A New and Complete Translation

Essay 76

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 22 January 1768[76.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 But that is fundamentally wrong![76.2] – I cannot fathom how Dacier, who was otherwise rather attentive to the contortions with which Corneille sought to make Aristotle’s text serve his own ends, could overlook this biggest one of all.[76.3] Yet, how could he not overlook it, since it never occurred to him to consult the philosopher’s explanation of compassion? – As I said, what Corneille persuades himself of is fundamentally wrong. Aristotle cannot have meant that, or we would have to believe that he could forget his own explanation, we would have to believe that he could contradict himself in the most flagrant manner. If, according to his theory, no other person’s misfortune can arouse our compassion if we do not fear that misfortune for ourselves, then he could not be satisfied with any tragic plot that only aroused compassion and not fear, for he considered the thing itself to be impossible. Such actions did not exist for him; on the contrary, he believed that as soon as they were capable of awakening our compassion, they must also awaken our fear for ourselves – or rather, it is only by means of this fear that they awaken compassion. Still less could he imagine the action of a tragedy that could arouse our fear for ourselves without simultaneously awakening our compassion, for he was convinced that everything that arouses fear for ourselves must also awaken our compassion, as soon as we see others threatened or harmed by it. This is precisely the case with tragedy, in which we see all the misfortune that we fear happening to others and not to ourselves.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It is true, that when Aristotle speaks of actions that are unsuitable for tragedy, he often employs the expression that they awaken neither compassion nor fear. But so much the worse for Corneille if he allows himself to be misled by this neither/nor. These disjunctive particles do not always involve what he has them involve. For if we use them to deny two or more things to an object, then the ability of the object to continue to exist if it is missing one or the other of these things depends on whether these things can be separated from each other as easily in nature as we separate them in the abstract, through symbolic expression. For example, if we say of a woman that she is neither beautiful nor witty, to be sure we mean that we would be satisfied if she were just one or the other, for wit and beauty are not just separable in thought, but really are separate. But when we say that a person believes in neither heaven nor hell, do we then mean to say that we would be satisfied if he only believed in one of the two, if he believed in heaven but not hell, or hell but not heaven? Surely not, for the person who believes in the one must necessarily believe in the other; heaven and hell, punishment and reward, are relative – if you have the one, you also have the other. Or, to take my example from a related art: when we say “this painting is no good because it has neither line nor color,” do we mean to say that a good painting could make do with just one of the two? – This is so clear!

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But what if the explanation Aristotle gives of compassion were wrong? What if we could feel compassion for misfortunes and accidents that we do not need be afraid of for ourselves in any way?

