This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at email@example.com.
Mercy in the Grounding of a Non-Elitist Ecological Ethic1
George H. Williams
The quality of mercy seems to be part of the sensibility and motivation in people concerned with wildlife conservation, the human environment, ecology in the broadest sense, also with the humane treatment of animals. And in the emotional reserves of presumably the majority of people, even when not actively engaged in ecological efforts, indeed even when themselves employed at the raw margins where human existence draws its sustenance from other forms of life, there is a disposition to show mercy when it is evoked in them by others already sensitized to the enormity of what happens about us or as in most cases, remotely--but by our leave.
Identifying mercy as the most distinctively human quality, Thomas More assigned to selected slaves in Utopia the concentrated task of the slaughter of animals for food, holding that the constant presence of suffering could otherwise inure the general population to cruelty. Francis Bacon, without allusion to cruelty in man in his dominion over all creatures, was among the great thinkers to prepare the philosophical and empirical ground for the natural sciences, and was a major source for the "masculine" sanction of the enslavement of nature, declaring from his Temporis partus masculus sive de interpretatione naturae libri tres: "I am come in very truth leading you to nature with all her children to bind her to your services and make her your slave." Translated as "The Masculine--or Fertilizing--Birth of Time," it has the Latin subtitle: sive instauratio magna imperii humani in universum (The Great Instauration of the Dominion of Man over the Universe, 1608).2
If mercy, however, be latently nearly universal under the cultural impact of diverse religious systems, themselves reflective of evolving sensibilities, in different civilizations, of inter-group and interpersonal relations (clan, race, nation, class), it could serve as a grounding and motivation for a non-elitist ecological ethic in societies moving toward egalitarian democracy but by now also epochally alerted to the precarious state of civility and humaneness in sudden perversions of human sensibilities.3 The terms for "mercy" come out of the primordial experience of ancient societies, reinforced by hierarchical religion in a class-conscious commonweal, such as was medieval Christendom.
In explicating the quality of mercy from its philological underpinnings, we seek here
to link a non-elitist ethic in a democratic society, an ethic with global assignments and
responsibilities and directed to our personal, social, and legislative behavior toward the
creaturely world about us. Although mercy and several kindred words have receded
from general speech, and in its case sometimes have become trivialized--except in
traditional formularies of prayer--the quality has an ancient lineage and the word itself
can be recovered in relation to nature.
It appears that one of the existential situations in which the words for mercy entered general speech is that of person-to-person combat and the recognition of a standard of virtue common to valiant foes. Just a glance across the bloody plains of history confirms the presentiment that mercy must tap fundamental sources, aboriginal and even chthonic, at the depths of the human constitution. Religious and specifically theological transcriptions and transpositions of the quality of mercy as an abiding divine attribute as well as a human virtue must testify to a universal trait, slowly evolving from human experience and perception.
It will occur to the reader that mercy may be only an acculturated trait and that in any event it is seldom manifest in effectual strength even to prevent outrageous cruelties inflicted on our own kind. Hence, reflections on the extension of mercy to the creaturely world about us could appear at best as a marginal option even for those who care most. But in the extension of mercy to nature in an informed and resolute acknowledgment of some "standard of virtue common to valiant foes," human kind and the rest of nature could together be redeemed. The ensuing essay, in any case, presupposes that we consciously and explicitly extend the scope of mercy to our fellow creatures, to nature, that in both wonder and mercy we relate to the fleeting and teeming myriads of microscopically internal and seasonally external symbiotic arrangements in and above the interstices of vaster ecosystems.
In our mercy we might manage to save much of the still intact pulsating life-mantle of our globe and through being thus merciful ourselves receive mercy: respite from what feels to many like imminent doom for the plenitude of life. Into its mysteries biologists and their allies have only begun, it seems, to peer with the aid of ever new instrumentation, itself an awesome achievement. In the penetration of the biosphere with human awareness, our knowing consciousness, our "conscientization" (a term adapted from Latin American liberation theology) may be merciful or even benign, for the healing of our earth and of our kind.
Mercy has been, like pity, an attribute of a superior in relation to an inferior, of the divine toward the human, of the ruler to his subjects, of the lord to his serfs. In the progressive democratization of society, mercy has been more and more confined in its manifestation in a person of authority, as in a judge or governor granting clemency. Religion has in many forms in different periods enhanced the emergent humane sensibility, the love of mercy, locating its source in the divine.
Mercy in the divine is one of the most exalted and beneficent attributes. Strangely and
in contrast, in today's world "mercy" is seldom used of the human traits.
"Mercy" is seldom spoken of today as being granted or received or experienced
among fellow human beings of the same society. Nor has the word been extended in ordinary
discourse to refer to human behavior in altruistic actions and attitudes. The word might
be, in fact, in danger of retraction of meaning or of obsolescence. Yet the enormous
emotional legacy of mercy is perpetuated in literature, drama, the visual arts, liturgy,
and religious and ethical maxims and formularies. It lives on in our midst in these and
other cultural bearers of the plenitude of the human experience, reflected upon in such
intensity that the emotion attending the transaction of mercy is directly or vicariously
familiar to us all.
I. Mercy: An Archaic Word Recoverable for the Ecological Crisis
In societies and cultures whose members have gone beyond condescending mercy to compassion (the latter more costly to self or one's group), the now partly archaic emotion attending the granting or receiving of mercy still remains familiar in certain recurrent human relations, personal and corporate. Ours is an age of constant and intensified awareness of the cruelty and callousness in diverse societies towards our fellow human beings who must have priority in our expression of mercy. Yet an appeal to human and divine mercy as also a resource in establishing an ecological ethic is not farfetched. If it is recognized that the quality of mercy was slowly deepened and enlarged over the millennia of evolution of human emotions, then we can presuppose its benign presence latently or actively in most people who can be also further educated or sensitized to extend mercy, by legislative strategy, international accords, private initiative, and personal behavior, beyond the human to the creaturely world, whereupon blessed will be the merciful.
This creaturely world, at its interior, knows fear of man only in episodic violence as the human sphere obtrudes upon it. Hence human mercy toward the denizens of the wild will not be experienced by them directly as mercy except along the shifting frontier where wild lives and ours momentarily intermesh. Nevertheless ourarchaic capacity for mercy can be shown toward not only individual wild things, but also toward the whole wondrous ecosystem of which they are part.
We commonly distinguish between "the ecological" with respect to species, habitats, and ecosystems, and "the environmental" with respect to the human environment, social, economic, and material. The two terms are, of course, often used without clear differentiation, partly because in the macro-environmental context of atmospheric and oceanic pollution we are close to the problems common both to human environments and to the large ecosystems "in their own right" and not yet degraded.
Most ethical discussions are still environmentalist, relating to man and his environment and the conservation of the optimal amount of wilderness for the human good and of natural resources for future generations in human society. An enlightened utilitarian-environmental ethic could appear to be the best that can be hammered out in the context of the awesome challenges to humankind involved in the large-scale alterations of the human environment perpetrated and projected. An enlightened utilitarian-environmentalist ethic can, indeed, go far in the protection of habitats and species and of the human environment, to the point where the human interest is almost disguised in seemingly disinterested concern for the wilderness and wild things.4
There have, indeed, been attempts at ecological ethics in which animals and trees are postulated as having rights.5 Sympathetic to all concerns to safeguard habitats or ecosystems and endangered species for their own sake without utilitarian cost-benefit calculations, one may hope that a comparably disinterested and at the same time non-elitist appeal to the attribute of mercy, potential or practiced, can also commend itself to persons in all walks of life and conditions. An appeal to an innate mercy affords another grounding for an ecological ethic that converts the eschatological injunction in the Judaeo-Christian tradition "not to harm or destroy in all God's holy mountain" (Isaiah 65:25) into an urgent summons for the present in order to escape a dire future for the mountains and for men.6
In nature itself there is seldom mercy. Mercy is divine and human. Animals do not themselves show mercy in their mating, nurturing, devouring. It is indeed clear that nature, collectively the biosphere, is a mantle covering the planet, palpitating in a vast living and dying webwork of suffering, from the photosynthetic vegetational covering, in unconscious but "remorseless" and unceasing competition for nutrients and the sun, up through the food chain of those preying and being preyed upon, sometimes even cannibalistically on the same species or even, in lower creatures, on the predator's own progeny or mate all the way up to being consciously human with conscience. Up to a point human beings are part of that nature that is ruthlessly "red in tooth and claw." Indeed, human cruelty and mercilessness has sometimes been more contrived and monstrous than anything attributable to the animal world.7
Hence to propose mercy in human nature as a component in an emergent ecological ethic may seem doomed to fatuity and failure, when mercy, not to say compassion, is so palpably wanting in battered and broken families, in uncaring urban neighborhoods, among some youth in city gangs, in sudden outbreaks of mindless violence, in sanguinary reprisal in many societies and situations, in all periods, among members of most races, religions and castes. The histories of all nations, civilizations, and ancient societies cannot be studied without our overhearing the groans and cries of the wretched of the earth, of torture chambers, of coliseums, and of altars to successive Molochs.
Yet men and women and their children in all societies know one or more words for mercy, experience the emotion of the merciful, are themselves occasionally the recipients of mercy, and can be educated to extend its bounds in the face of the imminent loss of a million species of flora and fauna by sometimes unwitting, sometimes desperate, but so often ruthless exploitation or of callousness, heedlessness. The situation calls for "a deep ethic" (Wilson 1984:2) supportive of large strategies, to be implemented with swiftness. This must be an ecological ethic coupled with an international strategy compelling to both religious and areligious people alike, and to all classes of society.
Debate in the public domain of legislation, even in the United States, surely cannot be grounded alone in a Judaeo-Christian ecological ethic, in any case not yet articulated as the consensus of any large Jewish or Christian grouping. Mercy, however, may commend itself as a standard that religious people recognize as sanctioned by their particular religion, even while the same can also be subsumed, perhaps not to its full extent by others, under humanistic or naturalistic categories. And further, although such an ethic and strategy cannot be proposed to the domestic and global poor and to those of preindustrial ways of life as truly central to their concerns, it can be so formulated as to win their tolerant consent as inherent or implicit in their own ancestral culture and not a concern only of persons and policies of the larger, irruptive civilization. Merciful behavior, elaborated and amplified, invites imitation.
To the end that we act with a sense of urgency to keep afloat "the sinking ark" and to check as extensively as possible "the extinction of species" (Wilson 1984:2), mercy serves as a constructive ecological ethical motif alongside other strategies and elaborated sanctions. With "humility," we must mercifully make a "deliberate human choice" on a national and concertedly an international scale for the good of the whole globe (Nash).
