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COMPASSION READINGS

 Pity

Passage from Rhetoric
By Aristotle, Book 11, Chapter 8
Full text

Pic of aristotlePity may be defined as a feeling of pain caused by the sight of some evil, destructive or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it, and which we might expect to befall ourselves or some friend of ours, and moreover to befall us soon…In order to feel pity we must also believe in the goodness of at least some people; if you think nobody good, you will believe that everybody deserves evil fortune. And, generally, we feel pity whenever we are in the condition of remembering that similar misfortunes have happened to us or ours, or expecting them to happen in the future...Most piteous of all is it when, in such times of trial, the victims are persons of noble character: whenever they are so, our pity is especially excited, because their innocence, as well as the setting of their misfortunes before our eyes, makes their misfortunes seem close to ourselves.


 

Empathy

Excerpt from To Kill a Mockingbird
By Harper Lee (New York: Harper & Row, 1960). © Harper Lee.

Cover of To Kill a MockingbirdAtticus sat down in the swing and crossed his legs. His fingers wandered to his watch pocket; he said that was the only way he could think. He waited in amiable silence, and I sought to reinforce my position:

"You never went to school and you do all right, so I'll just stay home too. You can teach me like Grand-daddy taught you 'n' Uncle Jack."

"No I can't," said Atticus. "I have to make a living. Besides, they'd put me in jail if I kept you at home—dose of magnesia for you tonight and school tomorrow."

"I’m feeling all right, really."

"Thought so. Now what's the matter?"

Bit by bit, I told him the day's misfortunes. "—and she said you taught me all wrong, so we can’t ever read any more, ever. Please don’t send me back, please sir."

Atticus stood up and walked to the end of the porch. When he completed his examination of the wisteria vine he strolled back to me.

"First of all," he said, "if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—"

"Sir?"

"—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." 


Community Involvement/Spirit

Excerpts from Democracy in America
By Alexis de Tocqueville, Translated by Henry Reeve. eBooks@Adelaide, The University of Adelaide Library, 2008
Full text

Democracy in America graphic
In 1831, the French government sent 26-year-old Versailles judge Alexis de Tocqueville to the United States to examine the penitentiary system. The resulting masterful study, Democracy in America, ranged widely over many aspects of American life. The following excerpts indicate his convictions regarding the influence of social stratification on the public’s perceptions and expressions of compassion.

 

In Democratic ages men rarely sacrifice themselves for one another, but they display general compassion for the members of the human race. They inflict no useless ills, and they are happy to relieve the griefs of others when they can do so without hurting themselves; they are not disinterested, but they are humane.

Although the Americans have in a manner reduced selfishness to a social and philosophical theory, they are nevertheless extremely open to compassion. In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. While the English seem disposed carefully to retain the bloody traces of the Middle Ages in their penal legislation, the Americans have almost expunged capital punishment from their codes. North America is, I think, the only country upon earth in which the life of no one citizen has been taken for a political offense in the course of the last fifty years.

When men feel a natural compassion for the suffering of one another…and no sensitive feelings keep them asunder, it may readily be supposed that they will lend assistance to one another whenever it is needed. When an American asks for the cooperation of his fellow citizens, it is seldom refused; and I have often seen it afforded spontaneously, and with great good will. If an accident happens on the highway, everybody hastens to help the sufferer; if some great calamity befalls a family, the purses of a thousand strangers are at once willingly opened and small but numerous donations pour in to relieve the distress.

It often happens, among the most civilized nations of the globe, that a poor wretch is as friendless in the midst of a crowd as the savage in his wilds; this is hardly ever the case in the United States. The Americans, who are always cold and often coarse in their manners, seldom show insensibility; and if they do not proffer services eagerly, yet they do not refuse to render them.

All this is not in contradiction to what I have said before on the subject of individualism. The two things are so far from combating each other that I can see how they agree. Equality of condition, while it makes men feel their independence, shows them their own weakness; they are free, but exposed to a thousand accidents; and experience soon teaches them that although they do not habitually require the assistance of others, a time almost always comes they cannot do with out it…

The more equal social conditions become, the more do men display the reciprocal disposition to oblige each other. In democracies no great benefits are conferred, but good offices are constantly rendered; a man seldom displays self-devotion, but all men are ready to be of service to one another.