Readers of The Public Interest know that ideas have consequences, sometimes long delayed ones. Even so, the notion of a link between Rousseau and Clinton may seem tenuous. Except, perhaps, to a certain kind of codger, who would snort that the two had at least one thing in common: their obvious moral depravity. And that snort would be justified, at least to this extent: The goodness that both men have sought to project - and compassion has been important to them primarily as evincing this goodness - is for both of them a substitute for virtue. And this entitles us to regard Clinton as the beneficiary of a moral upheaval instigated by Rousseau.
Few thinkers have exerted a worse political influence than Rousseau, and few so repay serious study. Conservatives, aware that the spectre of revolution stalking Europe was of Rousseauan lineage, once spluttered at the very mention of his name. Pick up any book, French or foreign, written between 1800 and 1945, and you'll find the question of Rousseau a touchstone of the author's political leanings. The Left loved him, the Right loathed him; few staked out positions in between.
Since 1945, however, Rousseau's reputation has changed dramatically. Leo Strauss in America and Bertrand de Jouvenel in France unearthed a Rousseau who was a critic of the Left even as he was its inspiration; who in retrospect had prophesied not the success of the Left but its failures. At the same time, he was a penetrating critic of liberal commercial society - the Left had gotten that right - and, as such, a valuable resource to those of its friends who sought to improve it. The resurgence of Rousseau's reputation paralleled that of Tocqueville's, and for many of the same reasons. While responding to the thought and politics of the eighteenth century and inspiring those of the nineteenth, Rousseau often seems to leapfrog the latter to speak directly to us today. Advocate, prophet, and anticipatory critic of late modernity: In the dense and tangled fabric of Rousseau's thought, there is something for almost everybody - including anybody who wants to understand the discourse of compassion.
Whatever Rousseau's responsibility for the violent political upheavals of the last two centuries, the revolution that really mattered to him was a moral one. From his great teacher Montesquieu, he had learned both that politics depended on moeurs or manners, and that moeurs depended in turn on the education of the sentiments. So while Machiavelli, for example, had brought "new modes and orders" - we would say new institutions - Rousseau brought new moods and feelings. He aimed at a revolution from within, not one of reason but of those reasons of the heart that reason does not know. His most personal and poetic writings, which were his autobiographical ones, were also his most political. The new sensibility that he cultivated in his readers has proved more significant than any of his doctrines. Thus do great thinkers legislate.
The new sensibility
To commence our discussion of compassion with Rousseau is to begin at the beginning in one sense and very late in the game in another. The sentiment of compassion has always figured in political life: Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle all attest to its role in the rough-and-tumble deliberations of the Greek city-state. And compassion has probably always played a greater part in the affairs of democracies than of other regimes: On this too the ancient sources agree, as do such modern authorities as Tocqueville. Nor of course has the practice of compassion been confined to the plane of political life. If by compassion we mean mercy, our account of it would have to begin with the creation of the world, which according to the rabbis was the work of God acting not as Elohim (the name that implies his justice) but Adonai (that which implies his mercy). If mercy sustains not just the Clinton administration but the whole of creation, you might wonder why I will confine myself to the former. My reason is that in the rest of this essay I will be speaking of compassion in the distinctive modern sense of the term. Compassion so understood is the merely worldly, merely human rump of the divine mercy preached by religion, and it is of compassion in this sense that Rousseau was the founder.
Compassion has relied upon the long tradition of Christian charity in the West; of that there can be no doubt. The Christian owes it little thanks for this, for, while drawing on charity, compassion both dilutes and debases it. Charity demands that we concern ourselves with the salvation of our neighbor's immortal soul. The purview of compassion, however, is entirely this-worldly. Charity is a theological virtue, divine in origin, and supernatural in its demands on us: To love one another as God has loved, we must overcome our natural human self-love. Compassion, as Rousseau presents it, is an emanation of that natural human self-love - which as such attests to the natural goodness of man. To a serious Christian, compassion will seem self-indulgent: a form of pride or even idolatry. The writer since Rousseau who has presented this case most powerfully is Dostoyevsky.
