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"At such a time a man may not be spoken to, for according to the Gorean way of thinking pity humiliates both he who pities and he who is pitied. According to the Gorean way, one may love but one may not pity." (Outlaw of Gor, p.31)
The above quote is known to many Goreans online and it is commonly repeated that Goreans should not show pity. The quote delineates the consequence that pity leads to humiliation of both parties, the pitied and pitier. Yet, the quote does not explain further the rationale for this assertion. How exactly does pity lead to humiliation? Why is it so? What is the philosophical basis for this assertion, if any? Certainly in most modern philosophies pity is praised and accepted. A lack of pity is seen as cruel, cold-hearted and merciless. Such a stance would then condemn Goreans for their lack of pity, branding them callous and uncaring. Is that a valid condemnation? How can a Gorean handle such criticisms? How does he explain the reasons behind the Gorean opposition to the emotion of pity?
I doubt that someone who has just read the Gorean books could present an adequate defense in this situation. They would be unlikely to realize the roots of the Gorean belief concerning pity. They may not have read Nietzsche, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca or Epictetus. And the Gorean series alone does not contain an adequate explanation for this belief. It is presented simply as an assertion without support, almost a matter that the readers are assumed to understand. As a philosophy professor, Norman fully understood the rationale for the Gorean stance on pity. And he may have assumed his readers would be literate enough to possess the proper perspective to understand it as well. As I have repeatedly mentioned before, this is another area where outside reading and research enhances one's understanding of the Gorean philosophy.
Though one can explore the issue of pity in numerous sources, I have found one that succinctly dissects the issue and presents the matter in an excellent form. The book, Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietzsche's "On the Genealogy of Morals"edited by Richard Schacht (University of CA Press 1994), contains a series of essays concerning one of Nietzsche's most important texts. This book of essays is a fascinating book in its own right and has a number of essays that touch on Gorean issues. One of those essays is "Pity and Mercy: Nietzsche's Stoicism" by Martha C. Nussbaum and deals directly with the topic of pity. It presents both a historical examination of pity and touches on the modern day as well, using the German philosopher Nietzsche as its focal point. I shall present a synopsis of the ideas within that essay, correlating it to the Gorean philosophy.
As mentioned in previous essays, Gorean philosophy does reflect some of the beliefs of Nietzsche. Even Norman's book, Imaginative Sex, contains specific references to Nietzsche. Norman obviously supports some of Nietzsche's ideas. One of the correlations between Gorean philosophy and Nietzsche is their stance on pity. Nietzsche quite clearly objects to pity, offering numerous reasons for this objection. Nietzsche's stance on pity pervades a number of his books, from his earliest works to his later output as well. Yet Nietzsche is not alone in his stance. For example, philosophers including Plato, Descartes, Spinoza and Kant have also attacked pity. (As an aside, we once again see a connection between Gor and Plato's The Republic in which Plato describes his opposition to pity.) Yet other philosophers have emphasized the importance of pity. For example, Rousseau went as so far as to make pity one of the foundations of the egalitarian government he wished to promote. He claimed that pity was the most important emotion as it solidified the idea of community by promoting the concept that all people are the same.
So, let us examine the emotion of pity in more detail, to try to understand its basic components. It is usually a good idea to define one's terms when dealing with complex matters. "Pity is a painful emotion directed at another person's pain or suffering. It requires, and rests upon, three beliefs: first, the belief that the suffering is significant rather than trivial; second, the belief that the suffering was not caused by the person's own fault; and third, the belief that one's own possibilities are similar to those of the sufferer, that the suffering shows things 'such as might happen' in human life." (Nussbaum p.141) This indicates that pity consists of three important components which we shall now address a bit further.
First, a person must have suffered some real tragedy, and not just a minor inconvenience or problem. One does not pity someone with a hangnail or because they failed to get a raise. Pity is reserved for those occasions where someone is particularly devastated by a major event: a death, serious injury or illness, financial ruin, great loss or such. The suffering must be significant before it warrants pity.
