Pity and Plato

Source: Martha C. Nussbaum, “Philosophy and Literature,” The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 226.

“[Plato’s] Republic x takes an even stronger stance against tragic poetry…Once again, the ethical objection raised against tragedy is that it shows good people encountering reversals in fortune and grieving as if these had great significance. Again, the unseemly behavior of the tragic hero is contrasted with the self-sufficient calm demeanor of the truly good man, who recognizes that ‘nothing among human beings is worth much seriousness’ (604b). Here pity is central to the analysis. Socrates points out that tragic poetry leads to fellow-feeling, and ‘nourishes the element of pity in us, making it strong’ (606b). This makes it more difficult, he alleges, to achieve a calm demeanor in one’s own sufferings.”

Plato seems to foreshadow the Stoics, who believed people should eliminate their passions. His view, at least as I read it here, differs from what we see in the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, and Christianity, which exhort people to have compassion for one another other. But there are similarities, believe it or not. I think of my quiet time in IV Maccabees a few weeks ago, and how that Hellenistic Jewish document could find examples in the Hebrew Bible of biblical heroes suppressing their passions to do the will of God: Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son, Joseph resisting Potiphar’s wife, etc. I can name other examples that the author of IV Maccabees did not include: the Levites slaughtering their fellow Israelites in the golden calf scene, the Conquest, etc. In those cases, God didn’t want his people to pity their fellow human beings.

On Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (which is my favorite Star Trek movie, even though critics shredded it to pieces), a fanatical Vulcan named Sybok gains followers by taking away their pain. Dr. McCoy, for example, had the burden of putting his sick father to sleep several years before. Spock felt sad because his father never accepted him. Sybok gave them release from that “pain.”

But Captain Kirk didn’t want to play along. He said that our pain makes us who we are. “I don’t want you to take away my pain–I need my pain!,” he said.

Human beings have feelings. On one hand, they are appropriate. There’s nothing wrong with feeling sad for another person, since the fact that we’re even thinking of someone other than ourselves is what God wants. On the other hand, passions can lead us down a wrong path if we let them control us too much. This was why Plato and the Stoics were critical of sadness, anger, and lust. They wanted a strong human being, one who was above all these base passions. I sympathize with the Stoics whenever I get a crush on a girl: I wish I didn’t have that emotion dragging me down, taking my mind off more important things.

Christianity is mixed on this. The happy-clappy evangelical brand tells us that we should never feel mad or sad, since that’s a sign that we’re not praising God enough. At the same time, Christianity has given us examples of really emotional people: Jesus, Augustine, Spurgeon, and so on.

As far as literature is concerned, I cry a lot. The crying can be involuntary, as when I watch Desperate Housewives or Joan of Arcadia. It’s a catharsis for me.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to Pity and Plato

  1. Michael says:

    Hello! I enjoyed your post.

    I think this may be the key phrase to understanding some of this:

    “grieving as if these had great significance.”

    I think maybe Plato was claiming that showing compassion toward a fictional character is a waste, most likely in his terms, because it’s not really a soul. (?)

    I don’t think that would make him a stoic, necessarily, as much as someone who doesn’t like fictional tragedies. Maybe he found his diversions other ways. Or maybe he liked comedies. (?)


  2. James Pate says:

    That could be, Michael. At the same time, he was also saying that grieving makes us grieve for ourselves, and that’s not the sort of character we should have (in his opinion).


  3. James Pate says:

    Michael, did you make more comments on Plato under here? I know I received them by e-mail. I deleted them in my e-mail because I expected to read them here, and I needed to free up my e-mail space, but now I can’t find them. Do you remember what you said?


  4. Michael says:

    Hi James. Yes, I left some comment under an older post that makes a reference to Plato, Pre-existent souls:


    You study religion?

    I wasn't raised with religion, not had any formal looks at it, but I came up with my own interpretation of the Garden of Eden. Let me know what you think, if you have the time:



  5. James Pate says:

    What you say about Eden reminds me of a few things:

    1. Jewish and historical-critical interpretations I’ve heard treat the Eden story as an etiology: how things came to be the way they are. And they assert that we needed to grow up. We couldn’t stay blissfully in a garden, for we needed to go out, work, establish culture, etc. So, in this view, the “fall” was a fall up, not down. But there are Jews and historical-critics who have the opposite perspective.

    2. I’ve read interpretations that humans just weren’t ready for knowledge at that time. Madeleine L’Engel said eating from the tree was like a child drinking a martini. There seemed to be something like that in your interpetation.


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