Pity, Empathy, and the Tragic Spectacle of Human Suffering: Exploring the Emotional Culture of Compassion in Late Ancient Christianity

Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 18, Number 1,pp. 1-27.

By Paul M. Blowers

While abundant recent studies have illuminated the social and cultural realities underlying Christian responses to poverty in late antiquity, the present essay investigates the unique challenges to Christian preachers in cultivating a moral psychology of compassion. Drawing on the recent work of Martha Nussbaum on the "moral intelligence" of emotions in ancient philosophy, on classicist David Konstan's analysis of the contours of Greco-Roman pity, and on classicist Robert Kaster's notion of "narrative scripts" of human emotion, I explore three key dimensions of the emotional culture of pity and compassion in late ancient Christianity: (1) the engagement of classical, philosophical, and poetic discourse about pity and pity's moral valorization, (2) the refining of the "scripts" of Christian mercy in a culture of socio-economic envy and rivalry, and (3) the Christian reinvention of tragic pity in the face of the spectacle of graphic human suffering. An integrating focus is the negotiation of the dialectic of likeness and otherness, proximity and distance, which underlay the morality of mercy and eleemosynary action. This leads in the end to a consideration of precisely how Christian preachers and moralists constructed empathy, the deep identification with the suffering other who embodies Christ, as a theological or uniquely deifying virtue.

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(Something interesting I found)Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2010 by cait
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