Chap 1. Our Sympathy with Sorrow

Chap. 1: How Our sympathy with sorrow falls much shorter of the sorrow felt by sufferer


1.3.1. Our sympathy with sorrow has been more noticed than our sympathy with joy.

  • In its most proper and primitive signification, the word ‘sympathy’ denotes our fellow-feeling with the sufferings of others, not with their enjoyments.
  • Joseph Butler was an ingenious and subtle philosopher.
    • He thought it necessary to prove that:
      • we had a real sympathy with joy
      • congratulation was a principle of human nature
    • No one else ever thought it necessary to prove that compassion was such.



Joseph Butler


1.3.2. First of all, our sympathy with sorrow is more universal than our sympathy with joy.

  • We may still have some fellow-feeling with sorrow even if it is excessive.
  • In this case, what we feel does not amount to that complete sympathy which constitutes approbation.
  • We do not weep, exclaim, and lament with the sufferer.
  • On the contrary, we know:
    • his weakness and
    • his passion’s extravagance.
  • Yet we often feel a very sensible concern on his account.
  • But if we do not entirely enter into and go along with another’s joy, we have no regard or fellow-feeling for it.
    • We are annoyed at the man who skips and dances with an intemperate and senseless joy that cannot be accompanied by us.


1.3.3. Besides, pain of mind or body is a more pungent sensation than pleasure.

  • Our sympathy with pain falls greatly short of what is naturally felt by the sufferer.
    • It is generally a more lively and distinct perception than our sympathy with pleasure.
      • Our sympathy with pleasure approaches more nearly to the natural vivacity of the original pleasure.


1.3.4. Over and above all this, we often struggle to keep down our sympathy with the sorrow of others.

  • Whenever we are not observed by the sufferer, we try to suppress it as much as we can, for our own sake.
    • We are not always successful.
  • We are necessarily obliged to notice it more because of:
    • our opposition to it
    • our reluctance to yield to it
  • But we never oppose our sympathy with joy.
    • If there is any envy in the case, we never feel it
    • If there is no envy, we give way to our sympathy with joy without any reluctance.
  • On the contrary, we are always ashamed of our own envy.
    • When we have envy, we often pretend, and sometimes really wish to sympathize with the joy of others.
    • We say that we are glad of our neighbour’s good fortune, when in our hearts we might be really sorry.
  • We often feel a sympathy with sorrow when we don’t want it.
    • We often miss that with joy when we would be glad to have it.
  • Thus, our propensity to sympathize with sorrow must be very strong.
    • Our inclination to sympathize with joy must be very weak.


1.3.5. However, despite this prejudice, when there is no envy in the case, our propensity to sympathize with joy is much stronger than our propensity to sympathize with sorrow.

  • Our fellow-feeling for joy feels more like what is naturally felt by those who originally experience the joy, than the fellow-feeling we have for the painful one.


1.3.6. We have some indulgence for that excessive grief which we cannot entirely go along with.

  • We know what an unnatural effort is needed before the sufferer can bring down his emotions to be in harmony with the observer’s emotions.
    • Though he fails, we easily pardon him.
  • But we have no such indulgence for the intemperance of joy.
    • Because we are not conscious that any vast effort is needed to bring it down to what we can entirely enter into.
    • The man who can command his sorrow during the greatest calamities seems worthy of the highest admiration.
    • But he who, in full prosperity, can master his joy in the same way, seems hardly deserving of any praise.
    • We know that there is a much wider gap between what is felt by the observer and by that felt by the person experiencing the joy or sorrow in those two cases.


1.3.7. What can be added to the happiness of a healthy, debt-free man who has a clear conscience?

  • To him, all additional wealth is superfluous.
  • If more wealth makes him more elevated, it is the effect of the most frivolous levity.
  • However, this situation may be called ‘mankind’s natural and ordinary state.’
    • Despite the world’s present misery and depravity, this is really the state of most people.
    • Most people can easily elevate themselves to all the joy above the joy that can be excited in their companion.