Mercy is not egalitarian, although it craves compassionate approximation. Mercy, a favoring disposition toward the afflicted that becomes evident in acts, is a latent feeling that finds its place toward the end of the scale of dispositions that range from intentional pleasure in cruelty (schadenfreude, sadism), through brutality (unconsidered cruelty), callousness (mindless cruelty, though habitual), to indifference, and from there beyond to pity, mercy, sympathy, and compassion.8 These are not, of course, fixed terms or conceptual entities, but suggestive of a scale.
Sympathy draws a person toward the pitiable, and it may intensify as compassion. Although these two last words of Greek and Latin roots respectively are nearly identical in etymology, they have become differentiated in English, and compassion commonly connotes the more committed feeling for the pitiable. Empathy may go even further in the series, involving identification with the object of concern, but does not suggest the intensity of involvement conveyed by compassion. In Catholic theological ethics mercy is differentiated from sympathy as going beyond feeling to action. Beyond this degree in the progression in mercy are the self-sacrificial acts like laying down one's life for another and martyrdom. The gradation of English words from cruelty to mercy, which is matched in other languages, fluctuates, of course, depending on the context and the period of usage.
Although animals are not merciful, mercy as a disposition and experience seems, nevertheless, to have a complex origin in higher animal life in instinctual impulses that underwent emotional development and ethical refinement in emergent human societies. Like love, mercy appears to be a fusion of several dispositions, emotions, and behavioral traits evolving at different rates and in varying relationships to each other to become what we experience to be mercy and progressively redefine at our present state of sensibility.
II. The Possibly Threefold Origin of Mercy. Its Religious and Emotional Evolution as Reflected in Etymology
Like "epigenetic biophilia" (Wilson 1984), mercy may well be grounded in our biological being. We must presume rudimentary antecedents of mercy in the animal world and in the prehistoric anthropological and archaic conceptualization of human and divine mercy, traces of which may be observed in the convoluted emotional, religious, and ethical history as preserved in verbal fossils.
The context of combat seems to be only one of perhaps three primordial behavioral patterns, with accompanying emotions, tributary to the experience and conceptualization of mercy in human societies. Without close attention, they would scarcely be recognized as such by observers of animal behavior. However, what emerges ambiguously in primitive human societies and has evolved in subsequent human experience, religion, and in general speech and behavior seems to be a complex of what in higher animals could be called: the mercy shown to and experienced by the survivor of a death, the mercy of the strong or the superior in combat, primarily that of the male, and the mercy of the female as mother.
To call any of these instinctual traits mercy puts a strain on the word, not much lessened by the acknowledgement that the ensuing hyphenated terms for the three impulses may all be almost unique to the author. These terms for the three aboriginal impulses/motivations/emotions are survivor-mercy,9 superior-mercy, and womb-mercy. In the evolution of ethical and religious sensibilities these three components have combined and mutually reinforced each other, permitting eventual female-male, human-divine, and perhaps now man-nature transposition. Evidently the most decisive transposition was that from the womb-mercy of the mother, to the father, and then to God--pre-eminently in the Hebrew tradition of the Bible. Many of the root terms for mercy in various languages evolved from such primordial and ongoing life situations as travail/motherhood, wretchedness/relief, death/mourning, and defeat/victory. We can detect in root words for mercy, which remain nominative and become almost adjectival, not easily made into verbs in any language, the gesture of sparing, or the cry of misery, or visceral solicitude. We are only touching here upon the neurological-anatomical basis of "gut feeling," recently identified--beyond the medical community--as the enteric nervous system, "the gut's brain," within the extensive casing outside the stomach and small and large intestine and considered as a single entity connected by the vagus nerve with the cephalic brain.10
In the chronic imprecision of terms for mercy we note in most languages that the objective pitiable and the subjective sentiment of pity often have the same root. As in other words involving the gradual differentiation of feelings, the objective and the subjective state long remained confused. For example, the woe in the battle cry "Woe to you" with ejaculatory equivalents in many languages could eventually become subjective in "Woe is me" and become generalized as "Woes of the world." The cry of grief, the cry of supplication, and the cry of the infant hungry or uncomfortable all called forth the act of mercy and created the emergent vocabulary for a comparable subjective experience.
Our generic English word here, mercy, further illustrates the transmutation of the referent so common in etymologies. In Norman French merchi (merci) was the alms (Latin: merces) given by the rich to the poor, by the secure to the downtrodden. The twelfth-century Arthurian romancer Chrétien de Troyes used it of the chivalric ideal in treating a defeated fellow knight. The mentor of the budding Perceval advised, "If you have the upper hand so that he can no longer defend himself nor resist and is reduced to mercy (merchi), have mercy yourself for him and do not kill him." In later French the cry of the beggar for alms, and the defeated knight for life itself, merci!, became the standard word for "thanks," while the same word retaining reference to the deed of the merciful superior, progressed into Middle English, to become our basic term "mercy."11 In the Romance languages a different transposition between the human and the divine turned the Latin pietas--primarily the dutiful or loving conduct of the devout toward the divine and toward the public good, and only secondarily, clemency and compassion--into pietŕ, piedad, pitié, whence the English pity. It is almost exclusively compassion toward the pitiable, the mercy of the devout toward those who cry out, an attribute of deity being thereby assumed by the devout toward fellow human beings and by extension to other creatures.
In the evolution of the experience of death there may have been only a gradual differentiation between subjective grief of the bereaved and the objective, communal ascription to the divine of mercy toward the survivors of death, of war, of plague, and of other natural catastrophes in their having been spared by the gods or God. Grief at one stage of the evolution of human emotions may have been more collective and ritualized than personally interiorized. The death of a leader put the people in turmoil and possibly peril. Such a death was often attended by sacrificial inhumations that intensified the sorrow and yet inhibited the differentiation between personal grief, communal anguish, and the attribution of mercy to the divine. Survivor-mercy may reach back into what may be identifiable as the beginning of the emotion of grief.
In some animals living in troops or societal herds, schools, or packs, like dolphins, wolves, elephants, baboons, chimpanzees, the death of a member, an offspring, is evidently heeded, observed: by a strange howl at sunset, by the "ritual" stroking or fondling of the dying or the dead, by mutual support or noticeable solicitude, and here and there possibly some kind of wait or "wake." One could call this animal attention to the dying and the death of a member of the same troop a wail, whether this be expressed audibly, tactilely, or otherwise, because the first human equivalent for this may have been, in fact, a wail of communal grief/relief.
In several languages this shows up. In Greek one of the three main words for mercy, oîktos, apparently has as its root the elementary onomatopoeic oi of a cry, then for a lament.12 Aboriginally one kind of "mercy" was the diffuse and convoluted response to death in an anguished cry that was both the entreaty of the suffering and the lament of the bereaved, who as the mourners and the survivors of fate, moíra, in mingled emotion, pay respect due to the dying, the fallen, the dead, and to the divinity presiding over death.13
In Sanskrit the root for mercy, daya, derives from day, meaning "to partake, destroy, consume," suggesting that its secondary meaning, "to sympathize with," "to have pity," even "to repent," goes back to the ancient Aryan funeral rites involving sacrifices to, and for, the dead, to the feasting after the interment or cremation.14 The wail of the animal and the stylized thręnos (lamentation)15 of Hellenic antiquity are the situational matrix in which gradually over the ages various languages differentiated terms for what were quite different: the divine attribute of mercy (in sparing) and the collective, then also subjective, experience of grief.
The second impulse of mercy (disposition/conceptualization) may go back to the warning growl and grimace of the superior male in a pack, for example, of the lead wolf, who in his restraint requires only that the subdued or lesser males bare their jugular vein, or after that, as occasion requires, rest their chin on the ranking wolf's back. This is the mercy of the superior to an inferior, eventually of the divine to the human, the one vouchsafing, the other beseeching, or that of the victor toward a fallen fighter supplicating mercy. The deity or the human victor or the ruler is confronted as superior power. God as the sanction of righteousness, the ruler as the collective embodiment of justice, grants mercy when implored. In the appeal for divine mercy the suppliant may be fully contrite about acts of disobedience and resolved to behave otherwise if spared. In the appeal for mercy or clemency from ruler, victor, or magistrate the suppliant may not acknowledge any wrong done. In many cases, his fellow in the same cause might refuse to cower in the posture of beseeching mercy, confident in his own innocence or the rightness of his cause. Such a person prefers martyrdom.
In the records of human culture it was for the deity in mercy to acknowledge the obedience of the devotee, for the victor to display recognition of the inherent valor of the defeated foe. Combat to the death and without mercy is more general among human males than among male animals. Although a chivalric code of respect for the foe and the vanquished would come relatively late in any society and may presuppose a common religion, the accounts of combat in the Old Testament and in documentation from Greek and Roman antiquity show that the vanquished were sometimes shown mercy without a common religion or a clear code. King Saul spared Agag, king of the Amalekites (I Samuel 15:9); but then the prophet Samuel hacked the captive king to pieces (33), and Saul even lost his kingship precisely for having shown mercy (and taken booty in the genocidal "holy war"). Any ascription of the quality of mercy to Yahweh, even if it had begun to appear, had no restraining effect on Samuel, whose ruthlessness in a holy war is held up as exemplary, while Saul's collegial and prudential mercy is denounced. The noun for pity or mercy, chemalah, is derived from the root "to spare." This word is used when Job appeals to his friends, "Have pity on me" (19:21).
In the six Celtic languages a word for pity, reflective of the ancient contexts, also is rooted in the gesture of sparing.16 The Celtic translators of the Bible, e.g., Ps. 23:6, used (Irish Gaelic) tróg, "the wretched or miserable one," and car, "caring for or sympathizing with," as trócaire, the term semantically parallel to miseri-cordia, e.g., Phil 2:1: "Let it be bowels of mercy: bad inna trocaire." But this renders the Celtic in a biblical way. The pre-Christian Celtic languages had at most clemency in their rigorous legalism.17 In Homer éleos, of undetermined etymology,18 may, however, have been the once distinctive word for superior-mercy, although in recorded times it seems to have been used interchangeably with oîktos. In the Iliad, we behold in the last book a scene wherein there is frequent reference to the mercy of Zeus, Hermes, and the gods in general. Here, the gods inspire Achilles19 to be merciful to King Priam of Troy, when Priam comes to claim the body of his son Hector, slain by Achilles.20
Priam, having lost many sons, seeks out at his peril the haunts of angry Achilles who, still mourning the death of Patroclus, has just dragged around the camp the body of the greatest of Priam's sons.21 The white-haired father ritually prostrates himself, touching the mouth (the chin was the usual gesture of supplication) of Achilles, offering a rich ransom for the body of Hector. There is a feast proffered during which Achilles and Priam can reorder their emotions (respectively: irritation with Priam, anger and grief because of Patroclus; fear of Achilles and grief for Hector) and, though the issue long remains tensely uncertain, Priam says: "Respect the gods, Achilles, and, remembering thy dear father, have mercy upon me (eléson). More than he, I have the right to pity (eleinteros)."22 The scene of the epic age makes vivid how one suing for mercy was in peril, and how precarious and capricious was the show of superior-mercy.23
By the time of Aristotle, éleos still meant pity, an interiorized but still cold and unengaged modality of emotion short of active or compassionate mercy. Aristotle, in discussing the catharsis of feelings through tragedy in his Poetics,24 understood by fear (phóbos) and by pity (éleos) something emotionally different from what both these words connote today25 in Demotic Greek, where éleos has long-since evolved into compassionate mercy.
