Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.04.14

David Konstan, Pity Transformed.   London:  Duckworth, 2001.  Pp. 181.  ISBN 0-7156-2904-2.  $9.99.  

Reviewed by Elizabeth Belfiore, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (
Word count: 1745 words

The aim of Pity Transformed is not to cover its topic exhaustively, or in strict chronological sequence, but to "offer a series of soundings, in which instances of pity and compassion are examined in various contexts, always with a view, consistent with the intention of the Classical InterFaces series, to seeing how a comparison of modern and ancient attitudes may be illuminating for the understanding of both" (p. 24). It covers the period from archaic Greece to the fourth century CE, examining many different kinds of texts: "courtroom orations, drama, histories, funerary inscriptions, philosophical and theological treatises" (25).

The Introduction, "Pity as an Emotion," examines the difficulties involved in studying ancient concepts of pity, and surveys some modern approaches to pity and to the emotions in general. Konstan draws on a wide range of sources: psychology, biology, anthropology, philosophy, and literature in comparing different attitudes toward this emotion. Chapter 1, "Pity and the Law," compares ancient with modern views about pity in legal contexts. It studies specific United States laws and rules of evidence, as well as Greek and Roman oratory and ancient judicial proceedings. Chapter 2, "Pity versus Compassion," begins with Aristotle's view (Rhetoric 2.8) that in order to experience pity for another one must oneself be subject to suffering of the same kind (the "principle of vulnerability"), and one must also be at a certain remove from the sufferer (49-51). Konstan explores ways in which this idea is expressed in tragedy and epic, and discusses such related concepts as self-pity and empathy. Chapter 3, "Pity and Power," emphasizes historical texts, studying the ways in which victors treat the conquered. Chapter 4, "Divine Pity," examines "some stages in the evolution of divine pity," before and after the Christian period. The Greek and Roman gods, being themselves invulnerable, were not expected to feel pity for humans (105). A change occurs, however, in the second century C.E., when texts show a "new disposition to invoke or expect divine pity." This change has several possible causes, including the rise of Christianity (118-19). The Appendix, "Aristotle on Pity and Pain," contains a detailed discussion of Aristotle's views on pity in the Rhetoric and Poetics.

This book is a welcome addition to the growing number of recent studies of emotion in the ancient world.1 Konstan arrives at many fine insights into both ancient and modern concepts of pity, only a few of which can be mentioned here.

Throughout the book, Konstan bases his analysis on Aristotle's account of pity in the Rhetoric: "Let pity, then, be a kind of pain in the case of an apparent destructive or painful harm of one not deserving to encounter it, which one might expect oneself, or one of one's own, to suffer, and this when it seems near" (1385b13-15: Konstan's translation, 49). According to Aristotle, "people pity their acquaintances, provided that they are not exceedingly close in kinship; for concerning these they are disposed as they are concerning themselves....For what is terrible is different from what is pitiable, and is expulsive of pity" (1386a18-23: Konstan's translation, 50). This account, Konstan argues convincingly, reflects attitudes current throughout the period he studies. In taking Aristotle's account to be fundamental, Konstan follows N. R. E. Fisher, who also based his study of hybris on Aristotle's definition.2 Konstan draws important conclusions from his analysis. He stresses the evaluative dimension of pity in Aristotle's definition: to pity one must judge that a person does not deserve to suffer (129). Konstan argues that ancient concern with the emotions in relation to rhetoric and persuasion may have led the Greeks and Romans to focus on the evaluative or cognitive aspects of the emotions (18). Emphasis on the cognitive aspects of pity allows Konstan to compare ancient and modern beliefs, without resorting to vague and unverifiable statements about what people feel. He notes that modern cognitive approaches to the emotions, according to which emotions involve beliefs, have interesting parallels with ancient accounts, in which evaluation is crucial (8-9). Konstan also contends that many differences between ancient and modern attitudes toward pity can be explained by the fact that pity in the ancient world involved a judgment that someone was innocent, while in the modern world pity is felt for the spectacle of misfortune as such (34). For example, this difference helps to explain why appeals to pity are prohibited in modern courts but were admissible and expected in ancient courts (30). In modern courts, appeals to pity would be assumed to distort judgment, leading a jury to pardon the guilty (28). Ancient appeals to pity, however, presuppose that the accused is innocent (43). Another insight is that no concept of human rights existed in antiquity, no idea that certain kinds of treatment, such as enslavement and mass slaughter, are in their nature wrong (91). Treatment often depended on the perceived desert of the conquered. Nevertheless, Konstan finds some evidence of a less evaluative concept of pity in Polybius and Diodorus, according to whom pity is responsive to misfortune as such (88-90). Konstan also holds that the ancient idea that pity involves a certain psychological distance helps to explain why the Greeks did not acknowledge self-pity, as we do today, and why they pitied the dead only after a lapse of time (63-65).

