Aristotle’s discussion of various emotions is perhaps the most fascinating part of his Rhetoric. In the case of pity, I’m struck by the difference between his concept of pity and our modern concept thereof. In particular, notice that Aristotle holds that the object of pity must be morally good — and thus not deserving of his fate. (I’ve added paragraph breaks for readability.)
Let us now consider pity, asking ourselves what things excite pity, and for what persons, and in what states of our mind pity is felt. Pity may be defined as a feeling of pain caused by the sight of some evil, destructive or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it, and which we might expect to befall ourselves or some friend of ours, and moreover to befall us soon.
In order to feel pity, we must obviously be capable of supposing that some evil may happen to us or some friend of ours, and moreover some such evil as is stated in our definition or is more or less of that kind. It is therefore not felt by those completely ruined, who suppose that no further evil can befall them, since the worst has befallen them already; nor by those who imagine themselves immensely fortunate–their feeling is rather presumptuous insolence, for when they think they possess all the good things of life, it is clear that the impossibility of evil befalling them will be included, this being one of the good things in question. Those who think evil may befall them are such as have already had it befall them and have safely escaped from it; elderly men, owing to their good sense and their experience; weak men, especially men inclined to cowardice; and also educated people, since these can take long views. Also those who have parents living, or children, or wives; for these are our own, and the evils mentioned above may easily befall them. And those who neither moved by any courageous emotion such as anger or confidence (these emotions take no account of the future), nor by a disposition to presumptuous insolence (insolent men, too, take no account of the possibility that something evil will happen to them), nor yet by great fear (panic-stricken people do not feel pity, because they are taken up with what is happening to themselves); only those feel pity who are between these two extremes.
In order to feel pity we must also believe in the goodness of at least some people; if you think nobody good, you will believe that everybody deserves evil fortune. And, generally, we feel pity whenever we are in the condition of remembering that similar misfortunes have happened to us or ours, or expecting them to happen in the future.
In contrast to Aristotle’s definition, Dictionary.com simply defines pity as “sympathy and sorrow aroused by the misfortune or suffering of another.” No innocence or goodness required for the object of pity. That’s why it’s perfectly sensible in contemporary usage to pity the person who suffers through his own faults, e.g. the alcoholic bum living in a cardboard box or the dishonest woman estranged from all her friends.
I’m intrigued by these kinds of conceptual differences in moral terms from the Greeks and Romans to today, largely because those differences often indicate just how thoroughly our culture has been saturated by altruism. A justice-oriented culture cares whether a person suffers by his own hand. It scorns such voluntary suffering, reserving pity for the innocent. In contrast, an altruistic culture cares for nothing but the suffering, ignoring the cause or justice thereof.