As superior-mercy seems to originate in the masculine setting of combat, another psychobiological component of mercy seems to derive from the female womb-mercy. Bonding between mother and offspring was destined to evolve into the complex emotion of steadfast mercy: at its most primitive, the other's instinctive transcendence of self in solicitude for the race in the preservation of the litter, the brood. Evidently, the point of departure for the evolution of the most emotive and, in the end, the most religious of the three kinds of mercy is here.
Womb-mercy can be seen as socialized to some extent in some of the great cats, the gregarious monkeys and apes, among elephants and whales, where succoring, fondling, and adopting represent extensions of the originally minimalist mother love. This third kind of mercy seems to be the main biological grounding of something destined to be considerably deepened in human beings. It was sexually transcended, extended to men, and ethicized to intincture with love, compassion, and obligation, their martial metaphor of clemency and of sheer submission in the reception of mercy.
There must have been a long psychosociological history, running parallel to the development recorded in religious vocabulary, in which the womb-envy on the part of men found expression in various societies at different times. Maternal emotion may have been claimed by fathers before it was also ascribed to the divine, or, more likely, mercy was ascribed first to the divine and at length to chieftains and kings and finally to ordinary men.26
The Hebrew Bible documents the early evolution of the emotion of the mercy connected with mother-love in the ascription of it to God. The ancient Hebrews had several words for pity and the more emotionally charged mercy. We noted one word above, chemalah, with the root verb chaman, "to spare." Another is chesed, the etymology of which is obscure.27
The most distinctive Hebraic word is derived from rechem "womb" that yields the plural rachamim"mercies" (once translated "bowels of mercy") and the verb racham "to love" or "to have mercy" (as a noun, also "womb"). Although male-oriented interpreters of the Bible were formerly inclined to relate this word for mercy to the brotherly feeling of those born from the same womb, today scholars favor the equally venerable and now more convincing interpretation that roots this kind of mercy in the courageous and steadfast love of the motherfor the offspring of her womb.21
In the Hebrew Bible the literal sense of womb-mercy is represented in the hard emotional decision of the true mother in the strategy of King Solomon to divide in half a living child in dispute between two harlots (I Kings 3:16-28). With the sudden threat of death to her child the real mother's "womb grew hot (kamar), and she said 'Oh my Lord, give her the living child, and by no means slay it' (v. 26). Then the king answered, 'Give the living child to the first woman. . . she is its mother.'" The waxing hot of the womb in compassion is also ascribed to Joseph in Egypt, when he, as deputy of Pharaoh, entertained his brothers (Genesis 43), especially verse 30: "Then Joseph made haste, for his rachamim yearned for his brother," Benjamin, the youngest and the one among them who was also son of Rachel, dead in her last childbirth. Mother-love, womb-love, womb-mercy in the Hebrew eventually evolved into a generic word for steadfast love and was ascribed to God himself (cf. Psalm 25:6; Isaiah 49:15, 54:7; Hosea 2:19, 14:5; Zechariah 1:16) and then to men, such as the compassionate Joseph.
Interestingly, Proverbs 12:10 speaks literally of mercy towards animals: "A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast, but the womb-mercy (rachamim) [in this instance, "the gut-feeling"] of the wicked [man] is cruel." Here, as elsewhere, the Hebrew root lies below the surface. The ancient and modern users of the word, without consciousness of the ancient etymology, grasp at this viscerally-stirred compassion. The female, specifically the maternal, component in the evolution of the concept/experience of mercy is here etymologically documented for an ancient and culturally decisive society.
The ascription of womb-mercy to the divine was distinctively Hebraic. It should be noted, however, that mercy was ascribed to the pair of father and mother gods of the divine pantheon of the Canaanite peoples of the northwest Semitic languages in the midst of whom the biblical Hebrews shaped their Scripture. The generic name for their chief deity was the same as Hebraic El, whose unique name in Scripture is Yahweh. While womb-mercy is ascribed to God under both names in the Bible, it is of interest that the Canaanite El was regarded as merciful under a term different from any root used for mercy in the Bible, while the divine spouse, the goddess of fertility Asherah, is in Ugaritic merciful in a term akin to the Hebrew for womb-mercy. It is possible that in Israel's monotheizing El (Elohim, the biblical plural out of respect) and alternatively in the J(Y) strands in the Pentateuch, Yahweh (the revealed name of God, the Tetragrammaton: YHWH, after the times of the Septuagint, out of holy fear, never liturgically vocalized by devout Jews) seem to have appropriated, in Jewish, Samaritan, and Christian usage, the merciful attributes of the otherwise excluded goddess-spouse of the baalin.29 The Hebraist revival in the Renaissance and the Reformation and the accompanying homiletical, exegetical, and liturgical recovery by Protestants of the Tetragrammaton, for example, in the neologism of the Authorized Version of 1611, JeHoVaH, in its fusion with the vowels proper to AdOnAi (reading Hebrew, backwards) regained for them a new sense of the divine immediacy or intimacy in their hymnody and prayer that they had hitherto known within Catholic piety through the Virgin Mary as Mediatrix, and that the rabbinical Judaism had made possible within the Law.
The now ascertained presence of womb-mercy in every stratum of Northwest Semitic mythic theology makes it plausible that the prominence of womb-mercy in Islam might not be wholly dependent upon the Jewish and Jewish-Christian and Syriac influences in the original oracles of the Koran. As in the primordial Semitic pantheon El (becoming Muslim Allah) and his consort were regarded as compassionate, the womb-mercy of Allah could have arisen independently of Judaeo-Christian influence but from the same perception. In Islam a man, like a woman, is enjoined to be merciful in one adjectival form of the noun for "womb" (ram, raim). More important, Allah is called the Merciful and the Compassionate, the two adjectives being both variants derived from womb-mercy, in the subtitle of every chapter of the Koran, except surah 9. And the Job of the Old Testament, taken over by the Koran in surah 40:07, speaks of Allah as "the most merciful of merciful ones," while Allah himself says in surah 7:156: "My mercy encompasses all things."
Thereupon duties are prescribed for the faithful who would be beneficiaries of the divine mercy, here specifically the payment of tax for the poor. Of Christians Allah speaks in surah 57:27: "We put mercy (rama) and compassion (rafa) in the heart of those who follow him ['Jesus, son of Mary']," with the qualifying observation that Christians had not wholly lived up to their high standards. Although there is no evidence that the words of mercy are sensed to have a female origin, in the tradition there were unsuccessful efforts to have one word for mercy (raman) applied exclusively to God, another (raim) to human beings. When Islam penetrated the land of Zoroaster, the principal Koranic word for mercy (of the womb) displaced, as a loan word, several words of Indo-European stems in Persian, as it did also several words of Ural-Altaic stem in Turkish.30
In Hebraic sparing and in Homeric condescension and in Biblical and Koranic womb-tenderness-solicitude, we see species of pity and of mercy that, though archaic, and in some cases, emotionally remote from the sensibility in most people today, are recognizably at the source of our capacity for mercy. They represent a growth beyond the prehuman modality and the postulated primordially human stage (paleolithic man), having, as yet, however, little of the quality or the demeanor we associate with the modern emotion of pity and mercy.
We have surmised that all human beings in the presence of death, that men in combat and in comparable martial, regnant, and judicial roles, and that women in pregnancy, travail, and nurture, identified their attendant emotions and gradually differentiated discrete appellations for what they experienced in themselves, in others, and of the divine. Thereupon emerged some distinction between pity and mercy, and finally compassion, while other attending emotions and postures of the soul were differentiated and acquired their own distinctive names. Much as the feeling of respect differentiated itself from fear (of the divine, of the human superior), so the feeling of personal grief at the loss of the departed dead differentiated itself from the feeling of relief at the mercy of the gods for extending the griever's own life.
If, concomitantly, the vocabulary of superior-mercy extended from men to women, perhaps first to women in power or authority, the tenderness and steadfastness of womb-mercy may have passed, by appropriation, from women and become an attribute of perhaps first a female deity and then of the creator God. The Hebrew adjective for the womb came in the end indeed uniquely to be used of God, although the word was acknowledged to be maternal in metaphor. It is likely that the interiority of womb-mercy itself imparted to whatever word came to prevail for mercy the deeper component of compassion in the permutation and universalization of the sentiment and the vocabulary of mercy. This we find in the following assessment of the evolution of the concept and the term in various languages more modern than Sanskrit, Homeric Greek, and biblical Hebrew.
In the Septuagint, the pre-Christian translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek in Alexandria, the Hebraic womb-mercy became splánchna, the plural for entrails. Until this translation, c.130 B.C.E., the entrails had been understood by the Greeks only as the seat of anger, resentment, and irritation. Under the impact, however, of Judaism and then Christianity these became the bowels of mercy. In classical Greek splánchnon, plural (splánchna), could refer to a "noble organ" (heart, liver, etc.), which was put aside at an animal sacrifice to be consumed by the priestly celebrants and often by the proffering suppliants at the sacrifice. Within the Hellenistic Christian context where the ancient sacrifices had come to lose their potency, under the impact of Hebraic rachamim (mother-mercy, womb-mercy), its Septuagintal translation splánchna (literally: organs) now meant "mercy experienced" or "compassion extended." What in the sacrificial animal had been the object of special religious attention to secure divine mercy became gradually hominized so that the womb, the heart, the bowels now denoted the feeling or experience of the divine mercy. The Greek for the noble organs had acquired, under the impact of the Septuagint and the New Testament, a new emotional content from Hebraic/Aramaic womb-mercy.31 Accordingly, in the New Testament, the Greek noun for entrails (with verbs and adjectives derived therefrom) became one of the three major terms for mercy, alongside the two derived from wail-mercy (oîktos) and survivor-mercy (éleos). In the parable of Jesus about the prodigal son the father had compassion (splánchna, in a verbal form) and ran and embraced the penitent son (Luke 15:20). The parable was received as a pointer to the character of the divine Father.