Konstan also makes good use of modern scientific studies. For example, he draws on evidence from modern neurology that pity consists of two responses, processed separately in the brain: an initial aversion followed by assessments in higher cognitive centers. Konstan argues that this dual nature of pity may help to explain why the Greeks thought of pity as a painful emotion (10-11). In addition to containing many original insights and making good use of primary and secondary sources, the book has a very useful, full bibliography, is clearly written and is accessible to non-specialists as well as to classicists. Production is excellent: I found only two typographical errors (89: "the they," and 128: "onself").

In some respects, however, Pity Transformed is open to criticism. Konstan's organization by topic rather than chronology risks downplaying historical and cultural factors. For example, in arguing that the ancient world did not have a concept for human rights Konstan does not consider possible historical reasons for this fact. Yet such aspects of ancient society as slavery, rigid class distinctions, the father's power in the household, ethnocentrism, and constant warfare must have mitigated against the development of any idea that humans have rights as humans. Moreover, in emphasizing the cognitive dimensions of pity, Konstan neglects the physical aspects of this emotion, which manifested itself in weeping (Ar. HA 608b8-9).3 Greater attention to the physical aspects of pity might have helped Konstan to explain what he calls the dual nature of this emotion (10-11). It would also have been helpful for Konstan to state more clearly what he counts as evidence about pity. In most cases, he appears to refer to texts that contain Greek or Latin words corresponding to the English "pity." But there is also a brief discussion of the Greek term nêleês (125-6), and of contexts in which people seek to arouse pity, supplication, for example, without necessarily using the word.

I also have some disagreements with specific conclusions, especially those concerning Aristotle's account of pity and fear. Konstan holds that pity is not a practical emotion, directed toward a specific goal, as anger is directed toward revenge. He argues that Aristotle does not include desire in the definition of pity because "the desire to help a person for whom we feel pity is rational and thus not specific to a discussion of pity as a passion" (135-6). Konstan, however, does not explain the difference between a "rational desire" and one caused by emotion. Moreover, his view that a specific desire is not associated with pity is open to question. Aristotle does not explicitly mention a desire in his definition of fear, but his statement that fear makes people deliberate and that they do not deliberate when there is no hope of safety (Rhetoric 1383a5-8) implies that those who fear have the desire to seek safety. Indeed, phobos means "panic flight" in Homer. Similarly, appeals to pity in the courtroom are based on the assumption that those who feel this emotion will desire to help those they pity. Emotions, as Konstan notes, influence judgment (136). That Konstan is aware of arguments against his view of pity is shown by the fact that he cites (1, 151n8, 152n9) a work in which Walter Burkert argues that eleein in Homer is primarily to do an action rather than to feel a certain way.4 It would have been helpful if Konstan had confronted this argument directly. I also disagree with Konstan's account of the relationship between pity and fear. According to Aristotle's definition, we pity people when we fear that we might suffer the things they suffer (133-134). Konstan argues that the function of fear in this definition "is just to account for the element of pain, by virtue of which pity counts as an emotion," for "it is the expectation of harm to oneself--just the part of the definition that imports the element of fear--that explains why the emotion of pity is a kind of pain" (134). This misses the point of Aristotle's inclusion of fear in the definition of pity. The idea is not that it is fear that makes our response to undeserved misfortune an emotion, instead of the consequence of our virtuous character (135), but that the emotion of pity would not arise if we did not also experience the emotion of fear. We pity others when we remember that similar things have happened to us, or expect them to happen (Rhetoric 1386a1-3). Pity is causally dependent on fear, but the pain that is a part of pity is not the same as the painful element in fear.5

In spite of these reservations, I found Pity Transformed to be an informative and stimulating discussion of a topic that has received too little attention in recent years. In the midst of current oratory about pity for the victims of terrorism, it is an especially timely reminder that pity is not simply a universal human response, like hunger or thirst, but is instead dependent on many cultural as well as biological factors. It is a subject that must be studied and analyzed if we are to understand our nature as biological, psychological and cultural animals, and to react appropriately to the misfortunes of others.


1.   For example, D. Cairns, Aidos, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993; D. Konstan, Friendship in the Classical World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997; W. V. Harris, Restraining Rage. The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
2.   N. R. E. Fisher, HYBRIS, Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips, 1992.
3.   H. Flashar, "Die medizinischen Grundlagen der Lehre von der Wirkung der Dichtung in der griechischen Poetik," Hermes 84 (1956): 12-48, discusses the physical manifestations of pity.
4.   W. Burkert, "Zum altgriechischen Mitleidsbegriff," Erlangen: Inaugural-Dissertation, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität, 1955, 69-72, citing Il. 5.561, 610; 17.346, 352.
5.   On this point, and on the practical aspects of pity, see my discussion of fear and pity in Tragic Pleasures. Aristotle on Plato and Emotion, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, 181-89 and 248-249.

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