Second, a person must not be responsible for their own tragedy. If they are responsible, then the more proper emotion becomes blame. Pity is reserved for matters where fate or fortune intervenes and over which we have little, if any control. A man who goes to jail for a crime he commits is not to be pitied as he caused his own tragedy. A person who is mentally ill who commits a crime, but who is not found to be responsible for his own actions, is to be pitied. If someone is to blame for their misfortunes, then they are considered to be deserving of what they receive.
Third, and maybe most importantly, is that the pitier must feel that the fate of the pitied could one day be his own. The pitier feels a connection to the pitied, that they are equals on a certain level. And but for the fickle hand of fate or fortune, their roles could be reversed. One cannot have pity if one does not feel such a connection. For example, an extremely wealthy person may have no pity for a homeless person because he does not feel that he could ever end up as such. He does not feel that becoming homeless is a possibility for himself. Thus, he does not see any equality between him and the homeless person as they do not share a commonality. This important component of pity extends back to the writings of Aristotle.
Prior to the Classical Age of Greece, pity was an accepted and valued emotion. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey both give examples of where pity is given and seen as beneficial. It is not until the time of Socrates that pity begins to be seen as something less than desirable. And Socrates thus established an anti-pity tradition that would reverberate down throughout history. The beliefs of Socrates in this regard would be further accepted and modified by the Stoics and then that Stoicism would later influence Nietzsche. Nietzsche would also further modify the concept. There is thus a clear line from Socrates to Nietzsche, and this line can be considered to extend to Gorean philosophy as well.
Socrates believed that a good person could not be harmed. A person could only be harmed by wrongful actions, actions that they intend to do. These actions had to be matters fully within your control. And if this was so, then blame, not pity, was the proper emotion to show to someone who commits a wrong act that leads to tragedy. Matters that were not under your control, matters guided by fate or fortune, were considered relatively insignificant. They could not truly harm a good person, as they were not within your realm of control. If a loved one died, it could not harm you because it was something outside your control and thus not something that could affect your goodness. So, pity was unnecessary in such a tragedy. A person who committed wrong acts was also considered to be acting out of ignorance as Socrates felt that no good man would intentionally act badly.
The Stoics carried this Socratic idea even further, stating that all of these exterior matters, death, illness, poverty, slavery, imprisonment, etc., were completely unimportant. "One's virtuous willing and reasoning is the only thing of intrinsic worth; and the activities of will and reason in a person simply are what it is to live well." (Nussbaum p.146) Thus, a virtuous person cares not for these external goods. They care only for that which is under their control, which no one else can effect. And the only thing completely within their control is their mind. The Stoics criticized all emotions, not just pity, because an emotion was seen as giving value to external goods when the virtuous person should not care about such matters. The Stoics were most concerned with self-mastery, the ability of a person to care only for their virtue and to be able to resist the temptations of external goods.
It should be mentioned that the Stoics did differentiate between preferred external goods and those which were not preferred. For example, health was considered a preferred external good while illness would not be preferred. Thus, the Stoics did attach at least a modicum of importance to external goods though their primary objective was achieving virtue by rejecting all external goods.
"To Gorean morality many Earth moralities might ask 'Why so hard?' To these Earth moralities, the Gorean ethos might ask, 'Why so soft?' (Marauders of Gor, p.8) These sentiments are echoed in the works of Nietzsche as well. Yet, the main idea extends back to the Stoics. Some might feel that such a hardness, like the Gorean opposition to pity, entails a brutality and callousness. That is very far from the actuality. To the Stoics, softness entailed that a person cared about external goods while hardness indicated someone who was immune to the allure of such external goods. Hardness indicated a man of self-mastery and virtue. It certainly had nothing to do with cruelty and callousness. Though a lack of pity would signify hardness, it was never intended to be a negative matter.
