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Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion*

  • Martha Nussbaum (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 January 2009

Philoctetes was a good man and a good soldier. When he was on his way to Troy to fight alongside the Greeks, he had a terrible misfortune. By sheer accident he trespassed in a sacred precinct on the island of Lemnos. As punishment he was bitten on the foot by the serpent who guarded the shrine. His foot began to ooze with foul-smelling pus, and the pain made him cry out curses that spoiled the other soldiers' religious observances. They therefore left him alone on the island, a lame man with no resources but his bow and arrows, no friends but the animals who were also his food.

Ten years later, according to Sophocles' version of the story, they come to bring him back: for they have learned that they cannot win the war without him. The leaders of the expedition think of Philoctetes as a tool of their purposes; they plan to trick him into returning, with no empathy for his plight. The Chorus of soldiers, however, has a different response. Even before they see the man, they imagine vividly what it is like to be him– and they enter a protest against the callousness of the commanders:

For my part, I pity him– thinking of how, with no living soul to care for him, seeing no friendly face, wretched, always alone, he suffers with a fierce affliction, and has no resources to meet his daily needs. How in the world does the poor man survive?

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Andrew Ortony , Gerald L. Clore , and Allan Collins , The Cognitive Structure of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Lynne N. Henderson , “Legality and Empathy,” Michigan Law Review, vol. 85 (1987), pp. 15741653;

Toni M. Massaro , “Empathy, Legal Storytelling, and the Rule of Law: New Words, Old Wounds,” Michigan Law Review, vol. 87 (1989), pp. 20992127;

Paul Gewirtz , “Aeschylus' Law,” Harvard Law Review, vol. 101 (1988), pp. 1043–55.

O'Neil, in The Quality of Life, ed. Nussbaum Martha and Sen Amartya (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993); and also

Gregory Vlastos , Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Ronald Coase , “Adam Smith's View of Man,” Journal of Law and Economics, vol. 19 (1976), pp. 529–46.

Amartya Sen , “The Moral Standing of the Market,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 2, no. 2 (Spring 1985), pp. 119.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
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  • EISSN: 1471-6437
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