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Volume 5, Number 2
October 1999

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Pity and Self-Pity(1)

David Konstan
Brown University
E-mail: David_Konstan@brown.edu

In this paper, I wish to defend a thesis that may seem paradoxical or even perverse: namely, that the Greeks were not subject to self-pity. Given the amount of wailing and lamentation recorded in our texts, the thesis is at first blush highly implausible. I am not claiming, however, that the ancient Greeks did not feel sorrow intensely, or suffer aloud. I grant, too, that they realized that they might be pitiable. But they did not, I think, employ the most common words for pity reflexively: that is, they did not normally speak of pitying oneself. On rare occasions, they did so, but in those cases the circumstances were invariably exceptional, as we shall see, and facilitated what was otherwise an extremely odd locution in classical Greek (and, I might add, in Latin as well).

It first occurred to me that there might be something curious going on with regard to self-pity when I was reading Aristotle's analysis of pity in the Rhetoric. There, he says (2.8.1386a.18-23): "people pity their acquaintances [gnôrimoi], provided that they are not very close kin; for toward these they are disposed as they are toward themselves.... What is terrible is different from what is pitiable, and it expels pity." One might have supposed, rather, that people pity precisely their closest relatives, and feel less pity for mere acquaintances. In a recent book about Homer, for example, Kevin Crotty identifies as the two salient aspects of pity "its affinity with the family and its suppression within warrior society."(2) But Aristotle clearly thinks otherwise, for he goes on to cite the remark of a certain Amasis, who did not weep when his son was led out to die, though he did in the case of a friend: "the latter," Aristotle explains, "was pitiable, the former terrible."(3) Aristotle explains why we do not pity close kin: it is that we feel toward them as we do toward ourselves. It therefore follows, it would appear, that neither do we feel pity for ourselves. I then began looking for terms for self-pity, such as might correspond, for instance, to the word for self-love, philautia, or any number of other reflexive nouns incorporating the pronoun autos or in other formations. There are none. It remained only to check every instance of the Greek terms for pity, specifically eleein, oiktirein and their cognates, to make sure that they were never employed self-referentially (or that exceptions could be explained away). Although I have not yet completed this task, I have made preliminary soundings. I publish my results at this stage, and in an electronic medium, in order to invite discussion, well aware that the risk in claiming white crows do not exist is that a single counter-example may invalidate the rule.

Let us return to Aristotle: why should he have believed that we do not pity ourselves and, a fortiori, those whom we regard as part of ourselves? What is there about the Greek terms for pity that might seem to exclude such a sentiment, evidently so common in our own world? The answer, I think, is that, for Aristotle and also his less philosophically-minded contemporaries, pity was a relationship that required two parties: the pitier and the pitied. What is more, these two parties had to be distinct, the reason being that the circumstances of the pitied had necessarily to be more wretched than those of the person who pitied him or her. We pity, that is, from a distance, as onlookers who are not directly touched by the misfortunes of the other, although we must have some connection with him or her -- Aristotle calls it "similarity" -- in order to be moved at all. When a group of people are in trouble together, for example caught in a storm on the high seas, they simultaneously suffer the same thing; they do not, however, pity each other. Was Aristotle, then, oblivious to the possibility that a person could participate in the misery or grief of another, not just from a distance while one was oneself free of danger, nor in the accidental sense that one just happened to be suffering the same misfortune as another and at the same time, but in the deeper sense of true compassion or common feeling? Aristotle did recognize such a capacity: but he did not label it pity. Rather, he employed in such contexts a different set of words, generally beginning with the prefix sun- combined with a root suggesting pain or distress. Examples of such terms are sunalgein, sullupeisthai, and sumponein. These expressions are in fact used of people who are very intimate with one another; indeed, they may even be employed self-reflexively, though of course that is not their usual application.

