Pity evokes a tender or sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow or empathy for people, a person, or an animal in misery, pain, or distress. People who have previously experienced the pain or misfortune in question may feel greater pity.
In Ancient Greece, Aristotle argued (Rhetoric 2.8) that before a person can feel pity for another human, the person must first have experienced suffering of a similar type, and the person must be somewhat distanced or removed from the sufferer. In Aristotle's Rhetoric he defines pity as follows: "Let pity, then, be a kind of pain in the case of an apparent destructive or painful harm of one not deserving to encounter it, which one might expect oneself, or one of one's own, to suffer, and this when it seems near". Aristotle also pointed out that "people pity their acquaintances, provided that they are not exceedingly close in kinship; for concerning these they are disposed as they are concerning themselves....For what is terrible is different from what is pitiable, and is expulsive of pity". Thus, from Aristotle's perspective, in order to feel pity, a person must believe that the person who is suffering does not deserve their fate. The concept of pity was part of the Greek literary traditions of tragedy and epic.
The religious concept of pity changed after the introduction of Christianity; while Greek and Roman gods were not believed to feel pity (since they were thought to be invulnerable), the Christian religion proposed a deity which felt pity for humans. Occasional references to the concept of God's pity can be found in the older Jewish tradition, but the idea of pity as a predominant characteristic of God was a Christian innovation. By the nineteenth century, two different kinds of pity had come to be distinguished, which we might call "benevolent pity" and "contemptuous pity" (see Kimball). David Hume observed that pity which has in it a strong mixture of good-will, is nearly allied to contempt, which is a species of dislike, with a mixture of pride. It is an emotion that almost always results from an encounter with a real or perceived unfortunate, injured, or pathetic creature. A person experiencing pity will experience a combination of intense sorrow and mercy for the person or creature, often giving the pitied some kind of aid, physical help, and/or financial assistance. Although pity may be confused with compassion, empathy, commiseration, condolence or sympathy, pity is different from all of these. Nietzsche pointed out that since all people to some degree value self-esteem and self-worth, pity can negatively affect any situation. Additionally, pity may actually be psychologically harmful to the pitied: Self-pity and depression can sometimes be the result of the power imbalance fostered by pity, sometimes with extremely negative psychological and psycho-social consequences for the pitied party.
Though in his later works he reverses his position and sees Pity as an emotion that can draw beings together, Mystic poet William Blake is known to have been ambivalent about the emotion Pity. In The Book of Urizen Pity begins when Los looks on the body of Urizen bound in chains (Urizen 13.50-51). However, Pity furthers the fall, "For pity divides the soul" (13.53), dividing Los and Enitharmon (Enitharmon is named Pity at her birth). Analyzers of this work assert that Blake shows that "Pity defuses the power of righteous indignation and proper prophetic wrath that lead to action. Pity is a distraction; the soul is divided between it and the action a 'pitiable' state demands. This is seen as Los's division into active male and tearful female, the latter deluding the former." Again railing against Pity in The Human Abstract, Blake exclaims: "Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor" (1-2).
Modern neurology asserts that pity consists of an initial aversion to the plight of the sufferer, after which the higher parts of the brain make a more nuanced assessment of the situation (e.g., considering the context and invoking empathy, etc.).
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- Robert H. Kimpoop. "A Plea for Pity". In Philosophy and Rhetoric, volume 37:4.
- David Konstan, Pity Transformed. London: Duckworth, 2001. Pp. 181. ISBN 0-7156-2904-2.
- David Hume, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, in his Enquires concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals. ed. L.A. Selby-Bigge, 3rd ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975 [1st]) Sec. VI Part II, p. 248, n.1. pub. 1751
- Stephen Tudor, Compassion and Remorse: Acknowledging the Suffering Other
- Lauren Wispé. The Psychology of Sympathy. Springer, 1991. ISBN 0-306-43798-8, ISBN 978-0-306-43798-4