Rachana Kamtekar

Title : Platonic Pity


From Socrates’ claim in the Apology that a good person cannot be harmed to Plato’s later dialogues’ characterizations of virtue as godlikeness (Theaetetus, Timaeus), Platonic virtue has seemed to many readers to be an ideal of invulnerability.  As a result, these readers think, some of the qualities of character that we regard as virtues would not be admitted as virtues by Plato, insofar as these qualities require that their possessor be vulnerable in ways that the gods are not.  One of those qualities is compassion, the developed capacity to feel pity for human suffering.   Many readers (e.g. Paul Woodruff, David Konstan) suppose, on the basis of their reading of Aristotle’s discussion of pity in Rhetoric II, that in order to pity another’s suffering one must be vulnerable to that same suffering oneself; from this, they conclude that the gods of the philosophers would not pity anyone and so the virtuous person should not either.

I agree with these readers that compassion, by which I mean a disposition to pity someone for the bad condition they are in, is not a virtue for Plato, but in this paper I provide an alternative account of why—for the Greek gods, including the gods in Plato, do pity human beings, and if the compassionate person has the correct evaluative perspective, then there will be no conflict between her compassion and her justice, as some readers suppose.  I argue that Plato allows pity and compassion a place in the psychic life of the virtuous person, but that Plato does not recognize compassion as itself a virtue because without wisdom, compassion runs the risk of taking on the (likely erroneous) evaluative perspective of the subject suffering some evil, and because, given the correct evaluative perspective, compassion is redundant:  the virtuous person has no retributive attitudes that compassion might check, for she realizes that all wrongdoing and being bad are involuntary and so are appropriate objects of pity.