Besides representing both Rousseau's debt to and his rejection of Christianity, compassion signals his break with his great modern secular predecessors. These great men (notably Hobbes and Locke) had hatched liberalism in the broadest sense of that term. While they had sought to reform human life by appealing to rational self-interest, Rousseau evokes fellow feeling. Yet even this departure from Hobbes displays Rousseau's indebtedness to him. If he rejects Hobbes's rationalism, he ratifies his decision to refound human life on a negative orientation rather than a positive one. He agrees with Hobbes (against classical political philosophy) that what unites human beings is not a natural common good, but merely a common natural frailty. Hobbes had sought to build directly on this frailty, by appealing to our fear of incurring suffering ourselves. He had promoted a rational self-interest grounded in this fear: We were to refrain from harming others simply out of concern for ourselves. Rousseau, by contrast, solicits a response to the sufferings of others founded on our experience of our own. He appeals not to selfish interest but to genuine mutual concern. While there is no reliable common good among human beings, there is a common need of succor arising from our particular sufferings. The sufferings themselves are not common - my toothache is not yours - but we all know what it is to suffer, and this affords a basis in sentiment for true fellowship. Compassion is a positive bond arising from a negative experience.
Let me stress that Rousseau is not more "idealistic" than Hobbes. On the contrary: He rejects Hobbes's argument precisely for its excessive "idealism." His turn from self-interest to compassion reflects his conviction that the former, no matter how cleverly manipulated, is unequal to the task of reforming social life. He debunks the "realistic" appeal to rational self-interest as itself utopian. Self-interest requires a supplement - better, an alternative - one rooted not in reason but in feeling. Our deepest feeling, which we share with the beasts, is our impulse to self-preservation: It is just this impulse that also manifests itself as compassion.
But when the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself, and the reason for the precept is in nature itself, which inspires in me the desire of my well-being in whatever place I feel my existence (Emile, Book IV).
"I am interested in him for love of myself": This, above all, accounts for the attractiveness of compassion to Rousseau. Reason divides men; only subrational sentiment reliably unites them. Not the imitatio dei but the retrieval of the bestial will ground decency among human beings. This is a crucial step of that modern journey from Machiavelli to Heidegger, the watchword of which is that man must learn to be true to the earth.
Rousseau's reinterpretation of human morality in terms of sentiment both expressed and fostered a widespread reaction to the morality of rational selfishness preached by the hard-core Enlighteners. Rousseau was at once the greatest theorist of the new sentimentalism and, especially in his autobiographical and apologetic writings, its self-anointed hero and martyr. This sentimentalism implied a new and (it seems fair to say) a more feminine notion of masculinity. More than any earlier understanding of human perfection, it tends toward the androgynous, for it characterizes even male excellence in terms of sensitivity to others, which means ultimately to their suffering. Consider the famous response of Goethe to the humanitarian Frau von Stein, who wrote him in 1787 exalting the moral progress of their time. "Also, I must say myself," he replied, "I think it true that humanity will triumph eventually, only I fear that at the same time the world will become a large hospital and each will become the other's humane nurse." Goethe feared a world in which the sole criterion for virtue would be solicitude for the suffering, a world in which "I feel your pain, won't you please feel mine?" would replace all more exacting - and ennobling - standards.
There is irony in Rousseau's role as the feminizer of human virtue, since so few feminists admire him. In Book V of Emile, which provides Rousseau's thematic treatment of women, he insists on the equality of the sexes. Even so he stresses the differences between them and casts both masculine and feminine excellence in terms that most modern women find demeaning. But even as he presents men as by nature more rational and more forceful than women, and women as more sensitive than men, he seeks to revise the education of men to foster greater sensitivity. Consider, for example, two crucial passages of Book V. First, Emile's initial meeting with his predestined wife Sophie (who has been raised for him just as he has been raised for her, without either of the young people knowing it). During this supposedly chance encounter, he first attracts Sophie's notice by dissolving in tears at her parents' recital of their life of misfortune redeemed by their love for one another and for her. This is a far cry from Tom Sawyer's wooing of Becky Thatcher.