The devotees of Jesus Christ as Lord were emboldened to think of God, the ultimate superior, as Creator, "who only hath immortality" (1 Timothy 6:16), as a hen gathering her brood under her wings (cf. Luke 13:34). Jesus (Luke 6:36) called the Creator Father and enjoined his own followers to be merciful (oiktírmnes), even as the Father is merciful (oiktírmn) (Luke 6:36). At this moment Jesus in the Greek--the original Aramaic can only be conjectured32--was ascribing to God the same cry (ôiktos) as that of the downtrodden,33 while Paul understood that "the whole creation groans and travails together until now" (Rom. 8:22), with the verbs for childbirth (synstenázein, synodínein) in the same compounding as sympathy.
In the liturgy of the Church, East and West, it evolved that the original teller of the tale of the prodigal son and his forgiving father was worshiped as the risen Lord of the Christian community, seated in their iconography at the right hand of God the Father, and was himself implored for mercy, Kúrie elson, "Lord have mercy upon us." The primordial éleos and its verbal form in the imperative had thereby come to resonate with the enlarged and deepened meaning of Hebraic womb-mercy. The term for womb in Greek had not undergone, like its Hebraic counterpart, such an extended development as to be able to carry the compassionate sense. (This Greek word for womb, hustéra, akin to the Latin uterus, did not develop in classical antiquity any derivatives of emotive significance; and even hysteria, originally a medical term, is post-classical in reference to the emotion of a distraught woman.) But the Koine Greek splánchna, along with éleos and ôiktos of archaic resonance, was enhanced in Gentile Christian and eventually in Byzantine Greek in sympathetic vibration with Aramaic and Hebraic intensities.
In the Syriac, Ephrem the Syrian (303-373) in his Hymns reflecting on the cosmic Christ and the hidden Saviour, notably in Hymn 4 on the Nativity, sang in a succession of ecstatic outbursts:
Joseph carried Him, yet hidden in Him was
a silent nature older than everything.
The Lofty One became like a little child, yet hidden in Him
was a treasure of Wisdom that suffices for all. . . .
As indeed He sucked Mary's milk,
He has given suck--life to the universe.
As again He dwelt in His mother's womb,
in His womb dwells all creation.
Mute He was as a babe, yet He gave
to all creation His commands.34
In the Latin Mass the Kúrie elson happens not to be a relic of the liturgy of the originally Greek-speaking church of Rome. Though a later importation from the Greek liturgy, the formulary evoked the same emotions and imposed the postures of supplication but now carried over in the context of Christian eschatological hope. In the liturgical evocation of that Lord at the reading of the Gospel he was also remembered as a simple but mysterious rabbi ministering among the marginal and outcast of his society, who had taught them in parable and had died on a cross. The Latin, Greek, and other ancient Christian liturgical cries besought the Lord to vouchsafe surcease from divine anger or from sorrow or from other kinds of human misery and from the anguish of sin and guilt. Christians had reason to believe that the heavenly Father revealed by Jesus was plenteous in mercy.
Early Christians of the Graeco-Roman world were recruited in part in the conviction that as devotees of Jesus Christ they were no longer slaves of fate (môira) or the objects of divine caprice but rather children of a provident divine Father and, in Christian antiquity, particularly as subjects of his resurrected and ascended Son as Lord of all, Christos Pantocrator. Among the earliest postures of Gentile Christian prayer (perhaps also supplication for mercy) was that of the suppliant standing with upstretched arms, the orans figure of the catacomb frescoes, atropaically fending off divine wrath and yet confidently imploring divine mercy. Eventually the posture of prostration and kneeling in prayer and supplication for mercy became widespread in basilicas and monasteries in the ongoing mutual exchange and imitation of phrasing and gesture, as between the ceremonial of the bishop's chair and altar, and the protocol of the imperial or royal throne room and judgment seat.
To the present day prostration and kneeling and bowing survive as degrees of intensity in liturgical behavior, the abject posture more strongly in the Byzantine and other Eastern rites than in the Latinate tradition, and in both East and West more elaborately and deeply during the monastic office than at the parish service. It is not possible to say anything for sure about change over the generations in the content and reverberation of the liturgical words for divine mercy and the affective accompaniment, as the formularies remain constant for generations. However, in the once nearly sequestered but still crowded churches of the Eastern rites, one sensed in the stirring Russian or Ukrainian liturgy the cry for mercy as a liturgical appeal for sheer clemency from the state as much as from God. But this is the subjective feeling of an empathetic observer who has often witnessed the same self-humbling cry in the churches of the same or related rites in the New World.
With all the archaisms and renewals of religion and its languages and gestures there is, in general, evidence that the words for mercy are over the generations religiously enhanced, that even where in most cases the generic term for mercy is not etymologically that of womb-mercy, the main term and its associate terms become deepened by the experiential reality of maternal love. Words that might have been in origin the mercy-wail of the survivor or the mercy-growl of the superior became the mercy-clasp and mercy-gasp of the most fundamental and deeply grounded of perhaps all the creaturely emotions besides eros, that of the mother for her offspring and the experience of this mercy as from above. The older words and kindred terms for womb-mercy became suffused with the more emotional meaning of God's tender, steadfast mercy for the progeny by faith.35
Classical Latin had a close equivalent of the Septuagintal and New Testament splánchna in misericordia. Already in Cicero this meant literally wretchedness in the heart or the breast (pericardium) of someone who knows sorrow and is acquainted with grief. When Jerome rendered the Old and the New Testament in Latin as the authoritative Vulgate, misericordia was his main term for rachamim, splánchna, mercy. "Have mercy upon me" of Psalm 51:1 and elsewhere became the supplicatory imperative, Miserere. In the parable of the prodigal son, for example, where the Greek had the verbal form of splánchna, Jerome has the father "moved by misericordia" (Luke 15:20). As a renewed people, the church of the elect was over the centuries bidden to "put on" "compassionate mercy" (spánchna oiktirmoű; viscera misericordiae, literally, the entrails of mercy), Colossians 3:12.
Even the Stoic emotionless clementia of superior mercy36 acquired in Christian usage and later in the Romance languages the component of compassion, taking it over from misericordia. The Latin language and its vernaculars have refined the terminology for what emotionally takes place among people and also what is thought to have been revealed about God himself.
Mercy in the sense of the emotion of compassion of the womb, as it passed especially from Hebraic scripture into major languages of civilization, was to be enriched by almost two thousand years of the experience of Christians growing out of the clarification of human emotions and the ascription of them to Deity and to the Mother of Christ as womb-love (rachamim, splánchna, misericordia), to permeate the meaning of the other words for pity and mercy not etymologically connected with the womb. An anonymous, ninth-century Latin hymn, Creator alme, freshly ascribed travail to the Fostering Creator as almost maternal, "To thee the travail deep was known that made the whole creation groan." The later medieval cult of the wound of the Side of Christ, turning into the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the later and analogous devotion to the Sacred Heart of Mary since the seventeenth century are iconographically and otherwise recognized as sublimated transpositions of the spirituality of womb-mercy as between the divine and human and among the devout of equal fervor, with corporate and even national expressions of the cult of Mary. The large degree to which this pervasive piety of the heart/womb in Catholic Christendom has sensitized people over the generations to this, the most tender and fostering of the elementary impulse toward mercifulness, can only be conjectured.37
Medieval German created from its own roots, on the analogy of misericordia, Barmherzigkeit, of which the basic roots were arm (poor) and Herz (heart), "poorness of heart," but such poorness as could be ascribed to God the Father, not only to Christ or to the Virgin Mary. As in Greek and Latin, so in the Romance languages and in the Germanic, the verbal form of Christianized mercy, whatever its original etymology, tended to become deponent. The bold originality of the German mystical adaptation of misericordia and éleos can be felt in the supplication Erbarme dich meiner!, addressed in confident supplication to Deity, literally: "Make thyself poor alongside me [in thy mercy]!"38
German did not simply vernacularize compassio, as did the Romance languages and English, but created the analogous Mitleid. Such compassion can only be experienced by a person for another person, whereas man can receive Erbarmen (mercy) as coming from God the superior and it is experienced as accorded to one powerless or in misery. In today's relatively classless society, Erbarmen would be commonly expressed by a person not so much for someone lower in the social scale as rather for a whole class of (distant) people or with regard to a suffering animal. In contrast, in feudal society the class distances were such that a higher-class person could express condescending Erbarmen for a human being in a class beneath, no doubt much less frequently toward animals.39
We have already noted the period in the history of French when merci meant alms, not as later the grateful response to the receiving of alms or to an act of kindness. Similarly the Latinized form, eleemosyna, of the Greek éleos (elemosúne), had given German Almosen and English alms, also almoner (from the French), a chaplain bringing comfort and the signs of God's mercy to the dying on the field of battle. The special interest attaching to the history of the German terms Erbarmen, Almosen, Mitleid ("compassion") is that philology here preserves fossil remains of the record of social and emotional shifts embedded in the amber words, illustrating how survivor-mercy and grimace-mercy40 are perpetuated, but, again, made more tender by the influence of that other kind of mercy, the maternal, raised to its ultimate level of sanction in the divine and, no doubt, also in Marian misericordia.
In the Slavic languages there are also two or three main words for mercy, e.g., in
Polish lito and miosierdzie, in Russian lytost' and milosertsie
(sosteradanie). The first in each pair meant originally just the opposite of mercy,
namely, cruelty or harshness.41 It suggests the mercy of the superior to an
inferior, in the face of harshness endured by the latter. The second in each pair is
related to misericordia but may have arisen independently, meaning piteous heart.
The fullness of the pericardium with love is in Polish osierdzie.
