How an Emotion Became a Virtue – it took some help from Rousseau and Montesquieu

Clifford Orwin | Posted on 04/01/08

Compassion today is widely regarded as a good, and those who display it as good people. Indeed, many see compassion or some related virtue (e.g., empathy) as the core of goodness, as the virtue of virtues. It’s not only a private but also a public virtue, much cherished in our politicians. Even in international affairs, of all places, the apex of virtuous action is widely taken to be “humanitarian intervention” or the use of force to relieve suffering. Compassion has not always enjoyed so lofty and uncontroversial a status; will it someday once again relinquish it?

That compassion is natural to human beings there is no question. But does it pertain to our higher or to our lower natures? As even or precisely those who take compassion for a virtue acknowledge, it is an emotion. Can an emotion be a virtue? Yes, if the keynote of virtue is naturalness in the sense of spontaneity or authenticity. No, if what defines virtue is the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion. For this reason the long history of thought about compassion (stretching back at least 2,500 years now) has revolved around just this issue.

I. The thinkers of classical antiquity for the most part struck a dispassionate or even disapproving stance toward compassion.

They recognized its power and therefore its utility in political life, but doubted its reasonableness and therefore its justice. It figures in Plato’s Republic primarily as a threat to justice (cf. Republic 415c, 606a–c). Aristotle treats it not in his Ethics, his account of those virtues for which human beings are to be admired, but in his Rhetoric, his exposition of those passions by which those lacking virtue are swayed. Since for both thinkers virtue consists of the proper (which is to say rational) disposition toward the passions, it follows that pity, as a passion, is not to be confused with the virtues. Just as virtue requires us to get a handle on our other passions, so it requires that we become masters of our pity.

To better understand the ancients’ position, consider that the locus of the virtues as they understood it was not the “self” (a distinctly modern notion) but the soul, and the relevant opposition was that of soul and body. For them concern with the “self” or our particularity was an expression of concern with the body. Such concern was natural, even inevitable, but it wasn’t virtuous; good character consisted in surmounting it.

Compassion, however, displays precisely such selfish concern. As was already evident to Aristotle, we tend to pity most those who most resemble ourselves or whose misfortunes most resemble our own (Rhetoric II.viii.13–14). Like “identifies” readily with like, much less readily with unlike. This suggests that our pity for others is a vicarious expression of our fears for ourselves.

Moreover, those least able to bear the sufferings of others are commonly least able to bear their own (Republic 606a–c). But self-pity is a vice, not a virtue. In the classical view the virtuous man will display a certain hardness toward others, demanding of them as he does of himself that they bear their sufferings like men. And yes, we can expect women to be more compassionate than men, because they are weaker and more fearful than men. None of which should be misinterpreted as an endorsement of cruelty or a complete repudiation of pity. But again the classical view was that the virtuous must master their pity even as they do their other passions, indulging it only insofar as it is just and reasonable to do so (Republic 516c, 539a, 589e, 620a). Reverence for pity there was none.

II. This being a brief history, we must paint in broad strokes.

Paganism yielded to Christianity, and classical philosophy to Christian theology. This was a necessary condition of the subsequent rise in the status of compassion to its present triumphant peak. Still, it would be mistaken to suppose that what Christianity taught was compassion.

A single and omnipotent God who, having become flesh, suffered all that flesh can suffer; a morality that begins in the contemplation of the Passion of this God-man, an injunction to universal charity as the supreme virtue — this was far indeed from the humanistic and aristocratic rationalism of the pagan philosophers. At the same time, Christian charity was also far from what we mean by compassion, so far, in fact, that the latter emerged only by way of a profound critique of it.

The best translation of the Latin caritas (Greek agapê) is (non-erotic) love, the model for which is God’s infinite love for man. “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus instructed his disciples. Yet, man being so much less than God, this injunction is not within human capacity to honor. Only by God’s grace can our love for our fellow men approach His love for us.