The second passage I have in mind is the one in which Sophie finally agrees to marry Emile. It begins inauspiciously when he shows up a day late for one of their heavy dates (heavy as in heavily chaperoned). Sophie is coldly furious. Emile soon discloses, however, that he has stood her up only because an emergency had compelled him to attend to the deserving poor. As he explains with youthful ardor, he could not love her half so much, loved he not beneficence more. At this, she accepts his pending proposal, and off they rush to do social work together. (Sophie does it better.)
I don't mean to ridicule Rousseau's moralization of the relations between Emile and Sophie, which reflects a profound understanding of the conditions of a happy marriage. I do question the tenor of the masculine morality that Emile is raised to practice and Sophie to admire. Otherwise a strong, silent type, Emile turns effusive where Sophie or compassion is his theme. That his sermon on compassion should seal Sophie's commitment to him I find a little too bad to be true. This is what she's been waiting for? My own principles of philanthropy being Maimonidean rather than Rousseauan, I would think Emile more of a man if he concealed or at least deprecated his good deed. He is compassionate enough to head a household, but is he tough enough?
Rousseau himself adopted in his autobiographical and apologetic writings. Here compassion figured largely, not only as the sweetest and most benevolent of social sentiments but as the least hypocritical. For Rousseau, this point was critical, for he founded not only the cult of compassion but also that of sincerity.
It is these dual preoccupations of compassion and sincerity that have permitted otherwise dignified modern people to slip into maudlinness over not only other people's troubles but their own. As one shows the goodness of one's heart by extending compassion, so one does by soliciting it. In both cases, we triumph over that false pride that separates human beings rather than uniting them.
Lastly, while Rousseau ceded to no one in his admiration for virtue, he was also the first to adduce his natural goodness as an alibi for his own unmistakable lack of virtue. He offers himself as both the least virtuous and the most benevolent of human beings; we are to see no contradiction here. For virtue (he argues) means habituation to acting against one's nature while benevolence is perfectly natural. We are not by nature virtuous while we are benevolent because by nature compassionate.
Rousseau, to hear him tell it, is a lovable character because a sincere and beneficent one. For all of his vices and errors, he is free of cruelty and malice. While his enemies claim that none has ever harmed others as much as he, in fact, none has ever suffered as much at the hands of others, or felt those sufferings as deeply. Though not the first writer to lament his misfortunes - authors have ever been a whiny lot - Rousseau was the first to dare to seek to supplant the suffering Christ as the pre-eminent object of Western compassion. While the Aristotelian gentleman practices reserve in the face of his sufferings (thereby showing others how to cope with theirs), Rousseau lets it all hang out. To read him is to be reminded how thin is the line between pathos and bathos.
As for Rousseau's betes noires, the rich, he casts them as hateful because both hardhearted and hypocritical. The very entrepreneur whom Locke offers as the human model because his rational selfishness profits him while also tending to the benefit of others becomes already in Rousseau the heartless tycoon in his top hat. His pretense of uprightness necessarily fails, both because being rich he plays at being honest with loaded dice and because of his callousness toward the poor.
Rousseau's critique of the rich follows from his derivation of compassion from self-love: the more complete our identification of the other with ourself, the more perfect and powerful our compassion for him. The rich man, however, does not identify with the poor. We identify only with those evils to which we regard ourselves as vulnerable, and the rich man never expects to be subject to the sufferings incident to poverty. We are, moreover, only as sensitive to the sufferings of others as we imagine them to be sensitive to them. "The rich are consoled about the ill that they do the poor, because they assume the latter to be stupid enough to feel nothing of it" (Emile). Universal compassion requires education in both the common vulnerability and the common sensibility of mankind: It requires our liberation from what today would be called "classism."