III. The Works of Mercy in the Western Church
In the various languages of old Christendom, popular piety and scholarly disquisition came to distinguish seven corporal works of mercy, six based upon Jesus' eschatological injunction in Matthew 25:34-40, namely, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, and, the seventh, on the basis of the holiness of the body as the temple of the Spirit, I Corinthians 3:16, to bury the dead--all summarized in the Latin verbs, cibo ("I feed," etc.), poto, tego, colligo, visito, redimo, and condo. The injunctions of Isaiah 58:6 f. were further adduced in substantiation of some of the works of mercy. In the background of systematization lay the gifts of the Holy Spirit enumerated in Isaiah 11:2, into which list of six the Vulgate had introduced a seventh, pietas in the sense of mercy. Alongside the seven corporal works of mercy (misericordia/pietas) there developed the seven spiritual works of mercy of Christians in relation to their neighbors or even strangers in peril of hell for want of, or weakness, in faith--and not primarily in the prospect of gaining a heavenly reward--namely, to instruct the ignorant (or missionize or evangelize), to counsel the doubtful, to admonish the sinful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offenses, to comfort the afflicted, and to pray for the living and the dead (summarized in the imperatives, doce, consule, carpe, porta, remitte, solare, and ora).
In the Summa Theologica42 Thomas Aquinas was representative and eventually authoritative when, drawing upon Scripture, classical tradition, and popular piety, he defined mercy (misericordia) in human beings as "grief (dolor) for another's distress" or, more fully, quoting Augustine, "compassion in our heart for another's distress, impelling us to succor him if we can."43 In God mercy is an attribute; in man, a virtue. Although in relation to God human mercy has no role and is superseded by love, "in all the virtues which relate to our neighbor mercy is the greatest." Mercy toward the neighbor, a movement or stirring of passion ruled by reason, was also placed by Aquinas among the eight beatitudes.
Human feelings have evolved under the influence of the great religions. However distant one may feel today from the beliefs and practices of any of them, at least our several languages reveal in their terms for pity, mercy, and compassion the common roots in the rich heritage of centuries of human life under the guidance of various religions emerging from the womb of history, indeed from the entrails of higher animal life. We are fellow creatures together with comparable organs and glands all linked in each of us by nerves to the oldest parts of the brain but refined in sensitivity and scope by the hovering spirit of the Transcendent that sustains "the quality of mercy that droppeth as the gentle rain upon the earth beneath." In an enlightened disposition toward the meek and mute denizens of the other parts of the realm of creation we draw upon that quality of which Shakespeare wrote in an age of absolute monarchs and imperious doges: "Earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice" (Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 2) and, we may add, a kindred quality moderates utilitarian self-interest.
These traditional and scholastic injunctions of mercy have been so woven into the
texture of Christian societies, into their iconography and practical piety that, even when
the schematizations may not be any longer present to the mind, they nevertheless still
dispose people to act in their spirit. And in their specificity the several medieval
schemas can serve as pointers for the extrapolation of mercy in the direction of the
creaturely world; and indeed the lives of some of the ancient and medieval saints abound
in accounts of gropings toward the enlargement of the scope of human mercy toward fellow
creatures, best exemplified in St. Francis of Assisi, declared by John Paul II the Patron
Saint of Ecology (1979), on whose feast he invited to the Franciscan Basilica in Assisi
150 representatives of a dozen world religions, including animist, Hindu, Buddhist,
Parsee, Jewish, and Muslim. Celebrating Mass in the basilica of Paray-le-Monial of the
Visitation Nuns in the same year, he recalled the visions (1673-1675) of St. Margaret Mary
Alacoque who shaped the modern devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
III. Mercy as a Component of a People's Ecological Ethic
The significance of an inquiry into the accumulation of biological and especially socio-psychological, philological, and religious evidence of the concept and attribute of mercy is that it developed gradually to the point where the word itself has been largely displaced in modern vocabularies. Mercy is, nevertheless, a predictable trait or potential with an assured grounding in persons of all religions, races, classes, and conditions. In education and public policy we may move toward the further sensitization of the young in the nurture of an inherent, humane mercy, sanctioned by religions, now to be extended to lesser creatures. We may reasonably trust that its scope may be further enlarged in line with a general evolution towards humaneness to support, first an ethos of sensitivity and at length an ecological ethic of mercy toward all creatures.
John Paul II, the most representative Christian at this juncture in history, in his second encyclical, Dives in misericordia, Rich in Mercy (November 1980), permitted himself in a footnote longer than any papal document on record, to go further than any Pontiff before him in giving the full meaning of the Hebraic original of his texts from the Old Testament. In the note he remarked that the Hebrew was far more sensitive to the various kinds of mercy than the Greek Septuagint. He expressly suggested that rachamim was "a 'feminine' variation of the masculine fidelity to self [in the manifestation of mercy] expressed in chesed."44 In Rich in Mercy, although the Pope was addressing the whole world and the nations, families and members of all kinds of institutions, political and eleemosynary, and of his own Church, he did not, in reflecting on the mercy of God and mercy among nations, extend his moving summons in application of mercy toward the creaturely world and fellow creatures in the human environment.
However, in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, The Redeemer of Man, John Paul II, well-known lover of nature himself, did speak out against the exploitation of nature, the most extensive treatment of the subject in any papal document to date. The most important passage perhaps is the following:
The exploitation of the earth not only for industrial but also for military purposes and the uncontrolled development of technology outside the framework of a long-range authentically humanistic plan often bring with them a threat to man's environment, alienate him in his relations with nature and remove him from nature. Man often seems to see no other meaning in his natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption. Yet it was the Creator's will that man should communicate with nature as an intelligent and noble "master" and "guardian" and not as heedless "exploiter" and "destroyer."45
In his letter on the fifteenth centenary of the birth of Benedict, Patron Saint of Europe (so elevated by Paul VI), John Paul II put in prominence the sense of the saint for both "the Book of Scripture" and "the Book of Nature," from either of which one could read the revelation and intention of the Creator.46 In his address on the centenary of the elevation of St. Thomas Aquinas as the principal guide in philosophy for Catholics, John Paul went out of his way in his alma mater, the Angelicum, now the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, to note the feeling of the Angelic Doctor, as a mystic no less than as Dominican scholastic, for the interconnection between the Creator and the cosmos and his delight in the splendor and vitality of the innumerable bonds (the Great Chain of Being) constantly upholding the complex tissue of the whole created order of which man is only a part, but the rational part, reflective of the divine image. In the ninetieth anniversary commemoration of Leo XIII's Rerum novarum (16 May 1981), John Paul II in revisiting the problem of labor and alienation, expressly warned against the ruthless ravagement of "Mother Earth," a phrase taken from the fifth stanza of the Canticle of the Sun by St. Francis of Assisi.47 No Pope has spoken more passionately and extensively in behalf of the environment than the Polish Pontiff.
Whereas an ecological ethic on the part of the pope can be intimated, there are more explicit moves in this direction in papers that have ecumenical status in the World Council of Churches. Its unit, Church and Society, turned expressly to ecology in the course of its international deliberations at a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, July 1979. Indeed, several sections of the ensuing Report On Faith and Science in an Unjust World dealt with "nature, humanity, and God in ecological perspective," with "creation in a time of ecological unsustainability," with the "solidarity [of humankind and nature] in conflict," and with "the ecological and moral necessity of limiting economic growth."48 In these and related papers Christian strategies were set forth in full awareness of the ecological crisis.
The paper by the Australian biologist and vice-moderator of the conference, Charles Birch,49 moved palpably close to what has been set forth here. Birch observed the dominant mechanistic cosmology that conceives of the universe "as a gigantic contrivance grinding on its way relentlessly to an uncertain eternity," although he felt that the most profound scholars on the frontiers of particle physics, molecular biology, and astrophysics were far advanced, with colleagues in other fields, in altering this world-view. Drawing upon the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, he sought to show the limits of all anthropocentric environmentalist strategies and attendant ethics. He picturesquely classified the various "instrumental ethics" as the silo view of nature, the laboratory, the gymnasium, and the cathedral view of nature (the last as the place of inspiration of human beings). He proposed to supplement these variants of an instrumental, environmentalist ethic with a truly ecological "live-ethic." Holding that "God feels the universe in its joy and its agony as it evolves," as not only giving love but also "as responsive to love," Birch considered sentience as "the criterion of intrinsic value" and held that "there must be a hierarchy of intrinsic value from lesser creatures through mammals to the human." He raised the question implied at several points along the present trail through the philology of religion and the emerging ethic of divine and human mercy extended into the realm of nature: "But can we persuade people to act with consideration and restraint and compassion with respect to non-human creatures, when they are so blind even to anthropocentric values?!" He answered the question thus: "The alternative is ecological unsustainability and yet greater injustice--an ecologically sustainable earth is a necessary requirement for distributive justice. . . . The only way this can come about is for the rich world to reduce its standard of living."50
In a theologically conservative paper based on Scripture, Pastor Gerhard Liedke of Heidelberg made an equally spirited defense of ecosystems, a summons to humaneness and restraint in dealing with food and laboratory animals. Under the subheading, "The groaning of the creation and its hope," he made clear that ktísisin the Pauline passage, Romans 8:22, alluded to in the subheading, does mean the non-human order, that in an eschatological context creatures also in their mute and unknowing way look for "liberation from the constraints that do violence to them."51 He sensed the solidarity of these creatures and human beings in conflict, where it is for us to be compassionately merciful, although the word is not used: "Christians and non-human creation. . . form not merely a community of suffering but rather a community of hope."52
A book by a scholarly Lutheran minister, H. Paul Santmire represents a further step into the wilderness for its own sake, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (1985).53 The title itself suggests the themes of suffering and mercy. Santmire helpfully distinguishes two thrusts in the history of Christianity out of its Hebraic and Hellenic antecedents, namely, the spiritual and the ecological motif. It is his view that Christianity has induced primarily an ethic of the mastery of nature and this in two ways, both under the heading of spiritual, namely, the ethic of dominion over nature because of man's superiority, and the mysticism of degrading nature and human nature in order to come closer to God. Under these two spiritual drives, so disparate in their direct consequences for nature, he includes even the mysticism of the Great Chain of Being. Over against this major thrust of two prongs, Santmire identifies a biblical concern for the land and for nature and their redemption along with man. He finds scriptural and traditional support for his ecological motif which for him involves the Christian in friendship with all creatures as with Francis of Assisi. Santmire, too, comes close to a Christian theological ethic of travail, mutual suffering, and mercy, although he does not use the key word.
