When you read or sing the Psalms you cannot help but notice how frequently God is described as being “full of compassion”. In the Authorized Version this expression occurs no less than five times in Psalms 78, 86, 111, 112, and 145. Furthermore, the Psalms are hardly the only place in the Bible where the word compassion is used as an attribute of God. The Synoptic Gospels frequently speak of Jesus being “moved with compassion” or “having compassion” on someone or some group of people.
These are verses which are very difficult for contemporary readers to understand for the reason that the word “compassion” has become completely and utterly debased in our day and age. It has been stripped of all that made “full of compassion” an expression of praise in the Psalms and reduced to a mere sentiment.
Something similar could be said about the word “charity”. In the Authorized Version of St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians charity is the greatest of what are traditionally known as the three theological virtues – the other two being faith and hope – of which a famous, extended description is given in the thirteenth chapter. The English word charity is derived, through the French, from the Latin word for this virtue, caritas, which in Latin versions of the Scriptures is frequently used to translate the Greek agape. Today, however, the first thought the English word suggests is that of “giving to the needy” and it seldom expresses anything beyond that. Organizations that provide help and relief to those who are poor, sick, or otherwise in need are called charities. No-one, unless he is reading the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians in the old AV, is likely to associate charity with long-suffering, seemliness, bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring all things, and all the other qualities listed in the fourth through seventh verses, and verse three which reads “ And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” would be incomprehensible to anyone reading it with the contemporary meaning of charity in mind.
It is for this reason that the translators of most of the more recent English versions of the Holy Scriptures use the word love instead. This can hardly be said to be an improvement, however, as the word love has been as debased as the words charity and compassion. In Greek and Latin, the basic word for love was closely related to the word for friend and Greek had several other words when a more precise concept of love was called for. In English today, the word love would almost never be used of friendships – at least male friendships – thanks mostly to the imposed new acceptance of homosexuality. Sexual love has eclipsed all other concepts of love – and not the exalted eros discussed in Plato’s Symposium, either, but a version of the latter that has been stripped of all of its higher connotations, and reduced to a romantic affection tacked on to animal lust. So substituting love for charity in translations of 1 Corinthians 13 produces no net gain in comprehensibility.
While the decay of the English language is obviously what I have been describing here, it is also the rot and ruin of Western ethical thought and, for that matter, Western thought in general. That thinking and language stand and fall together ought to go without saying. Language is the medium through which we communicate our thoughts and, what is more, words are the very building blocks out of which we build our thoughts in the first place, at least if we are talking about the kind of thinking necessary for a civilized life that goes beyond the merely animal and mechanical. The Cultural Marxists, who have been so effective over the last sixty years or so, in tearing down Western civilization from the inside out, clearly understand this, which is why there is so much emphasis on linguistic theory and literary criticism on the intellectual side of what was accurately called the New Left forty-five years ago, and why their most devastating instruments, such as the phenomenon of so-called “political correctness”, involve the manipulation of language.
Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish émigré who became a godfather of sorts to American neoconservatives, and George Grant, Canada’s greatest conservative thinker and patriot of the old British Canada as she was before the evil Trudeau gang first got their hands on her, were among those who a generation or two ago observed that Western ethical thought had taken a turn for the worse in the twentieth century, as modern Western man had come to think in terms of “values” rather than “virtues”, and traced this shift back to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century. Virtues were central to the old, pre-modern, Western tradition of ethical thinking, with roots in both the ancient Athens of Plato and Aristotle and Jerusalem, birthplace of Christianity. Virtues, were praiseworthy habits of behaviour, that manifested themselves in praiseworthy acts or deed, and which presupposed the existence of an established, transcendent, hierarchical order of good, that was not created by man, but to which man must conform himself through the cultivation of virtue, to achieve happiness. Nietzsche believed that the ideas of the modern philosophers who had preceded him and the discoveries of modern science had rendered belief in this order impossible and had left man with two paths open to him, that of a “last man”, content to live out his mediocre existence as a cog in the great societal machine modernity is building, or that of an “overman” who will create a new set of values to fill the void left by the collapse of the old order. That we have come to speak of values rather than virtues, demonstrates how pervasive the Nietzschean version of modern thought has been. Virtues, point to an unchanging order beyond ourselves, values we create for ourselves.
