In ancient Greek literature the concept of mercy changed from the distinctive virtue that differentiated the Greek from the barbarian (in Homer and the Greek tragedians) to a defect excusable only in the elderly and children (Aristotle and the Stoics). Such an understanding of mercy in the Greeks had an impact on ancient Latin literature. A dissonance between the philosophers’ view of mercy and that of practitioners can be seen in Cicero and Seneca. As philosophers they shared the views of the Stoics and thus believed that mercy was a defect, whereas in practical life they saw the need for showing mercy. This viewpoint on mercy resulted from identifying it with compassion and pity – the emotions which disturb the mind and interfere with sound judgment of reality. The second reason for rejecting mercy was that it opposes justice. In social relations it was possible, according to them, to use either the principle of justice or the principle of mercy. Justice was considered the basic principle of social life, superseding mercy. Thirdly, philosophers found that mercy was connected with suffering, which in itself was evil, thus mercy could not be a virtue, and consequently must be a vice. In addition, mercy springs from compassion, itself arising at the sight of our neighbour’s undeserved suffering, and the state of compassion disrupts the balance of the mind and confounds correct judgements, and therefore – according to Seneca – mercy should be considered a vice proper to despicable characters.
It should also be noted that in practice what motivated charity in the ancient Greeks and Romans was not the poor man, the man in need of support. Instead charity was exercised as part of a certain social ritual, used by the people of power, seeking to build their reputation before elections; and by the poor who ‘deserved’ support. However, people generally had nothing but contempt for the poorest, slaves, children, the elderly and the sick.
This viewpoint reveals the difficulties that occur when trying to explain the principle of mercy in human relationships using reason alone. This attitude to mercy among ancient pagans shows the beauty and richness of Christian mercy by comparison. It is clearly noticeable that today – more than 2000 years later – pagan understanding of and pagan practice of mercy are not uncommon.
1. The Concept of Mercy
In Latin terminology the word misericordia was used, which is made up of two nouns: miser = unhappy, sick, poor and cor = heart, in the figurative sense – the seat of life, knowledge, emotions, and memory. The merciful man is the one who has a heart for a suffering human being, that is, he pities, sympathizes with, and helps the other in his troubles. The Greeks used the word eleos in this case. These words – eleos and misericordia – appeared in literature, in philosophical works, and in law, and were used in everyday life. So it is worth looking at the understanding of these words and a certain evolution which this concept underwent in the mind of the ancient Greeks and writers of Latin literature.
Firstly, in Greek literature the word eleos had a positive meaning. Homer and Greek tragedians in the fifth century BC highly valued human mercy. They believed that only barbarians were merciless. Mercy was thus seen as a virtue which every person should have if they do not want to be considered barbarian.
However, one hundred years later, from the end of the fifth century BC onwards, Greek philosophers, especially the Stoics, understood mercy as compassion for moral suffering and human weakness, which – in their view – ought to be shown only to those whose disease is treatable (Plato). They believed, therefore, that mercy should not be shown to just anyone, and the judge in particular ought to be mindful of this. In the fourth century BC, Aristotle claimed that mercy was not a virtue, but a vice which could be forgiven only in children and the elderly. According to Aristotle a mature man should be guided by reason, should have a clear mind and a proper judgment of reality, with his mind undisturbed by mercy, that is to say compassion.
In Latin literature Cicero (2nd century BC) and Seneca (1st century AD) were the most common users of the term ‘mercy’. According to Cicero, mercy should be shown only towards those who suffer unjustly under the law. He seems to be contradictory in his views: on the one hand, he expresses the view that mercy is a vice rather than a virtue, because it causes suffering and therefore it should be countered rather than developed. In other works he deemed misericordia a virtue signifying wisdom and morality and making the philosopher worthy of the highest admiration. Similarly, Seneca associates mercy with compassion and pity, and claims that a merciful person’s behaviour is directed not by the mind, but by the fate of the suffering person, consequently misericordia may lead to the worst possible effects. And since it may have adverse consequences, it should be considered a vice displayed by despicable people. Even someone of mild character should not be merciful. They should be guided in their behaviour by clementia, or gentleness, which implies right reasoning, but is not governed by emotion or empathy. Where one’s friends are concerned, Seneca recommends getting them out of trouble, as well as showing them material and moral support. Seneca therefore feared letting feelings rule over reason, which he believed was what happened in the practice of mercy. This was why he advocated the use of clementia, which in his opinion was not contrary to reason.
