Cosmic Sympathy, Cosmic Compassion
[This is the first part in a series on Cosmic Sympathy.]
I have not oppressed servants….
I have not defrauded the poor of their property…..
I have not caused harm to be done to a servant by his master.
I have not caused pain.
I have caused no man to hunger.
I have made no one weep.
I have not killed.
I have not given the order to kill.
I have not inflicted pain on anyone…..
I have not stolen milk from the mouths of children…..
I have given bread to the hungry man, and water to the thirsty man,
And clothes to the naked man, and a boat to the boatless.
[The Book of the Coming Forth By Day, aka “Egyptian Book of the Dead”, Book 125]
When you see a hungry person, give him food. When you see someone sad, you are also sad.
[Zen Master Seung Sahn]
The English word “compassion” comes originally from the Latin compassio, which, in turn, was coined as a loan-translation (also known as a “calque”) of the Greek philosophical term sumpatheia. Here is how one modern linguistics scholar explains the phenomenon of loan-translation (using compassio and sumpatheia as an example):
A calque (or loan-translation) is a very subtle way of borrowing a foreign word. Instead of taking over the foreign word bodily, the borrowing language translates it literally, piece by piece, thereby obtaining something that at least looks like a native word.
The ancient Romans often used this technique for deriving words from the then more prestigious Greek. For example, the Greek word sympathia consists of two pieces: a prefix syn- meaning ‘with’, and a stem pathia, meaning ‘suffering’. The Romans translated this by using their own prefix con- ‘with’ and the Latin stem passio ‘suffering’, obtaining the latin calque compassio.
[R.L. Trask Language: The Basics p. 197]
Unfortunately the Greek word in question has at least three different spellings (using the English alphabet), and Robert Lawrence (“Larry”) Trask (who really should have known better) here uses the variant that bears the least resemblance to the original Greek. I prefer to use sumpatheia and/or sympatheia.
Here is the first part of the entry for sympatheia in F.E. Peters‘ (invaluable) handbook Greek Philosophical Terms:
sympatheia: affected with, cosmic sympathy
1. The theory of cosmic sympathy, associated by modern scholars with the philosopher Poseidonius, rests upon a series of premises present in Greek philosophy almost from the beginning. The Milesians had seen the world as alive and the Pythagoreans as an ordered whole (see kosmos). And though Plato’s interests had earlier lain in other directions, he devotes a full-scale treatment to the order and operation of the sensible world in the Timaeus, undoubtedly his single most widely studied work in the later tradition. Here he describes the kosmos as a visible living creature (zoon), having within it all things that are naturally akin (kata physin syngene; Tim. 30d)
And here is the passage of the Timaeus cited by Peters above (using Cornford’s translation found in his Plato’s Cosmology, with some liberties):
For the Demiurge, wishing to make this world most nearly like that intelligible thing which is best and in every way complete, fashioned it [the kosmos] as a single visible living creature, containing within it all things that are naturally akin.
In his commentary on this section, Cornford says “Plato looks upon the whole visible universe as an animate living being whose parts are also animate beings.” [p. 41] Cornford also warns against confusing Plato’s Demiurge with any monotheistic conception of “God”:
The temptation to read into Plato’s words modern ideas that are in fact foreign to this thought has proved too much for some commentators …. The reader must be warned against importations of later theology …. There is, in the first place, no justification for the suggestion … that Plato was a monotheist. He believed in the divinity of the world as a whole and of the heavenly bodies.
While Cornford is absolutely right in his insistence that the Demiurge should not be referred to as “God”, in my opinion the alternative that he uses, “the god”, is possibly even worse. Plato’s beautiful Greek should not be translated into clunky English.
Cornford is also certainly wrong when he insists that “Neither in the Timaeus nor anywhere else is it suggested that the Demiurge should be an object of worship: he is not a religious figure.” [p.35] Plato explicitly identifies the Demiurge as a God, and there is no suggestion anywhere in anything that Plato ever wrote that he believed that only certain Gods should be “objects of worship” but not others — and this is what Cornford is claiming.
On the question of whether or not Plato intended the Demiurge to be an “object of worship” we also have important evidence from Xenophon’s Memorabilia, in which Socrates declares unambiguously that
The more exalted the Gods are, while they deign to attend to you, the more ought you to honor them …. Do you not, then, believe that the Gods take thought for men? the Gods who, in the first place, have made man alone, of all animals, upright …. Do you not see, too, that to other animals they have so given the pleasures of sexual intercourse as to limit them to a certain season of the year, but that they allow them to us uninterruptedly till extreme old age? Nor did it satisfy the Gods to take care of the body merely, but, what is most important of all, they implanted in him the soul, his most excellent part.
Xenophon tells us that Socrates used arguments like this against those who “neither sacrificed to the Gods, when engaged on any enterprise, nor attended to auguries, but ridiculed those who regarded such matters” [I.iv.2]. Xenophon revisits this subject in Book IV, chapter III of the Memorabilia, where he states that Socrates “endeavored to impress his associates with right feelings towards the Gods.” As in Book I, Chapter IV (above) Socrates makes use of the argument that the Gods created us and the world around us and, therefore, they are worthy of our worship since they “exercise the greatest care for man in every way.” After hearing such an argument, Euthymus declares that from henceforth, “I shall never fail, in the slightest degree, in respect for the divine power.”
Both Socrates and his most famous student obviously believed that all Gods, as Gods, should be “objects of worship”. Later Platonists removed any possible ambiguity by explicitly identifying the Demiurge with Zeus. But it cannot be too often repeated that there is absolutely no basis whatsoever for the claim that Plato ever conceived of two separate classes of Gods, only one of which were “objects of worship”, while the others were “not religious figure[s].”
In subsequent posts on the subject of cosmic sympathy I’ll take up the other points addressed by Peters’ definition of sympatheia given above: (1) the attribution of the concept of sumpatheia to Posidonius, (2) the Milesian view that the whole world is alive, (3) the Pythagorean view of an orderly kosmos, and (4) the importance of Plato’s cosmology (as presented in the Timaeus) for the next 900 years of Pagandom (which will also include a discussion of Proclus’ commentary on the Timaeus).
And, there are also 7 (!) more parts to Peters definition of sympatheia, and I’ll go through each of those as well.
But before ending this post let me address the following question: what does this “cosmic sympathy” have to do with our modern conception of “compassion”? I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. answered that question in his reply to critics who told him he had no business in Birmingham Alabama in the Spring of 1963:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
[Letter from a Birmingham Jail]