The distinction between pity for nearby and for distant misfortune (Henning Ritter) and the theory of the globalization of emotions (Ulrich Beck) encounter the difficulty of forging a single concept for quite distinct forms of emotional responses. But there are doubts whether pity or sympathy are the appropriate terms for effects triggered by media-conveyed images of catastrophes that occur in other countries and continents.
Here the older discussions conducted in the context of the theory of tragedy since Aristotle can help clarify terms. Since Artistotle, pity (eleos) depended on the sufferer and the pitying party belonging to the same class, as well as on a series of other conditions such as that the suffered misfortune was tied to a flaw in the sufferer’s behavior and that, if he exhibited the same flaw, the pitying party might suffer the same fate. Lessing renewed this tradition with great authority, especially for German culture. But he transformed the equality of class to the universality of a pity that responded to misfortune, whatever the class of the sufferer and whatever the conditions that lead to the suffering.
Critics of Lessing, like Walter Benjamin, have contradicted this. In the face of a misfortune of historical-catastrophic dimensions, we don’t feel pity, but horror, rage, and desperation. What the media convey today of the horrors of war and terror in a fragmented and decontextualized manner, no longer seems graspable in traditional terms of pity and empathy.
Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus is Scientific coordinator at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and Professor (apl.) at the University of Potsdam, where he teaches literature.
Selected publications: Wollust und Grausamkeit: Affektenlehre und Affektdarstellung in Lohensteins Dramatik am Beispiel von “Agrippina”, Göttingen 1986; Austausch und intellektueller Dialog: Beiträge zu den deutsch-französischen Hochschulbeziehungen (1985–1992), Paris 1992; Die akademische Mobilität zwischen Deutschland und Frankreich (1925–1992), Bonn 1994; Stimme und Sprechkünste im 20. Jahrhundert, Berlin 2001.