Pity plays a central role in Rousseau’s originary anthropology. It is the fundamental “natural” relation between humans prior to the introduction, with language, of even the most elementary form of society. “A natural repugnance to see perish or suffer any sentient being and principally our fellow humans” is one of the “two principles prior to reason” that Rousseau recognizes as “the first and simplest operations of the human soul” in the Preface to his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality–the other being l’amour de soi, the principle of self-preservation. The term “pity,” which does not figure in the Preface, appears near the end of Part I, in the context of a polemic against Hobbes’ famously negative vision of man’s natural state. After accusing Hobbes of falsely attributing to humans in the state of nature the amour-propre or selfish vanity that Rousseau reserves for the members of society, he remarks that his adversary has failed to notice “another principle” that was given to man to temper both varieties of amour: “an inner repugnance to see his fellow human suffer.” Here he names pity, repeating that it precedes the “use of any reflection” and attributing it on occasion to animals as well. He relates how even Mandeville, the author of The Fable of the Bees and “the most extreme detractor of human virtues,” was obliged to recognize man’s natural sympathy for his fellows.
The key function of pity in Rousseau’s anthropology is to provide a guarantee of human reciprocity prior to “the late [tardives] lessons of wisdom,” so that “we are not obliged to make of man a philosopher before making him a man.” If our “duties toward others” can be attributed to this natural principle, then we can separate morality from the language / sociability nexus and place it on the good, “natural” side of Rousseau’s famous dichotomy (affirmed in a footnote of the Discourse): man is good, men are bad.
But we have learned all too well how to deconstruct Rousseau’s dichotomies. The positive mimetic moment of pity and the negative mimetic moment of Hobbes’ war of “every man against every man” are doubles. To put oneself in the place of one’s fellows is precisely what mimesis is all about, and since Girard’s Mensonge romantique (1961), we know that to be in the same place as the other is to be the other’s rival. When tragedy puts us in the victim-protagonist’s place, it puts us at the same time in the place of his executioners.
Rousseau is not wrong to associate violence with crossing the threshold between the natural and the cultural: mimetic conflict in animals is limited to pecking-order challenges that never reach the Hobbesian state of universal war. And we will look with more sympathy on the chimerical attempt to situate this threshold within the human itself if we recall that Rousseau had to generate the cultural from the natural without being able to conceive that one species could evolve into another. Hobbes’ state of nature inhabited by full-fledged humans lacking only a system of laws is populated in Rousseau by “savages” that double as pre-Darwinian hominids.
In order to guarantee his distinction between “man” and “men,” Rousseau maintains their individual isolation much more rigorously than Hobbes. Where, as pointed out in Chronicle 176, Hobbes uses “man” to refer to a male paterfamilias implicitly supplied with spouse(s) and children, in Rousseau’s state of nature, women and men do not form families but go their separate ways. But the very need for this isolation from mimetic contamination implies what it seeks to deny. Rousseau’s savage is happy not because he is not mimetic, but because his mimetic tendencies have few occasions to assert themselves.
And these rare occasions all seem to fall under the rubric of pity. In his disquisition on the subject near the end of Part I, Rousseau asserts that pity is the source of all our social virtues (“What are generosity, clemency, humaneness but pity applied to the weak, the guilty, or to the entire human race?”). He then examines a potential objection to his claim: pity is not a moral sentiment but a feeling of “identification”:
Even if it were true that commiseration were an obscure feeling that puts us in the place of the sufferer, a feeling obscure and strong in the savage, developed but weak in civilized man, what effect could that idea have on the truth of what I am saying except to strengthen it? Indeed, commiseration would be all the more energetic in proportion as the spectator animal identifies [s’identifie] more intimately with the suffering animal. Now it is clear that this identification must have been infinitely closer in the state of nature than in that of reason. It is reason that engenders selfishness [l’amour-propre], and it is reflection that fortifies it, that turns man back upon himself, that detaches him from all that troubles and distresses him; it is philosophy that isolates him, it is through philosophy that he says in secret at the sight of a sufferer: perish, if you like, I am safe. [My emphasis]
Amour-propre has just been defined as a social passion “that leads each individual to make more of himself than anyone else” and that was unknown in the state of nature where “it is not possible that a sentiment originating in comparisons that [the savage] has no means to make could arise in his soul.” Amour-propre belongs to the negative moment of mimesis; to compare oneself to another is to render the identification of pity impossible. The savage, who, like David Reisman’s erstwhile “inner-directed” man, makes no such comparisons, can identify more intimately with others because he has no fear of losing his identity to them. Rousseau’s utopia denies the mimetic equilibrium of positive and negative. Rightly seeing that only humans are centrally preoccupied with preventing the destructive effects of mimesis, Rousseau draws the illegitimate conclusion that the positive and negative moments of mimesis are mutually exclusive. He fails to see that if pity and vanity combat each other in the soul of “civilized man” it is because they are both generated by the same mechanism. To the extent that the “savage” is less mimetic, he must be less compassionate as well.