To the Stoics, pity was a negative emotion. First, it insulted the pitied because it indicated that external goods mattered to that person. It indicated that the pitied was not a person of self-mastery and virtue. The pitied was still wrapped up in the insignificant, those matters that fate or fortune played the primary role. Second, it also reflected back on the pitier. As we previously mentioned, pity indicates that the pitier feels that the state of the pitied could one day be his own. This empathy places the pitier and pitied on an equal basis. By the Stoic view, this would mean that the pitier would also be a person who valued external goods if they empathized as such.
Nietzsche would later embrace much of the Stoic philosophy. Nietzsche was originally schooled as a philologist, a scholar of Classical Greece and Rome. He studied much about Stoicism and found much to admire within their philosophy. He thus adopted many Stoical beliefs into his own philosophy and that is quite evident in his books. And one of those adopted beliefs had to do with pity, and the concepts of softness and hardness. Nietzsche did expand and modify some of their beliefs in this area, though the basics remained the same. If we examine Nietzsche's work as a whole, we can discern six main criticisms he had of pity. Not all of these criticisms were possessed by the Stoics and not all of them are strong arguments.
First, pity is an acknowledgement of weakness in the pitied. You are acknowledging that the person is unable to handle the tragedy, that the person lacks the fortitude to bear the suffering. Instead, one should show respect to such a person if they are strong enough to handle the matter. Second, pity is an acknowledgement of weakness in the pitier as well. The pitier places himself in the same situation as the pitied, acknowledging that he too could be weak in such a situation. Third, pity is not really altruistic but is actually egoistic. The pitier's motivation is not concern for the pitied but based upon their own fear that they might end up in the same state as the pitied. (This is not a very persuasive argument.) Fourth, pity only increases the amount of suffering. This is so because pity makes suffering tolerable. Thus, people are more likely to accept their suffering and do nothing to alleviate it. So, more people remain miserable because they have no motivation to overcome that condition. (Again, this is not a very persuasive argument.) Fifth, people are pitied for things which are actually good for them. This extends back to the Stoics and their belief that external goods are unimportant. Nietzsche though takes this one step further and says external goods are actually bad for people. He goes to an extreme, wanting people to aim more to be the ascetic, renouncing such worldly matters. Thus, a lack of external goods is something beneficial rather than a tragedy.
Nietzsche's sixth point is an important one, though it may initially seem contradictory to what we may think about pity. Nietzsche feels that pity can often lead to revenge and cruelty. As first proposed by the Stoics, pity is often connected to an urge to retaliate. If we care about external goods, then we accept that other people can harm them. This can then lead to resentment and a desire for revenge against those who harm our external goods. Punishment is considered a form of revenge, seeking compensation from someone who harms another's external goods. But without pity, then there can be more mercy. Rather than punishing an offender, we can show mercy by trying to heal them. We thus act more as a doctor, curing their affliction, rather than as a magistrate doling out a penalty.
We can now see the foundation for the Gorean opposition to pity, and it seems closer to a Stoical view than the more radical Nietzschean view. Few dispute that self-mastery, what the ancient Greeks called sophrosune, is a key virtue of Gorean philosophy. Thus, pity does not enter into such an equation, as it would only serve to humiliate both parties involved, by indicating they lack self-control and virtue. It would demean both parties, pitier and pitied. The Gorean opposition to pity is certainly not a cruelty but more an admiration for the abilities of another. This ties in closely with the idea that a Gorean morality is "hard" rather than "soft." It has nothing to do with callousness and everything to do with personal virtue. It has to do with the virtues that the Gorean philosophy embraces, cruelty not being an element.
So, what we have seen is that a simple Gorean quotation on pity has been an indicator
of a vaster concept of Gorean philosophy, the importance of self-mastery. Yet, we might
not have made that connection unless we had a better understanding of the nature of pity
and its historical framework within philosophy. This indicator also helps direct our
studies into other areas, such as Stoicism and Nietzsche, which helped form the structure
of Gorean philosophy. And these other areas will bear fruit in other aspects of Gorean
philosophy as well. And anything that can assist our comprehension of Gorean philosophy is
worthy of our attention
From the Gorean Voice, November 2002