2. The practice of mercy among the ancient pagans
A look at ancient pagan law and judicial practice can throw some light on the prevailing concept of mercy. In the Athenian judiciary the practice of appealing to the mercy of the judge was widespread. The defendant relied on various circumstances, simply to move the judge and have the sentence dismissed. This sometimes led to situations in which ordinary justice suffered. Consequently, there arose quite strong criticism of mercy, especially among philosophers, who believed that such a judicial practice (applying the principle of mercy) humiliated the Athenians. However, its supporters, Athenian democrats, believed that during war one needs to be strict and ruthless, but in courts – understanding and philanthropic. Generally, in judicial practice, love for one’s fellow human beings and willingness to understand their misfortune took precedence over strict and heartless sticking to the rule or letter of the law.
The practice of invoking mercy in judges was also known among the Romans, but sometimes the judiciary adopted Seneca’s argument that “an action under the influence of misericordia, combined with compassion and tenderness to tears, was out of keeping with the dignity of man as a rational being.”
Thus, legislation generally rejected the consideration of mercy in trials and judgments, while in practice, the defence followed the line of appealing to the mercy of judges. With time, however, the impact of the Stoics increased and hence the critical reference to mercy also in judicial practice.
Among the Greeks and Romans, the rich were known to provide for poor residents of the city or state, either voluntarily or compulsorily. Such provision involved constructing public buildings; arranging games; giving away money, grain, and food products; funding scholarships; providing dowries; supporting social organizations, etc. In Athens, authorities provided assistance to the poor who could not work or were affected by disabilities, and orphans of citizens who had died in the war were brought up at public expense. A benevolent attitude was regarded by the Romans as one of the most important civic virtues, because initiative and activity in this area largely influenced one’s prospects of a political career. Charitable activity combined with administering an office was regarded as an obligation of the wealthy; it was a kind of justification for their wealth. The reasons for such charity stemmed neither from a concern for the poor nor from religious motives, but from a social and civic ritual. This type of active charity simply paid off.
The most common form of charity was the so-called free distribution of food items or money, the so-called sportula (cash donation). This was done in such a way that a set pool of money was freely distributed at an early morning hour. A lot of people failed to benefit from such a system of free distribution, because whoever came later received nothing. The amount of money to be given away was not calculated to meet the needs of the poor, but depended on a tradition adopted in a given city. Outside of Rome rich people often used these gifts, while the poor were discriminated against. Discrimination against lower social classes was mainly manifested in a much lower rate of monetary gifts, and worse or cheaper goods. Women and children of all classes were admitted to free distribution more rarely than men, and if they received something, then it would be half of what the men were given. This way of practising free distribution is not of a charitable nature, but instead is an outcome of a policy in the community.
Public free distribution did not cover all the poor. Anyway, the purpose was different. Self-interested help of the rich to the poor was to gain their votes in the elections, rather than satisfy their needs. A belief was common among the wealthy that poor people are part of the natural order of the world and that helping them is tantamount to raising idlers and parasites. The wealthy felt disgust and fear in the face of the poor, on account of the dirt and shabbiness of the poor sitting on the thresholds of their homes. The poor were carefully divided into those “of merit” and ”the unworthy”. Only the former were authorized to receive free distribution, which in practice meant that charity was not addressed to the truly poor, but to the less wealthy ones, because according to the rich they were worthy of it. Therefore the selected poor, and even people relatively well off, received help, because it strengthened the prestige of the patron.
The charity of the ancient pagans did not therefore constitute works of mercy, because their motivation was far from a real desire to improve the plight of the poor. In addition, it did not reach the most needy ones, but was directed to a selected group of society, often quite wealthy. Besides, charity was associated with the humiliation of those receiving assistance. It could not be otherwise, since the attitude of the ancient pagans was marked by contempt, which ruled out a genuine attitude of mercy towards others.
