolted by another’s vulnerability or physical illness, unable quite to endure in them what we can’t face in ourselves. Pity becomes a way of protecting ourselves, a kind of inhibition, releasing us from the discomfort of responsibility, or the pain of a deeper emotional connection. Or, as Zweig put it, it is a “compassion which is not compassion at all, just the instinctive fending off of alien suffering from one’s own soul.”

See also: SELF-PITY.