Sunday, April 27, 2014

Impietas II: Misericordia

To the Romans pietas and patriarchy walked hand in hand. For most of Roman history the paterfamilias (oldest living male in the family) held absolute power over the family's financial affairs and could punish or even kill other family members without fear of legal sanction. But while the paterfamilias held an autocrat's power over his clan, he was expected to rule with love and compassion.  Tradition and public opinion, powerful forces in conservative and status-conscious Rome, defined the paterfamilias' role and delimited his power.  In those cases where that was not enough, the Emperor might step in to restore right order. Hadrian, who ruled from 117-138, banished a father who had killed his son.  Although the son's crime was great -- he had committed adultery with his stepmother -- Hadrian ruled against the murderous patriarch, declaring "patria potestas in pietate debet non in atrocitate consistere" (a father's power must rest in pietas, not cruelty).

This same beneficence was expected of the one entrusted with the absolute power of the toga purpura. Writing to Nero in the winter of 55 CE, Seneca the Younger explained:
To "the Father of his Country" we have given the name in order that he way know that he has been entrusted with a father's power, which is most forbearing in its care for the interests of his children and subordinates his own to theirs. Slow would a father be to sever his own flesh and blood; aye, after severing he would yearn to restore them, and while severing he would moan aloud, hesitating often and long; for he comes near to condemning gladly who condemns swiftly, and to punishing unjustly who punishes unduly. 
Given Roman history Seneca's advice might seem a bit idealistic. (It certainly appears to have had little impact on Nero's behavior).  But it was rooted not in wooly-headed lovingkindness but in shrewd political calculation.  Seneca saw clementia as a tool which a ruler used to mollify one's enemies and ensure the love and loyalty of one's subjects.  As Galina Krasskova notes in a currently unpublished paper entitled "The Paradoxical Ambivalence of Giving: Seneca and the Virtue of Clemency," clementia incurs an obligation in its recipient.  
Ultimately, clementia is something of a situational virtue. As an oblique form of gift giving it may, at times, have been an uncomfortable trait for Romans, particularly the Roman elite. At the same time, it was not necessarily a negative one. Gift-giving, the exchange of items and/or favors, inevitably carries with it certain tensions.  It is an ambivalent exchange.  As a means of navigating social hierarchy, the cycle of exchange was also a means whereby “face” might be gained or lost. As such, clementia, an aspect of gift-giving intimately connected to imperium was dangerous virtue, an ambivalent trait, fraught with the potential for abuse.
Although the word "pity" derives from pietas, its closest Latin cognate would be misericordia.  Most often translated into English as "pity," "mercy," or "compassion" misericordia comes from miser (wretched) + cor (heart) and describes an empathic sharing in the sufferings of the afflicted.  From its earliest days Christianity has held misericordia in high esteem.  Notre Dame della Misericordia (Our Lady of Mercy) is one of the Virgin Mary's most popular praise names.  Fr. Thomas Ryan has noted that for St. Thomas Aquinas:

[C]ompassion reveals the other-oriented and inter-personal character of human existence.  Its necessary condition is a healthy love of self.  In that sense it is, with shame, a 'defining' emotion and a virtue.  The worth of the 'other' as a person is revealed through an affectively resonant responsiveness to them.  Second, compassion as To be sad at another's gifts and success or to take pleasure in another's plight indicates defective self-esteem. One's moral character is flawed. Finally, Aquinas sees any deeper realization of compassion in the context of friendship and devoted love through identification with the plight of the other... The divine image made for creative self-direction is gradually realized through responsiveness to others and to God.

By contrast, Stoics like Seneca saw misericordia as a dangerous flaw, especially in a ruler.  Clementia was based in logic and reason.  It was extended to those who deserved mercy when upholding the letter of the law would violate its spirit.  It was offered to the vanquished when they no longer posed a threat to the Empire.  It stayed the Emperor's hand when punishment would serve no purpose.  Krasskova points out how Seneca compares Nero to a surgeon and says "if there is ever a need to let blood, you should restrain the blade to stop it cutting more deeply than necessary."  By contrast, he says
[U]nder the guise of strictness we fall into cruelty, under the guise of mercy into pity. (per speciem enim severitatis in crudelitatem incidimus, per speciem clementiae in misericordiam). In the latter case a lighter risk is involved, it is true, but the error is equal in both, since in both we fall short of what is right. Consequently, just as religion does honor to the gods, while superstition wrongs them, so good men will all display mercy and gentleness, but pity they will avoid; for it is the failing of a weak nature that succumbs to the sight of others' ills. And so it is most often seen in the poorest types of persons; there are old women and wretched females who are moved by the tears of the worst criminals, who, if they could, would break open their prison. Pity regards the plight, not the cause of it; mercy is combined with reason. 
An emperor who acts out of misericordia extends an olive branch or grants a pardon without first considering the consequences.  Although his acts may seem laudable they are rooted in selfishness.  Feeling the pangs of sorrow at some wretch's plight, he seeks to eradicate that pain.  The prisoner in chains is freed to return to his brigandry; the siege is lifted and the enemy left to regain strength; hospitality is extended to strangers at the expense of friends and the needy are succored while the worthy are ignored.