Statua di Buddha- Particolare. Statua di Buddha- Particolare.
08 Aprile

Forgetting oneself? On the notion of compassion.

Forgetting oneself?  On the notion of compassion


                                                                                     Presses the unconquered fate and the ironclad

                                                                                     necessity the sick

                                                                                     slaves of death        

                                                                                                 G. Leopardi, Bruto Minore, 31-33

Considering emotion and weeping due to others' suffering, can one see them as identifying with the other and thus transcending the individual self? It seems that forgetting oneself is part of the concept of compassion.

I could not carry out here a philological (also) research on the origin of the concept of compassion, because that would imply knowledge I do not have of the language of the original texts that, it seems, lie at the origin of the discourse.

 Instead, I have considered the concept of compassion as already argued, treated by Schopenhauer and Leopardi,[2] as well as in Spinoza's Ethica, keeping in mind some observations of others.
I would like to thank  Prof.Vincenzo Guarracino for the insights and hints that I partly found in his writings and partly he himself pointed out to me.

It would seem that in Zibaldone, when the episode of Achilles' weeping is mentioned, it is denied that compassion as empathizing with others: everyone, finally, weeps because, seeing that of others, he is seized by his own grief.

Although this may be the case, as will be seen immediately, the conclusion cannot be definitive but concerns at most a part of Leopardi's thought, for somewhat different moments appear in The broom.

In Zibaldone therefore the argument is carried out from an anthropological and psychological point of view: "You will often hear it said that in order to be pitied or to interest, it is useful to address yourself to those who have experienced the same misfortunes, or have been in the same condition as you."3. Of course, it may be, "If they mean of the past, it will do," that is, the condition for being able to com-patiate another in common feeling and solidarity, in general, is that my emotions have been processed.   Thus, there is no absolute denial that this can happen.

If this has not taken place, because I may be experiencing now and not in the past very strong emotions of the same nature as those being participated in by others, it is impossible for me to com-patiate:

"there is no man from whom you can hope less than from one who finds himself presently in the same calamity or circumstances as you. The interest he feels for himself stifles all that your case might inspire in him (...) You will see him moved, you will believe that he feels pity for you, but he feels it for himself alone"4.

When one is at full immersion in the sea of one's own emotion, the whole field of the mind is taken up; therefore, I experience the other's experience only insofar as I can recognize in it some or all of my own; or I am unable to participate in it at all. In Leopardi's psychology, egoism is here foundational motive:

"It will always be impossible to attack egoism thus from the front, when even from the side it is so difficult to spetrate. And above all dealing with action never hope anything from a young man who like you finds himself disgusted with domestic life, and like you feels the need to procure the means of severing it, from a military wretch like you, or who runs with the same commitment and with the same liveliness of desire to honors, from a sick person who is all busy and afflicted with a disease similar to yours ec. ec. " 5.

Detailed observations of experience, therefore valuable, I would say. The famous episode of Achilles and Priam 6 is brought as an example7 : "He gives the example of Achilles weeping his ills while he has Priam at his knees." But make no mistake about it:

"When Homer, introduces Priam at Achilles' feet, when he moves us to our souls with the bitter spectacle of so much greatness reduced to so much misery, when he seems to employ every contrivance, to accumulate every circumstance, proper to arouse us to the liveliest compassion, and at the same time represents Achilles to us, the protagonist of his poem, the model of the heroic virtue he conceived, so difficult, so slow to allow himself to be bent, weeping over Priam's head, not already Priam's misfortunes, but his own and his old father's, and his Patroclus, whose death it Priam had come to ask him in a certain way for forgiveness... " 8

It is, to be sure, present the motif of pity (so translated from the Greek): but both Achilles and Priam are weeping for their own grief, not for that of the other.

Saying otherwise, the scene turns out to be imbued with one current, a series of motives that envelop the individual protagonists - e.g., Achilles may identify in the elderly Priam his distant father: and this carries consequences in acting, such as Achilles' dining together or offering sleep and protection to the supplicant king. This presence of the proper and yet common feeling overcomes for the moment the divisive hostility, but the context shows how the latter is present and appears again and again. Homer, Leopardi points out, "introduces that compassionate episode in grace of the supreme interest and the great contrast of affections to which it gives rise," and moreover he carefully "sees to it that Achilles does not offend in any part the laws of heroism; does not show himself light, flexible, dappishly forgiving; is not reprimanded for having been human with the enemies of his nation and his own."

