Pity evokes a tender or sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow or empathy for people, a person, or an animal in misery, pain, or distress. In regard to humans, a protective or quasi-paternal feeling of pity may be felt towards marginalized or impoverished people such as homeless families; orphans; people with disabilities or terminal illness, and victims of rape and torture. People who have previously experienced the pain or misfortune in question may feel greater pity. Because pity will often result in the pitier aiding the pitied, some people equate pity with sympathy and assume, therefore, that pity is naturally a positive thing. However, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that pity causes an otherwise normal person to feel his or her own suffering in an inappropriately intense, alienated way. "Pity makes suffering contagious," he says in The Antichrist, meaning that it is important for the pitier not to allow him/herself to feel superior to the pitied, lest such a power imbalance result in the pitied retaliating against the help being offered.
In Ancient Greece, Aristotle argued (Rhetoric 2.8) that in 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 described pity in his Rhetoric: "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. 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.).
Quotes about pity:
|From Rivers to the Sea Part I|
THEY never saw my lover's face,
They only know our love was brief,
Wearing awhile a windy grace
And passing like an autumn leaf.
They wonder why I do not weep,
They think it strange that I can sing,
They say, "Her love was scarcely deep
Since it has left so slight a sting."
They never saw my love, nor knew
That in my heart's most secret place
I pity them as angels do
Men who have never seen God's face.
|This work is in the public domain in
the United States because it was published before
January 1, 1923.
The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.