Under the Terrible Tyranny of Pity

“Verily, I like them not, the merciful ones, whose bliss is in their pity . . .”

“And what in the world hath caused more suffering than the follies of the pitiful?” 

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883)

If you wish to make a man like you, it is said you should ask a favor of him rather than do a favor for him.  If you ask a favor that is within his power, he will like you for asking because you thereby honor his power.  This is why a man likes his wife a little better when she asks him to open a jar of pickles, and a little less when she offers to sew a button on his shirt.  The request honors his strength, the offer dishonors his skill.

This is the inner meaning of St. Paul’s maxim that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20: 35).  Giving is agreeable because the giver experiences and displays his own power in the act of giving.  Hence the satisfaction of a man as he deftly unscrews the lid of a pickle jar, and the gratitude he feels towards his wife for affording him this opportunity to display his virility. Receiving is disagreeable because the receiver experiences and concedes his own weakness in the act of receiving.  Hence the irritation a man feels as his wife threads the needle and sets to work on his loose button.

We pretend that giving is hard and generosity is therefore a virtue.  We pretend this especially at dinner parties where the host is glowing with pleasure and the guests are finding fault with the wine.  The truth is that receiving is much harder than giving, and gratitude is much harder than generosity.  This is evident from the fact that we seek out the company of those who owe us gratitude and shun the company of those to whom we owe gratitude.  As Rochefoucauld noted more than three hundred years ago, it is more blessed to give than to receive.

“We like better to see those on whom we confer benefits, than those from whom we receive them”*

* * * * *

I like to see those on whom I confer benefits, because it is agreeable to look down.  Like the man unscrewing the pickle jar, I experience and display my strength.  I dislike seeing those from whom I have received benefits, because it is disagreeable to look up.  Like the man watching his button sewn, I experience and concede my weakness.  Receiving benefits is, in fact, so disagreeable that I invent cunning subterfuges that convert benefits received into debts repaid.  I brood for hours until I at last contrive to look down on my benefactor as a knave who is paying me modest—very modest—restitution.

* * * * *

It is far more agreeable to pity than it is to be pitied.  This is partly owing to the fact that the one who pities only imagines the pain of the one he pities, whereas the one he pities suffers real pain.  Pity for a man who has broken his leg does not feel anything like a broken leg.  Pity for a woman who has no money does not feel anything like having no money.  Pity for grief is not grief.

There are few phrases more fatuous than “I know just how you feel.”

In addition to being fatuous, pity is often ghoulish.  Compassionate people swarm like ghouls to scenes of death and disaster, because they hope to enjoy the agreeable sense of superiority that comes to anyone who witnesses a death or disaster that is not his own.  As the sixteenth-century evangelical John Bradford watched a condemned man led to the scaffold, he is said to have uttered, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” Although Bradford’s utterance is normally taken as piteous, it can just as well be taken as ghoulish.  The grace of God is no mean thing, and a man who has the superior fortune to enjoy it feels that superiority, and therefore takes ghoulish pleasure, when he witnesses the disgrace of a man who does not.

There but for my bulging bank balance go I!  There but for my lovely face go I!  There but for my nimble brain go I! etc. etc.

Pity degrades the pitied, and this is why a man of honor instinctively hides his piteous state from the shame of pitying eyes.  He may very much need their aid, but not at the price of their pity, because the price of pity is dishonor.  Montaigne tells us that even as an old man in the piteous state of loneliness, he has too much pride to enjoy the company of young women would condescend to amuse him because they feel sorry for him.

“If they can only be kind to us out of pity, I had much rather not to live at all, than live upon charity.”**

Charity here means to give and not receive, which many among us suppose is a great virtue.  And yet Montaigne tells us that he would rather die than receive and not give.  This is because it is dishonorable to receive without giving, and because a man who consents to charity is by this consent unmanned.

It is more blessed to give than to receive because to receive without giving is to be damned.

“Who can receive pleasure where he gives none; it must needs be a mean soul that desires to owe all, and can be contented to maintain a conversation with persons to whom he is a charge.”**

* * * * *

Now you perhaps begin to understand what Nietzsche meant when he asked if anything in the world had caused more suffering than pity.

“And what in the world hath caused more suffering than the follies of the pitiful?”

The word pitiful here has its original sense of filled with pity, and the folly of the pitiful is their cruel indulgence in compassion and charity.  They tell us, and perhaps even believe, that pity is a very noble sentiment.  But it is upon closer inspection revealed as fatuous, ghoulish and most of all degrading.  As a commentator on Nietzsche says,

“Pity—that attitude towards our fellow-creatures, which, as you know, all of us, individually resent most bitterly, when it is directed at us; pity which makes us recoil when it is breathed upon us even by our best friend;—this is the quality which is fast becoming the greatest virtue amongst us . . . . Whatever we may say in its support, we know it is ignoble—or, if we don’t, why, pray, do all those amongst us who have any taste for courage, independence and nobility of spirit, resent and resist it with all our might?”***

This is a question to which every honest Christian must find an answer, for he almost certainly thinks pity is a very fine thing, but at the same time does everything in his power to ensure that no one feels pity for him.

What is this baleful gift, pity, that each of us is so eager to give and so unwilling to receive?

