Aristotle on Pity


Aristotle argues that pity is a kind of pain felt from a realization that a similar misfortune might at any time affect us or our loved ones. The definition may seem distastefully self-centered, but one should bear in mind that in the Rhetoric, Aristotle is teaching the reader, in part, how to play on an audience's emotions. His underlying observation is still worth our attention: Pity arises from some fundamental recognition that suffering is an unavoidable part of every human existence.

Pity may be defined as a pain for apparent evil, destructive or painful, befalling a person who does not deserve it, when we might expect such evil to befall ourselves or some of our friends and when, moreover, it seems near. Plainly, the man who is to pity must be of such a sort as has been defined, or of a like or comparable sort. Hence pity is not felt by the utterly lost, for they think that they cannot suffer anything further; they have suffered; nor by those who think themselves supremely prosperous, rather they are insolent; for, if hey think that they have all goods, of course they think that they have exemption from suffering ill, this being a good. The belief that they may possibly suffer is likely to be felt by those who have already suffered and escaped, by elderly persons, on account of their good sense and experience, by the weak and especially by the rather timid, by the educated, for they are reasonable. By those, too, who have parents, children, or wives; for these are their own, and are liable to the sufferings above-named. And by those who are not possessed by a courageous feeling, such as anger or boldness, for these feelings take no account of the future, and by those who are not in an insolent state of mind, as such are reckless of prospective suffering: pity is felt by those who are in the intermediate states. And by those, again, who are not in great fear, for the panic-stricken do not pity, because they are busied with their own feeling. Men pity, too, if they think that there are some people who may be reckoned good; for he who thinks no one good will think all worthy of evil. And, generally, a man pities when he is in a position to remember that like things have befallen himself or his friends, or to expect that they may...

Again, men pity when the danger is near themselves. And they pity those like them in age, in character, in moral state, in rank, in birth; for all these examples make it more probable that the case may become their own; since here, again, we must take it as a general maxim that all things which we fear for ourselves, we pity when they happen to others.

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