All instances are thus saved: that of compassion, such being a sense (not the only one) of the episode in general; that of heroic virtue as it had to be conceived at the time, which excluded pity for the enemy, if compassion is understood, in the case, as pity; the regard for Achilles' fierce personality, as Homer and his era conceived it; that of Leopardi's anthropo-psychology.

However, if the theme of compassion is considered here along with that of heroic virtue, it does not usually present itself associated with it. So what does one see instead?

  The Broom or Desert Flower is composed by Leopardi in the spring of 1836 (9),

  Beginning in v. 29, the character of compassion (here called commiserating) is even attributed to the broom as well: blooming on the vestiges of the carnage and pain caused by nature, by the volcano, where

                      Have been famous cities,

...                   Now all around

                      A ruin involves,

                      Where thou sittest, O gentle flower, and almost

                     The harm of others commiserating, to heaven  

                     Of sweetest odor send a perfume,

                     That the desert consoles. 10


And the humans? The solution to the worst that evil nature destines for us cannot be but the sympathetic action of men, finally mature and come of age.


                     Noble nature is that    

                      ... that great and strong          

                    Shows if in suffering, nor hatreds and wrath

                    Fraternal wrath, even more grievous                          

                    Than any other harm it increases

                    To its miseries, the man blaming

                    Of his sorrow, but blames the one

                    Who truly is guilty, who of mortals

                    Mother is by childbirth and by will stepmother.

                    This one he calls inimical; and meeting with this one            

                    Conjoined be thinking,

                    As is the truth, and ordered at first

                   The human company

                   All among themselves confederate she esteems                            

                   Men, and all embraces

                  With true love, bestowing

                  Valid and ready and expecting help

                  II the alternate perils and distresses

                  Of common war ... 11

The third stanza of the poem contrasts the stupidity of those who refuse to see human misery with the greatness of those who dare to look this aspect in the face and attribute its responsibility to nature, against which men are called to stand in common and forge bonds of social solidarity, in "social chain."

                                               And that horror which first        

                                               Against unholy nature

                                               Tightened mortals in social chain,

                                               Will be brought back in part                                

                                               By true knowledge, the honest and upright

                                               Civil conversation... 12

This is how the concept of compassion is articulated in the mature phase of Leopardi's poetical thought: it consists not only in 'empathizing with the other by feeling that his misfortune is the same as mine, as far as we can see from the ferocity of enemy nature; but also in doing something to alleviate the common misfortune.

The same broom mentioned here not only seems capable of pitying men, but also is susceptible to being pitied: all living things suffer the same fate.

                                                And you, slow broom,

                                                ... You too soon to the cruel mightiness

                                               Thou shalt succumb of the subterranean fire, ...

                                               And thou shalt bend

                                               Beneath the mortal bundle unrepentant

                                              Thy innocent head, ... 13


    Now, compared to Leopardi, what changes in Schopenhauer?14

I am speaking mainly of his masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation, from the beginning of the 19th century.

The role of the concept of compassion, in Schopenhauer's ethics (or to be precise to the degree of asceticism) as in the tradition of Indian thought, appears central. But how does he understand compassion, even - likely - in reference to his own knowledge of those venerable texts?

According to what we know and as noted above, meanwhile, the German philosopher feels Leopardi along the same lines as himself.

This is how Schopenhauer expresses himself: he calls (so at least it sounds in translation) pity the feeling of one man's identification with another who suffers. He argues this starting in the context of the discussion of justice,

" ...voluntary justice has its deepest origin in a certain degree of overcoming the principii individuationis, while in this principle the unjust man always remains entirely captive"15 who always acts in view of his own interest as the interest of his singularity, of the single individual that he is. The righteous man is contrasted with the unjust man, closed in his singularity, and what distinguishes him is precisely compassion, which moves to justice, thus to feel others as oneself and to help them.