1.3.8. Little can be added to this state.

  • But much may be taken from it.
  • There is little difference between this wealthy condition and the wealthiest possible one.
    • Between this wealthy condition and the most miserable one is an immense and unnatural distance.
  • Because of this, adversity depresses the sufferer’s mind more below its natural state, than prosperity can elevate it.
    • The observer must find it much more difficult to:
      • sympathize entirely, and
      • keep perfect time with his sorrow, than to thoroughly enter into his joy.
    • He must depart much further from his own natural and ordinary temper of mind in the one case than in the other.
    • Because of this, our sympathy with sorrow is always less than the sorrow naturally felt by the suffering person.


1.3.9. It is agreeable to sympathize with joy.

  • Wherever envy does not oppose it, our heart abandons itself to satisfaction created by joy.
    • But it is painful to go along with grief.
      • We always reluctantly enter into it.(*)
  • When we watch a tragedy, we struggle against that sympathetic sorrow it creates as long as we can.
    • We give way to sorrow only when we can no longer avoid it.
    • We even then try to cover our concern from others.
    • If we shed any tears, we carefully conceal them.
    • We are afraid, lest the spectators, not entering into this excessive tenderness, should regard it as effeminacy and weakness.
  • The wretch’s misfortunes call on our compassion.
    • He feels our reluctance to enter into his sorrow.
    • He proposes his grief to us with fear and hesitation.
    • He even smothers the half of it.
    • He is ashamed to fully express his affliction because of this hard-heartedness of mankind.
  • It is otherwise with the man who riots in joy and success.
    • He expects our completest sympathy wherever envy does not interest us against him.
    • He does not fear to announce his success.
    • He is fully confident that we will heartily go along with him.


1.3.10. Why should we be more ashamed to weep than to laugh before others?

  • We may often have as real occasion to either.
    • But we always feel that the observers are more likely to go along with us in the agreeable, than in the painful emotion.
  • It is always miserable to complain, even when we are oppressed by the most dreadful calamities.
  • But the triumph of victory is not always ungraceful.
  • Prudence would often advise us to bear our prosperity with more moderation.
    • Because prudence teaches us to avoid that envy excited by this very triumph.


1.3.11. How hearty are the acclamations of the mob who never envy their superiors at a triumph?

  • How sedate is commonly their grief at an execution?
  • Our sorrow at a funeral is generally no more than an affected gravity.
    • But our mirth at a christening or a marriage is always from the heart, without any affectation.
      • On all such joyous occasions, our satisfaction is not so durable.
      • But it is often as lively as the satisfaction of the persons experiencing the joy.
    • Whenever we congratulate our friends, their joy literally becomes our joy.
      • We seldom do this, to the disgrace of human nature.
      • For the moment, we are as happy as they are:
        • our heart swells and overflows with real pleasure,
        • joy and complacency:
          • sparkle from our eyes, and
          • animate our face and our every gesture.


1.3.12. But on the contrary, when we condole with our friends in their afflictions, how little do we feel compared to what they feel?

  • We sit down by them.
  • We look at them
  • We listen to them attentively while they relate to us their misfortune.
    • Their narration is interrupted by natural bursts of passion which seems to choke them.
    • But how far are our languid emotions from keeping time to the transports of theirs?
    • At the same time, we may feel that their passion is natural and no greater than what we might feel.
  • We may even inwardly reproach ourselves with our own lack of sensibility.
    • We might work ourselves up into an artificial sympathy.
      • When raised, this sympathy is always the slightest imaginable.
      • It generally vanishes forever as soon as we leave the room.
  • Nature seems to have thought that our sorrows were enough, when she loaded us with them.
    • Therefore, Nature did not command us to more of the sorrow of others than what was necessary to relieve them.


1.3.13. Magnanimity amidst great distress appears always so divinely graceful because of this dull sensibility to the afflictions of others.

