Sympathy versus Pity/Mercy for the Dead

I was really struck by I.I.13, the section in which Adam Smith discusses humankind’s complex process of sympathy for the dead. Smith describes the strangeness of our unwillingness to accept the lack of suffering in those already dead; we imagine them as living humans, whose senses of physicality remain married to emotion. We cringe at the thought of being “laid in the cold grave,” yet rationally, we assert such “circumstances,” so visceral to us, “have no influence upon [the dead person’s] happiness.” The deceased’s suffering, he says, is an “illusion of the imagination,” a moment in which the living person imagines their soul crushed under the physical constraints felt by the buried corpse.

In The Lifted Veil, Latimer has a different take on humankind’s “pity,” “tenderness,” and “charity” for the dead (Eliot 4). Sympathy, he says, is borne not of imagined physical revulsion but of “extenuation for errors” (4). Sympathy here implies not “fellow-feeling” (Smith, I.I.14) but forgiveness; in death, “consent” is given “to bury” one’s mistakes in life (Eliot 4).

I think our collective dislike of Latimer is in large part rooted in this sort of attitude. I often associate “pity” with a negative connotation, while “sympathy” has always struck me has wholly positive–upon looking these up briefly in the dictionary, I see their definitions are nearly identical–but if anyone shares my negative take on this word, I see his cry for the reader’s “sympathy” (Eliot 21) as truly a demand for pity or mercy. He wants forgiving praise, not just “fellow-feeling” (Smith, I.I.14).

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