In fact, Rousseau goes even further, condemning what today would be called "speciesism." In commenting on man's inhumanity to man, he also alludes to our cruelty to beasts - which he ascribes to the very same cause. Already in the preface to the Discourse on Inequality, where he first asserts the moral primacy of compassion, Rousseau argues that it implies the obligation of men to beasts. "Indeed, it would seem that if I am obliged not to harm another being like myself, it is less because that being is rational than because it is sentient; a quality which . . . is common to beast and man." Now one can easily imagine an alternative "Aristotelian" argument against cruelty to beasts, namely that such cruelty is beneath us as human beings, i.e., as beings who are rational as the beasts are not. A similar case might be made against cruelty to other humans even if one held them inferior to oneself - the Aristotelian gentleman is not cruel, though regarding most other people as his inferiors. Rousseau insists, however, that true morality depends on acknowledgment of equality and of the premise that what unites all animate beings - their sentience - is more fundamental than what divides the men among them from the beasts, let alone the men among them from each other.
That the morality of compassion is egalitarian does not distinguish it from Christian morality on the one hand or from the early modern natural right teaching on the other. Rousseau, however, by extending the benefits of equality to beasts and refounding it on sentience among men, initiates an egalitarianism of a far more radical sort. His extension of rights to animals is a striking illustration of this. In fact, the most remarkable evidence I know of the debt of radical egalitarianism to Rousseau is Claude Levi-Strauss's Manifesto Rousseau Fondateur des Sciences de l'Homme ("Rousseau, Founder of the Human Sciences"). In this extraordinarywork, originally delivered at a commemoration of Rousseau's 250th birthday, Levi-Strauss credits Rousseau with having founded the true human sciences precisely by proclaiming the primacy of a compassionate stance over one of so-called objectivity. According to him, Rousseau's crucial teaching is that the suffering not only of the humblest human being but of the lowest life form capable of it is of equal moral weight with the suffering of the most evolved. In proclaiming the radical equality of all species, and branding speciesism as the original human sin and the root of every other, including genocide, Levi-Strauss manages the amazing feat of out-Rousseauizing Rousseau, alike in substance and in tone.
To return from the fate of snail darters to that of the rich, who are not an endangered species: It was Rousseau who first imparted to compassion its modern political or class coloring. He politicized it above all by arguing that all who were rich were as such unjust - beneficiaries of a corrupt "system" - while all who were poor were as such oppressed and thereby deserving of compassion. (Rousseau was the first to analyze society as a "system" in the pejorative sense of that term.) As the poor of his day did not read, we may presume that Rousseau's hateful portrayal of the rich (i.e., of all who were not poor) was intended for the rich themselves, in the hopes of shaming them into accepting their responsibility for the poor.
Two counts of his indictment are already familiar to us: lack of compassion on the one hand, hack of sincerity on the other. In his efforts to persuade even the well-to-do proponents of Enlightenment of their complicity in the oppression of the poor, Housseau invented liberal guilt. For the first time since the inception of the modern project, being "liberal" or "progressive" (as we would say) was no longer enough. This aspect of Rousseau's thought points toward the French and Russian revolutions, and more generally, toward the emergence of the modern Left, that most significant of all his political offspring.
The professionalization of sentiment?
In our time, people associate both compassion and the Left with the welfare state, which doesn't just appeal to the conscience of the rich but proceeds to punish them, albeit only through taxation. It defines the rich generously, also taxing the middle class. It thereby redistributes the wealth of the society, some of which trickles down to the poor - and much of which sustains the legions of non-poor assigned to assist them. What would Rousseau have thought of this? Here we must beware of anachronism, for despite the many schemes of progress bruited in the eighteenth century, he and the welfare state did not overlap. Still, there are grounds for ascribing to him a critique of it before the fact. This he launches not from the right of the welfare state but from the left of it, brilliantly anticipating such contemporary leftist critics of welfarism as Foucault.
