In the wrong hands, pity is a pre-fabricated emotion having little to do with its putative object. Its true object is the one doing the pitying. It tends to be self-congratulatory, a self-administered stamp of virtue. The same might be said of any fashionable, socially sanctioned emotion. Even the shrewd moralist La Rochefoucauld is naïve when it comes to pity:
“Pity is often a perception of our own troubles through the woes of others; it is a clever anticipation of the misfortunes which may befall us. We help our neighbor to make sure of his assistance under similar circumstances; hence, the kindness we do others is in truth an anticipated kindness we do ourselves.” (trans. John Heard Jr., La Rochefoucauld Maxims, 1917)
I have little objection to the arrangement La Rochefoucauld describes. Civility is based, in part, on mutual back-scratching. Perhaps this was pity in France in the seventeenth century, but today the emotion is far less tactically premeditated. No, the real payoff for feeling pity is that warm quiver of conviction that says: I really am a good person – and probably better than you. In 1968, W.H. Auden reviewed a reissue of Henry Mayhew’s four-volume London Labour and the London Poor (1851). In his review, collected in Forewords and Afterwords (1973), Auden writes:
“Yet, for all its harrowing descriptions of squalor, crime, injustice and suffering, the final impression of Mayhew's great book is not depressing. From his many transcripts of conversations it is clear that Mayhew was that rare creature, a natural democrat; his first thought, that is to say, was never `This is an unfortunate wretch whom it is my duty, if possible, to help’ but always `This is a fellow human being whom it is fun to talk to.’ The reader’s final impression of the London poor is not of their misery but of their self-respect, courage and gaiety in conditions under which it seems incredible that such virtues could survive.”
Auden judges “gaiety,” not self-pity, a virtue. His use of “fun” may come as a shock, but a good one, and it rings true to my experience as a newspaper reporter (and as a reader of Mayhew). I knew other reporters who were sob sisters, of course, condescending to people by feeling sorry for them. Inevitably, the writing suffered. A pre-fabricated emotion leaves behind it a pre-fabricated trail of clichés. We see this in Mayhew’s contemporary, Charles Dickens, whose linguistic exuberance is compromised by reflexive sentimentality. True pity is quiet sympathy coupled with a desire, however impotent, to relieve the suffering. True to his time, Dr. Johnson over-estimates pity’s dependence on “the cultivation of reason,” but otherwise his understanding, as reported by Boswell, is acute:
“Pity is not natural to man. Children are always cruel. Savages are always cruel. Pity is acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason. We may have uneasy sensations for seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them. When I am on my way to dine with a friend, and finding it late, have bid the coachman make haste, if I happen to attend when he whips his horses, I may feel unpleasantly that the animals are put to pain, but I do not wish him to desist. No, Sir, I wish him to drive on."