Thus, when Aristotle takes up, in those books of the Nicomachean Ethics dealing with love or philia, the question of whether it is reasonable to speak of loving oneself, he notes that some people define a friend as one who suffers or rejoices with another (sunalgounta kai sunkhaironta, NE 9.4.1166a7-8), and he observes that one does indeed suffer and feel pleasure above all with oneself (sunalgei te kai sunêdetai malisth' heautôi, 9.4.1166a27). Hence, one can be one's own friend. These terms, which signify sharing in the same feeling, may then be used self-referentially, while pity, which, as we have said, entails a distance between the subject and the object of the emotion, is out of place here, and Aristotle makes no mention of it. Indeed, Aristotle does not discuss pity anywhere in his treatment of philia, since it does not pertain to people who are so closely bound by love as to be disposed toward one another "as they are toward themselves."

I think that Greek usage in respect to pity may seem less strange if we compare an emotion which is subject to a similar kind of semantic restriction in English. Neither we nor the ancient Greeks speak of envying oneself. To us, the connection between pity and envy may not be immediately apparent, but for the Greeks they formed a natural pair: pity was described by the Stoics and others as pain felt at the misfortune of another, while envy was pain felt at the good fortune of another. One can no more feel pity for one's own afflictions, then, than one can feel envy for one's own successes. Both terms have the same semantic structure.4

Aristotle treats envy in the Rhetoric next but one after pity; between the two, he analyzes nemesis, which we may render as indignation. Once again, the two terms -- pity and indignation -- are closely related: pity is pain felt at the unmerited misfortune of another, while indignation is pain felt at unmerited good fortune. The contrast is similar to that between pity and envy, except that here the accent is on justice and desert rather than on suffering or prosperity alone. Now, we no more feel pity for our own undeserved failure than we resent our unearned success. We suffer for the former and are happy at the latter, without judging the merits of the case. Or so it seemed to Aristotle and to the Greeks generally.

I have said that there are some cases in which people pity themselves, or at least, as in the following example, a part of themselves. Toward the end of Euripides' Cyclops, Odysseus chides the chorus of satyrs for the lame excuses they concoct to avoid helping him blind Polyphemus. The satyrs reply (643-45): "Because we take pity on our back and spine [to nôton tên rhakhin t' oiktiromen] and don't wish to be bashed and spit out our teeth, that's cowardice?" The effect here is deliberately comical, I think. To take pity on one's back is like envying one's feet because they are enjoying a new, comfortable pair of shoes. We can say that, but we know that it is a catachresis or misuse of words, designed to raise a laugh.

When Theseus, in Euripides' Hippolytus, is on the point of banishing his son under the false belief that he attempted to rape Phaedra, Hippolytus cries out in frustration: "Alas! If I could only stand opposite and view myself, as I weep for the evils I am suffering"; to which Theseus replies: "You're far better practiced at worshipping yourself than being just and treating your parents reverently" (1078-81). The word pity does not occur explicitly here, but the idea is, I think, that Hippolytus, failing to find on his father's part any charity for his anguish, imagines that he might look as an outsider upon his own suffering, and grant himself the sympathy that is denied him. Indeed, Theseus, moments later, as he orders Hippolytus to be driven out, declares: "No pity [oiktos] for your exile steals over me" (1089).

This last example may appear to be backfiring on me. For I began with Aristotle's dictum that we do not feel pity for close kin, whom we regard as part of ourselves, and derived from that the impossibility, or rather the unlikelihood, of pitying oneself. But here we find Theseus rejecting pity for his own son, as though such a sentiment in respect to an intimate relation were perfectly natural. The answer to the conundrum, I think, is that Theseus means here that he does not even feel pity for Hippolytus, as an acquaintance would, much less regard his son's punishment as his own misfortune, in the way that parents normally do. One must take the context into account: Theseus has disowned his son. Later, when he learns that the dying Hippolytus is innocent, his grief is too deep for pity: there are plenty of oimoi's and aiai's and iô's, and the odd stenô, but no mention of eleos or oiktos. Nor is it pity that Theseus experiences when he first discovers that his wife, Phaedra, is dead, but rather the shock of woe.