In the first place, Rousseau argues that compassion as such defies institutionalization. Being a sentiment and as such volatile, it flees the icy blast of professionalization. He who undertakes for a wage to be compassionate for 40 hours a week will soon be so for no hours a week. Rousseau was glum in his estimation of the caring professions of his day: "It is . . . by dint of seeing death and suffering that priests and doctors become pitiless" (Emile). His point is not that such people are to blame as individuals but that our supply of compassion is by nature limited.
Rousseau would not then have been surprised that, for all their good intentions, contemporary carers often organize the delivery of their services as best suits their requirements rather than those of the poor, or that their relations with their clients are so often ones of mutual (if unequal) dependency rather than genuine solicitude. For such, as Rousseau often contends, is the inevitable tendency of all hierarchies among human beings, of therapeutic ones no less than others. While good by nature, men are bad in society, and the badness of society is very much on display in holders of public office. Emile, the intended model of the new democratic man, is not destined for any such office. He is to live in a remote rural area, on the furthest margins of the decadent society of commerce and inequality. Neither a revolutionary nor a reformer, he will content himself with redressing the misfortunes and improving the husbandry of the local peasantry.
Rousseau thus concludes that compassion must remain a private matter. Think of it, if you like, as a thousand points of light - but of wavering, flickering light, flaring up and sputtering out with equal unpredictability. Rousseau gave his rhetorical all to boosting compassion because he thought it preferable to the feasible modern alternatives (which did not include true citizenship) and as much better than nothing. But the more one studies him the more one concludes that his actual hopes from it were quite limited. As usually befalls great thinkers, his disciples took a less nuanced and more hopeful view of the matter.
A morality without restraint
I have suggested that Rousseau promoted compassion as the basis of a new post-Christian and post-Enlightenment morality. He once described the true Christian as harsh toward himself and gentle toward others. The morality of compassion also dictates gentleness toward others, and to that extent lends itself to confusion with Christianity. It does not, however, necessarily require harshness toward oneself. True, Rousseau's rhetoric of compassion aimed to incite what I have called liberal guilt. Precisely to the extent, however, that compassion becomes one's reigning principle, one is discharged of other grounds of guilt. Indeed, guilt as such, as a form of suffering, must be suspect to the eye of compassion: Is it not just one more evil to be eradicated? As for those whose profession is to evoke guilt (preachers of strict Christianity, for instance) must they not stand condemned as cruel and oppressive?
One of the chief tasks of the morality of compassion, then, is to purge us of being too "judgmental" (that is, too cruel), whether toward others or toward ourselves. Providing we are indulgent toward others, we are permitted to be indulgent toward ourselves. That mantra of the talk show and soap opera - "I'll be there for you" - perfectly captures this implication of the morality of compassion. It assures us that the speaker will lend a sympathetic ear, rather than aggravate our distress by blaming us for it. For this last would be insensitive, and, in the moral world of talk show and soap opera, Scott's insensitivity is a greater sin than Jason's infidelity to Kimberley. Much as Rousseau would hate soap operas, the verdict "how insensitive" - as a moral judgment and even the crowning moral judgment - must ultimately be laid at his door.
Because the moralism of compassion thus calls other moralisms into question, it can prove peculiarly attractive in an era of declining morality. This was first observed by Edmund Burke, in his letter to Claude-Franaois de Rivarol of 1 June 1791.
The [Parisian philosophers] ... systematically flatter all ... passions natural and unnatural. They explode or render odious that class of virtues which restrain the appetite, These are at least nine out of ten of the virtues. In the place of all these they substitute a virtue which they call humanity or benevolence. By these means, their morality has no idea in it of restraint, or indeed of a distinct settled principle of any kind. When their disciples are thus left free and guided only by present feeling, they are no longer to be depended on for good or evil.