Starting from the realm of justice as "simple negation of the wicked"16, the just man "penetrates beyond the individuationis principle, from the veil of Maya: he considers the essence, which is outside of him, equal, up to this mark, to his own: he does no injustice,"and the "supreme degree of such justice of the soul... already couples itself with true and proper goodness"17 : that is, "to that generous... The principium individuationis... no longer holds him so tightly; instead the sorrow, which he sees in others, touches him almost as his own"18 :precisely because "the illusion of the principii individuationis has vanished from him"19.

Schopenhauer certainly admits that one can feel in the shoes of the suffering other. But in what sense? In the sense of love, first of all. How is love to be understood here? He adds that "a paradox has yet to be formulated and clarified...: ' All love (...) is compassion' "20:

"from the overcoming of the principii individuationis (comes), in the lesser degree, justice, and in the greater the true and proper goodness of the soul ... as pure, that is, unselfish love for others (and... ) in that case the character ascended to the highest goodness and perfect generosity sacrifices in all its goodness to the good of the most (... to the extent that, being in that condition,) in good spirits (one) faces (one) pain and death for the affirmation of that which benefits the whole of humanity"21.

If "we found to be inherent in life ... pain, as will, what which therefore goodness, love and nobility can do for others (...) what by consequence can move them to the good deeds and works of love, is always only the knowledge of another's pain, made intelligible through one's own pain, and put on a par with it. But from this it follows that pure love (αγαπη, caritas) is, by its very nature, compassion (...) all true and pure love compassion, and all love that is not compassion is selfishness. Selfishness is ερως ; compassion is αγαπη" 22.

It now seems that weeping in general is explained in a way that resembles Leopardi's:

'in my opinion, one never weeps directly over a pain felt, but rather always over the reproducing of it in reflection (... that is, ed.) from the pain felt (...) one passes to a pure representation of it, and one then finds one's state compassionate, which, if it were others who were suffering (... we would help it with all pity and love ...)" 23 .

But it should be noted that the similarity ends here because the conclusions are different from Leopardi's, at least if one considers the episode from the Iliad cited above:

"Weeping is thus self-pity, that is, pity that goes back to its starting point. Therefore it has as a condition the capacity for love and compassion, and the imagination (and...) one feels, that he who can still weep, must by necessity also be capable of love, that is, of pity toward others"24.

If one dwells, in comparing these passages of Schopenhauer's, on the explanation that Leopardi offers of the passage of Achilles' weeping (...), it can only seem that both affirm the same: that is, that in order to explain weeping, one must suppose that one weeps by thinking of one's own sorrow, thus of oneself.

This is not Schopenhauer's conclusion: he says that precisely because one weeps out of pity for oneself, one is capable of love and compassion.

Leopardi with respect to the episode in the Iliad, on the other hand, believes he can show that Achilles weeps out of selfishness.

Finally, neither of them actually, if I refer to the passages on human solidarity in the Broom, argues that selfishness is the basis of our life.

In fact, Schopenhauer, by virtue of his ethics and thought, argues that a very high degree of feeling and acting is that of compassion, as we see, which arises against the background of nothingness.

Leopardi, if we limit ourselves to the passages quoted from Zibaldone, seems to be able to place selfishness and not compassion and pity as the basis of weeping. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, states that one must assume, as a condition of weeping, love and compassion of others, whereby one feels what happens to others as happening to myself, without which the feeling and reacting of weeping would not be possible.

However, if you go to the verses of the Broom, it seems that Leopardi concludes just like Schopenhauer around the capacity to feel love for others.

What about Spinoza, this master who thought primarily in onto-theological, ethical and political dimensions, but like Schopenhauer and Leopardi closely connected ethics to ontology, to the thought of Principle and God?

It is that here in Spinoza's thought the Principle changes: it is the geometric order of the god-nature, but nature in the case is governed by the laws of the scientific cosmology of the time.

Spinoza, with a glance at Stoic thought, conducts his rigorous analysis of the passions and affections, but certainly not because these should be expunged from the life of the soul - as, if I understand correctly, the Stoics demanded - but because he knows that a thought can only claim to assert itself if it makes itself the dominant affection - positive affection about existence, stronger, at the right time, than the wrong and harmful one.

