Author Archives: Peter

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

compassion, not sympathy

This is a passage from Seneca’s On Clemency (written in 55–56 CE):

Pity [1] is a sickness of the soul due to the sight of others’ suffering, or a sadness caused by someone else’s misfortunes which one believes to be undeserved; but no sickness can affect a wise man [2], for his mind is serene and nothing can get through to it that he guards against. Besides, nothing is as becoming to a man as a great soul, but it is impossible to be both great and sad. Sadness breaks the mind into pieces, throws it down, and collects the parts, but this cannot happen to a wise one [3] even in a disaster. Instead, he will repulse any outrage of fortune and shatter it to pieces before him, always maintaining the same appearance–quiet, firm–which he couldn’t do if he were overcome with sadness.

Also to be considered: a wise person discerns the future and makes decisions without interference, yet nothing clear and lucid [4] can flow from turbulence. Sadness is unfitted for discerning circumstances, planning useful tasks, evading dangers, weighing equities. Therefore, the [wise person] will not feel pity, because there cannot be pity without suffering of the soul. [5]

Whatever others who feel pity want to do, he will do freely and with a lofty spirit. He will help those who weep, but not weep with them [6]. He will reach a hand to the drowning, welcome the exile, donate to the poor, not in the abusive way of most people who want to be seen as pitying–they toss something and flinch in disgust at those whom they aid, as if they feared to touch them–but as a man gives to a man from the common pool. He will return the child to the weeping mother, unfasten chains, save people from [gladiatorial] games, and even bury the stinking body, but he will do these things with a tranquil mind, of his own will. Thus the wise person will not pity but will assist and be of use, having been born to help all and for the public good, from which he will distribute shares to all. He will even give from his store to those sufferers who deserve a portion of blame and correction, but he will be even more pleased to assist those who are genuinely unfortunate. Whenever he can, he will counter fortune, for what better use of his powers than to restore what fortune has overturned? He will certainly not cast down his eyes or his soul toward someone who is shriveled or ragged and meagre and leaning on a staff; instead he will do good to all and kindly regard all who suffer, like a god.

Pity is close to suffering [7]; it even has something in common with it and derives from it. You know eyes to be weak if they water at the sight of someone else’s bleariness, just as, by Hercules, it is a disorder and not a case of merriment when people laugh just because others laugh or yawn whenever someone’s mouth opens. Pity is a flaw in the soul of one who feels suffering too much, and he who expects it from a wise person is not so different from someone who expects lamentations at a stranger’s funeral.

Seneca’s De Clementia (2.5.4-2.6.4), trans. Peter Levine

The topic of this book is clemency (clementia) which in modern English means a virtue or prerogative of governors and other rulers. Seneca addresses the young Emperor Nero and urges him to exhibit clemency (I:v). Emperors were sometimes addressed with the honorific “clemens” (similar to “your grace”), presumably to play to their good side.

However, a different meaning of clementia was calmness or mildness. The weather could be clement, and so could a human mind. Anyone could direct this kind of clementia toward anyone else. A better translation than “clemency” might be “compassion.” Seneca contrasts it with misericordia, which I have translated as “pity” to capture its negative connotations. (After all, nobody wants to be pitied.) But misericordia is close to the modern word “sympathy.” So let us consider the differences between clementia as compassion and misericordia as sympathy.

“Sympathy” means feeling some version of the same emotion that another person feels. Your friend is sad, so you feel sad for her and with her. Although I am sympathetic to the emotion of sympathy, Seneca suggests several reasons to avoid it. Feeling the same way as a suffering person does not necessarily help that person. Sympathy often comes with at least a tinge of condescension, since the person who is sympathetic does not actually experience the same circumstances as the one who suffers. By trying to replicate the sufferer’s emotions, you may undermine your ability to help. And by tying your emotions to another person’s state of mind, you expose yourself to fortune. This is not a reliable way to achieve your own happiness.

Instead, those who suffer deserve to be assisted effectively by people who genuinely respect them. The helper should not try to mirror their emotions but should display a different emotion: clear-headed and equitable good-will. To name that emotion “compassion” is a bit confusing, since it has precisely the same root meaning as “sympathy,” which is a suggested translation of misericordia. (Com = sym = with. Passio = pathos = feeling). Nevertheless, compassion seems to be the word we would use for Seneca’s idea of disinterested benign sentiments (2.6.3) that we exercise freely and with a tranquil mind (2.6.2). It can translate the Sanskrit word karuna, which is fundamental in Buddhism.

Seneca also relates this virtue–let’s call it compassion–to a political idea: equal standing and a common claim on the public good. Even though Seneca addresses De clementia to Nero, I think that in this passage, he describes a republican virtue, appropriate for relations among equals who co-own the commonwealth. (It is interesting that he doesn’t actually use “clementia” in these chapters of the book.)

