Sympathia ( A Modern Socratic Dialogue )



CRITO:  You have arrived at a very opportune moment Socrates.
I was afraid you would be late.

SOCRATES: Has the festival started early?

C: No, there is plenty of time before it starts. I was worried you would miss an argument between Anytos and Phaidros regarding something closer to your heart, virtue. They were just about to end it, in order to avoid further antagonism, when I saw you were coming.

S: I hope I have arrived before the ending of the discussion, for I will learn from any discussion related to virtue, and after the ending of any anger that might have arisen.

C: I am sure they will be able to manage their differences and maintain a clear mind so that you can enter the discussion. It is a subject I want very much to hear your thoughts on, Socrates. Therefore, I ask them as a friend to explain the matter to you and I will listen and learn.

S: If it pleases them, I would willingly enter the discussion; not as a teacher, though, but as a student, one who has much to learn.

PHAIDROS: It is a simple matter. The discussion has been unnecessarily prolonged because of pride, on the part of Anytos

ANYTOS: Pride, perhaps, but it is not only on my part.

C: It seems I must lay the foundation for the renewal of the discussion. Phaidros has accused Anytos of practicing virtue to such an extreme that it has become an evil.

A: As if such a thing were possible; being virtuous has no limits.

P: My statements have been carried further than I intended. I have no hesitations about defending what I know to be true. I do not intend, though, to get entangled in abstract arguments involving the nature of virtue. To argue on such matters requires a special type of knowledge; one I do not really need for it would keep my head in the clouds much of the time. I am a practical man; I know the simple truths of life. Our argument involved a specific instance in which Anytos’ compassionate nature caused me a misfortune.

S: The nature of a virtue is a difficult topic. I have found, though, that there is no need to go too far from practical manners and simple ideas in order to find great difficulties. Since you do not have this problem, surely you will not deny me the chance to learn from you. If the matter is as clear and simple as you say, will not the knowledge you give me be also clear and simple?

P: I will make it as clear for you as I can.

A: Go on, tell Socrates the source of our disagreement.

P: A mutual friend of Anytos and mine owned me a monetary debt. Because he was suffering continuous misfortune, both personal and business, I was always anxious to have him repay it. Anytos, letting compassion rule him, advised me to give the man more time. The man left on a trading voyage some time ago and did not return at the designated time; nor will he ever return and neither will the payment of his debt.

S: Is compassion the virtue you claim Anytos has practiced blindly, without a consideration of practicality?

P: Compassion is only a virtue among women. It is a weakness among men. This instance clearly proves me right; it was compassion that made both of us look like fools.

S: When a physician fails to aid a sick man because he was called too late, the sick man was already dead or neat death, should the art of medicine be blamed?

P: No, it is the man’s fault or his friends for failing to summon the physician earlier.

S: When an animal trainer is called upon to train an old animal whose habits are already set, if he fails, should the art of animal training be blamed?

P: No, the animal is un-trainable.

S: If justice is served upon a criminal, but the man fails to reform his life, is justice at fault?

P: Of course not.

S: If compassion is used when dealing with an ignorant soul and it fails to achieve good results, would it be proper to blame compassion?

P: Perhaps I did make a hasty generalization. If we look at any acts of compassion, though, its consequences are always the same; it weakens the character of the man using it and leads to misfortune.

S: Before you assist someone in a search do you usually ask them what they are looking for?

P: Of course.

S: Before I look for acts of compassion with you to judge, I need to know what you define compassion to be.

P: Compassion is similar to pity. It is an act of the spirited part of the soul by which a person feels sorrow for an other’s troubles.

S: Are not brothers similar in many ways yet never the same person?

P: Of course not, they are two different people.

S: Galleys and trading ships are similar yet also very different, are they not?

P: They are different.

S: Then pity and compassion, though they are similar, could also be very different from each other.

P: Yes, but I think the difference is very small.

S: Is it harmful for a ruler to pity his people?

P: Yes. The ruler is harmed because he is letting himself be affected by his emotions instead of being guided by reason. The people are being harmed because they are seen as inferior, as unable to overcome their troubles without aid of the ruler. The citizens will look badly on the ruler for having this opinion of them and will try to take advantage of his pity for their own purposes. Chaos will result.

S: Should a general pity his troops?

P: No, for the same reasons.

S: Should pity exist among friends?

P: No.

S: Has it not been written, though, by many leaders and wise men, that a good general should have compassion for his troops, a good ruler for the citizens, and that compassion should exist between friends?

P: Yes, I have heard that said many times.

S: Then perhaps we should search more diligently for the difference between pity and compassion.

P: If you think the search will not run into the drama.

S: Did you say that pity was an act of the spirited part of the soul?

P: Yes.

S: Is that also true of foolhardiness; is it not an act of the spirited part of the soul by which the soul endangers its mortal life for unnecessary and meaningless causes?

P: Yes, that is true.

S: What happens when this spirited act becomes governed by reason?

P: I don’t understand.

S: If reason where to govern this spirited act, than there will be an understanding involved. Reason would enable the soul to understand what ideas are meaningful and necessary and worth risking one’s life for; would not foolhardiness then become courage?

P: Now I understand; yes, that would be the difference between foolhardiness and courage.

S: Is this true for any act of the spirited part? If reason is allowed to govern it than it is no longer a weakness but a virtue.

P: I agree.

S: If pity were to be governed by reason, what new nature would be created?

P: I am not sure.

S: An understanding would surely be added, for we agreed to that. In the case of pity, would this be an understanding of an other’s troubles and the feelings caused by these troubles, whether sorrow or cheering up is needed?

P: Yes, reason would add such an understanding.

S: Would this understanding be advantageous to a general for him to judge the morale of his troops, to a king for him to judge the mood of the citizens, and among friends so they may cheer one another up?

P: Yes, it certainly would be.

S: Could this understanding be the compassion spoken about and written about by so many men? Could this be the difference between the similar natures of pity and compassion?

P: It seems you have found it.

C: It is a very important difference. Such an understanding would greatly improve the social relations between men. I am glad you arrived in time to enter the discussion, Socrates.

S: Now we must go on to complete it.

A: What do you mean?

S: Now that we understand the nature of compassion, we must examine the original situation which created the need of defining it to see if it applies. Then, should we not go on to study if it is possible to practice it to an extreme?

P: Perhaps some other time, the drama is about to start.

A: I will look forward to it.

C: So will I.

S: So should we all, for we are all still students with much to learn.

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