Here, as so often, Burke displayed remarkable prescience. The morality of compassion offers a relaxed alternative to moralities of self-restraint. Slackness in no way precludes compassion, and if the latter dictates being "non-judgmental" then the slack have a head start on the rest of us. Hollywood assumes that to have a heart of gold you need only be a hooker, while to stand convicted of hypocrisy you need only be censorious. In an age of compassion, tartuffery will seem worse than moral laxity.
Compassion a la Clinton
This is useful, I think, for understanding the public's tolerance of Clinton. I return to the distinction between goodness and virtue. To lack virtue is to be subject to impulse. Impulsiveness, however, can seem good as well as bad. Other parts of Clinton's anatomy may wander, but the public appears convinced that his heart remains in the right place. Here most of all he benefits from the Rousseauan moral revolution. Whatever his lapses from rectitude, we need not deem him a bad person. Obviously, Clinton's moist eyes aren't the sole reason for his rhetorical success. He is by current standards a formidable speaker. Nor do I mean to imply that his teariness is insincere. "The trouble with this cruel nonsense," as Robert Fulford has written in the Toronto Globe and Mail, "is that, at some level, you almost have to believe it." And, he might have added, you have to be able to count on an audience that believes it, so that your belief in it predisposes them in your favor.
One reason Clinton offers sympathy is that he's running short of tea. His compassion shines if not more brightly then at least more safely against the background of diminishing welfare expenditures. Two decades ago, a friend of mine and a loyal Democrat cited then New York Governor Hugh Carey as the kind of leader the party needed, who could persuade his constituents of the need for fiscal austerity because no one could doubt his concern for their welfare. In this, Carey was a harbinger of the "New Democrats." In the wake of the populist upsurge against big government, their task in promoting leanness and meanness is both easier and harder than his. That New Yorkers would have elected a Pataki governor was unthinkable in those distant days. How are today's Democrats to distinguish themselves from the Republicans? Not so much on fiscal grounds as on what some have called "cultural" ones. And one feature of the cultural terrain to which the Democrats have chosen to stake their claim is that it is amply watered by compassion.
The difference that moist eyes can make today appears from the contrast between the pre-election resurgence of Clinton's popularity and the eclipse of Speaker Gingrich's. Each of the two men is his party's most successful fundraiser, and each has seen his integrity impeached, but only one of them is his party's most successful vote getter.
Even more striking, of course, was the contrast between Clinton and Bob Dole. Dole lost the election for many reasons; I won't try to enumerate them. It was, if not decisive, at least noteworthy that the public never warmed to him. Dole, who had heeded his country's call to military service and paid a heavy price for so doing, spoke less movingly of veterans than the decidedly non-veteran Clinton. Fulford has remarked of Dole that "no one could ever call him sensitive or his speeches heartwarming ... in the 1990's, that's probably his most admirable quality."
If so, it's a quality that Dole shares with most other Republicans, whose hearts rarely seem to brim with compassion even if (as with Gingrich) the term occasionally graces their lips. An occasional catchphrase (e.g., "compassion for victims, not for criminals") confirms that even Republicans will invoke compassion and may do so with a certain force. Yet slogans of this sort also betray the distance yawning between the Republicans and compassion's heartland, which is not the penal system but the welfare state. True, if (as Dante relates) eternal love reared the gates of Hell, then compassion for victims could build new penitentiaries. Fairly or unfairly, however, such retaliatory uses of the term are bound to seem like debater's points.
Fulford adds of Clinton that he is at his best at funerals, where "his performance reaches Olivier standard." This is significant, for a funeral is both a weepy occasion and an ostensibly nonpartisan one. It's a mark of the success of Clinton's sentimentality that it manages to be partisan and nonpartisan simultaneously - nonpartisan in seeking out occasions and causes that offend no one (certainly not the middle class); partisan in nonetheless reassuring supporters of the welfare state that he will not permit it to shrink any more than is necessary. Nor does Clinton often wax judgmental. He is presumably aware that politicians who live in glass houses ought to throw as few stones as possible. He must also be aware, however, that the Democrats are the party of non-judgmentalness.
