William & Mary

Pity and gratitude examined in Tack Faculty Lecture

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"I fear that the title of this lecture might have looked a little daunting. It looks a bit like a sermon, doesn't it? Like ‘Piety and Beatitude.’ But it won’t be a sermon,” promised Tack Faculty lecturer Adam Potkay Tuesday night at a talk that packed the Kimball Theatre with more than 300 people.

Potkay, chair of the English Department and William R. Kenan Professor of Humanities, was introducing “Pity and Gratitude,” an examination of universal emotions that have vexed thinkers since time immemorial.

The Tack Faculty Lecture Series invites the university and local community to come together to “celebrate faculty excellence and the intellectual liveliness of the university. Through this series, a William & Mary professor addresses the community on a topic of general interest at least once a semester.”

“[My talk] just uses philosophy and literature to ask some very basic questions, which are when – if ever – is pity appropriate? And when – if ever – is gratitude appropriate?” Potkay said.

“They may seem at first odd questions to ask about these emotions, but you ask them routinely about other emotions such as anger. ‘I shouldn't have gotten angry.’ ‘Was it right for me to get angry?’ ‘Damn right I should have gotten angry!’

“I just want to show you can ask such questions about pity and gratitude, and that people have asked these questions.”

Stoics: ‘Keep calm and…’

The Stoics of Greece put little stock in pity, Potkay said. It was considered an unnecessary emotion for those who felt it and it provided no benefit for those provoking it. With their definition of value centered on logic and virtue and their belief in a providential cosmology, Stoics reasoned that fate was inevitable and compassion useless.

“So here's the stoic message made fitting for t-shirts,” Potkay said. “‘Keep calm and be reasonable.’ ‘Everything’s okay, even if it looks like it’s not.’ ‘There is nothing to fear but fear itself… and most of the other passions, including anger, pity and envy.’”

Later, some Christian thinkers adopted Stoicism for its providentialism and clear thinking. “It helped one stay calm amid stressful situations. And the fall of Rome was a stressful situation,” Potkay deadpanned.

‘Pity would be no more, if we did not make somebody poor’

For the most part, however, Christians embraced the concept of pity as reflected on by Jesus in the Gospels, Potkay said. That held true until almost 1790, when the French Revolution upended traditional thinking.

Early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, poet William Blake and political philosopher William Godwin all questioned whether pity and gratitude didn’t bolster inequitable political and economic hierarchies.

"In a just society, there wouldn't be pitiably poor people, and so there would be not only no pity, but also no occasion for it,” Potkay said. “In this radical extension of Stoic logic, pity is not only inappropriate, but is in theory eliminable."

Or, as Blake famously put it, “Pity would be no more, if we did not make somebody poor," Potkay said.

Adam PotkayGratitude was similarly questioned by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, who reasoned that assistance should be due to people in need as a right, not as a favor, eliminating the need for gratitude and reciprocal services.

Although Jonathan Swift published Gulliver’s Travels more than 50 years before the French Revolution, the questions he posed about pity and gratitude resonated with the writers of the 1790s. Godwin especially was enamored with the ideal of an entirely sober and detached ethic, famously represented by Swift’s rational horses, the Houyhnhnms.

“Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels strikes Godwin as the only Western classic with unproblematic moral value,” Potkay said. “[To him], you could get rid of everything else in the library, but you would keep it."

‘His mind was a thanksgiving’

"Godwin loves these Houyhnhnms, and our friend William Wordsworth in turn loved Godwin's political writings, at least as a young man,” Potkay said. “He later had his doubts."

In those doubts, questions about pity and gratitude remained unsettled, and Wordsworth in fact raised more.

"It’s Godwin's notion of political justice that Wordsworth, by his own account, rejected in favor of moral feelings that are fostered in rural communities, and especially in the sparse communities of England's Lake District, where he grew up and to which he returned in 1799,” Potkay said.

He referenced three of Wordsworth’s famous “poems of encounter,” in which a narrator happens along a person who needs assistance (or who relates a similar encounter of their own) and who raises inquiries about an appropriate emotional response.

So it is in Wordsworth’s “Simon Lee,” a poem in which an old huntsman’s gratitude for assistance is out of all proportion to the actual favor, leading the narrator to a deep sadness at Simon Lee’s bleak life.

In contrast, “The Discharged Soldier” shows a dignified, unscraping gratitude for the narrator’s help in finding lodging for the night but resists the narrator’s insistence that he ask for help himself. “My trust is in the God of heaven, and in the eye of him that passes me,” the otherwise listless soldier tells Wordsworth’s narrator.

In Wordsworth’s third poem, “The Ruined Cottage,” a traveling peddler, Armytage, witnesses the decline into grief of a young woman who loses her husband to war, one son to employment and another son to death. He does nothing to help her with her cottage and garden, which waste away over the years, as does she. Armytage is overcome by grief at the terrible changes, until, noticing the beauty of the weeds that have overtaken the cottage after the woman’s death, his thoughts reverse to the sublime.

A sympathetic reading, Potkay said, could render Armytage (and Wordsworth) as men of proper gratitude, who “court pity to feed virtue, but who surrender it in deference to the superhuman beauty” and design of the cosmos. And in fact, Wordsworth describes Armytage with, “His mind was a thanksgiving to the power that made him.”

Then again, he said, Armytage’s lack of meaningful response could be seen as an abdication of human responsibility, of cultivating aesthetics at the expense of others.

But in the end, Potkay said, Wordsworth’s valuation of both pity and gratitude remain somewhat ambiguous in a reflection of humankind’s age-old struggle to come to terms with them.

“We're not going to come to any hard-and-fast conclusions,” Potkay told the audience. “I just want to get you thinking and hopefully to entice you to read or re-read a few great works of English literature.”

A generous commitment by Martha '78 and Carl Tack '78 established the Tack Faculty Lecture Series at William & Mary. The commitment creates an endowment for the series and speakers, who receive stipends for their presentations.

The next Tack Faculty Lecture will be held on April 22, 2015, when Katherine K. Preston, David N. and Margaret C. Bottoms Professor of Music presents “An American Prima Donna and Apple Pie Opera.”