* * * * *

There have always been, as Montaigne said, “mean souls that desire to owe all.”  Or that have been, at least, content to be piteous objects of charity and to “receive pleasure where they gives none.”  Nietzsche calls them “grey people.”  In our democratic age, these “grey people” have joined with the “the merciful ones, whose bliss is in their pity,” and their hymns to the piteous and the pitiful (original sense) define the culture of the age.  This is why Ludovici wrote, in 1914, that pity “is fast becoming the greatest virtue amongst us.”  More than thirty years earlier, Nietzsche described the growing tyranny  of pity in an image that was more poetic, and more portentous.

“So be ye warned against pity: from thence there yet cometh unto men a heavy cloud!  Verily, I understand weather-signs.”†

A heavy cloud is a storm cloud heavy with rain.  That storm cloud is now directly overhead, blocking the sun, growling with thunder, flashing with lightening, and lashing the trees with gusts of angry wind.  And all for pity’s sake, because men grow mad under a tyranny of pity.

*) Rochefoucauld, Maxims and Moral Reflections (1665)
**) Montaigne, “On Some Verses of Virgil” (1580)
***) Anthony M. Ludovici, Who is to be Master of the World? (1914)
†) Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883)

9 thoughts on “Under the Terrible Tyranny of Pity

  1. As I was reading, I started to wonder what the difference/connection was between pity and mercy. Then you had the line about the “merciful ones, whos bliss is in their pity”. It would be helpful to get some insight on this from better minds. Does mercy come with the same feelings from those who give and those who receive? As I think about it, mercy is given by one who has authority to give it, whereas the pity discussed does not have a connection between the one giving and the one receiving. Perhaps pity and mercy can be married by the one who provides mercy, but does that then elevate the pity or denigrate the mercy.

    • Pity is an emotion, mercy is an act. The words are often used as synonyms, but it is obvious that I can feel pity and withhold mercy, and I can extend mercy without feeling pity.

      • Ah, I may have been wrongly envisioning pity as an act as well. An act in terms of it not being a genuine emotion on the part of those feigning pity through statements like, “I know just how you feel”, which I tend to believe is more about them focusing on their own experience they are recalling rather than the experience and feelings of those they presumably pity. But that helps, thanks.

  2. My wife, newly deceased, underwent a 25 year decline in her health, so that she ended unable to be any material help to those around her. But she was able to offer her personally unworthy suffering of passivity and incapacity, to ask Christ to include it in His infinitely meritorious suffering, as it is said in Colossians 1:24, to “rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church”.

    The locus of the conflict between giving and pity is somewhere within the schema described, more simply on the negative side, by the vices, pleasure, possessions, prestige and power.

    Those who, on the opposite side of the vice of power, are afforded the simple opportunity–if not always the realization–for the virtue of being always ready to be of service, have been described as residing at a third level, faced with incipient dangers until they surpass the novel stage of development: they can fall into the trap of being always busy with the “important” work of serving others, that they can get a Martha complex, and be neglectful of the duty of Mary to attend to what the Lord is telling her.

    Then when the lives of these “important, busy” people fall into decline, when their ability to be of service is curtailed, they must undergo the comparatively more difficult work of accepting help from others: a level 4, where all they have to offer is their incapacity.

    It is here that they can attain their highest dignity, when Christ offers to sanctify their suffering, to ennoble, to dignify it with identification with His infinitely meritorious suffering, as He offers it to the Holy Trinity in his self-determined holocaust, for the salvation of the world.

    It has been compared with the Daddy who is responding to a little boy who wants to “help” him in the workshop: the Daddy doesn’t need any help, but he gives his little boy some of his daddy-hood by letting him participate.

    So Christ is willing to allow us a tiny share in His suffering as He performs the astounding work of saving the world.

    There is a far older understanding of this issue that has been discussed here.

    • I like that phrase “Martha complex.” I think we might need a more nuanced vocabulary to work out this problem, since the single word pity covers a range of emotions. I also think it is important to ask whether pity is, at this moment, overemphasized or underemphasized, both in ourselves and in our society. In my opinion, pity is one of the good things we can have too much of, and do presently have too much of. If I lived in a stern and heartless society, I would argue for more pity. Much of your comment deals with the sanctification of suffering. This actually puts you somewhat in agreement with Nietzsche. He said that pity actually dishonors suffering because it sees suffering as pure evil. I think he says that a person filled with pity has no “reverence” for suffering, and reverence for suffering seems to be precisely your point.

  3. Charity in the fullest sense is pitiless. Charity stands with its beneficiaries, shoulder to shoulder, as one companion and shieldmate stands with his brother in arms. Pity sends the wounded a check in the mail.

    It is some comfort to receive commiseration or condolence; it gives one strength to receive sympathy from a loving heart; it is irksome to need compassion; it galls us to be pitied.

    Century Dictionary, 1895

    The other morning I felt ill. My wife said, “How long since you ate?” I confessed. She said, “I’m going to make you some eggs and toast.” Which she bustled and did. It felt terrific.

    It is much nicer and more wholesome to be the object of caritas than of pietas. The latter is of course a sort of duty; whereas caritas is always supererogatory.

    The pitiable man is nowise relieved of his sufferings by the pity of his fellows, but in and by their honest fraternal charity he may find profound comfort, even when they are powerless to help him in any concrete way.

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