  • His behaviour is gentle and agreeable who can maintain his cheerfulness amidst a number of frivolous disasters.
    • But he appears to be more than mortal who can support in the same manner the most dreadful calamities.
  • We feel what an immense effort is needed to silence those violent emotions which naturally agitate and distract those in his situation.
    • We are amazed to find that he can command himself so entirely.
    • His firmness, at the same time, perfectly coincides with our insensibility.
    • He makes no demand on us for that more exquisite degree of sensibility which we find, and which we are mortified to find, that we do not possess.
  • There is a perfect correspondence between his sentiments and ours, and a perfect propriety in his behaviour.
    • It is also a propriety which we could not expect him to maintain, from our experience of the weakness of human nature.
    • We are astonished at his strength of mind which is capable of so noble and generous an effort.
  • Admiration is the sentiment of complete sympathy and approbation, mixed and animated with wonder and surprise.
    • It was noticed by Cato more than once.
      • He was surrounded on all sides by his enemies.
      • He was unable to resist them.
      • Following the proud maxims of that age, he destroyed himself after disdaining to submit to his enemies.
      • Yet he was:
        • never shrinking from his misfortunes
        • never supplicating with a lamentable voice or miserable tears which we are always so unwilling to give
      • On the contrary, he:
        • arms himself with manly fortitude
        • calmly gives all necessary orders for the safety of his friends before he executes his fatal resolution
        • shows a spectacle to Seneca, that great preacher of insensibility, which even the gods might behold with pleasure and admiration.


1.3.14. Whenever we meet any examples of such heroic magnanimity in common life, we are always extremely affected.

  • We are more apt to weep for those who seem to feel nothing for themselves than for those who give way to all the weakness of sorrow.
    • The observer’s sympathetic grief appears to go beyond the original passion in the person observed.
    • Socrates’ friends all wept when he drank the last potion, while he himself expressed the most cheerful tranquility.
  • On all such occasions, the observer makes no effort to conquer his sympathetic sorrow.
    • He is not afraid that it is extravagant nor improper.
    • He is rather pleased with his heart’s sensibility.
      • He gives way to it with complacence and self-approbation.
    • Therefore, he gladly indulges the saddest views which can naturally occur to him about his friend’s calamity.
      • He perhaps never felt the tender and tearful passion of love so exquisitely before.
  • But it is quite otherwise with the person suffering.
    • He turns away his eyes from whatever is naturally terrible or disagreeable in his situation.
    • He fears:
      • that too serious an attention might make so violent an impression on him, and
      • that he could no longer be moderate, or be the object of the observers’ sympathy and approbation.
    • Therefore, he fixes his thoughts on the applause and admiration he is about to deserve by his behaviour’s heroic magnanimity.
    • He is animated with joy by the feeling:
      • that he is capable of so noble and generous an effort, and
      • that he can still act as he desires, in this dreadful situation.
    • These enable him to support that triumphant gaiety in his victory over his misfortunes.


1.3.15. On the contrary, a man who is sunk in sorrow and dejection from his own calamity always appears mean and despicable.

  • We cannot bring ourselves to feel what he feels.
  • Therefore, we despise him perhaps unjustly.
  • The weakness of sorrow never appears agreeable in any respect except when it arises from what we feel for others more than from what we feel for ourselves.
    • A son, upon the death of his indulgent and respectable father, may give way to it without much blame.
      • His sorrow is chiefly founded on a sympathy with his departed father.
        • We readily enter into this humane emotion.
    • But we would not enter into it as much if he indulged in sorrow from any misfortune which affected himself only.
      • He would disgrace himself forever in the opinion of all gallant and generous people if he showed sorrow while he was:
        • reduced to beggary and ruin
        • exposed to the most dreadful dangers
        • led out to a public execution
      • Their compassion for him, however, would be very strong and sincere.
        • But they would not pardon him, who has been exposed to the eyes of the world.
          • Because their compassion would still be less than his sorrow.
        • His behaviour would affect them with shame rather than with sorrow.
        • They would lament the dishonour which he had thus brought on himself.
      • The intrepid Duke of Biron often braved death in the field.
        • His memory was disgraced when he wept on the scaffold when he saw his condition.
        • He remembered the favour and glory he lost from his own rashness!

Words: 2,330

For corrections or comments, please email

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s