19 March 2011


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, said Aristotle

Lessing wrote, we are prompted by the fear that a similar fate may befall us; thus fear is pity transferred to ourselves.

and Schopenhauer said that we are moved by the suffering of others because we can imagine that we ourselves may suffer the same, that it can also happen to us and that in the fate of the ones who suffer we see the fate of all mankind and thus our own. And so, when we feel pity for those who suffer, we really feel pity for ourselves.

Some man, an expat working in Japan, mentioned on the news, the endless news, today how horrible it is when you go to a supermarket and almost all the shelves are empty. He said, for a moment I was afraid I might starve.

I don't know what to make of this. No, I want to say, you will not starve. You are living in a technically highly developed country and eventually your supermarket shelves will be full again. You will put money on the counter and get food in exchange and you will never have to find out what subsistence really is. And then I think to myself, aaargh you arrogant woman on your high horse, get lost. This man is scared to death by what has happened to him. Give him a break.


  1. I guess I think the Buddhists are right about this one, that it's nothing so rational or roundabout as Aristotle & Co. think: it's hardwired into us as social animals -- we see someone hurt, and we hurt, right away, willy nilly. (What we do with that pain, of course, how we perceive it & respond to it, is subject to all kinds of individual and cultural pressures.)

  2. oh yes sure I am leaning heavily towards compassion as instinct etc. but what has me troubled is why for some and not for others - why all this outpouring now for Japan when daily - insert latest figure from UN statistics - people die as a result of hunger, water borne diseases, malaria.... i.e. avoidable causes.
    Is it because we can identify with people who live and suffer in a society not unlike ours?

  3. I see. Yes. I think mostly people just extend their compassion to the pain that they happen to see, and what the media serves up is the most arresting images it can find. Who's going to watch people starving in Lagos when they can watch the streets of Tokyo writhe?

    I offended some people by writing about Katrina this way, a while ago, & saying that photogenic suffering is not more important than the regular dull, boring suffering of the overburdened poor, which is far more extensive, pervasive and ongoing. Not to mention much cheaper to fix. No need for helicopters or national guard: just get ordinary starving people some clean water and a few sacks of rice and beans, and you can relieve a whole lot of suffering.