A reader wrote objecting to my recent post on tattooing, faulting me with a want of compassion for the victims. I’ve answered his specific objection in the comments, and would point to my other entries in the comment thread as evidence that I am not altogether heartless, but here wish to say a few words against compassion.
Ungoverned compassion is a vice. This is to say that it is bad to indulge an automatic and indiscriminate impulse to alleviate suffering because suffering is often Gnon’s rod of correction. Compassion does have its proper objects—children, the feeble-minded, true victims of circumstances beyond their control; but when compassion is extended to improper objects it retards progress by preventing education.
In his famous essay “The Forgotten Man,” William Graham Sumner writes that the drunk should be left in the gutter because that is precisely where he belongs. Now Sumner was a eugenicist who expected the drunk to die in that gutter and remove himself from the breeding stock. I’ll take a somewhat softer approach and say that there are times when a gutter can teach a drunk more than any Good Samaritan can. Indeed, I believe the reform of a drunk is more often accomplished by reaching rock bottom in a gutter than it is by receiving tea and sympathy in some Bowery mission.
Like all of the secondary virtues, compassion is a vice if it is not governed by justice and prudence. And ungoverned compassion is also an Achilles’ heel.
This is the great theme of Raspail’s Camp of the Saints, the 1973 novel that foretold the third-world invasion of the West. At one point in the novel a hardened Russian general looks across the Amur River and predicts that, when the Chinese invasion of Siberia begins, it will be lead not by soldiers, but by women carrying babies and followed by their children. The general was a veteran of the Second World War, and so knew how easy it was to kill a German soldier. But looking across the Amur River, he understood that his troops would not shoot women and children.
The Revolution always advances behind “women and children” because it knows that ungoverned compassion is our Achilles’ heel. It has learned that fear hardens a man and prepares him to fight, whereas pity softens and a man and prepares him to be fleeced. I know I have given more money to phony beggars than I have to real muggers, and I expect you have as well. And this is why the shock troops of the Revolution are not warriors striding through clouds of mustard gas, but rather the wretched of the earth (real and spurious) striding through clouds of pathos.
The moral question of the man in the gutter is not identical to the moral question of Chinese women and children crossing the Amur River, but the correct answer to both question involves ordinate compassion. Not the inordinate compassion that so many in the West, Christian and non-Christian, nowadays equate with personal morality.