This can clearly be seen in the “Canadian values” of the Trudeau Liberals. People have been driven from their careers, in Canada, for expressing ideas on immigration and multiculturalism that were no different from those held by Stephen Leacock, Conservative economist, social critic and humourist, W. L. Mackenzie King, Liberal Prime Minister, and J. S. Woodsworth, Methodist clergyman and founder of the CCF, the predecessor to today’s NDP, on the grounds that these ideas are contrary to “Canadian values”. “Canadian values”, therefore, have little to do with what real Canadians thought or think, but are rather what Pierre Trudeau decided and declared they would be.
Social conservatives, tend to express their opposition to abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and the like as a defence of “family values.” George Grant, himself an outspoken opponent of this kind of moral decay, argued that this was a mistake, because it is self-defeating to use the language by which the modern replacement for the old moral order has been effected, to defend the old order.
If the replacement of virtues, grounded in a transcendent order, with man-created values, was a step down the stairway of moral and ethical decay, their further replacement with sentiments, of the sorts represented by the current meanings of “compassion”, “charity” and “love”, was a slide down the bannister in comparison.
When the Psalmist says that God is “full of compassion” he is not singing about God’s feelings so much as about His actions. Similarly, whenever the Gospel writers speak of Jesus “having compassion” or being “moved by compassion” they are describing something He does, whether it be healing the sick (Matt. 14:14), casting out a demon (Mk. 5:19), or feeding the multitude (Mk. 8:2). Compassion in the Bible is that within God which motivates Him to act in a benevolent way towards people. It is far more, then, than a mere feeling. This is further evident in the way the Scriptures enjoin compassion upon men. They are clearly telling people how to act, not how to feel, because it would be pointless to do the latter, as feelings cannot be produced at will or in obedience to commands.
Today, however, the word compassion denotes a feeling. Worse, it is a feeling for which people demand and expect all of the praise and credit that is due to a virtue. Jesus in His earthly ministry condemned the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, after going through three pairs of Old Testament verses and expounding them in such a way as to show that the righteousness God demands of people is an internal righteousness and not just an external adherence to His Commandments, Jesus warned those assembled to hear Him against practicing their alms “before men, to be seen of them”, as the hypocrites do, drawing an amusing hyperbolic picture of a hypocritical Pharisee walking into the synagogue blowing a trumpet to announce that he was giving alms, but to give their alms in secret, for “thy Father which seeth in secret Himself shall reward thee openly.” What He was here condemning in the Pharisees, was doing something good – giving alms, for the wrong reason – to be praised by men. The Pharisee who was blowing his own horn, was at least doing the alms-giving for which he received the praise he wanted. Today, the “caring” and “compassionate” expect credit for shedding a few tears for the plight of the unfortunate and having warm fuzzy feelings towards them, whether or not they actually do anything to alleviate their condition. The Pharisees had nothing on them when it comes to hypocrisy.
Perhaps, however, I am being too hard on them. When you look at what has actually been done in the name of the huggy-feely type of compassion these days, you will find that much of it falls into two basic categories. One of these is harm done under the guise of helping, such as all the “poverty relief” money that was funnelled into the support of Third World Marxist guerillas in the twentieth century by the kind of churches who have reduced the “Christian” message to nothing but the debased, sentimental, kind of compassion by getting rid of more trivial aspects of the faith, such as the idea that the Son of the true and living God, came down to earth from heaven, was born a man by the Virgin Mary, died on the cross to take away the sins of the world and reconcile fallen man to God, descended to hell, shattering its gates and releasing the captive spirits of the saints, before rising in triumph from the grave and ascending back into heaven, to sit at His Father’s right hand. The other is to make other people pay the costs of your supposed “compassion” while you get all the credit. Most, if not all, government policies and programs that are labelled “compassionate” are examples of this.
If this is what modern “compassion” looks like in action, perhaps it were better that it be nothing more than a feeling after all.
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