The practice of charity towards children, old people and slaves was particularly gross. Lack of mercy towards children manifested itself primarily in the killing of the unborn and the abandoning or killing of newborn babies. However, during the Roman Republic, killing a child in the mother’s womb began to be considered a highly immoral act, but was not yet punishable. It was only during the Empire that it became a criminal offence punishable by exile or even death. During this period manufacturers and distributors of contraceptives were also punished, although in this case the criminality of the act depended on the possible death of a person.
The abandonment of children was an everyday occurrence in ancient times until the fourth century AD. It was supported by employers in Greece and Rome. The abandoned baby was in practice doomed to die through hunger and cold, or it would be devoured by dogs or wild animals. A ban on the abandoning or killing of children under the penalty of death was introduced only in the fourth century.
The elderly were in a slightly better situation than the infants. In ancient Greece the care of one’s parents was firstly a religious and moral duty, and secondly a legal one. The law prohibited using violence against one’s parents, and obliged one to ensure one’s parents’ livelihood, their shelter, and their burial. Violations of these rules led to a threat of loss of civil rights which for the Greek meant in practice being excluded from social life, because they could not enter the temple, administer offices, speak in the Council, bring complaints to the court or act as a witness in court. Such an obligation to care for parents concerned only those children who were legitimate, and had been educated in a trade. However, children from common-law marriages, or those hired by parents to prostitution or lacking vocational training, did not have such an obligation.
So the Greeks saw the care of parents not in terms of mercy but of justice. Children were to take care of parents in their old age, to repay a debt of justice for their upbringing. If parents did not raise their children, these were exempt from having to care for their old parents. The binding rule was: good for good.
Among the ancient Romans the binding principle was that known as alimony, which demanded that children provide for their parents’ livelihoods. Nevertheless, the alimony obligation only concerned father, grandfather, and great grandfather, on the father’s side. The help provided to the elderly was binding only for the immediate family and was due more to justice than mercy. The approach to the burial of the dead shows this problem very clearly. The rich were buried in separate, neat places, while the corpses of the poor were thrown into the streets and garbage cans, where dogs and birds rummaged; at best, poor people’s corpses were placed in burial moats, filled with animal skeletons, excrements and garbage. The inscriptions on the border stones of that period testify to that very eloquently – they reminded people of the praetor’s prohibitions: “No excrements or corpses may be disposed of here.”
The practice of mercy among the ancient pagans can clearly be seen through their attitude towards slaves. In the Roman Empire slaves were initially considered as things and were under total ownership of the master, who had power of life and death over them. The owner was not only able to sell his slaves, but was also allowed to abandon them when they were sick or old, or even subject them to torture or kill them. Old and sick slaves were transported to the island in the Tiber and left there. Then, under the edict of Emperor Claudius (1st century AD), any who recovered did not have to go back to their master, but became free. The fate of slaves gradually improved. First the emperors agreed that the killing of a slave, a sick man or a cripple would be treated in the same way as killing a free man. Later, the law forbade the killing of slaves in general (without the consent of the state) or selling men to the school of gladiators or women to brothels. The use of torture was also outlawed and in the end cruel masters could even be punished under the law. This moderation in treating the slaves was due, among other things, to a gradual decrease in their number, as well as to the influence of philosophers (the Stoics), who claimed that slaves were human beings too and deserved better treatment than animals. Lawyers, drawing on the ideas of the Stoics, sought to restore full freedom to slaves. In the second and third century AD, slaves were already entitled to own property, and to enter into contracts on their own behalf; and so, in legal terms, a slave was gradually changing from an object into a subject. However, according to Roman lawyers, humane treatment of slaves is based on the laws of nature rather than on mercy.
Over time, the approach of the pagans to children, elderly people or slaves was becoming more and more humane. The principles and practices of life in ancient pagan society, which to begin with clearly showed no mercy, gradually changed until the prevailing attitude to values became more one of indifference. Thus the way was prepared for the emergence of the Christian practice of mercy in social life.
Compiled by: Sr. M. Elżbieta Siepak OLM
Based on the book by Frather Leszek Mateja, Oblicza miłosierdzia (Faces of Mercy), Kraków, 2003.
Translated by Orest Pawlak