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Observations placeholder

Bergson, Henri - Time and Free Will - On pity



Type of Spiritual Experience


When I actually tried to map the degrees of emotion onto various charts, it became clear to me that language is a very poor measure of emotional states.  Even the chart of degrees of happiness caused me difficulties – is joy greater than straightforward happiness or is it just a synonym?  In the end I decided it was slightly greater, but others may disagree.  Bergson tried to do the same thing with pity – he calls it a ‘moral feeling’, but to me it is an emotion, it certainly isn’t behavioural in the people I know……..

I have included this quote even though I do not think he is right, because it is excellent at making us think about what the degrees are. 

I think the opposite of true pity is a callous indifference and complete lack of empathy.

A description of the experience

Henri Bergson – Time and Free Will

The moral feelings might be studied in the same way.  Let us take pity as an example.

It consists in the first place in putting oneself mentally in the place of others, in suffering their pain. 

But if it were nothing more, as some have maintained, it would inspire us with the idea of avoiding the wretched rather than helping them, for pain is naturally abhorrent to us. 

This feeling of horror may indeed be at the root of pity; but a new element soon comes in, the need of helping our fellow men and of alleviating their suffering.  Shall we say with La Rochefoucauld that this so called sympathy is a calculation  “a shrewd insurance against evils to come”?

Perhaps a dread of some future evil to ourselves does hold a place in our compassion for other people’s evil.  These however are but lower forms of pity.

True pity consists not so much in fearing suffering as in desiring it.  The desire is a faint one and we should hardly wish to see it realised; yet we form it in spite of ourselves, as if nature were committing some great injustice and it were necessary to get rid of all suspicion of complicity with her. 

The essence of pity is thus a need for self abasement, an aspiration downwards……

The increasing intensity of pity thus consists in a qualitative progress, in a transition from repugnance to fear, from fear to sympathy, and from sympathy itself to humility.

The source of the experience

Bergson, Henri

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