Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Golden Rule

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” —Matthew 7:12

This well-known teaching—to the point of being a cliché—encapsulates a deep truth that is central to the question of the humanities.

One of the difficulties facing the humanities is the medium itself. Literature is, by and large, fiction. That is to say, its authors employ imagination to describe the world. We can acknowledge, of course, that the authors’ imaginations are themselves grounded in observation and culturally relevant facts. Nevertheless in our science-dominated culture, many people look suspiciously at the accuracy of fantasy as a vehicle for the truth.

The subject of the biblical passage, compassion, is easily misunderstood. Put simply, compassion is not an emotion. The emotional response to suffering—that impulse to weep with someone else—is not compassion. It’s pity. Just like any other humane emotion there is nothing wrong with pity. But Jesus didn’t extol pity for a reason. Like any other emotion, it is a purely instinctive reaction. No thought goes into pity, so pity doesn’t transform the woman who experiences it. Pity doesn’t lead one to a deeper understanding of another person or his predicament.

So what is compassion? Jesus tells us to engage in an imaginative act: if I were that person, how would I want to be treated? What follows are the logical consequences of that presupposition. He tells us to inform our imagination with facts from our experiences, from what we know to be true of the world, and factual reasoning. Jesus commands people, in effect, to perform a type of thought experiment. They then should derive any ethical conclusions from that experiment.

Christianity is not unique in this regard. Most major religions have some teaching similar to the Golden Rule. Buddhism makes a central tenet of compassion. But the biblical passage not only promotes compassion, it also explains how to achieve it. Compassion is an act of imagination, which is informed by experience.

This leads back to the humanities. The arts are nothing if not thought experiments. What if…? Authors and artists employ fantasy to pose questions, and then use their knowledge of the world to follow those questions to certain conclusions. Attentive readers, furthermore, are led to see, at the very least, the point of view of someone in those positions. Readers are induced to experience compassion, and in the process they are transformed; they transcend—momentarily, subtly, but no less validly—their previous self-centered experience of the universe.

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