and unconcerned, insofar as they have no idea at all what it means to be in pain, to be mortal, to risk life itself for those one loves. If they have no inner, experiential sense of the importance of these matters, they can't help looking a bit clumsy, and even callous, when they deal with them.
Pity, as the pro-pity tradition sees it, has certain distinct advantages for human social life. First of all, the beliefs that ground it are (as this tradition sees it) true: for it is true that human beings are needy, incomplete creatures who rely on circumstances beyond their control in many ways for the possibility of flourishing and complete life, and who can therefore come to grief should those circumstances prove adverse. Pity acknowledges this, and it is good to acknowledge the truth. Second, the acknowledgment contains a reminder that being rich and powerful does not remove one from the ranks of humanity—that one is still a mortal, needy, incomplete being to whom terrible things may happen. This too is true—of Antinoos as of the beggar he disdains. And it is good for kings and heroes to remember and acknowledge what is true—both because it is true and because one will act more appropriately if one remains aware at all times of the sort of being one actually is. Third, and perhaps most significant, in pity one acknowledges as important for all human beings certain external things that society can arrange to distribute to those who need them: and the acknowledgment of the importance of these things, coupled with the acknowledgment that one might be in a position of need oneself some day, works to ensure a more equitable distribution of these goods. The position of the pitier (or of the tragic spectator qua pitier) is not unlike the position of the party in the 'original position' in John Rawls's theory of justice.  For he or she, looking at the represented action, is aware that goods such as food, health, citizenship, freedom, do all matter—and yet is uncertain whether she will be (or remain) one of the privileged ones in the society of the future. She is reminded that the lot of the beggar might be (or become) hers. The tendency, then, will be to arrange society in such a way that the lot of beggars, people defeated in war, and so on, is as good as it can be. Self-interest itself promotes the selection of distributive principles that raise society's floor. The floor does not get very high up in Homer, where the beggar gets a handout rather than equality; but later versions of the tradition become more and more egalitarian, I think—at least within the narrow (male, freeborn) confines of the ancient democratic imagination. [ ]
This fact about the ancient tradition is fully grasped by Rousseau, who accordingly makes pity the cement of the egalitarian society he wishes to promote. [ ] In Emile (book IV) he argues that pity is the first and most important emotion to be cultivated in the future citizen. Taking as his epigraph Dido's statement from the Aeneid —"Not inexperienced in suffering, I learn how to bring aid to the wretched"—he explains, in very classical
terms, why a citizen who lacks pity is likely to be harsh and ungenerous, lacking in compassion for the poor and weak:
Why are kings without pity for their subjects? It is because they count on never being human beings. Why are the rich so harsh to the poor? It is because they do not have fear of becoming poor. Why does a noble have such contempt for a peasant? It is because he never will be a peasant. . .. It is the weakness of the human being that makes it sociable, it is our common sufferings that carry our hearts to humanity; we would owe it nothing if we were not humans. Every attachment is a sign of insufficiency. . . . Thus from our weakness itself, our fragile happiness is born. (Emile , book IV, my trans.)
With this in mind, the teacher now undertakes to give the adolescent Emile—who does not yet have any understanding of the pain of others—some lessons in human finitude, beginning with the difficult task of showing him what death is, and what it means for people who endure the loss of a loved one, or face their own. The general emphasis of the teaching is on the importance of the external goods that fortune controls, and on their extreme undependability: "Make him understand clearly that the fate of the unhappy can be his own, that all their ills are beneath his feet, that a thousand unforeseen and unavoidable events can plunge him into those ills at any moment." This, the teacher argues, will lead Emile to be a generous and beneficent citizen, favoring social arrangements that secure the basic needs of life to all citizens alike.
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