I should like to take as my third example of self-pity a Latin text rather than a Greek. In the course of his demonstration that the fear of death is groundless, Lucretius argues that even someone who avows that death is final and that there is no afterlife nevertheless imagines, in spite of himself, that he will be conscious of the pyre or of the animals that will lacerate his corpse; as Lucretius puts it: "he unconsciously makes a part of himself survive" (sed facit esse sui quiddam super inscius ipse, 3.876-93). Under such an illusion, Lucretius continues, "he pities himself" (ipse sui miseret, 3.881); for he does not separate himself from that other, nor does he sufficiently distance himself from the body that has been laid out, and he imagines that he is that other one and, as he stands near, invests him with his own sensibility. This is why he is upset that he was created mortal, and he does not see that, in real death, there will be no other self, who might be alive and grieve that he has been snatched from himself and, standing by, suffer for the fact that he himself is lying there and being torn to pieces or incinerated. (3.881-87)

The point is that, to pity oneself, one must imagine oneself divided in two: one self is in torment, while the other stands by as an observer, itself unharmed. This is a most unusual situation, and Lucretius' bare expression, ipse sui miseret, already suggests, I think, how anomalous it is. So too, in English, we might say of a person who is daydreaming about a blessed afterlife in Heaven or, perhaps, life on a tropical island: "he's envying himself," although such a locution is no more customary in our language than pitying oneself is in classical Greek.

Tim Whitmarsh has kindly brought to my attention (via Simon Goldhill) a relevant passage in the Heroicus (by one or another of the Philostrati), a dialogue between a Phoenician merchant and a vine-keeper who is privileged to converse with the deceased hero Protesilaus on his visits to the upper world. When asked about Protesilaus' sentiments concerning his premature death, the vine-keeper replies: "He pities his own misfortune [eleei ... to heautou pathos]" (12. 1), for had he had the chance to fight, he would have proved himself a warrior not inferior to Diomedes, Patroclus, and Ajax. This is the reverse of the case imagined by Lucretius: a man who has survived his death here feels pity for the person he once was. What remains constant is that the pitier is divided from the pitied, even though they are, in a certain sense, the same individual. Flavius Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana provides an analogous instance of an Indian youth who, in an earlier incarnation, was Palamedes; having been duped by Odysseus and ignored by Homer, the boy has rejected philosophy and "laments his own misfortune" (olophuretai to heautou pathos, 3.22) -- the misfortune, that is, that he suffered in his previous life.(5)

For my final example, I turn to a very late Greek text: the Chronicon of Georgius Monachus of Alexandria, composed in the ninth century A.D. George admonishes his reader:

Therefore, take pity on yourself [eleêson seauton] and take thought for that final and most terrible day of punishment and the affliction and suffocation and the hour of the rending of the soul and the sentence of God pressing down upon you and the angels hastening and your soul in these circumstances dreadfully distressed and dizzy and terribly afraid, helpless and repenting in vain, when there is no use in it (697.1-7).(6)

The Christian conception of pity differed substantially from the classical, and comparisons are difficult. For example, from being viewed chiefly as an emotion, pity came to be considered a duty and even a virtue. But is it notable that George's injunction to pity oneself reproduces, in an altered register, the kind of situation that we have encountered in Lucretius. George, unlike Lucretius, believes that we do survive our own death, and that one can and should imagine oneself suffering in the afterlife, not merely the flames of the pyre but the fires of eternal damnation. He advises that we conjure up in our mind that wretched creature to come, which, though it is our own self, seems foreign and remote; the pity we experience for it is as though for another.

While all healthy human beings have, I believe, the same psychological capacities, mental and emotional categories differ from one society (or one language) to another. Thus, one cannot assume a priori that ancient Greek terminology for the passions conforms exactly to ours. Indeed, even our own language betrays an evolution in regard to the notion of self-pity: the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, cites (s.v. the substantive "pity") Atterbury's sermon on Luke 10.32, written in the year 1709: "Take Pity upon Them, who cannot take Pity upon themselves." Clearly, pity for oneself here does not have the pejorative associations it does in today's usage. I may note too that we do not, in English, normally employ the term "compassion" reflexively (we do not say we have compassion for ourselves). In Spanish, on the contrary, one may speak of autocompasión, but misericordia is not used self-referentially.7 Nor, for that matter, does one have pitié for oneself in French, or Mitleid in German. 8