So philosophers: it seems that in Schopenhauer and Spinoza, regardless of the persuasiveness of their conclusions, everything depends on the structure of 'arguing according to one's presuppositions, in the spirit of system.

Spinoza on his part presents an increasing complexity in progress of reading, which is often not revealed at a first glance. I propose only one example.

It would be limiting, as I said, to understand the abysmal Spinoza only in the sense that, just like the algid god, man must do without feelings; some of these indeed prove useful to his preservation and the increase of his power; although Spinoza himself says that the man who lives according to reason strives, as far as he can, not to be touched by compassion, since he knows, in the state of adequate knowledge, that everything derives from the necessity of divine nature25.

Compassion (commiseratio, in the original Latin text; commiserazione in Italian transl.) is a passion but sad, thus a form of inadequate knowledge. Spinoza's argument in these pages is far more articulated and here, for brevity's sake, I do not discuss it as would be appropriate. He argues among other things that : "he who is moved neither by reason nor Commiseration to be of help to others, is rightly called inhuman"26 . Passions like commiseration fall within the definition of what is human; and even when moved by reason and not by commiseration, one does so only as far as one can.

Spinoza knows that the passions can be overcome only by the passions, that is, to be precise, if they take the form of a positive affection: men cannot do without them - "The true knowledge of good and evil, cannot, as true, prevent any affection, but only insofar as it is regarded as an affection"27 : because, 'was read above, "An affection cannot be hindered or taken away except by an affection contrary to and stronger than the affection to be hindered" insofar as it is an affection, if it is stronger than the affection to be prevented28, only then can it prevent the affection"29 . It should be added that Spinoza sees mercy as a form of love, thus with its own positivity, if we consider that he contrasts it with envy, which on the other hand is decidedly evil 30.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

If in the World I have Schopenhauer's philosophical anthropology and thus ethics, dependent on the Wille, and in the Ethics of Spinoza, as a function of his onto-theology, Leopardi's can be reconstructed with greater difficulty, his thought being set forth in fragments and verse and thus not systematically. This does not make Leopardi's thought any less considerable.

I began with passages from the Zibaldone, where in the first place it seems that Homer intends to represent in Achilles the figure of the warrior hero, who cannot pity the enemy. Leopardi then would only be reporting Homer's intention.

In the great poet and philosopher, as De Sanctis saw in his essay on Leopardi and Schopenhauer, despite his frequent polemics with his enemies, there is no lack of accents of compassion toward humanity and animals themselves: "oh alas how much it resembles/Your costume to mine" one reads, referring to  Il passero solitario31; but also "'Enjoy, my child; suave state,/Joyful season is this./Other I will not tell you..." , in Il sabato del villaggio32. It is these sympathetic words spoken to a bird, or to another man, who is young and therefore unaware, certainly not in Leopardi's condition. Yet he is compassionate and even the broom flower is an object of compassion.

It seems obvious: Leopardi's thought on the merits of human nature and compassion is articulated differently from Schopenhauer's and Spinoza's, in the sense that the reader has to reconstruct from aphorisms and phases of thought, while that of the philosophers has the merit of being presented in a systematic, orderly way. But finally Leopardi really does not appear to be very far from Schopenhauer's conclusions, subject to the different ontological foundations-for Leopardi ultimately Matter, for Schopenhauer Will-while the question of comparison with Spinoza is more complex.

The concept of compassion as described does not seem to me to coincide with the Christian concept of charity, although it may touch on it in some respects. But finding this would involve a separate search. However, it is not only a contemplative attitude: it also implies that one can act; as well as, that one must decide to do nothing. Reason for example, according to Spinoza, moves one to help others in the right ways; commiseration, having to do with sadness, in the wrong ways. What Spinoza means we see in the experience of life every day, and moreover everyone acts (according to Spinoza) also as a consequence of his own nature. Reason and compassion fall within the human; anyone who did not act according to one or the other or different proportions of one and the other would be said (he says) to be inhuman.

