Pity: Moral Weakness or Theological Virtue?

In certain respects the influence of the Bible upon Western culture was so pervasive and thorough that it can be difficult for modern persons to imagine the world that lay on the other side of this monumental historical shift. The Christian legacy has become the air we breathe such that we no longer recognize how strange some distinctly Christian ideas were when they first appeared on the world stage. Once such example is the notion of “pity.” Most people, even if they acknowledge their own failure to live up to such a standard, would nevertheless regard it as virtuous to feel pity for persons who are suffering, especially those who suffer unjustly.

Classical, pre-Christian authors had an ambivalent attitude towards the idea of “pity.” Aristotle, for example, identified pity as “the pain felt toward another’s undeserved misfortune,” yet in his Ethics, pity fell short of being a virtue, and was instead classified as merely an emotion. The Stoics later took an even more negative perspective on the idea. Seneca, for instance, spoke of it as a “weakness of the mind overly distressed by misery.” Moreover, he, along with Cicero, suggested that the expected norm was certainly to help others in dire straights, but only those who were upstanding citizens who would likely be able to reciprocate with acts of gratitude later on. Thus, in their view one should always have an eye out for one’s own interests and in all circumstances be sure to retain one’s composure.

Early Christian authors to varying degrees were aware of these long standing traditions of reflection upon piety and its propriety. However, they found that the Christian story required a significant modification of the classical tradition, and so they subsequently recast pity as a theological virtue. These early Christian thinkers retained the sense that the misery of others should cause us discomfort and even pain, and yet regarded this experience as a useful tool for training the soul in the way of righteousness. As Gregory of Nazianzus reflected on the experience of witnessing someone else in misery, “sadness is sometimes more precious than joy, and gloom than celebration – a tear more praiseworthy than unseemly laughter.”

What drove this about-turn in the evaluation of pity? In short, it was the Bible which impressed two important ideas upon the minds of these Christian thinkers. First was the realization that all humanity is equal before God. As Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, even the poor “share the same nature with us, and have been put together from the same clay from which we first came . . . [were] made in the image of God, . . . [and] have put on the same Christ in the inner person.” Second was the supreme example of Christ, the almighty and eternal Son of God, who “though he was rich, yet for [our] sake he became poor, so that [we] by his poverty might become right” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The abundant pity which God showed to humanity in the person of His Son sparked the Christian moral imagination to refashion classical ideals in light of gospel truth. No more is pity a weakness. Rather, it is intrinsic to the divine love shown in Christ, a love that believers are now commanded to show to all mankind.

The classical citations above come from Paul M. Blowers, “Pity, Empathy, and the Tragic Spectacle of Human Suffering: Exploring the Emotional Culture of Compassion in Late Ancient Christianity,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 18 (2010): 1-27. The quotation from Gregory of Nazianzus comes from Brian E. Daley, Gregory of Nazianzus (London: Routledge, 2006), 83.