Aristotle on the feeling of pity

Pity is a feeling of pain caused by a painful or destructive evil that befalls one who does not deserve it, and that might well befall us or one of our friends, and, moreover, to befall us soon. Thus, it is not felt by those who no longer have anything to lose, or by those who feel that they are beyond misfortune. Pity is all the stronger if evil is repeated frequently or if it arises from a source from which good could have been expected. It may also be felt if no good ever befalls a person, or if he cannot enjoy it when it does, or if it does only once the worst has already happened. A person feels pity for those who are like him and for those whom he knows, but not for those who are very closely related to him and for whom he feels as he does for himself. Indeed, the pitiful should not be confounded with the terrible: Amasis wept at the sight of his friend begging, but not at that of his son being led to death. To feel pity, one must believe in the goodness of at least some people, which is why pity is most commonly felt by the young, and most keenly for those of noble character.

Rhetoric, Book 2, Ch. VIII

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

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