Charity, then, was not a (merely) natural virtue such as those taught by the ancients, but a “theological” or “infused” one. As such, moreover, it necessarily aimed not only or even primarily at the relief of our neighbor’s earthly suffering but at his eternal salvation. Salvation alone was the good (and damnation the evil) beside which all others paled.

So while Christianity may indeed have multiplied soup kitchens, it never confused happiness with the absence of hunger pains. Truer to say that while modern compassion seeks to eliminate suffering, Christianity, recognizing its inevitability for mortal and sinful beings, sought to make it meaningful. It sought to teach us to grasp it as that suffering in and with Christ on which salvation ultimately depends. When, then, Christopher Hitchens excoriated the late Mother Teresa for not being a true “humanitarian” at all, he was perfectly correct: she could not be a mere humanitarian because (as she made no secret) she strove to be a true Christian.

“Modern” compassion, then — and what we mean by compassion is something distinctively modern — stands in an ambivalent relationship to Christianity. On the one hand its triumph drew on the extraordinary prestige enjoyed by charity under the Christian dispensation. On the other, it implied a powerful critique (and rejection) of Christian otherworldliness.

III. The crucial century for the emergence of compassion was the eighteenth.

Some writers have offered a “sociological” explanation for this: compassion emerged with the modern market system and the larger and more homogenous public it created, which also led to a broadening of the scope of fellow-feeling. This was to some extent also the view of such thoughtful contemporary observers as Montesquieu. Yet compassion did not simply emerge (if indeed it even emerged primarily) as a result of the spontaneous play of social forces. It represented an intellectual project undertaken by a large handful of the greatest minds of the day. They may be said not merely to have discovered or promoted what we have since come to know as compassion but actually to have invented it. What had been pity to the ancients (natural and this-worldly, but no virtue) and charity to the Christians (a virtue but supernatural and otherworldly) became in their hands compassion (merely natural, resolutely this-worldly, and a virtue).

What sort of virtue? A post-Christian virtue, which couldn’t have existed prior to Christianity but was designed to supplant it. In magnificent bad faith, the great thinkers of early modernity purveyed a faux Christianity. This counterfeit faith depended on the reinterpretation of charity as religious toleration on the one hand and compassionate concern for one’s neighbor on the other. By thus purging charity of its theological character and its supernatural model, origin, and concern, they sought to make of it an engine for a better life in this world characterized by a salutary indifference to the next. When Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the greatest of all promoters of compassion, described it in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality as “so natural that even the beasts show signs of it,” he was fully aware of the momentous consequences of basing his new morality not on the imitatio Christi but on what is not only merely human but perhaps even merely subhuman.

The morality of compassion, then, is an aspect of an early modern naturalism. As such it took aim not only at Christian supernaturalism but also at that classical rationalism that Christianity had co-opted in the form of Scholasticism. Much as we might suppose that a morality of compassion signifies some kind of idealism, it in fact participated rather in the new realism of modern thought. The ancient philosophers had themselves recognized that their rational morality was in a crucial sense utopian: as a morality for the fully rational, it necessarily excluded the vast majority of human beings. It was an ethics by philosophers for philosophers, but philosophers are nowhere more than a tiny minority. The resolute anti-utopianism of early modern thought, first articulated by Machiavelli in the watershed Chapter 15 of The Prince, implied the rejection not only of Christian supernaturalism (with its impossibly high standards for human beings, productive only of hypocrisy), but also of classical naturalism insofar as it was rationalistic.

The new approach to ethics both private and public relied on neither God nor reason but on the human passions. It was precisely as one of these that compassion would achieve its new prominence. To be sure, the initial inclination of modern realists was to follow Machiavelli’s indications in building on men’s most urgent selfish concerns: fear of violent death, in the case of Hobbes; fear of penury, in the case of Locke. These thinkers already cultivated that ethics that Tocqueville identified as the principal moral doctrine of his Americans: self-interest rightly understood.