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It is true: our fear is not necessary to feel displeasure over the physical misfortune of the object of our love. This displeasure emerges merely from our perception of the object’s imperfection, just as our love comes from our perception of its perfection, and out of the confluence of this pleasure and displeasure springs the mixed sensation we call compassion.[76.4]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Even so I do not believe I must necessarily abandon Aristotle’s point.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 For even if we can feel compassion for others without fear for ourselves, it is still indisputable that when fear is added to it, our compassion is much stronger and more vivid than it is without it. And what prevents us from believing that it is only through adding in fear for ourselves that our mixed sensation at the physical misfortune of a beloved object matures to the degree to which it deserves to be called an affect?[76.5]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This is precisely what Aristotle believed. He does not regard compassion in terms of its primitive stirrings, but rather simply as affect. Without misappreciating the former, he merely denies to the spark the name of flame. Those compassionate stirrings that lack fear for ourselves he terms “philanthropy,” and he only gives the name compassion to the stronger feelings of this type that are combined with fear for ourselves. Thus he does indeed claim that the misfortune of a villain cannot arouse either our compassion or our fear; but he does not necessarily deny him all ability to stir us. Even the villain is still a person, still a being who retains enough perfections amidst all his moral imperfections to make us prefer not to see his ruin and destruction and to feel, in the face of these, something akin to compassion, the elements of compassion, so to speak. But, as noted above, he does not call this compassion-like feeling compassion, but rather philanthropy. He says, “We must never allow any villain to pass from adversity to prosperity, for this is the most untragic of all. It has none of all the things it ought to have; it awakens neither philanthropy, nor compassion, nor fear. Moreover it must not be a complete and total villain who falls from prosperity into adversity, because such an occurrence may awaken philanthropy, but neither compassion nor fear.”[76.6] I know of nothing more feeble and absurd than the usual translation of this word philanthropy. Namely, they translate its adjective into Latin with “hominibus gratum”; into French with “ce que peut faire quelque plaisir”; and into German with “what can give pleasure” [was Vergnügen machen kann].[76.7] Only Goulston, as far as I can see, seems not to have misunderstood the philosopher’s sense, insofar as he translates φιλανθρωπον with “quod humanitatis sensu tangat.[76.8] For certainly this philanthropy, which even the misfortune of a villain can awaken, is not to be understood as our joy at his deserved punishment, but rather the feeling of human sympathy that wells up in us for him at the moment of his suffering, despite our understanding that his suffering is fully deserved. Herr Curtius limits these compassionate stirrings for a misfortunate villain to a certain type of misfortune that befalls him. “Those accidents happening to a vice-ridden person that excite in us neither terror nor compassion must be the consequences of his vice,” he says, “for if they happen to him by accident, or blamelessly, he retains in the spectator’s heart the privileges of humanity, whereby we extend our compassion even to a villain who suffers innocently.”[76.9] But he seems not to have considered this enough. For even when the misfortune that befalls a villain is a direct consequence of his crime, we cannot help but suffer with him at the sight of his misfortune.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 “Look at the crowd that swarms in thick heaps around a condemned man,” says the author of the “Letters on Sentiments.”[76.10] “They have understood all of the atrocities the vicious man has committed, they have abhorred his conduct and perhaps even the man himself. Now he is dragged, maimed and unconscious, onto the dreadful gallows. People work their way through the throng, stand on tiptoe, climb on roofs in order to see the lines of death disfigure his face. His sentence is pronounced, the hangman approaches, one moment will decide his fate. With what longing do all hearts now wish that he would be pardoned! Him? The object of their hatred, whom they themselves would have condemned to death just a moment before? By what means has a ray of human love now stirred in them? Is it not the approach of the punishment, the sight of the most dreadful physical misfortune that somehow reconciles us even with a heinous criminal and earns him our love? Without love we could not possibly have compassion for his fate.”

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 And it is this love, I say, that we can never completely lose toward others; it smolders unceasingly, hiding itself under the ashes of other, stronger feelings, awaiting only a favorable gust of misfortune and pain and ruin to fan it into a flame of compassion. It is this love that Aristotle means by the term philanthropy. We are correct when we call it compassion. But Aristotle was also not wrong in giving it its own name, in order to differentiate it, as I’ve said, from the highest degree of compassionate feelings, which become an affect through the addition of a believable fear for ourselves.

  • 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0
  • [76.1] Actually published spring of 1768.
  • [76.2] In [74], Lessing begins his analysis of Aristotle’s statement in Poetics that tragedy should evoke eleos (compassion) and phobos (terror/fear); at the end of [75], he quotes Pierre Corneille’s view that Aristotle’s intention was not to assert that both fear and compassion needed to be present simultaneously for the cleansing of tragic emotion.
  • [76.3] In his commentary accompanying his 1692 translation of Poetics, André Dacier sharply criticizes P. Corneille’s interpretation of Aristotle.
  • [76.4] Tr. note: we translate Lessing’s term “vermischte Empfindung” as “mixed sensation;” see Guyer, “Eighteenth Century German Aesthetics” (Section 4: “Mendelssohn, Winckelmann, and Lessing: Mixed Emotions”).
  • [76.5] Tr. note: the term Lessing uses here, “Affekt,” is unusual, and appears to be a terminologically conscious choice, drawing on not just Aristotle but also Spinoza. See Goetschel, Spinoza’s Modernity: Mendelssohn, Lessing, and Heine (esp. Ch. 12). Hence, we retain the English cognate “affect” (and resist the temptation to narrow its definition through a term like “emotion.”)
  • [76.6] See Aristotle’s Poetics (Part XIII).
  • [76.7] hominibus gratum: that which is pleasing to people. ce que peut faire quelque plaisir: that which can give some pleasure (from Dacier’s translation).
  • [76.8] Theodore Goulston (c.1575–1632): English physician who published a Latin translation of Poetics in 1623, entitled Aristotelis de Poetica liber. Φιλανθρωπον: philanthropon. The Latin phrase quod humanitatis sensu tangat translates as “that which moves [a person] through a sense of humanity”; see Aristotelis de Poetica liber 166.
  • [76.9] From Curtius’s commentary on his 1753 translation of Aristotle’s Poetics; see Curtius, Aristotoles Dichtkunst 191.
  • [76.10] Mendelssohn, Philosophical Writings 74; Philosophische Schriften 1: 146.
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