Sunday, April 5, 2015


Is it a good thing?

Before you stop reading and start shouting that I'm an evil bastard and/or a Republican for even asking such a question, let's acknowledge that "compassion," like "love," is one of those terms which we need to examine more closely, because it can mean more than one thing. If we leave such terms unexamined, we leave some confusion unaddressed.

Tracing the term back to its Latin roots, "to have compassion with" someone means "to suffer with" them. The Latin "passio" means suffering, and "com" or "cum" is a Latin word with various meanings, often used as a prefix, often mean "with" or "along with."

All decent people want to alleviate the suffering of their fellow humans whenever they can. Nietzsche was a thoroughly decent person and he wanted this as much as any decent person.

He was often misunderstood on this point -- and Machiavelli too -- both by rotten uncaring people who thought he was one of them, and by decent caring people who thought he was one of those rotten people, because he dared to examine what compassion really is. Actually, in German the situation is a bit clearer, because instead of using a form of a Latin or Greek term, Germans use a modern German compound word to refer to compassion: "Mitleiden," which means "Withsuffering," "suffering-with." In English, "compassion" can also refer to the readiness to actually do something about the suffering of others, without necessarily feeling bad because someone else feels bad.

A person has been injured and lies bleeding in the street. Bystander A comes by and weeps and wails for the suffering of the injured person, and does nothing else. Bystander B, who is in a particularly cheerful mood, comes by, immediately calls an ambulance, and until the ambulance comes does what he can to keep the wound clean and slow the bleeding. And B stays particularly cheerful the whole time.

Who's been comapssionate, A or B? Like I say, it depends how you define "compassion." If you define it to mean suffering along with those who are suffering, then A has been compassionate. If you define it to mean doing something to help others, then B is the compassionate one.

I'm afraid that we often define compassion in the sense of Bystander A: suffering with others, participating in their suffering. I find that to be actually worse than useless: it increases the amount of suffering in the world. Bystander B reduces the amount of suffering in 2 ways: by helping, and by not suffering himself.

The Christian martyrs -- the real ones, that is, and not the ones whose suffering existed only in myth --

-- were compassionate with the real or mythical sufferings of the real or mythical Christ, and eager to share in that suffering. Galileo preferred to lie his way out of torture to give himself the opportunity to continue his work in science during the house arrest in which he spent the final years of his life. The martyrs were like Bystander A: eager to suffer. Galileo was like Bystander B: full of the desire to be useful.

Good and evil are relative terms. Nietzsche wrote about that a lot and even put it in the title of one of his books. I do not have have the same opinions as everyone else about what is good. I think that Bystander B and Galileo were good, because they were good for something.

As a young monk, before he proceeded into open rebellion and started the Lutheran Reformation, Martin Luther went to Rome and was outraged by -- Michelangelo. He was outraged by churches adorning themselves in gorgeous art. Back in Germany he was outraged by the sale of indulgences. Germans were paying lots of money to have official documents from the Catholic Church certifying that their souls had been saved. Back in Rome the money paid for all that gorgeous art. Apparently not a lot of Italians or French people could be induced to pay money for such things. Did Luther denounce his fellow Germans for being such schmucks? No, he denounced the Catholic Church and ushered in centuries worth of incredibly gory religious wars. Not because people in Germany were too superstitious, as many a Lutheran apologist might have you believe, but because in Rome people were feeling too good and living too well.

Even today a lot of Protestants are bitterly angry about the very same Renaissance art in the Vatican. And a lot of atheists are bitterly angry about it too. They -- both the angry Protestants and the angry atheists -- talk about selling off all that art for the good of the poor. As if poor people can't appreciate art.

No, I don't think that art is the enemy of the poor. I think those angry Protestants and atheists -- and let's not leave out the few angry Catholics who're with them. Among 1 billion Catholic there've got to be a few who are that crazy -- are Bystander A, more interesting in increasing suffering than lessening it.

Don't go after art if you really want to help the poor (I'm not talking to the angry people I've described in the preceeding 2 paragraphs, they're not listening to me anyway, they're much too busy hating each other and me and quite possibly you too, I'm talking to those of you who are relatively sane). Go after tax breaks for billionaires. Support raising minimum wages. Helps publicize sweatshops and slave labor and shut down those who grow richer off of human misery. You can do all that and love art at the same time, in fact you can do all that and make great art at the same time -- in fact, if you're not yet very familiar with art and the lives of artists, you might be amazed at how many great artists do exactly all of that sort of thing all at the same time.

You don't have to be miserable in order to be good.

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