How do we respond to the suffering of others? Is it callous indifference? Pity? Disgust? Or is it empathy that impels us to do something to alleviate the suffering of the other? If we respond to the appeal that suffering makes to us by being compassionate, we will be able to be empathic but more importantly by envisioning proactive ways we would help in ameliorating the condition of those of our neighbours who have not been as fortunate and privileged as some of us.

While educators have addressed the issue of how social justice explores ways to empower marginalized groups, compassion has not drawn much attention in the current liberal arts education. The reason for compassion not playing a central role in a liberal arts education goes back to the Western notion of rationalism, which excluded compassion from the definition of wisdom. Western philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Kant, among others, have often equated compassion with emotion, sentimentality and pity and, thus, have not made it a foundation for ethics.

For many Western philosophers compassion was too fallible, elusive, and unpredictable a basis upon which to build ethical inquiry.  Furthermore, some contemporary philosophers argue that one cannot be totally empathic because “one cannot see the world through someone else&’s eye” or “walk in another&’s shoes.” While it is certainly true that one&’s knowledge of the other&’s suffering will be partial and incomplete, the problem of empathy, however, does not reside in the fact that one cannot ever fully know about the “suffering other,” but with the fact that that one fails to feel with the other.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) happens to be one of the very few in the Western world who wrote extensively on compassion as a virtue.  Aquinas’ philosophy of compassion derived mostly from Christian ethics. He associated compassion with mercy and the two were the same for him.  Aquinas defined mercy as “heartfelt sympathy for another&’s distress, impelling us to succour him if we can.” For him, mercy was a virtue because of its ability not only to feel another&’s unhappiness but also come up with an appropriate response to try to ease the suffering of the other.  The idea of another&’s unhappiness is critical because it entails the notion that when we find a person suffering for having her/his desire frustrated, this is a sufficient condition for producing mercy.

Another important part of his definition is “if we can.” According to Aquinas, we are not being genuinely compassionate or merciful if we merely wring our hands feeling helpless over someone&’s suffering. Compassion implies action on the part of the other&’s suffering.  For Aquinas, there are two ways a compassionate person experiences the suffering of the other as her/his own. The first way is through “union of the affections, which is the effect of love.”  This happens when we see the suffering of a friend whom we see “as another self.”  The second way is through a “real union” with the pain suffered by another. In this case, the compassionate person recognises her/his own vulnerability to the suffering of the other.

By privileging the rationalist, logical side of our human nature, educators have delegitimized the emotional realm of compassion. In such an education students may become knowledgeable about the theories that would help explicate why and how the dominant power structures oppress some groups, thus causing their suffering, but they may not necessarily be moved to empathising fully with the suffering of others. In fact, many students who excel in their courses may turn out to be ‘noncompassionate’ people. However, when compassion is cultivated it not only engenders empathy but it also helps in producing an enriched intellectual life. By focusing primarily only on rationalistic, logical and pragmatic perspectives as part of knowledge and not acknowledging the pluralistic nature of our knowledge, our education system has failed to raise our students’ awareness and appreciation of the interdependence that compassion engenders. However, such a keen awareness of the interconnectedness can only happen with the help of a deep study of inspirational books, wherein the discourse shows the rich and intricate nature of the interconnectedness of our lives on this planet.

Following the advice of the great political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Emile, we need to encourage students to read “great literature” because that will help to foster a critical consciousness of what eminent American philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls “imaginative identification.”  Certainly, it is not easy to feel compassion for those who are different from us; it is difficult to put ourselves in someone else&’s shoes if they belong to a different culture or religion, let alone different race, ethnicity, or gender. In doing so, however, we will be able to see our compassion and suffering as mutual and shared experiences. Then, it is quite possible to relate to people who are different from us by exercising imaginative identification. This kind of deep understanding cannot be developed by parroting others or by projection of empathy. Ultimate understanding is unfiltered, and it needs to be coupled with openmindedness, empathy, and humility, which are all primary components of compassion.

Thomas Aquinas’ perspective on compassion requires that we turn our faces towards the suffering of others and resist all temptation to dehumanise those who suffer by reducing their suffering to abstract academic problems or challenges, rather than engaging in their suffering. When we try to engage as objective and detached scholars and not as compassionate people, the experiences, insights, and stories are minimised. They all become objects of analyses producing one-dimensional images and anonymous persons who are victims of pain and suffering.  However, if we train our students to be engaged in the suffering of the other by giving up their detached stance and, instead, turning to the suffering person, people can become the focus of our compassion and just action.  We should encourage our students to listen to the discourse of suffering from the actual sufferers themselves.  Once we begin such dialogue, we can then forge close, intimate relationships with people and narratives, experiences, and memories. Doing so will help to link us to the issue at hand, and we can do it in a humane, more engaged fashion.

Throughout history and in the contemporary world we find that real harm is done not when someone acts compassionately but when s/he exacts revenge and refuses to be compassionate and to provide each individual her/his due as equals. While it is true that compassion cannot simply be a panacea to all the problems of the contemporary world, we simply cannot afford to exile compassion in the classroom, because doing so will only make our education partial at best.  By continuing to perpetuate the exiled status of compassion we run the risk of ultimately losing the “heart” and “spirit” of our being. Adam Smith, the great social philosopher and political economist and author of The Wealth of Nations, reminds us that compassion is one of the original passions of human nature and this is why it is critically important that contemporary liberal arts education recognises and validates compassion as a valid approach to understanding any subject in order for us to realise our fullest potential to be complete beings.

The writer is a Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He can be reached at [email protected])