Pity

Pity

[pit-ee]

Pity implies tender or sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow for one in misery or distress. 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.

In regard to humans, pity may be felt towards the homeless, orphans, people with disabilities, those with terminal illness, and especially victims of rape and torture, by non-sufferers of these and similar things. 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.

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).

See also

Further reading

  • Robert H. KimpoopA Plea for Pity - Philosophy and Rhetoric 37:4
  • 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

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