Calculation figured prominently in each of the several variations on this theme, but this modern rationalism was very different from — and very much more “realistic” than — its classical predecessor. For reason, rather than seeking to master the passions, was now content to serve them: passions were to be tamed not by bowing to reason, but by being transformed through reason’s complicity into “interests” and even into rights. “The little catechism of the rights of man is soon learned,” as Burke would so memorably complain, “and the inferences are in the passions.”

IV. How, then, did this moral realism further the prominence of compassion?

In two opposing fashions, one of which we may associate with Montesquieu and the other with his pupil and rival Rousseau.

For Montesquieu, at the heart of the modern project lay the promotion of commerce. Commerce dictated a sober, orderly way of life that rejected alike the heroic republicanism and philosophic austerity of classical antiquity and the ascetic or hypocritical otherworldliness of Christianity. This way of life was “reasonable” in its rejection of these excessively lofty standards in favor of a life of comfortable self-preservation, but also in the impossibility of confining it within the bounds of moral parochialism.

Commerce cures destructive prejudices; and it is almost a general rule that wherever manners are gentle, there is commerce; and wherever there is commerce, manners are gentle. (Of the Spirit of the Laws, XX.1)

The gentleness or mildness (douceur) of which Montesquieu speaks here he elsewhere characterizes as the virtue of humanité. While not the first to use the term humanity in this sense, Montesquieu’s choice of it remains significant, for it suggests that virtue thus newly understood represents a return to (or perhaps more likely the first historical achievement of) virtue on a human scale rather than a superhuman or supernatural one.

Commerce smoothes rough edges, and where rough edges are smoothed, it is the work of commerce. Elsewhere Montesquieu also credits Christianity for its historical contribution to this process of what we might call the decruelification of the human race (e.g., SL XXIV.3; “On the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline,” ch. 15), but careful study discloses his view that however great this contribution in the past, the torch has now passed decisively to commerce. For Christianity also fosters its distinctive cruelties, of fanaticism and asceticism, from which only commerce can save us. The crucial point is that it is precisely the dissemination of the way of life most in accordance with the modern moral realism of enlightened self-interest that will make men more gentle, tolerant, and humane; as parochialism and superstition fall away, we become not only more secure and prosperous but also kinder.

Montesquieu, however, rarely employs the term compassion; by humanité he perhaps means rather the absence of cruelty than any great efflorescence of fellow-feeling. Nor does he speak of sympathy, a major theme of the moral philosophies of his great contemporaries of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Hume and Adam Smith. Sympathy would be a major theme of ours except that being so much broader than compassion it lacked compassion’s moral edge: that is to say, its specific preoccupation with the relief of the sufferings of others. It also therefore lacked compassion’s social and political edge. The Scottish Enlighteners just referred to were moderate progressives, which is to say also moderate conservatives: the incremental reform that they favored posed no stark challenge to the social order. It would be no exaggeration to say that their sympathy was a virtue perpetually at home with the evolving liberal, tolerant, and commercial status quo. In this they were very much on the same page as Montesquieu himself.

Compassion, by contrast, became the rallying cry of Montesquieu’s greatest disciple, who was also his greatest critic, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. On the Spirit of the Laws had appeared in 1748; already by 1755 the hitherto completely obscure Rousseau had displaced Montesquieu as Europe’s leading intellectual celebrity by turning his teaching on its head. In Rousseau’s hands compassion (his counterpart to Montesquieu’s humanity) figures not in the vindication of the emerging liberal/commercial way of life but as the core of a radical critique of it. Stated most simply, Rousseau was the founder of the modern Left, and compassion figured prominently in his articulation of this fateful new moral and political sensibility.

We spoke above of the link between compassion and modern moral realism: nowhere is that link so clear as in the thought of Rousseau. As his predecessors had rejected classical thought as utopian in the excessive rationalism of its account of virtue, so he turns the tables on them by accusing them of repeating this error even as they believed that they addressed it. For while they sought to craft a more effective morality by yoking reason to our strongest passions, thus inventing enlightened self-interest, the result, according to Rousseau, was still much too reliant on reason. Not calculation but immediate, spontaneous sentiment was the only effective basis of morality.

Besides, the effectual truth of enlightened self-interest and the invocation of rights in service of that interest was hateful competition among men, not genuine co-operation. Ultimately commerce and all other such forms of competition serve the passion of amour-propre or vanity, which craves superiority over our fellows or inequality for its own sake. Rousseau thus presents the emergent liberal commercial society in which Montesquieu, Hume, and Smith invested such hopes as a lurid nightmare of strife, exploitation, and cruelty.

Commerce makes men more alike while also multiplying inequalities among them. Montesquieu seized on the first of these facts to welcome commerce as a new dawn: whereas difference bred narrowness and hostility, sameness brought greater understanding. Rousseau, by contrast, stressed the second of these elements, presenting commerce as driving men apart even as it supposedly brought them together. For Montesquieu the most baneful differences were those of sect, race, nation, and (as we would say) culture; for Rousseau (although he too hated fanaticism), the fatal distinctions were those of class. Of the resources available to social man, only compassion addressed both the utopianism of early liberal thought and the harmful effects of commerce. It was not calculated but spontaneous, and the bonds that it forged with our fellow human beings were mutual and genuine. It alone permitted those who had received a proper education in it to transcend the barriers of inequality as of other divisions among human beings. Rousseau’s imagined paragons of compassion were the “great cosmopolitan souls” of the Discourse on Inequality, who “surmount the imaginary barriers that separate Peoples and who, following the example of the sovereign Being who created them, include the whole human Race in their benevolence.”

Compassion thus emerged in Rousseau’s thought as the great alternative to amour-propre and all the exploitation resulting from it, and he invested his incomparable rhetorical skills in touting it as the social balm. As the supreme modern psychologist, he was only too aware not only of the power of compassion but also of its limitations. These last, however, he communicated sotto voce, for he had decided that, all things considered, the promotion of compassion was the moral strategy most suited to his own age and to the ailing, distressed, unequal Europe of the foreseeable future.

Like any theme that Rousseau took up, compassion proved highly contagious. He was the wellspring of that mania for compassion that so infected the nineteenth century and from which we’ve not recovered fully even today. Here I’ll cite just two otherwise highly dissimilar cases. When the great philosopher Schopenhauer promoted compassion as the only basis of morality, and when the bombastic poet Victor Hugo praised his fictional ass who altered his gait so as to avoid crushing a toad as “greater than Socrates, more sublime than Plato,” it was Rousseau from whom they derived their inspiration.

V. Of the thinkers of the first rank who have made compassion their theme, Alexis de Tocqueville is of special interest to Americans because we were of special interest to him.

Democracy in America has been called the best book ever written about democracy and the best book ever written about America. Tocqueville’s main concern in writing it, however, was not America but democracy, which he foresaw would triumph also in Europe and perhaps throughout the world. He found much to admire in America; he had seen the democratic future and, for the most part, it worked. One of the respects in which it worked was in fostering compassion.

Few passages of Democracy surpass the power of Part Three, Chapter One, in which Tocqueville quotes from the letters of Mme de Sévigné, the famous chronicler of the life of the high nobility under Louis XIV. Throughout the work Tocqueville speaks incessantly of aristocracy, not only as democracy’s predecessor but also as its foil, as the great if obsolete contrasting alternative. For all that he tells us about aristocracy, however, only rarely does he show it to us. In fact here alone in the entire work does an aristocrat speak in her own voice, and here alone do we eavesdrop on aristocrats speaking among themselves. Thus far does Tocqueville go to support his claim that democracy, in and of itself, necessarily acts to promote compassion.

Mme de Sévigné, he tells us, was a kind and loving woman, but in context this very allegation serves to distance us from her and aristocracy. The letters he quotes, written from the country to a grown daughter, contain much affectionate chitchat. In the same breath, however, they describe the miseries imposed upon the local peasants by a ruinous tax increase, and the atrocious punishments inflicted on resisters. And Mme de Sévigné not only states her satisfaction at the salutary example thus being set, but even worse, jests at the expense of the wretched victims. Tocqueville does not just note but compels us to feel the difference democracy makes. For it is almost unthinkable, he notes, that any of his readers, a century and a half further along the road to democracy, should respond so callously to human suffering, and simply unthinkable that any who did would so openly express it: “the spirit of the age would prevent him.”

Mme de Sévigné, Tocqueville insists, simply did not regard peasants as members of the same species as herself. She related to them as servants, as responsibilities, as threats, but not as human beings. Her compassion, like her loyalties, was immured within the walls of class. She lacked all humanity in the strict sense of that term: her fellow-feeling was not available to human beings as such.

With democracy, by contrast, the tight bonds of caste having fallen away, we respond to one another directly as human beings. Where all are more or less the same and equal, each readily identifies with the other, and so with his misfortunes. (Tocqueville was a profound student of Montesquieu and Rousseau, and there are few passages of his work where their influence is so evident.) Few things so impressed Tocqueville about Americans as their ready sympathy with each other’s troubles. Of all peoples the Americans could most be counted on to come to the assistance of their fellows, at least in cases involving no great inconvenience to themselves (II.iii.4).

The qualification is significant. Not democracy but aristocracy is the home of heroic, self-sacrificing virtues. Democrats are good-hearted, but they’re also people in a hurry, necessarily preoccupied with their own business. The obverse of compassion is what Tocqueville calls individualism. As men become more equal and alike they also become more isolated, more preoccupied with their own affairs. Tocqueville presents enhanced compassion as merely the most attractive aspect of that loosening of bonds that is the fundamental social fact of democracy. It’s because we all know what it is to bowl alone that we commiserate readily with solitary bowlers. If in aristocracy conventional bonds of caste enjoyed a more than natural force, in democracy the natural one of common humanity proves fleeting and frail. Compassion is particularly to be cherished as the sole force tending naturally to unite human beings whom almost everything else in democracy conspires to dissociate.

VI. As mentioned earlier, compassion has also known its modern detractors, most significantly Spinoza, Kant, and Nietzsche.

Spinoza and Kant promoted versions of the rationalist critique already encountered in antiquity, but did so on the basis of distinctively modern notions of the character of reason and its status in the world. Nietzsche’s still more radical critique accompanied his rejection of modern rationalism. He remained closer to Montesquieu and Rousseau in recognizing the primacy of affect for human beings, but he interpreted all human affects as drives, and ultimately as expressions of the single comprehensive drive infusing all nature: the will to power.

Pity, while a temptation (even the final or most powerful temptation) to the higher man, was primarily the preserve of lower ones. These, Nietzsche dared to think, wallowed in it as swine do in mud, their pity for others being indistinguishable from their pity for themselves. This preoccupation with pity, the modern epidemic (which, as Nietzsche says, glancing at Schopenhauer, “has made even philosophers sick”), was the sign of a declining life form, an anesthetic for incurable sufferers. It pointed the way toward the last man, who would feel nothing and long for nothing.

Although Nietzsche often described himself (and has been described by others) as an immoralist, his ultimate objection to compassion was an ethical one. The core of humanity was its ambition to greatness, and all greatness depended on suffering. The modern project of compassion, then, taken as the elimination of suffering, was ipso facto a campaign against humanity as such in favor of a descent into the subhuman.

Nietzsche’s teaching thus echoed the Christian one in raising the question of whether human suffering was simply bad. (For if not, then the modern ethics of compassion cannot be regarded as simply good.) Yet Nietzsche also recalled the classics in suggesting that for human beings to reach their full potential they must master their compassion in the name of higher considerations. It seems that we would be rash to regard these questions as settled.


Recommended Translations

The Republic of Plato. Translated with notes and an interpretive essay by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Aristotle, On Rhetoric. Translated, with introduction, notes, and appendices, by George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

• Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws. Translated and edited by Anne M. Cohler et al. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

• Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Discourses and other early political writings. Edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

• ———. Emile, or on Education. Introduction, translation, and notes by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1979.

• Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

• Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Translated, with commentary, by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.

• ———. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. Edited with commentary by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.