Why does Rousseau make pity, as opposed to learning or playful imitation, the exemplary form of positive mimesis? Why is our identification with others confined to their sufferings? Natural pity can be opposed to social amour-propre only because pity, unlike simpler manifestations of mimesis, is a social emotion that contains its negative element in transcended form. As Rousseau himself observes, “natural pity” is intentionally generated by culture:
Such is the pure movement of nature, anterior to all reflection, such is the force of natural pity that even the most depraved morals have difficulty in destroying, since we see every day in our theaters [spectacles] becoming moved and crying at the misfortunes of a sufferer someone who, if he were in the tyrant’s place, would only increase the torments of his enemy.
Theater, particularly tragic theater, is a place for the deconstruction of sacrifice. We pity the tragic victim only insofar as we are participants in the tragic form that guarantees his sufferings. We want Oedipus to escape his own investigation, yet we know in advance that he will not. This quintessentially cultural structure is the basis of Rousseau’s “natural” pity. Let us note that if in the Discourse Rousseau presents pity as the primary relation between men in their natural state, in the Essay on the Origin of Languages, it is rather terror:
Upon meeting others, a savage man will initially be frightened. Because of his fear he sees the others as bigger and stronger than himself. He calls them giants. (Essay, ch. 3; tr. John Moran)
Neither pity nor terror are “natural” sentiments. Pity, already present in Condillac as the recognition of shared need in our fallen state, is not the positive moment of mimesis but a recuperation of its negative moment. The primary object of pity is not natural suffering but the cultural suffering engendered by sacrifice. Even today in primitive societies there is no “natural suffering” with which to commiserate, no illness untainted by at least the suspicion of a cultural cause.
Compassion is always compassion for the victim, and the victim is always sacrificial. The victim of a natural disaster evokes in us not the simple desire to heal his pain but a guilty sense that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Pity is a social passion that depends on the designation of the victim by a sign; the sacrificial victim is the originary referent of language. By situating pity in the state of nature, Rousseau would have us deconstruct sacrifice before it is instituted. He performs the sleight of hand of evoking an effect of the sign–and of the society it generates–as a demonstration of the sign’s contingency.
Certainly mimetic identification exists prior to the sign, but so does the symmetry of its positive and negative moments. Where there is imitation, there is rivalry; where there is identification, there is competition. And where there is pity, there is terror. The savage who identifies “more intimately” with his suffering fellow and the savage whose fear makes him call the other a “giant” are one and the same. The victim is always already sacred; if we pity him, we fear him. The Rousseauian “savage”‘s terror is realized in language whereas his pity is expressed without words. But this is only possible because the word designating the victim has already been irrevocably pronounced.
Rousseau’s half deliberate, half naive repositioning of pity for the victim as prelinguistic sympathy would become the defining sentiment of the Romantic era, the mensonge romantique that grounds both its doctrine of human interaction and its critique of the nascent market system. In 1848, the French elected Alphonse de Lamartine, the exemplary romantic poet, as the first leader of their revolutionary government. But the Romantic revolution failed. When, in the following century, “natural pity” finally prevailed politically over the mediations of the bourgeois order, the results were something less than utopian.