LOPEZ: Are the elites’ ideas always bad? Are their intentions always good?
BERAN: The ideas of our elites are likely to be bad, and their intention dubious, as long as they confuse pity with compassion. Hannah Arendt illuminated the distinction between pity and compassion when she drew attention, in her book On Revolution, to a theme in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Arendt described how the novelist, in the story of the Grand Inquisitor, contrasted the loving compassion of Jesus with the eloquent but disastrous pity of the Inquisitor:
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 generalization. The sin of the Grand Inquisitor was that he, like Robespierre, was “attracted toward les hommes faibles,” not only because such attraction was indistinguishable from lust for power, but also because he had depersonalized the sufferers, lumped them together into an aggregate — the people toujours malheureux, the suffering masses, et cetera. To Dostoevski, the sign of Jesus’s divinity clearly was his ability to have compassion with all men in their singularity, that is, without lumping them together 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.
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 pitier “is not stricken in the flesh,” because he keeps his “sentimental distance,” he has often shown “a greater capacity for cruelty” than the confessedly cruel.
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. In his 1995 book The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch argued that the philosophy of “social democracy” favored by so much of the modern elite — a philosophy that would expand “the state’s custodial and tutelary functions” — degrades “both the victims, who are reduced to objects of pity, and their would-be benefactors, who find it easier to pity their fellow citizens than to hold them up to impersonal standards, attainment of which would entitle them to respect.”
To be pitied by another man is to stand humiliated 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 provoke their resentment, even their rage; the act of pitying is always a kind of strength condescending to weakness. Love awakens; pity oppresses.