Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article

Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion*

Martha Nussbauma1

a1 Law and Ethics, University of Chicago

Philoctetes was a good man and a good soldier. When he was on his way to Troy to fight alongside the Greeks, he had a terrible misfortune. By sheer accident he trespassed in a sacred precinct on the island of Lemnos. As punishment he was bitten on the foot by the serpent who guarded the shrine. His foot began to ooze with foul-smelling pus, and the pain made him cry out curses that spoiled the other soldiers' religious observances. They therefore left him alone on the island, a lame man with no resources but his bow and arrows, no friends but the animals who were also his food.

Ten years later, according to Sophocles' version of the story, they come to bring him back: for they have learned that they cannot win the war without him. The leaders of the expedition think of Philoctetes as a tool of their purposes; they plan to trick him into returning, with no empathy for his plight. The Chorus of soldiers, however, has a different response. Even before they see the man, they imagine vividly what it is like to be him– and they enter a protest against the callousness of the commanders:

For my part, I pity him– thinking of how, with no living soul to care for him, seeing no friendly face, wretched, always alone, he suffers with a fierce affliction, and has no resources to meet his daily needs. How in the world does the poor man survive?


* This essay contains material from the fifth and sixth of my Gifford Lectures given at the University of Edinburgh in 1993, and forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 1997, under the title Upheavals of Thought: A Theory of the Emotions. For comments on those lectures I am indebted to Richard Posner, Jerome Schneewind, and Cass Sunstein. I am also indebted to George Fletcher, John Haldane, Fred Miller, and John Tomasi for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.