Is Pity a Christian Virtue?

In The Antichrist Frederick Nietzsche starts his takedown of Christianity with an attack on the virtue of pity. Christianity is the religion of pity, he says, though what seems to be a virtue is in reality a paralyzing, life-denying vice.

Pity allows us to identify with the suffering of others to the point of suffering with them, increasing the net misery of humanity and spreading pain like a virus. The prime example of this would be Christians contemplating the sufferings of Christ, needlessly increasing their own misery. Worse, pity is anti-evolution, since it makes us care for the sick and malformed who are better off dying for the benefit of the race, and their presence makes the rest of us morbid.

A good man is as pitiless as a doctor removing a limb or euthanizing a patient.

Nietzsche is wrong on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin. He is wrong about the value of pity, an emotion which is healthy and natural, but neither a virtue nor a vice, an emotion which could very well have evolutionary benefits for all pack animals (like man), and of course he is wrong about the value of suffering and what our attitudes towards the sick should be.

But the main difficulty with Nietzsche’s analysis is his premise: Christianity is not “the religion of pity” as if pity were its defining trait.

This may be a problem of translation: I am ignorant of German and not sure which Greek Biblical term he might be translating.

In English, pity is related to the word piety, from the Latin pietas. Piety in its classical sense is a form of reciprocal justice that governs the relationships between parties who are not equal. A man shows piety to a god by offering sacrifice, the god shows piety by having pity – often translated in English as mercy – on the worshiper, and helping him in his need. Children show piety to parents by obedience and respect, parents show piety (pity) to children in providing for them and governing them justly. A host shows piety by caring for his guest, who shows piety by not overstaying his welcome.

This form of piety is not a specifically Christian virtue; it is, for example, a major theme in The Odyssey and The Aeneid. 

In modern usage (and the way Nietzsche is using it) pity is feeling bad for someone who falls on hard times. This also is not specifically Christian; pity is a key element in Greek tragedy, it is what we feel for Antigone, Oedipus, and Electra. In The Iliad the reader is expected to feel pity for Priam and Hector, even as he roots for Achilles.

Jesus shows pity in the New Testament when healing lepers or feeding the crowds. Even his preaching is shown as an expression of pity for those “who are like sheep without a shepherd”. If there is anything we can call Christian pity, it is this sort of pity which might move one to dedicate his life to caring for the sick and the poor. In this case it is not related to “pietas” as much as it is related to “caritas”, Christian charity. Granted, in our modern world there are plenty of people who do that without a shred of religious motivation, but that is only because the modern world was influenced by Christianity. In the ancient world no one would display that sort of pity (charity) except to family members, as a matter of piety.

So the properly Christian virtue is not pity, but charity: the Christian is called to reflect (to some degree or another) God’s universal love. The practical distinction between pagan pity and Christian charity is that the former tends to stay at an emotional level while the latter is based on the will and therefore tends towards action. The deeper distinction is that the former is based on recognition of mutual humanity, and the later is based on an imitation of divine love.

How is Christian charity related to Nietzsche’s pity? It includes pity, if not necessarily as an emotion then at least as the deeds associated with it, but extends well beyond pity. Charity is (in Christian theology) the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul, which prompts and empowers the Christian to participate in an ever greater way in bringing all creation back to the Father through his worship, personal justice, and his service to others, according to the model of Christ.

Nietzsche seems to consider meditation on Christ crucified the essence of Christian spirituality. I do not know much about 19th century Lutheranism but the large role of the crucifixion in Christian prayer and sentiment is specific to Western Europe from the Middle Ages onward. Before that Western Christianity was more focused on the power of ritual, and Eastern Christianity focused on meditating on Christ in glory. The doctrines were more or less consistent, but the emphasis different.

So to call Christianity the religion of pity as if one’s emotional response to Christ crucified is the essence of Christian experience, seems misplaced.

Does pity drive Christian attitudes towards the less fortunate?

That is an interesting question: Jesus is often depicted as feeling pity, but to my knowledge he does not command his followers to feel a certain way about their neighbors, but to act a certain way towards them.

Pity is morally neutral. We noticed above that Homer’s audience would pity Hector, but not think Achilles does anything wrong in killing him. It is possible to pity someone and not lift a finger to help him, or help him when one should not: an alcoholic needing a drink might be pitiable, but whether one should give him a drink is not determined by feelings of pity. A Christian may shoot a sick dog out of pity, a sick child he may not: the pity does not indicate the best course of action. Of course like all emotions pity can be manipulated, and is often selective or self-serving.

Christian morals are not pity-based, since they take into account not just subjective realities like pity, but also objective realities since some acts, for a Christian, are always evil. Christian morals are part of the natural law tradition, and Christian pity is part of the broader notion of Christian charity.

One can confidently say that Christianity is not the religion of pity: it is an emotion neither unique to Christianity, nor central to its theological, emotive or moral structure.

The extent to which Christianity takes the care of the less fortunate, however, is something new in human history: the notion of entire organisations dedicated to caring for the sick and needy is something which originates with Christianity, and would not have come into existence without Christianity. Pity, a universal human emotion, can be said to be subsumed into Christian charity, which is the work of bringing the world back to the Father by continuing the mission of Christ.

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