The Public Interest

The idea of compassion: The British vs. the French Enlightenment

Gertrude Himmelfarb

Fall 2001

THE "politics of compassion" has become a term of derision. Applied by conservatives to liberals, it suggests a soft-hearted and, worse, soft-minded approach to social problems, in which sentiment prevails over reason, intentions over results, and "'feeling good" over "doing good." There is some justice in that criticism, but also some evasion of the real issue. For if the politics of compassion in its familiar sense is faulty, compassion itself, as a principle of social relationships and behavior, is not. Indeed, it is the basis of a serious social ethic with an honorable lineage. Going back at least to ancient Judaism and Christianity, it has come down to us in that hybrid form known as the Judeo-Christian tradition. In modernity, the religious virtue of compassion has been transmuted into a secular one, and a private duty has become a public responsibility. This was the unique achievement of the British Enlightenment--the British, not the French.

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