In calling for mercy toward the creatures and their habitats that have till now survived our onslaughts, we have seen that there may well be in the three religions of Abraham--in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--but also in other religions originating in Asia, a universal basis for grounding an ecological ethic and for inducing the motivation to implement it among the followers of these religions and those culturally and ethically nurtured by them. Ecologists prepared to resort to the long-range education of sentiment and desirous of favorable administrative and legislative decisions have, evidently, in many religious people potential allies, perhaps most natural of all in certain traditions in the former "Third World." Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto have rich resources of sensibility for the formulation in our age of an ethic of conservation and ecological mercy.54
What in Saul with Agag was actually condemned in the name of Yahweh by Samuel, what in Achilles was granted aged Priam, what in Chrétien de Troyes was enjoined upon a Christian knight toward a vanquished fellow knight, we have in the fullness of time come to feel requisite and humane in dealing with all our fellow human beings and may be on the point of extending to our fellow creatures. And to construe mercy and the works of mercy in reference to the realm of nature involves only a further cumulative shift on the scale of enlarged sensibility, a move already made in many individuals and whole segments of society. In this we also go beyond religion to a humanism and humanitarianism common to believer and unbeliever alike insofar as we have all moved along gradually toward ever more extended expressions of compassion. We preserve from its complex origins in the human condition the presumption of the evident superiority of our human species over others precisely in that quality of mercy. In this understanding of mercy, the anthropopathic fallacy of projecting active or latent sentiments into the realm of nature itself is avoided; even in the higher species such emotions may be present if only in rudimentary form. At the same time, we may rightly invest the same attribute of mercy with as much tenderness for fellow creatures as is deemed appropriate.
Mercy thus deepened and refined can still never be the same as for our fellow human beings in our still to be universalized humanitarianism. But the mercy of the superior species, our rachamim, splánchna, misericordia, merci, pietŕ, Barmherzigkeit, miosierdzie, the compassion in the extension of our concern for the right of survival of all species, regardless of their present or potential utility or worth in our eyes, constrains us to spare, impels us to be humane, and, ultimately to be even benignly and magnanimously disinterested rather than merely utilitarian. Mercy is heedless of cost effectiveness and moves us to be increasingly compassionate in our dealings with sentient individuals of other species, wild and domestic, in our treatment of them personally, institutionally, collectively, whether in the wilds, in wildlife ranges, in zoos, laboratories, barnyards, food factories, or slaughterhouses, and in the still intact ecosystems of fabulous interdependent variety and frailty, even also in pitiable wretchedness.
As Zeus was once believed to bestow mercy only on the poor and the handicapped, so man, the superior, may envisage a still further evolving capacity for compassionate mercy as extensible toward lesser creatures. The general love for nature, the rise of the humane,55 and other eleemosynary societies (including those for penal reform), all these and the other manifestations of costly concern represent the interrelated enlargement of the three primordial kinds of mercy within us, awaiting further refinement and application.
To be merciful is to go beyond religion to a humanism and humanitarianism potentially common to believers and non-believers. "Be merciful (oiktírmn), even as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36; cf. Deuteronomy 4:31, rachum) said Jesus: for "blessed are the merciful (hoi elemnes)," whether or not they believe in God, "for they shall obtain mercy!" (Matthew 5:7). To save others including other creatures, and thus eventually ourselves, we need no other sanction for an ethic that will help spare the nurturing earth, seas, and skies than that based upon mercy extended to that point, when in God's providence or in the evolving sensibility of the human race, clementia will descend like gentle rains upon the place beneath. Under the canopy of longed-for peace and justice among peoples, our capacity for mercy involves us as the superiors among creatures if we would, with our fellow creatures, be survivors: either we exercise imperial clementia toward nature now seemingly within our control for ages to come or, better still, we implement a universal misericordia in our extended "reverence for life"56 in all its plenitude and fragile interdependence.
In being merciful toward the creaturely world, we may also become more compassionate with each other. We belong to that world from which we sprang, but which we have powers to destroy. Loren Eiseley, a student of anthropology and the natural world, wrote:
Man is not as other creatures and. . . without the sense of the holy, without compassion, his brain can become a gray stalking horror.57
In our show of mercy we are mindful that at our technologically advanced and
emotionally refined level, we are manifesting impulses of survival and comfort common to
us and many higher living creatures. For we draw upon deep springs of humane energy built
up over the generations and the millennia of life's collective experience around the globe
in our swift, strenuous, and imaginative acts of mercy toward all creation. "We know
that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the
creation, but we ourselves. . . groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as
sons and daughters, stewards of the Most High" (cf. Roman 8:22f.).
1. This paper, dedicated to Boena Choodziska, was originally presented at a symposium of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in its chambers in Jamaica Plain (its House now in Cambridge) as "Mercy as a Universalized, Non-Utilitarian Component of an Emerging Environmental Ethic," projected by John Voss and Robert Nash, 1985, and it still retains in parentheses a few references to papers of other participants, e.g., Edward O. Wilson, who published his contribution in Biophilia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984). The present writer previously published several works on the important minor motif in the Bible of man as steward of creation as much as lord (n. 6).
2. It is in Volume VII of the Works, edited by James Spedding et al. (Boston, 1863); it is translated by B. Farrington in The Philosophy of Francis Bacon: An Essay on Development from 1603 to 1609(Liverpool, 1964). The Instauratio remained incomplete at the death of Bacon.
3. The reader is aware that alongside mercy, even in cultured society, a streak of violence, bigger in some than others, can crop out. One thinks here of William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954) and the experiments of Stanley Milgram on docile, then facile obedience to usurped authority, The Individual in a Social World (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1977).
4. Mark Sagoff in a series of studies has gone far in tracing the permutations of utilitarian motivation in successive ecological strategies. He has summarized much of his thought with cross references in "Economic Theory and Environmental Law," Michigan Law Review, 79:1393-1419 and "We Have Met the Enemy. . . Conflict Contradiction in Environmental Law," North West School of Law of Lewis and Clark College, Environmental Law, 12:283-315.
5. For recent titles here, see Christopher Stone, Should Trees Have Standing?: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects (New York: Avon Books, 1975); Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (New York: Random House, 1975); Stephen R. L. Clark, The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977); also the Review Discussion of Stone (1970) and Singer (1975) by John Rodman, "The Liberation of Nature?" Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy and the Social Sciences (Oslo/Boston), 20 (1977):83-131; Tom Megan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983). The studies of Stephen R. Kellert show, among many other things, that humanist, moralist, aesthetic, naturalist, ecological, and scientific concerns for animals and habitats are registered by about 88% of the American population. See his A Bibliography of Human/Animal Relationships (Lanham, Maryland: University Press, 1985), with Joyce Berry; Children's Attitudes, Knowledge and Behavior Toward Animals (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, ); Knowledge, Affection and Basic Attitudes Towards Animals in American Society (Washington, D.C.: Department of Interior, ), with Joyce Berry; and again with Joyce Berry, Public Attitudes Toward Critical Wildlife and Natural Habitat Issues (Washington, D.C.: Department of Interior, 1982). These and other studies show that women are conspicuously high in registering humanist-humane attitudes.
6. My own major writings in the area of religion and nature are Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought (New York: Harper, 1972) and "Christian Attitudes towards Nature," Christian Scholar's Review, 2 (1971):3-35; 112-126.
7. Keenly conscious of cruelty in Church history, I cite my own work "Four Modalities of Violence," Journal of Church and State, 14 (1974):11-35; 237-261. This long piece, dealing also with the theory of Georges Sorel, himself drawing upon Church history, was first set forth as "Faith and Ferocity: Reflections on Violence in Church History," the Underwood Lecture, Middletown, Connecticut, c.1974.
8. The inclusion of the German Schadenfreude, "malicious joy in the hurt of another," in the series in parentheses may trivialize this end of the gamut, as also Sadism, from the writings of Donatien A.F. Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), but the history of cruelty needs a gradation of terms.
9. Alternative terms for survivor-mercy are wail-mercy and dirge-mercy, for the moment, unique to the present essay but intelligible within it.
10. Michael Gerson, M.D. of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center is prominent in the research that shows how the enteric nervous system of two networks of neural connections, phylogenically related to that of creatures drawing their nutriment from the passing currents, in the course of evolution became connected, by the vagus nerve, to, in human beings, the conscious brain. It has some hundred million neurons--more than the spinal cord. Gerson edited Development of the Neural Crest (New York: Wiley, c.1993). The present writer had access to this specialized material only through an article by Sandra Blakeslee in the New York Times, "Science Times," 23 January 1996, C1, C3. This article is indirectly confirmatory of, but not formative in, the writing of the present piece.
It is notable that the anatomically sophisticated Pharaonic Egyptians meticulously preserved all the noble organs and the entrails in separate sepulchral jars, after having scraped the skull free of grey matter, while the Japanese samurai warrior, for his caste or his personal honor, mobilized the energies of his brain to plunge the knife into the enteric neural system of his bowels in hara-kiri (seppuku).
11. Since mercy is the key word of the essay, the medieval French usage may be set forth in context. Perceval (Parzifal) learns from his mentor in chivalry, Gornemans de Gorhaut, uncle of Blancheflor, that he should never slay a fallen knight and then, in casual transition, that he should be spare in speech and that he should protect "the afflicted man, woman, or orphan":
Et [Gornemans] dist: "Biax frere, or vos soviegne [happen], Se il avaient qu'il vos coviegne [needful]
Combatre a aucun chevalier,
Iche vos weil dire et proier:
Se vos en venz al desus,
Que vers vos ne se poďt plus
Desfendre ne contretenir,
Ainz l'estuece a merchi venir,
Gardz que merchi en aiez
N'encontre che ne l'ociiez [kill]."
The three marks of the knight are followed by the counsel to seek out a monastery, there to pray "unto Him who has created all things that He have merchi on your soul, and that, in this terrestrial age, He guard you as His Christian," lines 2760-62/1668-71. Le Roman de Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal, edited by William Roach (Geneva/Lille, 1956), pp. 48f. For other examples, see Wendelin Foerster, Wörterbuch zu Kristian von Troyes' sämtlichen Werken(Tübingen, 1966). Charles Brucker, Sage et sagesse au moyen âge (XIIe et XIIIe sičcles: Études historiques, sémantiques et stylistiques du vocabulaire de l'ancien Français (Geneva: Droz, 1986).
12. For ôiktos as the cry of lament, see A. Walde, Vergleichendes Wörterbuch der Indogermanischen Sprachen 3 vols. (Berlin: Goschen, 1930), II, sp. 105 f.; Carl Buck, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 1125. The Greek oiktír is related to the Gothic aghtron, "to beg." Buck, op. cit., p. 1125. Cf. Doederlin, Homerisches Glossarium, 3 vols. (Erlangen, 1853), II, item 959: "Oîktosverhält sich zu leos wie miseratio zu misericordia; ein Jammerton, bald über Unglück, aus Mitgefühl, misericordia."