Consider Clinton's position on the family. The cause of the family is traditional and noncontroversial; it might even seem conservative. Weepiness over it will not offend the hordes of Americans on the right and in the center. On the other hand, as Irving Kristol has pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, the Democrats' notion of what constitutes a family is becomingly vague. No one at their convention suggested that a family was or ought to be comprised of a husband and wife and their legitimate children, for by "marginalizing" "non-traditional" families, the party would have shown itself "insensitive." Such studied ambiguity is a crucial element of Clinton's success in a world in which the electorate has shifted to the right but the core constituencies of his party have not. And appeals to sentiment (the more anodyne the better) leave greater room for such ambiguity than do actual policy decisions. (The Republicans too practice this game; they just haven't done it as successfully.)
Kristol has suggested that "politicized compassion constitutes the very heart and soul of the Democratic party." He has also described this process as the "feminization" of the Democratic party. Women do seem by nature more compassionate than men and so more susceptible to appeals to it. In the nineteenth century, they were widely regarded as morally superior to men for just this reason. There is also the fact that on a wide range of social issues that are discussed in terms of compassion today, women seem more favorable to welfarist policies (which the current lingo equates with compassionate ones).
Still, the effects of the Rousseauan revolution have also left their marks on men. His newly compassionate male (of which he and his creation Emile offer somewhat different versions) is the precursor of the SNAG ("Sensitive New Age Guy") of today. As already noted, Rousseau was the first to teach that we need be embarrassed neither to display our sufferings nor to witness such displays by others. "In today's pop-therapeutic culture," Jean Bethke Elshtain has written in the New Republic, "pity is about how deeply I can feel. And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs." Fulford is equally harsh: "Politicians have always been manipulative, but Clinton, Gore and others have refined the art. They have moved their appeal onto the level of bathetic emotion, where they can combine exhibitionism with an appeal for pity." It little matters that the supplications beamed to millions aim at political advantage or even that those millions are actuated as much by prurience as by moral concern. Each side just feels so good about feeling so bad. The moralism of compassion creates a demand for public displays of affliction.
The limits of compassion
w else to account for the two most disturbing moments of last summer's Democratic National Convention, Al Gore's account of his sister's death from lung cancer and Christopher Reeve's appeal for greater public funding of spinal-injury research? As Elshtain has pointed out, Reeve (whose claim on our compassion is genuine enough) presumed upon that claim to address us in a manner calculated to overwhelm our critical faculties. She notes that it is demeaning to the process of deliberation to demand a policy decision based on a visceral response to the situation of an unfortunate individual rather than on a rational consideration of public priorities. In this context, she distinguishes pity, which precludes stepping back to take a broader view informed by justice, from compassion which permits us to do so.
This last distinction (which Elshtain borrows from Hannah Arendt) has never seemed persuasive to me. I don't find it in Rousseau, who never distinguishes compassion from pity, but uses the words interchangeably. The dilemma, as he sees it, is that the power of compassion or pity (or whatever one wishes to call it) depends necessarily on a visceral response, and so dwindles proportionately as one steps back from it. Rousseau too saw the necessity of preferring justice to pity when the two came into conflict, but he never offered a convincing account of how to succeed at combining the two. Indeed, he himself promoted compassion in the liberal commercial societies of the future largely because he despaired of justice: The latter he regarded as possible only in small homogeneous agrarian societies capable of enacting the general will. In commercial societies dominated by inequality and injustice, compassion, while not approaching the generality of justice, would at least redress particular evils as embodied in particular individuals. For it is always the plight of an individual, presented vividly to our imagination, which is most effective in enlisting our compassion. Rousseau then anticipates Elshtain's appeal from compassion to justice, while not sharing her hopes for justice in a large, modern commercial society.