Sympathy for the Devil: The Rhetoric of Compassion
German 390a, Philosophy 301a, CHID 498c, Comp Lit 357a, Classics 496a
Is compassion the foundation of human morality or a dangerously unreliable emotion? This course examines the strategies and motivations in different media (plays, novels, films) of fostering empathy for commonly held enemies or discriminated groups. The syllabus runs from Ancient Greece to depictions of Nazis and terrorists in modern film, and considers philosophical assessments of sympathy (positive and negative) alongside examples of its aesthetic manufacture. Half of our readings are in moral philosophy (Aristotle, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hume, Adam Smith, Kant, Nietzsche, Arendt), and in each case we use the literary text or film (e.g., Sophocles, Shakespeare, Lessing, George Eliot, Brecht) as a kind of experimental field to test the concepts laid out by the philosophical texts, and to evaluate the philosophers’ claims about the moral efficacy of compassion. We will also look into the ethical implications of using dramatic compassion to further laudable social agendas of toleration. This line of questioning reveals the discomforting unity of pity as a device in portrayals, for instance, of both Nazis and their victims: Is it possible for art works to persuade bigots to accept minorities and outcasts? Is it right for a film to invite sympathy for a monster like Hitler or a public menace like suicide bombers? It is vital to understand the action of sympathy before we assign it such momentous tasks as guiding our moral vision and encouraging a more tolerant society.