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.
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"
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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.