On Compassion: Sustaining the E Pluribus Unum

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Date

2012

Authors

Brown, Winter

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Euben, J. Peter

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Abstract

Contemporary political events reveal a serious partisanship divide in which serious, non-bombastic political conversation appears limited. The theatrical effect is to make Americans appear as enemies of each other. And, while compassion might be bandied about as an ideological tool, it seemingly has little to offer the body politic. Yet I believe that not only is compassion possible but it is necessary at a critical time like now. After reviewing compassion's definitions and the broad literature around it in Chapter One, I take seriously Hannah Arendt's concerns - that compassion is not only apolitical but anti-political in its encouragement of violence or apathy, its sentimentality, and its eradication of political capacities like thinking. To address Arendt I turn to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and retrieve a neglected form of pity, one not only sociable but tied to action in the polity at large. I then consider how Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of perception opens compassion's inter-corporeal dimensions, creating distance and depth between people while aligning their gestures and mannerisms. The ability of compassion to enter politics and create or strengthen solidarity via Robert F. Kennedy's politics is discussed in the conclusion. Compassion is a discursive and varied phenomenon that appears according to context while also remaining a psycho-physical and emotional capacity to see, acknowledge, and respond to another person. It also acts as a necessary but not sufficient condition for politics, enriching and enlivening other "political" virtues like justice, equality, and freedom by focusing political sight on "the pulse of hearts beating with red blood" (DuBois, Souls of Black Folks).

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Citation

Brown, Winter (2012). On Compassion: Sustaining the E Pluribus Unum. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/6149.

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