A compassionate person is not exposed to chance. If we feel worse as another person worsens, and better as he improves, then we demonstrate sympathy, which subjects us to fate. But compassion remains unchanged regardless of the state of the sufferer. Compassion can even fill the mind’s attention, thus displacing emotions that are the cause of discomfort.

One question for me: is sympathy a path to compassion or is it a diversion or a dead end? There is a long tradition in Buddhism of cultivating an imaginative identification with another sentient being, feeling its pain, and “exchanging self and other” (e.g., Shantideva, Bodhicaryavatara, 7:16) The goal is to shake one’s attachment to oneself and begin a journey from selfishness to concrete sympathy for specific others, and from there to generalized good-will for all, or karuna. I can’t criticize this path without having been taught it properly or seriously tried to practice it, but Seneca makes me wonder whether intense involvement in another’s suffering might detract from the cultivation of compassion rather than setting us on the right track.

Notes: [1] misericordia; [2] gendered in the original (vir); [3] not necessarily gendered; [4] socerumque, which doesn’t make sense to me unless it should read serenumque; [5] ergo non miseretur, quia id sine miseria animi non fit; [6] non accedet = not come near them; [7] Misericordia vicina est miseriae. See also: Horace against the Stoicshow to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathyempathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy boosts polarization; empathy and justice, “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time” ; Foucault’s spiritual exercises; John Stuart Mill, Stoic; etc.

cover of Levine What Should We Do?

coming in April: What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life

What Should We Do? offers a compelling, thought-provoking, and urgently-needed framework for anyone trying to understand how we can relate to and act with each other to co-create a more just world. I love this book and you will too.” –Hahrie Han, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University

“Peter Levine makes everyone think more clearly about everything. How fortunate for our country that he’s applied this gift to the realm of civic life. In this insightful and wise book, Levine reveals what it truly means to cooperate, deliberate, and activate—and challenges us to do all three more mindfully.” —Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University, and author Become America 

“Peter Levine is among the leading philosophers of civic life of his generation. What Should We Do? is his magnum opus.  It ranges widely from a masterly review of political philosophy to practical suggestions for addressing issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. For anyone concerned about the state of our democracy and what our role should be, this book is must reading.” –Robert D. Putnam, Research Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, and coauthor of The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again

More information and a link to pre-order the book are here. From the back cover …

People who want to improve the world must ask the fundamental civic question: “What should we do?” Although their specific challenges and topics are enormously diverse, they often encounter problems of collective action (how to get many individuals to act in concert), of discourse (how to talk and think well about contentious matters) and of exclusion. To get things done, they must form or join and sustain functional groups, and through them, develop skills and virtues that help them to be effective and responsible civic actors.

In What Should We Do?, Peter Levine, one of America’s leading scholars and practitioners of civic engagement, identifies the general challenges that confront people who ask the citizens’ question and explores solutions. Ultimately, his goal is to provide a unified theoretical foundation for effective civic engagement and citizen action. Levine draws from three rich traditions: research on collective action by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, work on deliberation and discourse by Jürgen Habermas, and the nonviolent social movements led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Using these real-world examples, he develops a theory of citizen action that can effectively wrestle with these problems so that they don’t destabilize movements.

A broad theory of civic life, What Should We Do? turns from the question of what makes a society just to the question of how to relate to our fellow human beings in a context of injustice. And it offers pragmatic guidance for people who seek to improve the world.

When the Lotus Bloomed

Thanks to Cambridge Arts’ Sidewalk Poetry program, this poem is now imprinted in cement at Clarendon Ave. and Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge (Mass.). The text appeared first on my blog. I meant to answer Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali #20, “On the Day When the Lotus Bloomed,” which begins—in Tagore’s own translation from Bengali—“On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.”

By the way, Tagore’s English versions of his own verse are criticized for being sentimental, archaizing, and didactic and less challenging than the originals. For instance, Amit Chaudhuri writes, “Tagore’s English version of the Gitanjali, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1913, is what Mother Teresa once was to Calcutta, the royal family to England, and Kingsley to Gandhi: a tantalising mirage that obstructs the view of what’s behind it.” My response, then, must be even further from Tagore’s Bengali original, which I cannot read. But I think these eight lines convey some of me, and I hope they offer a touch of peace in North Cambridge.

Civic Studies call for proposals for APSA 2022

Call for proposals from Civic Studies (formerly Committee on the Political Economy of the Good Society)

Related Group Chair(s): Peter Levine, Tufts University, and Trygve Throntveit, Minnesota Humanities Center,

The Civic Studies Related Group invites proposals for panels, round tables, and individual papers that make a significant contribution to the civic studies field; articulate a civic studies perspective on some important issue; or contribute to theoretical, empirical, or practical debates in civic studies. We especially encourage proposals that emphasize actual or potential civic responses to current social and political crises, their origins, and possible consequences.

