The Corner

‘When that the poor have cried . . .’

The tax hikes have been averted, but will spending cuts follow? It seems to me unlikely that government spending will decline in any meaningful way as long as a culture of public pity prevails, one that favors centrally directed social programs over those local and spontaneous forms of compassionate care which for centuries lay close to the heart of the old market-square culture of the West.

The central insight of market-square culture concerns the role of art — yes, you read that right, art — in bringing people together without coercion, thereby promoting those voluntary forms of communal interaction which nurture the compassionate impulse without abridging individual freedom. This civic artistry privileged the face-to-face encounters that Hannah Arendt (among others) thought essential to genuine compassion, which she defined as love directed “towards specific suffering” and “particular persons.” Such compassion, Arendt maintained, can be exercised only by individuals, not by centralized bureaucracies, which dispense at best a frigid pity. (Pity, Arendt said, “may be the perversion of compassion,” for the pitier “is not stricken in the flesh.”)

Arendt’s arguments help to explain, not only why the social-welfare programs that are now bankrupting the West have so often failed to lift up hearts, but also why the West’s traditional market-square (agora) culture was able to develop first-rate charitable institutions which were human in scale and rooted in the local knowledge of particular people and conditions.

It is revealing that elite indifference to market-square revivalism should persist even as scientists and evolutionary psychologists (e.g. Robin Dunbar) who study the bonding culture of primitive human groups have begun to vindicate the belief of agora philosophers from Aristotle to Arendt that the creative agency of art is essential to the begetting of community. “When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept.” Public pity is the preferred policy of many of our elites today precisely because, unlike the compassionate culture of the old market-square sanctuaries, it is a path to power. Sir Ronald Syme said of the patrician reformers who in the last years of the Roman Republic took up the pity-politics of panem et circenses — bread and circuses — that they used “the advocacy of reform” to further their own “personal ambition.” Sound familiar?

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published this year.


The Latest