A Natural and Religious History of Compassion, Part 4

We have religion because we had war. The religious impulse was built into early hominids as a method for loyalty to “us” and enmity to “them.” Yet slowly that impulse transcended itself. The circuitry of loyalty to tribe began evolving toward loyalty to life.

Anthropological evidence shows compassion’s slow progress. Among early humans,
“About 75 percent [of pre-state societies] went to war at least once every 2 years ...whereas the modern nation state goes to war about once a generation.”
Enslavement was not practiced, and prisoners were not taken:
“Captured warriors were killed on the spot. Anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimates that a typical tribal society lost about 0.5 of its population in combat each year, far more than the toll suffered by most modern states.” (Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct, 49)
Another study estimates that 13-15 percent of all deaths among foragers were due to warfare. Compare that to the percentage of deaths due to warfare in the United States and Europe during the twentieth century, the epoch of two world wars: less than 1 percent of male deaths. (Samuel Bowles cited by Wade 72)

We have, for millennia now, very slowly been becoming a less violent, more magnanimous and compassionate species.

Somehow the mechanism for tribal warfare became available for peace. Tribal bonding opened a hole in itself through which it found its own greatest fulfillment, irony of ironies, in compassion to the stranger. The Israelites of the Babylonian captivity illustrated this in their stories about Abraham. The ancient Greeks also illustrated it.

In Homer’s epic, The Iliad, the Trojan, Hector, killed the Greek, Patroclus, Achilles’ dearest friend. Achilles, mad with rage, found a way to isolate Hector in battle. Achilles killed Hector, mutilated the body, and refused to give it to the family for burial, which meant Hector’s soul would never know rest.

But then one night, Hector's father, old King Priam of Troy, came into enemy territory into the Greek camp in disguise, and he made his way to Achilles' tent. He took off his disguise. Everyone was shocked.

The old, old man came forward and pulled at Achilles feet to plead for the body of his son. He embraced Achilles' knees, and he wept.

Achilles – “man-slaughtering Achilles,” Homer calls him -- Achilles who has killed not only Hector, but many other of Priam’s sons – looked at the old man and thought of his own father. Achilles, too, began to weep.
“Then the weeping stops, and Achilles goes for Hector's body. He carries it and lays it very gently and tenderly in the arms of the old man. The two men look at each other and each recognizes the other as divine. It's when we can go beyond the hatred, the enmity that knocks us into so much grief and pain and violence, it's then that we become god like. That is the end of the religious quest.” (Karen Armstrong)
Tomorrow they will be trying to kill each other again. For a moment, the recognition of shared pain creates compassion – literally “with-feeling.”
  • com = "with"
  • passion = "feeling"
In feeling with each other, they have a moment of that experience of connection, the kind of connection we were made for, the kind in which we become god-like because everything that the word God was ever supposed to mean – all the depth of sincerest devotion and the awe of infinite mystery and love – is right there: compassion outside our own tribe.

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This is part 4 of 5 of "A Natural and Religious History of Compassion"
Next: Part 5.
Previous: Part 3.
Beginning: Part 1.

1 comment:

  1. I have been contemplating a video I saw recently. In it the author said that you can't fix things in another person by searching to say the "right thing." What you can do is empathize, and making this deep connection does actually help the other feel better. So here's to empathy, which often goes hand in hand with compassion. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw