There are two meanings. First, there is the important insight that it is possible to feel with—or to suffer with (Latin: pati to suffer + cum with)—one’s enemies, or with people whom we don’t know and whose interests are different from ours. The historian Karen Armstrong traces the way in which compassion in this sense began to develop consciously during the Axial Age (900–200 BC), which was the formative period of the great world traditions such as China’s Confucianism and Taoism, India’s Hinduism and Buddhism, Israel’s monotheism and philosophical rationalism in Greece. This was a time of maturing recognition that the emotions matter: they reveal ourselves to ourselves; they enable us to feel what others are feeling. As Armstrong writes,

Only by admitting our own pain can we learn to empathize with others.C234

In this sense, compassion is crucial. We would be in deep trouble without it. It was compassion that matured when the Greeks felt empathy with the Persians who had recently devastated their city; in Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia, the Erinyes (aka the Furies, the goddesses of vengeance) eventually acquit Orestes of his crimes, and are transformed into the Eumenides (the kindly ones); at the end of the Iliad’s history of the Trojan War, the arch-enemies Achilles and Priam weep together.C235

This is shared presence; it is on-the-level conversation and encounter, not just with those who were formerly strangers and enemies, but with friends, colleagues and rivals; our fellow dwellers in the land. You do not have to be in trouble to qualify for it. It is all right to be competent; it is not a crime against the state. The Lean Economy will encourage it.

A second sense of compassion is about care for those who are indeed in trouble. This is indispensable, too. All big religions press the case for it. There is no such thing as society without compassion in this sense. But the problem comes when it becomes the only acknowledged guideline for our relationships with each other. Between equals, none of whom are going through a particularly hard time relative to the other, compassion in this sense is not an appropriate response. If I were to tell my friend Tom that I feel compassionate towards him, he would have reason to be puzzled, insulted and probably incensed.

The problem is that, while such a mistake is unlikely to be made between the friends, colleagues and acquaintances of our real lives, misplaced compassion has become established as a defining property of a plausible political philosophy. Catastrophic social engineering—Pol Pot’s efforts, for instance—is routinely and blithely justified as compassion towards the poor.

And these two senses of compassion leave a gap—with no agreed and comprehensive name, and with little awareness that it merits consideration—in the matter of relationships among equals and friends. Virtues that have no name can seem to be unimportant and disappear from the range of things that are recognised as worth getting right.

In a sense, it is easy to do the right thing for someone who is much worse-off than us and in need of a simple act of kindness (and we need to do so); but if we neglect the no-less-vital obligations of our more complex relationships, between people whose lives are chuntering on just fine at the moment—where acts of kindness, though they have their place, are really not what the relationship is about—we will be in trouble. And the poor will share that trouble—for, if they are to get the help they need, they need a society that knows what it is doing.C236

Societies are held together by networks of many kinds of relationships—between equals, between potential enemies, and between people who, in accomplishment, wealth, standing, health and/or happiness, are unequal. Where one person realises that another person is in trouble, they may, in charity and pity, be prepared to do something about it. But charity in that sense is only one part of it; a society whose core value is compassion is simply sorry for itself. There is more to life and relationships:


Related entries:

Caritas, Encounter, Humour, Cupboard Love, Loyalty, Play, Trust, Truth.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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