13. Achilles in the Iliad, on the death of Patroclus, his barbarian friend and lover, conducted a funeral in which human victims were slain (13.23.171ff.). The pre-Homeric practice of funerary victims may be Etruscan in origin. The first funerary fight to the death (in place of bound sacrifice) is recorded by Rome in the market place at the death of an aristocrat in 204 B.C.E. The Colosseum is an enlargement in massive stone of the earlier temporary benches. The term bustuarii for gladiators preserves the funerary motif (bustum: urn). I have not found a connection between funeral grief involving human sacrifice (direct or through the combat of captives) and dirge-"mercy." I fear there may be. Mercy and vengeance might be as close as love and hate. Roland August, Cruelty and Civilization: The Roman Games: From Rites to Spectacles, translated from the French (London: Allen & Unwin, 1972); Michael Grant, Gladiators (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1967, 1971); Ludwig Friedländer, Roman Life and Manners Under the Early Empire, 4 vols. trans. (1909, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968), II, "Spectacles."
14. Greek môira means "fates," "death," but also "portion": the apportionment of death by Fate, but perhaps also the portions at the funeral feast. It may be that Daya was in Hinduism the daughter of Daksha, a god, and mother of Abhaya.
15. Thrnos, góos, iach for wail and grief are also probably onomatopoeic in origin. In a cemetery in Thebes I once stood at a respectful distance from two women in black engaged in a fearsome liturgical wail, along with two well dressed little boys. One of the women in her almost bloodcurdling dirge poured, so far as I could make out, a mixture of honey and wine (the honey offerings, ta meilíchia) through a straw into the ground oozing downward to the body beneath. Suddenly the formal dirge stopped. The four eventually passed by me and I could see no visible emotion of grief on the face of either woman, apparently mother and adult daughter. After having by utter chance beheld this most unusual survival in an Orthodox cemetery of a pre-Christian funeral libation, I presently drew nigh to inspect the inscription. The deceased, a seamstress, evidently the mother of the two little boys and the daughter and sister respectively of the two black dirgists, had been only recently interred; and I found myself to my horror standing on the femur of the earlier occupant of the ancient, renewable grave. As close as were these two Christian women to the departed, their act of mercy, éleos, seemed to be more the "howl" of survivors than the full compassion of tearful grief.
16. Welsh arbed, Breton erbed. Buck op. cit., p. 1125.
17. In the six Celtic languages, from the Outer Hebrides to Brittany, from Scottish Gaelic to Breton, the root words for mercy, insofar as they are related to womb-mercy, seem all to derive from variant Celtic renderings of the Vulgate and may not, therefore, witness to an aboriginal presence of anything like miseri-cordia among the pre-Christianized Celts. From the Vulgate, presumably, they had, to take Irish Gaelic for example trócaire. This is from tróg, "the wretched or miserable one," joined with -car, "caring for or sympathizing with," in the rendering , e.g., of mercy in Ps. 23:6, Prov. 20:28, Matt. 5:7. The Würzburg Old Irish gloss on Phil. 2.1 (si qua viscera misericordiae is bad inna trocaire: "let it be bowels of mercy." Whitley Stokes and John Strachan. Thesaurus Paleo-Hibernicus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1901-1903), 2.646.
In pre-Christianized Celtic traditions of naked warriors giving no quarter in battle, asked at most for delay in battle (sasad catha), truculently disdaining mercy, all the more remarkable in societies in which women had a relatively high social status and were occasionally war chieftains themselves. Nevertheless, in the realm of superior-mercy, the ancient and the Christianized Celts had two words for clemency. One, in modern Irish, iocht, is natural good feeling, related to (1) clemency, (2) deed, and (3) tribe or clan. A refugee from the local rigors of the law of the clan might seek clemency (iocht) from a non-kinsman by making an appeal to his hospitality. Another in modern Irish is remission from the ordinary penalty in a society where the lawgivers were a learned caste with law memorized and sacrally communicated, from generation to generation, orally in complex formularies. This Celtic material draws wholly on clarifications made for the author by Charles William Dunn, Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures, Emeritus, Harvard University.
In one of the ancestral languages of the author, Welsh (which of the six Celtic languages was historically the most intermingled with that of the conquering Saxons, then Normans), there are several words for mercy: trugarredd, ciried, cirwn, maddenuant, pardwn(clearly a loan word), criefiant, tynerwch, hynawsedd, gwuaredd (possibly a loan word). Another word, aig, means at once "womb," "female," "flock," and "sea." Tosturi, as "bowels," reflects the influence of the English Bible on the Welsh.
18. It may be related to e, e, woe, woe.
19. Iliad, XXIV, lines 19, 23, 174, 301. LXXIII (1955), pp. 129-71, especially 137-43.
20. Iliad, lines 44, 207, and then been divinely inspired with it, 309, 332, cf. 357, 503f. 516. In this line oîktos is used uniquely in book XXIV.
21.The last by Hecuba; there are many sons in Troy whom Priam scorns.
22. Iliad XXIV, lines 503f. When in line 506 Achilles has pity, he is said to be oiktírn.
23. The martial strand in the evolution of mercy as a term and as a disposition can be seen in the "cry for quarter" (a military term common to Europeans at least by the seventeenth century), an appeal for mercy in general but more precisely for the right to be taken prisoner by laying down arms and hoisting a white flag. The Hague Regulations forbid declaring to an enemy that no quarter (no mercy) will be given.
24. Poetics, 6, 1477 b. 26.
25. See Wolfgang Schadewaldt, "Furcht und Mitleid?," Hermes, 73 (1955):129-171, especially 137-143. Aristotle's éleos (pity, mercy) is also discussed by Cornelis W. van Boekel, Katharsis: Een filologische reconstructie psychologie van Aristoteles omtrent het gevoelsleven (Utrecht, 1957); expansively reviewed by H. Flashar, Gnomon, 31 (1959): 210-216. It is of interest in our general account that Aristotle located the beginnings of friendship in mother-love, akin to womb-mercy, Nicomachean Ethics, 8.11 (159A--B).
26. This history of envy and cultural transfer of male and female traits in general is yet to be written. I found suggestive Bruno Bettelheim who may have first proposed womb-envy in men, Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male (Glencoe, IL.: Free Press, 1954), M. Bardwick, Psychology of Women: A Study of Bio-cultural Conflicts (New York: Harper & Row, 1971); and Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).
27. Two other verbs are chasad and chanan, with the noun chaninah.
28. In the pantheon of the Northwest Semitic peoples there were three principal goddesses: Ashtart, the courtesan, Anat, the war goddess, and Asherah (plural of "majesty" or "epiphany:" Asheroth), the mother of the gods. She was pictured as naked on a lion holding a snake. She was at first the consort of El. She and Baal together were the goddess and god of fertility and rites of abomination in the Old Testament: infanticide for him, cakes and temple prostitution for Asherah, although the ritual act of her priestess appears to have been as a solitary (on the female side, comparable to the onanistic Pharaoh in his annual ritual inducement of the fertility of the Nile). Asherah, though mother of the gods and creatrix, in her eros-fertility as well as in her womb-mercy does not completely disappear in the vestiges in the Hebrew and Canaanite relics of the embrace of consortless Yahweh/Elohim. Indeed the best evidence of her maternal role is better documented in the Old Testament Canaanites than in the Ugaritic tablets.
29. F.W. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (London: University Press, 1958); Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973); Steven Davies, "The Canaanite Goddess," The Book of the Goddess Past and Present, ed. by Carl Olesen (New York: Crossroad, 1983).
30. Arabic has another word for mercy, afaga. It is more commonly used of compassion and mercy among human beings, while only one of the two adjectives for mercy in God can also be used of human beings. afaga is related to afaq, which is the pre-sunrise and the post-sunset light or redness in the sky at the horizon and the calm and peace of the two twilights. It is not certain whether the second major word for human mercy is analogous to clementia (metereological calm), below, note 28, or whether it is related specifically to the reception of the divine mercy at these two especially important times on the desert of sunset and sunrise for two of the five daily prayers of Islam (salat). The Muslim mystics have also a word for mercy as the almost fragrant balm of grace bestowed upon them in the calm of contemplation.
The womb-mercy, ramah, of Allah, was so outstanding and distinctive that it passed into Turkish without much change (ramet) as a loan word, while the second word, modified as evkat to mean primarily human mercy, joined the native word agi. In the shamanite religion of the original Turks agi meant "bitterness," "pain," "pity," and "mercy," clearly following an already established trend in other languages. At the same time another native word for "cry," like éleos, provided the root for the funeral dirge, ait. And in both Arabic and Turkish the root for womb-mercy can also designate the objects of survivor-mercy, namely, the deceased, and by extension the place of their abode, Paradise.
"The further you go into the desert, the closer you come to God," says an ancient Arabic proverb. In the face of rapid social and economic change and cultural dislocation in the suddenly rich Arab states there is evidence that the yearning for the peace of the desert ways is widespread and deep in the denizens of modern housing and commercial complexes and in the air conditioned palaces, and that nostalgia for camels and falcons and the stillness of dawn motivates not a few in power to respond to appeals for nature conservancy and the protection of the desert flora and fauna. The first oryxes were recently returned to their ancient habitat after protection abroad.
31. The Old Testament chesed became in Hellenistic Greek éleos. There was a strong tendency in the translation of the Bible into Greek to use words less anthropopathic of God, making him seem more remote, transcendent. That the Greek word for viscera was allowed to carry so important a meaning as womb-mercy in God suggest the force of the original Hebrew term. Cf. Hans Kurath, The Semantic Sources of the Words for the Emotions in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and the Germanic Languages (Menasha, Wisc.: George Ganta, 1921), 15f.
32. The Syriac translation of the Greek here even reverts to its root word for womb-mercy.
33. The parallel in Matthew 5:7 renders merciful with a verbal form of éleos.
34. Kathleen E. McVey, trans., The Classics of Western Spirituality, A Library of Great Spiritual Masters, edited by Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 100.
35. For some related material, see Hendrik Bolkenstein , Wohltätigkeit und Armenpflege im vorchristlichen Altertum (Utrecht, 1939); Walter Burkert, Zum altgreichischen Mitleidsbegriff (Erlangen, 1955); Anneliese Paul, Die Barmherzigkeit der Götter im griechischen Epos (Vienna, 1969); and Helmut Köster, "Splánchna," Gerhard Kittel et al. eds., Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, 10 vols. in 11 (Stuttgart, 1932-1979), VII: 1 (1960), 548-559.