The concept of eleos is sufficiently close to our own idea of pity for us to understand it intuitively when we meet it in Greek literature, and yet it was subject to certain semantic constraints, evident in connection with the notion of self-pity and in other ways, that are different from those that govern contemporary English usage. Identifying divergences of this kind helps us to orient ourselves in a foreign conceptual universe -- provided, of course, that they are real. I shall be grateful for notice of counter-examples that readers may discover, or else confirmation of my hypothesis, if self-pity indeed fails to occur, especially in contexts where one might -- thinking in English -- have expected to encounter it.(9)


1 This paper began life as a talk presented at the Classical Association at its annual meeting, held this year at the University of Liverpool on 8-11 April 1999. I have revised it substantially for the published version, but have retained the oral flavor of the original.

2 Kevin Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994) 46.

3 The story is related in a slightly different form in Herodotus 3.14.

4To feel shame before oneself has a similarly paradoxical ring to it, since one normally feels shame in the presence of someone who has behaved more honorably (in the relevant respect) than oneself; thus Aristotle notes (at Rhetoric 2.6.1384a23 ff.) that since shame is an impression of a bad opinion, and people only have concern for opinion because of those who hold it, it follows that we feel shame before those who are of some account, for example people who admire us or whom we admire, those with whom we compete, and so on. I expect that Democritus injunction,"Learn to feel shame before yourself [seauton aiskhunesthai] more than before others" (fr. 244 B Diels-Kranz; cf. fr. 264 B) had a deliberately incongruous ring to it.

5 Lamentation is, of course, distinct from pity. I am indebted once again to Tim Whitmarsh for reminding me of the passage in Sophocles' Trachiniae in which Deianira slips out of her house, after Heracles' captive Iole has been brought inside, in order to confide to the chorus her plans and hoia paskhô sunkatoiktioumenê. The compound verb occurs only here, and the middle signs Jebb notes ad loc., "'to bewail (my woes) along with you' (i.e., in your presence)"; cf. also the commentaries of Easterling and Kamerbeek, and, on the middle, LSJ s.v. oiktizô.

6 Georgius Monachus Chronicon Books 1-4, ed. C. de Boor, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Teubner, 1904 [repr. Stuttgart: 1978]), continuously paginated (citation from volume 2).

7Compare, however Reinaldo Arenas, "Viaje a la Habana," in Viaje a la Habana (Novela en tres viajes) (Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1990) 104: "Ismael sintió pena, no por él -- por quien la sentía siempre -- sino por ella, por Elvia"; "sentir pena" is closer to "feel sorry for oneself" than to "self-pity," but the difference may be slight and in some contexts vanishingly so.

8Anna Wierzbicka, Emotions across Languages and Cultures: Diversity and Universals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 101, comments: "Self-pity may seem to be simply a special case of pity, but in fact it is not quite that: since pity involves an implicit comparison between another person and myself, one cannot be the target of one's own pity. Self-pity, then, is not a special case of pity, but rather, something like pity but focussed on one's own misfortunes and involving an implicit comparison with other people (by no means a detached one). Being a sort of misapplication and distortion of pity, self-pity has always a pejorative and as it were ironic ring, whereas pity does not."es -- but only if it's no trouble to do so, since they are not absolutely crucial to the argument. When one claims to pity oneself in the same way one pities others, there is often an element of irony involved. Thus, Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden (ed. Stephen Fender [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997] 68-69): "I was wont to pity the clumsy Irish laborers who cut ice on the pond, in such mean and ragged clothes, while I shivered in my more tidy and somewhat more fashionable garments, till one bitter cold day, one who had slipped into the water came to my house to warm him, and I saw him strip off three pairs of pants and two pairs of stockings ere he got down to the skin.... Then I began to pity myself, and I saw that it would be a greater charity to bestow on me a flannel shirt than a whole slop-shop on him."

9Had misery invited the idea of self-pity, surely the poets, in their passion for punning, would have placed moi eleos and the meleos ("wretched") in significant proximity; I have not come across a case of this so far.

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