In our last CCEC, we said that a tenet of classical Christianity is that God’s perfect self-giving love perfects our human nature. His love restores our nature to its original design and enables us, through grace, to love God and our neighbor. We observed that practicing the virtue of compassion requires us to begin with prayer (even for our enemies) and with accepting God’s own gift of love. What might be some next steps for developing the virtue of compassion?
St. Thomas Aquinas, following St. Augustine, thought about compassion as a virtue having two parts: an affective part (heartfelt sympathy) and an effective part (an act of the will to relieve another’s suffering). So how can we develop both of these?
We feel sympathy most easily within the intimate relationships of family and friends. We suffer when those close to us suffer. But Christ’s parable of The Good Samaritan makes it quite clear that compassion should not be limited to those close to us. Feeling pain at the distress of those we do not know requires a strong moral imagination. It involves a sense of vulnerability that we might experience such suffering ourselves, and it involves the capacity to find something in common with, or to identify with, the other person even if only as a fellow human being. In short, it requires us to put ourselves “in the other person’s shoes.”
The Trinitas seventh and eighth graders read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel was so widely influential that when president Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he reportedly said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” The impact of this novel on the moral imagination is not lost on our students as they see how Stowe masterfully guides her readers to have sympathy for and recognize their shared common humanity with the slaves—they too are fathers and mothers who make sacrifices for their children, they too are members of a community, they too are fellow human beings. Reading, watching, and listening with charity to perspectives that are not one’s own can help develop feelings of empathy. Seeking out such opportunities in person, over Zoom, in movies, books, music, news sources, and Scripture can help us develop compassionate affection for our neighbors as ourselves.
According to Aquinas, failure to be moved by another’s distress demonstrates a defect of moral character. Too little affective compassion is dehumanizing. But, too much emotion, or emotion without the guidance of reason, is also problematic since it can overwhelm or impair effective action.
Sympathy without taking action to relieve another’s suffering is mere pity. But impulsive action to help is not the full virtue of compassion either. Compassion requires heartfelt sympathy and action to relieve another’s suffering that is the result of thinking deeply and clearly about good ways to help people. The more effective and loving ways to relieve another’s suffering may not be what we immediately think they are. How can we think rightly about ways to relieve suffering? That’s a big question. Wherever possible, this should involve dialogue with the person in distress so that one can act truly for that person’s good. Our assumptions about someone may lead us to cause more harm than good. And, as with the affective part, cultivating the effective part of compassion also involves reading, watching, and listening with charity to perspectives that are not one’s own. It requires us to use clear reasoning, good evidence, and best practices.
Classical Education for Compassion
Classical Christian education is well-suited to educate students for the virtue of compassion. Even without an explicit Virtue of the Quarter focus, a curriculum rich in Scripture, history, and classic literature forms well students’ hearts and moral imaginations to identify with and feel sympathy for others. Rigorous programs in writing, history, critical thinking, and logic help to hone their thinking skills and foster a desire for the best arguments and strongest evidence. Worldview education helps them to better understand where others are “coming from” as well as where those ideas lead. A Christian worldview helps them to put God and others first. As one of our teachers says about classical Christian education, “It teaches students that there is a God. And you are not He.” Our hope is that this combination of heart and head formation helps motivate all to effective acts of mercy in their personal lives and in the broader community.