Morbid Pity and the Apotheosis of Blockheads

“‘The friendship of a blockhead shun,’
Said Israel’s monarch, David’s son.”*

Samuel Low, “The Fool’s Friendship” (c. 1800)

“And all that pity you are made your prey.”

Thomas Otway, The Orphan (1680)

It may strike some readers as odd that I so often quote or allude to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one of history’s more decidedly anti-Christian thinkers.  Indeed, I most often quote The Antichrist, his most decidedly anti-Christian book.  The Antichrist is, as they used to say, strong meat, but a Christian who has the stomach for strong meat may learn a good deal from it.  Nietzsche himself believed he had diagnosed Christianity as the pathology of Western Man; I would say he has diagnosed morbid pity as the pathology of postmodern Christianity.

Unlike Nietzsche, I accept pity (compassion) as a virtue, but unlike many modern Christians, I see pity as a secondary virtue that degenerates into pathological altruism when it is not regulated by the primary virtues of justice, prudence and courage.  A man without compassion is certainly a bad man, but a man who is guided by nothing but compassion is a King Midas of misery.  Everything he touches turns to mold.

Morbid pity does its mischief in many ways.  The most obvious is that it rushes in to palliate unpleasant but just deserts.  A drunkard groaning in bed should at least get his own aspirin! A sluggard lamenting his empty belly should be ignored.  The road to wisdom runs through the swamp of suffering, and when morbid pity tries to bridge that swamp with a causeway, it turns the road right back to folly.  All suffering does not deserve pity, and it requires justice, prudence and courage to harden one’s heart when it does not.

More insidiously, whenever we feel pity, there is a great danger we will begin to feel sorry.  Notice the telling equivocation in this word sorry, which can mean simple compassion or guilty remorse. Morbid pity is compassion that has degenerated into guilty remorse, into a false belief that I have somehow caused the suffering that I see.  Compassion makes me feel a duty to alleviate unjust suffering.  Morbid pity makes me feel that I am at least partly to blame for all the sorrows of the world.

Prudent pity for the poor is a virtue, and it leads to charity. Charity is given in love and received with gratitude. Morbid pity for the poor is a vice, and it leads to restitution. Restitution is given in shame, received without thanks, and impartially showered on deserving and undeserving alike.  When wealth waxes guilty, poverty waxes predatory, and “Christian charity” becomes the cover for a heist.

Returning to Nietzsche, morbid pity also perverts our discernment by blurring our vision of goodness, beauty and truth.  When a person is deficient in intelligence, for instance, morbid pity encourages us to compensate that person with some wholly imaginary virtue, such as “soul,” or “kindness,” or “honesty.” Because many stupid people are also vapid, mean, and shifty, this compensatory fiction blinds us to genuine instances of these and other virtues.

It is a fact that many beautiful women are also intelligent, unaffected, and kind, and that many homely women are also dull, vain and spiteful.  Compassion faces this fact and does its best to pity the ghastly hags.   Morbid pity recoils from this fact and compensates the charmless gargoyles with fatuous compliments.

Morbid pity causes many people to believe that a child who is poor at math must be good at art. The result has been to destroy art classes by packing them with blockheads who don’t know what to do with finger paints.  Artists and mathematicians are different than each other, but they are, together, even more different than the many blockheads who are neither artists nor mathematicians.

We should do our best to feel compassion for blockheads, whom God must love since he made so many of them.  But it is morbid to imagine they are anything other than blockheads.

 

*) “A friend of fools shall become like unto them.”  Proverbs 13:20

12 thoughts on “Morbid Pity and the Apotheosis of Blockheads

  1. Pingback: Morbid Pity and the Apotheosis of Blockheads | Reaction Times

  2. “Charity is given in love and received with gratitude.”
    Not necessarily. In fact, I should think that charity is rarely received by the upright of heart without very mixed feelings.
    Mother Teresa is reputed to have said that the poor will despise us for our charity, but that we must give it anyway. That doesn’t sound implausible to me.

  3. It seems to me that morbid pity is contrary to charity in another way along with what you describe. Namely, that morbid pity seems founded in the idea that we give to people because they deserve it: that the ghastly hag *must* have some virtue, otherwise there would be no reason to show her charity. If the poor are to be cared for especially, that must mean the poor are generally or inherently more virtuous than the rich.

    But this isn’t Christian charity at all. Giving to the deserving is not charity, only justice. “Do not even the pagans do as much?” The distinctly Christian charity means caring for and helping someone with nothing at all lovable about them. Charity begins where desert ends.

  4. I don’t even really see much of a relation between pity and actually helping people. When we see someone fallen in a hole, pity might tell us to jump in the hole, in order to commiserate, to feel their pain, to feel literally com-passion. But we should rather get him a ladder. Pity, compassion focuses on the problem, not the solution. Being solution-oriented implies not dwelling much in shared suffering, we focus on the good things that can be enjoyed and find ways to extend access to them to others.

    I don’t really think it is empathy. When other people’s suffering causes us emotional pain, it is all to easy to solve it by turning the back and not paying attention. Besides, one gets desensitized to it after a while. Helping people practically is more of a desire to improve things that can be improved.

    • If I do not pity the man in a hole, I will not see his being in a hole as a problem in need of a solution. The problem is what follows. Healthy compassion makes me look for a ladder and help the man out of the hole with the least possible fuss. Morbid compassion makes me make myself the Greta Thunburg of Hole Alarmism.

      • >If I do not pity the man in a hole, I will not see his being in a hole as a problem in need of a solution.

        I straighten out the fringes on the rug not because I pity the rug but because of an innate sense of how things should be, an innate desire for orderliness. If you help someone out of a bad situation simply because that situation is not how things should be, him being in a bad situation makes the world less orderly, you are pretty much guaranteed to go for the ladder with the least possible fuss and avoid morbid compassion.

  5. Dividualist:

    I straighten out the fringes on the rug not because I pity the rug but because of an innate sense of how things should be, an innate desire for orderliness. If you help someone out of a bad situation simply because that situation is not how things should be, him being in a bad situation makes the world less orderly, you are pretty much guaranteed to go for the ladder with the least possible fuss and avoid morbid compassion.

    This reminds me of the concept of Universally Preferred Ethics; the idea that a Vulcan thinking logically would identify the optimum course of action. I don’t think most people think that way–and besides, a rug does not cry out for help. The trolley problem comes to mind as a dilemma that would challenge the “universally preferred ethics”, or a logical pursuit of orderliness. Pity recognizes that the Trolley problem is indeed a problem. If I had Morbid pity, I would wish to be on the track to share in their special gift.

    • The problem I see with Dividualist’s position is that it takes ethical conduct as a “brute fact” that has no explanation (apart from the tautology that ethical conduct is found in people who conduct themselves ethically). “Compassion” grounds ethical conduct in natural egotism, since it reduces to the sentiment that “I’d sure hate to be in that fellow’s shoes.” Now the “Vulcan thinking logically” will calculate the probability that he, or anyone he cares about, will ever be in that fellow’s shoes. If that probability is very low, the logical Vulcan will pass the poor wretch by. There is no logical reason for him to promote societal sympathy for a form of suffering he cannot feel, directly or indirectly.

  6. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 10/20/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.