Civic studies is a field defined by diversity yet connected by participants’ commitments to promoting interdisciplinary research, theory, and practice in support of civic renewal: the strengthening of civic (i.e., citizen-powered and citizen-empowering) politics, initiatives, institutions, and culture. Its concern is not with citizenship understood as legal membership in a particular polity, but with guiding civic ideals and a practical ethos embraced by individuals loyal to, empowered by, and invested in the communities they form and re-form together. Its goal is to promote these ideals through improved institutional designs, enhanced public deliberation, new and improved forms of public work among citizens, or clearer and more imaginative political theory.

The civic studies framework adopted in 2007 cites two ideals for the emerging discipline: “public spiritedness” (or “commitment to the public good”) and “the idea of the citizen as a creative agent.” Civic studies is an intellectual community that takes these two ideals seriously. Although new, it draws from several important strands of ongoing research and theory, including the work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and the Bloomington School, of Juergen Habermas and critical social theory, Brent Flyvbjerg and social science as phronesis, and more diffuse traditions such as philosophical pragmatism, Gandhian nonviolence, the African American Freedom Struggle. It supports work on deliberative democracy, on public work, on civic engagement and community organizing, among others.

To propose a session, click here when logged in as an APSA member or else navigate as follows: open the conference platform; click “Submit or Edit a Proposal,” click “Submit a Division, Related Group, or Partner Association Proposal,” scroll down to and click “Related Groups,” and select “Civic Studies.”

APSA members can also join the Civic Studies group (free) at this link.

academic freedom for individuals and for groups

One type of academic freedom belongs to individuals. A teacher, researcher, or student either has freedom or not. The question is whether academics may say what they wish to say.

This form of freedom is very important, and I am an avid defender of it, although it has some limits. First, academics shouldn’t be able to say literally anything as part of their jobs, including making demonstrably false statements. Second, it is not always clear when this right should become a positive one. Although I shouldn’t be fired for adopting a controversial position, do I have a right to be hired, published, or invited to speak after I’ve done so? (If I have a positive right to speak, then I want my invitation to the University of Hawaii right now.)

Although academic freedom in the individual sense is important, it is not the only kind. I have worked at universities for 29 years. Only for the last three have I had individual academic freedom, safeguarded by tenure and a right to earn my salary primarily by teaching. Before that, I was always involved in collective efforts–team projects–that had funders, staff, and partners. These projects involved communication and advocacy as well as research. I always had to be careful what I said because that could affect my colleagues and allies. On occasion, I said things that had negative consequences for our fundraising or other goals. Much more often, I held my tongue.

Only very rarely did I experience this situation as a lack of freedom. Generally, I thought of myself and my colleagues as being free in the political sense of the word. We could collaboratively develop and implement strategies to influence society. People who opposed us weren’t violating our freedom; they were freely acting at odds with us. Much more common than actual opposition were decisions not to support us for various reasons. If (for instance) someone chose not to approve a grant proposal that we had submitted, that was not a violation of our rights. The alternative would have been to fund us and reject someone else. We operated in a controversial space with numerous decision-makers and finite resources. To the extent that I complained about limitations on our liberty or rights, it was only when arbitrary–from my perspective–bureaucratic rules interfered. I suppose I would have cried foul if administrators within our own institution had blocked us because of their beliefs, but then I would have been complaining about their overstepping their specific responsibilities. More generally, I expected opposition and competition and didn’t think of those as threats to our freedom.

If you want a classic framework for this distinction, Benjamin Constant’s will serve. Normal academic freedom is an example of what Constant called the “liberty of the moderns.” The freedom to collaborate in a contested space is the “liberty of the ancients.”

I think there are epistemological as well as ethical reasons to enhance collaborative, applied forms of research as complements to individual scholarship.* These approaches come under such headings as “transdisciplinary research,” “civically engaged research,” “community-based participatory research” (CPBR), and “participant-action research” (PAR). For such efforts, we need a robust account of academic freedom as the ability to build things together, often in the face of opposition that is legitimate. The question cannot be whether an individual is permitted to say what is in that person’s mind. It should become a question about the resources and rewards available to groups of people who seek to co-create knowledge and thereby change the world.

According to this theory, when the NIH, the Ford Foundation, or the American Political Science Association increases its support for engaged research, freedom is enhanced. (Support can mean money, training–like ICER–or recognition.) However, there will never be enough resources to allow every group to undertake every project it wants to do. Many applicants will be rejected; in fact, competition is desirable. Freedom of this kind is not a yes-or-no matter but an outcome of wise institutional design and allocation of resources.

*See civically engaged research in political science; how to keep political science in touch with politicsmethods for engaged researchwhat must we believe?civically engaged research in political sciencewhat gives some research methods legitimacy?; etc.