36. Clemency is akin to pity. It is remote, associated with a personage of power. The metaphor relates to the atmosphere. When the Stoic philosopher Seneca besought clemency from his all-powerful erstwhile pupil, Nero, he did not in De Clementia expect the vicious Emperor Nero to be stirred with emotion but only to become calm. The etymology of clemency is meteorological and marine: of a mild summer's day or a sea without motion (cf. Greek galnóts), although in several of the Romance languages the word eventually became invested with mercy in the compassionate sense.
There is the specialized study of G. J. ten Veldhuis, De Misericordiae et clementiae apud Senecam usu atque ratione (Groningen, 1935). R. A. Gautier, Magnanimité: idéal de la grandeur (Paris: Vrin, 1951), shows that magnanimity, originally a sign of superiority, was gradually democratized and given emotional content.
37. The literature is extensive, e.g., J. V. Bainvel, La dévotion au Sacré-Coeur de Jésus (1906), G. de Becker, "Les Sacrés-Coeurs de Jésus et de Marie," Études Picpuciennes, 5 (1959): 239-437; Caroline W. Bynum, Jesus as Mother (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
It is of interest that the phrase "bleeding heart liberal" may have first developed in American Catholic circles of traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party, with its liberal and conservative wings in the great coalition of the Roosevelt era. Its use is first documented in the 'thirties in the anti-Rooseveltian columnist Westbrook Pegler (1894-1969), educated in a Catholic academy. He used it pejoratively of a person he considered ostentatiously concerned for humanitarian causes; but the term would appear to allude to both the Sacred Heart of Jesus, exposed as pierced and bleeding, and perhaps especially to the Blessed Heart of Mary, pierced "in anguish that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed" (Luke 2:35). The "bleeding heart liberals" within the Democratic Party were indeed the compassionate men and women who legislated for the dispossessed, the poor, and also for the tribal and personal rights of Native Americans, in and off reservations, and for many conservation measures. Pegler's hard-headed characterization of bleeding hearts, though intended to disparage compassionate people, serves also to substantiate the interconnection of the language of compassion and religion.
In the Hail Mary of Catholic piety, her virgin womb is full of grace; her heart represents also, at least in part, a displacement upward of that by which she became for Catholic piety the merciful mother. The concern of bleeding heart liberals for humanitarian and humane causes is in line with the evolution and the transfer of womb-mercy; and its deepening and universalizing effect as documented in the ever-enlarging sensibility of the merciful. Perhaps the philological and religious survey of the evolving meanings of mercy rehabilitates the bleeding heart liberals so far as concerns the depth of their motivations.
38. In Armenian there are parallels to the Greek, Latin and Germanic development. The Armenians were the first nation to be converted to Christianity. Their first rendering of the Bible was from the Syriac; but in the fifth century it was thoroughly reworked over against the Septuagintal text, which, as we have noted, had not rendered the Hebraic womb-mercy with a word of counterpart root, but rather with the counterpart of entrails, splánchna becoming Armenian aghik'. However, there seems to be a trace of mercy of the womb (argand) in the Armenian argahatel, "to have compassion." It is of interest to note that in rendering the liturgical Kúrie eléson, Armenian, an Indo-European language (without gender), made of it a plea of the faithful to the Lord, as the superior, the omnipotent, to make himself poor with the wretched of the earth. The word for mercy (ogh ormut'iwn) was made up of the root for poor (orghorm), the counterpart of arm in the Germanic renderings. And the Armenian uses this same word for mercy in a logically improved translation of Proverbs 12:10 (cf. the Hebrew earlier quoted in translation): "The righteous man has compassion (oghormut'iwn) on his beast but the wicked has no compassion."
39. Although a state governor in our day can grant, in the light of extenuating circumstances, a pardon or a judge show mercy toward a convicted criminal being sentenced, actually the use of the word mercy on the part of a superior ex officio has declined in American usage, as possibly in other countries, a sign, however, not of a decline of compassion, rather the contrary; but the quality of mercy has long since so affected an increasingly compassionate society that the word and the mindset of the superior showing mercy to, say the handicapped, would be unacceptable to the merciful himself or the beneficiary of this heightened sensibility.
40. The essay has not pursued the grimace of laughter, the origins of derision, sneer, in the other neuro-facial expressions of the feelings of superiority. See Henri Bergson. Le Rire ("Laughter". Paris, 1901). Bergson had sought the primordial origins of the musculature of the face even after laughter could become laughter-with instead of laughter-at.
41. Buck, op. cit., p. 1126; Franciszek Klause, Sownik etymologiczny jzyka polskiego, 23 (Cracow, 1972):303-305.
42. II. A2ae.32.2. Aquinas arranges differently the order of the Seven Spiritual Words of Mercy as remedies for defects: "Praying for others," "instructing," "counselling," "consoling," "reproving," "forgiving," and "bearing with the infirmities of the weak." In developing the seven spiritual works for Western Christendom (not the same in the exegetical traditions of the Eastern Churches), Aquinas and his successors cited, under prayer for others, James 5:6, Col. 1:3.9, and 2 Maccabees 12:45. For other scriptural citations, see the article by Patricia M. Vinje, "Spiritual Works," Encyclopoedia of Catholicism, edited by Richard P. McBrien. San Francisco: Harper/Collins, 1995), 854f.
43. Thomas sorts out the meanings of mercy in Summa Theologica, Part 2, second part, question 30 in four articles. See also under misericordia in Roy J. Deferrari, A Latin-English Dictionary of St. Thomas Aquinas (Boston, 1960), p. 685. For the iconography of the works of mercy, see Karl Künstle, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 2 vols. (Freiburg in Breisgau, 1928/1926), I:194-199. In the Christocentric elaboration of mercy in Christian thought, the motivation for the extension of mercy to all fellow human beings is the inclusiveness of the doctrine of the imago Dei in the counsel of imitatio Christi. Christianity has not found a simple way beyond human kind for the implementation of the works of mercy among animals; for in the creation account in Genesis 1, it was precisely the imago Dei doctrine that set human beings decisively apart from animals and other creatures. But to the degree that Thomas understood mercy as a kind of sadness, a tristitia saeculi and tristitia secundum Deum ("sadness because of the world," " sadness because of God"), works were to be implemented in the eschatological context of a Last Judgment. The medieval and scholastic specificities as to mercy in the world could be appropriately drawn out to encompass all creatures, the more so as mercy is defined as a passion of sympathy regulated by reason.
44. The Pope used the now preferred international transliteration of the Hebrew as hesed. The authoritative text may be found in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1981. The Pope made use of the distinctions afforded by the three conditioning situations out of which mercy words emerged. Chesed also meant "fidelity to the covenant," hence to the laws of Hebraism.
45. Redemptor hominis, 515; accessible widely.
46. I have dealt with the nature theme in "John Paul II" in The Law of Nations and the Book of Nature, ed. by William W. Franklin (Collegeville, Minn.: St. John's University Press. 1984).
47. Commemoration, 6; L'Osservatore Romano, 17 May 1981.
48. These phrases are portions of the titles beginning in the Report (Geneva: World Council of the Churches of Christ, 1980), I, on pp. 62, 73, 80, 212.
49. A member of the Uniting Church, of Methodist antecedents, Birch is professor of biology at the University of Sydney, vice-chairman of the WCC Working Committee on Church and Society and thus a force at the headquarters in Geneva as well as through the ecumenically distributed Report. He is the author of Nature and God, Confronting the Future: Australia and the World(Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1975), and with John Cobb, Jr., co-author of Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
50. The last sentences have been reversed, Report, p. 72.
51. On this, see Thomas S. Derr, Ecology and Human Liberation (Geneva World Student Christian Federation, 1973) and other items in n. 5 above.
52. Report, p. 74. The other main contribution in the Report is by Russian Orthodox archpriest Vitaly Borovoy. See further, Paulos Gregorios, The Human Presence: An Orthodox View of Nature(Geneva: WCCC, 1979).
53. Travail (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984). Santmire adduces Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as a gift, promise, and challenge in biblical thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
54. We have already mentioned the importance of daya (perhaps aboriginally survivor-mercy) in India. It was used by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains and survives in the modern languages of India deriving from the Sanskrit. Today in some regions the word appears often with reference to an animal: "Have some mercy on it." It remains the word in all modern Indian languages for the rendering of the biblical "mercy." Related to daya was ahinsa (ahimsa), the injunction not to harm, basic to Jainism even to the protection of mosquitoes, but an injunction surely marginalized in the callous if not often cruel temple slaughter of animals. The Sanskrit karuaappears to be the etymological cognate of wail-mercy (undifferentiated survivor- and superior-mercy), for its root suggests both misery and lament. Buddhism made of mercy, employing generally this word, a central motif as it expanded from India to Sri Lanka, Tibet, China, Japan, and elsewhere. In China the Boddhisatva of mercy became syncretistically and perhaps emotionally female, the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, in Japanese, Kwan-on.
It seems probable that at the highest level of Asian spirituality the conception of the divine compassion amidst inexorable destruction and the humane injunction of mercy toward fellow human beings and also expressly toward animals is as fully advanced as in traditional Christian and Muslim lands (but see n. 45).
55. In the United States the A.S.P.C.A. (1866) was organized before the counterpart Society for the Preservation of Cruelty to Children (1895).
56. In Civilization and Ethics (London: Adam & Black, 1949), p. 241, Albert Schweitzer says: "Ethics in the infinitely extended responsibility toward all life." In his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought (New York: Holt, 1933), Schweitzer recognized the importance of compassion in Buddhism, which he carried further in his Indian Thought and Its Development (New York: Holt 1936). Norman Cousins in his Dr. Schweitzer in Lambarené (New York: Harper, 1960) noted that Schweitzer was disappointed that his conception of reverence for life had not been more widely developed in environmental ethics. Andrew Mattill in Christ for These Times(Boston: CLF Book Service, 1979) observed that Schweitzer recognized that, though conceptions of compassion were present in both Buddhism and Christianity, Jesus himself made of mercy and compassion a more active attribute of the race than did the Buddha.
57. The Star Thrower (New York: Times Books, 1978). Similarly in Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X(New York: Dutton, 1979) Eiseley writes: "Let me suggest. . . that we look long and clearly at ourselves, our strange naked bodies, our revolutionary wounds, tracked as we have been through trees and lionhunted grasslands and marked by the growing failure of instinct to guide us well. Let us take care, for beyond this point in time, brains and sympathy--the mark of our humanity--will alone help to guide us. The precedence of our dark and violent midbrains will be wrong; everything, in short, will be wrong but compassion" (italics added). And yet Loren Eiseley also might agree that somewhere in that ancient brain were the onsets to that capacity for sympathy and compassion and the disposition to mercy.
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