It seems that reason and compassion are pitted against each other, and so it is, in a geometric spirit, but as much in acting according to reason as in acting in compassion will be about helping others. We say that those who act reasonably to help others do so with foresight and strength, as far as reason can; those who act out of compassionate impulse do so without well weighing their motives, so they are more easily misled. In this Spinozian sense, exercising compassion does not serve but means to be weak and condescending: "he who is easily touched by pity (i.e., compassion, ed.), and who is moved by the misery or tears of others, often does things of which he later regrets"33. There are obvious examples of this in life as in literature. Even to help others one must be moved by reason, and only in this way does one enter the sphere of the divine, which is love and gladness.

Nocera Inferiore, March, 2023                                                    Carlo Di Legge


1 At the outset, I confess that I have not delved into this concept from a philological point of view. First, I do not have the tools of knowledge of Sanskrit or other sources, to be able to go to the texts. Secondly, I do find references that appear quite precise on the web, not so much to the Hindu sense of compassion (however referred to in a similar way to that found in Schopenhauer's texts, here considered in Italian translation), but to the Buddhist sense of compassion, which is reported somewhat dissimilarly to that, but perhaps because different aspects have been privileged in the exposition: the latter is reported with reference to the Sanskrit terms of origin (pinyin: karuṇā translated "compassion," "pity," "mercy," "empathy" rendered in Chinese as 悲; and Sanskrit maitrī meaning "love," "benevolence," "charity," rendered in Chinese as 慈), from the composition of which would result in the concept in the Buddhist sense at least, as we can think of it today.

2 F. De Sanctis' essay Schopenhauer and Leopardi in the form of a dialogue is considered here, in addition to the texts that will be cited. It was first published in December 1858 in  "Rivista Contemporanea". It seems that Schopenhauer, having read De Sanctis' essay, recognized the similarity of Leopardi's thought to his own.

3 G. Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, ed. Mondadori, Milan 1972 (1937), 99.

4 Ibid, p. 89

5 Ibid, p. 90.

6   Cf. G. Leopardi, Pensieri di varia filosofia e di bella letteratura, Volume I. Edited by Giosuè Carducci. Florence, Successori Le Monnier, 1898., 2767.

7 Cf. Iliad, XXIV.

8 Cf. G. Leopardi. Pensieri di varia filosofia e di bella letteratura, Volume I, cit., 2768; cf. Iliad XXIV, 511-12.

9 Probably before the Sunset of the Moon. The song was later printed posthumously in the Songs of 1845: it is one of the last works, and several features such as its placement at the end of the collection, its extraordinary size, and its thematic and formal characteristics make it a kind of lyrical-philosophical testament. So it can be thought of as the landing place of Leopardi's thought on the subject of human destiny and compassion.

10 G. Leopardi, La ginestra o il fiore del deserto, in Canti, ed. Rizzoli, Milan 19865, vv. 32-37 (The broom or desert flower, in Songs).

11 Ibid, vv. 111, 118-135. 

12 Ibid, vv. 147-152.

13 Ibid, vv. 297-306.

14  I note that even through intermediate translations (Persian, Latin) he imported Hindu texts into Europe, in the 19th century, and thus can be understood, albeit with all caution, as a reliable source.

15 A. Schopenhauer, Il mondo come volontà e come rappresentazione (The World as Will and Representation), tr. it. Laterza, Bari-Rome 1984 (1914), v. II Book IV, p. 486.

16 Ibid, Par 66 p. 485.

17 Ibid, p. 486.

18 Ibid, p. 487.

19 Ibid, p. 489.

20 Ibid, p. 490.

21 Ibid, p. 491.

22 Ibid, pp. 491-2.

23 Ibid, pp. 492-3.

24 Ibid.

25 For Ethica (Ethics) of B. Spinoza I use here the version edited by G. Durante (transl.), G. Gentile and G. Badetti, Ethics, ed. Bompiani, Milan 2014 5.

26 Ibid, IV, prop. L.

27 Ibid, IV, cit., prop. XIV.

28 Ibid, IV, cit., prop. VII.

29 Ibid, IV, cit., prop. XIV.

30 Cf. ibid, IV, 50.

31 G. Leopardi, The Lonely Sparrow, in Songs, cit., vv. 17-18.

32 G. Leopardi, Village Saturday, in Songs, cit., vv. 48-50.

33 B. Spinoza, cit., prop. L schol.

Letto 110 volte Ultima modifica il Martedì, 25 Aprile 2023 10:02