From Anger to Pity

How should the philosopher, the person making progress toward wisdom, respond to wrongdoing? What is the appropriate response when someone behaves badly toward me?

In Discourses 1.18, Epictetus answers that if we must have any response at all, it would be far more appropriate to respond to wrongdoing with pity, rather than anger. But why? There are two lines of argument (which I will address in the opposite order of how he presents them).

First, what sorts of harm could someone possibly do? The greatest of all possible evils, for the Stoic, is the misuse of our prohairesis, the faculty or power of choice. To will badly, to choose wrongly, harms the soul of the one who so wills or chooses. But only I myself can harm my own soul. Not even Zeus himself can force me to misuse my power of choice. The worst anyone else can do is to harm my body (which, following Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, is a possession of the soul), or even less seriously, they could harm my external goods (which are possessions of the body, which is itself a possession of the soul—and so, at an even farther remove from me myself). Moreover, as Epictetus emphasizes, the harm I suffer through the loss of such possessions is directly dependent upon the degree to which I judge my own value to depend upon those possessions; that is, upon how I make use of my own power of choice. The Stoic sage will understand that her own value does not depend in any way upon the status of externals (including the body), and will exercise her prohairesis accordingly. Even if we do not follow the Stoic in denying all value to externals, we can arrive at the same conclusion if we merely accept that the good of the soul is of significantly greater value than the good of the body or other externals.

So, irregardless of the details of any particular evil act, the person who has harmed my body or my other possessions has done me a comparatively minor and indirect harm, compared to the damage they’ve done to their own soul, by so misusing their power of choice. That is to say, wrongdoers harm themselves to a far greater degree than they could ever possibly harm anyone else. Here already, faced with those people who by the very nature of wrongdoing are causing themselves severe self-harm, we have reason to respond with pity.

Second, we have the Socratic principle that no one chooses evil insofar as it is evil, but rather, we choose what is actually evil insofar as it appears good to us in some respect. It follows from this that the evildoer is always in a state of ignorance—and not just any old garden-variety ignorance, but ignorance of the most important things for human beings to know: the good itself, and their own souls! In what other context does it make sense to become angry at the ignorant person? If we would respond with pity to someone who was ignorant of far more trivial matters, why should we not feel the same or even greater pity for someone who is ignorant of these greatest, most essential things? As Epictetus himself puts it:

“So this thief here and this adulterer shouldn’t be put to death?” Not at all, but what you should be asking is this: “This man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important matters, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgement that distinguishes good from bad—should someone like this be put to death?” If you put the question in that way, you’ll recognize the inhumanity of the thought that you’re expressing, and see that it is equivalent to saying, “Should this blind man, or that deaf one, be put to death?” For if the greatest harm that a person can suffer is the loss of their most valuable goods, and the most valuable thing that anyone can possess is correct choice, then if someone is deprived of that, what reason is left for you to be angry with him? Why, man, if in an unnatural fashion you really must harbour feelings with regard to another person’s misfortunes, you ought to pity him rather than hate him.

Epictetus, Discourses 1.18, §§5–9 (trans. Robin Hard, Oxford World’s Classics)

So far so good. But let’s take this argument seriously, while also being careful not to go too far. This is not at all about condescension, nor about any kind of moralizing superiority. It’s about recognizing that the people who have wronged me (or have wronged others) have themselves suffered the worst possible wrong that a human being can suffer—something which I myself have suffered on many occasions. This is about cultivating sympathy, not at all about sitting in judgement.

The term “suffered” here is deliberate. Etymologically, suffering is something that happens to us, against our will and our considered judgement. And so it is, if Socrates is right, in the case of evil acts: no one chooses evil qua evil willingly. If, then, evil acts follow from ignorance or delusion, is that ignorance itself something that we choose willingly? By the same Socratic precept, no. We see this straightforwardly when we recall that ignorance is itself an evil, a defect, a falling short of the good (which good is genuine knowledge and understanding). We delude ourselves, we lead ourselves into and reinforce our ignorance, in the service of some other (apparent) good: comfort, security, as a tranquilizer to pain… in just the way that when we will any other evil, we do so in pursuit of some other apparent good.

That does not mean acquiescing to evil. Far from it! But it does suggest that responding to evil with pity, compassion, and sympathy is both an effective strategy for actually addressing the root of the problem, and an important way to keep ourselves from falling into evil in our own turn. And to my mind, both of these are perennially worthy goals.

One thought on “From Anger to Pity

  1. This is really interesting, thank you! (Also timely because so many of us are so stressed right now about what is going on writ large.)

    Last week, I reread my highlights on Proclus’ First Alcibiades commentary, and this reminds me of some things happening in this part, specifically the misidentification of what is truly beautiful due to ignorance:
    The approach is admittedly very different, though!

    Liked by 1 person

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