“‘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