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Lucretius on Pity in the Development of Justice

Prof. Elizabeth Asmis

University of Chicago

March 31, 2022

Starts in Chicago 11.00 am / London 5.00 pm / Budapest 6.00 pm / Athens 7.00 pm

Lucretius stands out in a long tradition of European thought as the first author to place pity at the origin of justice; and he was an Epicurean. How did he combine pity—specifically, pity for the weak—with Epicurean self-interest?  As I shall argue, Lucretius sought to fit pity within a framework provided by Epicurus. He makes his case by distinguishing three stages in the evolution of pity: the spontaneous development of pity within the family; the deliberate extension of pity to a community of neighbors by the first compacts; and the development of pity as a custom. Founded on pity for the weak, justice nonetheless secures one’s own interest. At the same time, pity offers an alternative to benefiting others merely as a means  to one’s own wellbeing or to benefiting others for their own sake. By sharing another’s aversion to pain, a person has an incentive to alleviate another’s pain, subject only to the condition, as specified by the hedonistic calculus, that this does not result in a surplus of pain for oneself.