QUESTION 30: OF MERCY
We must now go on to consider Mercy, under which head there are four
points of inquiry:
(1) Whether evil is the cause of mercy on the part of the person pitied?
(2) To whom does it belong to pity?
(3) Whether mercy is a virtue?
(4) Whether it is the greatest of virtues?
Article 1: Whether evil is properly the motive of mercy?
Objection 1: It would seem that, properly speaking, evil is not the motive of
mercy. For, as shown above (Question , Article ; FS, Question , Article , ad 4; FP, Question , Article ), fault is an evil rather than punishment. Now fault provokes
indignation rather than mercy. Therefore evil does not excite mercy.
Objection 2: Further, cruelty and harshness seem to excel other evils. Now the
Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 8) that "harshness does not call for pity but
drives it away." Therefore evil, as such, is not the motive of mercy.
Objection 3: Further, signs of evils are not true evils. But signs of evils
excite one to mercy, as the Philosopher states (Rhet. ii, 8). Therefore
evil, properly speaking, is not an incentive to mercy.
On the contrary, Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii, 2) that mercy is a
kind of sorrow. Now evil is the motive of sorrow. Therefore it is the
motive of mercy.
I answer that, As Augustine says (De Civ. Dei ix, 5), mercy is heartfelt
sympathy for another's distress, impelling us to succor him if we can.
For mercy takes its name "misericordia" from denoting a man's
compassionate heart [miserum cor] for another's unhappiness. Now
unhappiness is opposed to happiness: and it is essential to beatitude or
happiness that one should obtain what one wishes; for, according to
Augustine (De Trin. xiii, 5), "happy is he who has whatever he desires,
and desires nothing amiss." Hence, on the other hand, it belongs to
unhappiness that a man should suffer what he wishes not.
Now a man wishes a thing in three ways: first, by his natural appetite;
thus all men naturally wish to be and to live: secondly, a man wishes a
thing from deliberate choice: thirdly, a man wishes a thing, not in
itself, but in its cause, thus, if a man wishes to eat what is bad for
him, we say that, in a way, he wishes to be ill.
Accordingly the motive of "mercy," being something pertaining to
"misery," is, in the first way, anything contrary to the will's natural
appetite, namely corruptive or distressing evils, the contrary of which
man desires naturally, wherefore the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 8) that
"pity is sorrow for a visible evil, whether corruptive or distressing."
Secondly, such like evils are yet more provocative of pity if they are
contrary to deliberate choice, wherefore the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii,
8) that evil excites our pity "when it is the result of an accident, as
when something turns out ill, whereas we hoped well of it." Thirdly, they
cause yet greater pity, if they are entirely contrary to the will, as
when evil befalls a man who has always striven to do well: wherefore the
Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 8) that "we pity most the distress of one who
Reply to Objection 1: It is essential to fault that it be voluntary; and in this
respect it deserves punishment rather than mercy. Since, however, fault
may be, in a way, a punishment, through having something connected with
it that is against the sinner's will, it may, in this respect, call for
mercy. It is in this sense that we pity and commiserate sinners. Thus
Gregory says in a homily (Hom. in Evang. xxxiv) that "true godliness is
not disdainful but compassionate," and again it is written (Mt. 9:36)
that Jesus "seeing the multitudes, had compassion on them: because they
were distressed, and lying like sheep that have no shepherd."
Reply to Objection 2: Since pity is sympathy for another's distress, it is
directed, properly speaking, towards another, and not to oneself, except
figuratively, like justice, according as a man is considered to have
various parts (Ethic. v, 11). Thus it is written (Ecclus. 30:24): "Have
pity on thy own soul, pleasing God" [*Cf. Question , Article , ad 1].
Accordingly just as, properly speaking, a man does not pity himself, but
suffers in himself, as when we suffer cruel treatment in ourselves, so
too, in the case of those who are so closely united to us, as to be part
of ourselves, such as our children or our parents, we do not pity their
distress, but suffer as for our own sores; in which sense the Philosopher
says that "harshness drives pity away."
Reply to Objection 3: Just as pleasure results from hope and memory of good
things, so does sorrow arise from the prospect or the recollection of
evil things; though not so keenly as when they are present to the senses.
Hence the signs of evil move us to pity, in so far as they represent as
present, the evil that excites our pity.
Article 2: Whether the reason for taking pity is a defect in the person who pities?
Objection 1: It would seem that the reason for taking pity is not a defect in
the person who takes pity. For it is proper to God to be merciful,
wherefore it is written (Ps. 144:9): "His tender mercies are over all His
works." But there is no defect in God. Therefore a defect cannot be the
reason for taking pity.
Objection 2: Further, if a defect is the reason for taking pity, those in whom
there is most defect, must needs take most pity. But this is false: for
the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 8) that "those who are in a desperate
state are pitiless." Therefore it seems that the reason for taking pity
is not a defect in the person who pities.
Objection 3: Further, to be treated with contempt is to be defective. But the
Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 8) that "those who are disposed to contumely
are pitiless." Therefore the reason for taking pity, is not a defect in
the person who pities.
On the contrary, Pity is a kind of sorrow. But a defect is the reason of
sorrow, wherefore those who are in bad health give way to sorrow more
easily, as we shall say further on (Question , Article , ad 2). Therefore the
reason why one takes pity is a defect in oneself.
I answer that, Since pity is grief for another's distress, as stated
above (Article ), from the very fact that a person takes pity on anyone, it
follows that another's distress grieves him. And since sorrow or grief is
about one's own ills, one grieves or sorrows for another's distress, in
so far as one looks upon another's distress as one's own.
Now this happens in two ways: first, through union of the affections, which is the effect of love. For, since he who loves another looks upon his friend as another self, he counts his friend's hurt as his own, so that he grieves for his friend's hurt as though he were hurt himself. Hence the Philosopher (Ethic. ix, 4) reckons "grieving with one's friend" as being one of the signs of friendship, and the Apostle says (Rm. 12:15): "Rejoice with them that rejoice, weep with them that weep."
Secondly, it happens through real union, for instance when another's
evil comes near to us, so as to pass to us from him. Hence the
Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 8) that men pity such as are akin to them,
and the like, because it makes them realize that the same may happen to
themselves. This also explains why the old and the wise who consider that
they may fall upon evil times, as also feeble and timorous persons, are
more inclined to pity: whereas those who deem themselves happy, and so
far powerful as to think themselves in no danger of suffering any hurt,
are not so inclined to pity.
Accordingly a defect is always the reason for taking pity, either
because one looks upon another's defect as one's own, through being
united to him by love, or on account of the possibility of suffering in
the same way.
Reply to Objection 1: God takes pity on us through love alone, in as much as He
loves us as belonging to Him.
Reply to Objection 2: Those who are already in infinite distress, do not fear to
suffer more, wherefore they are without pity. In like manner this applies
to those also who are in great fear, for they are so intent on their own
passion, that they pay no attention to the suffering of others.
Reply to Objection 3: Those who are disposed to contumely, whether through having
been contemned, or because they wish to contemn others, are incited to
anger and daring, which are manly passions and arouse the human spirit to
attempt difficult things. Hence they make a man think that he is going to
suffer something in the future, so that while they are disposed in that
way they are pitiless, according to Prov. 27:4: "Anger hath no mercy, nor
fury when it breaketh forth." For the same reason the proud are without
pity, because they despise others, and think them wicked, so that they
account them as suffering deservedly whatever they suffer. Hence Gregory
says (Hom. in Evang. xxxiv) that "false godliness," i.e. of the proud,
"is not compassionate but disdainful."
Article 3: Whether mercy is a virtue?
Objection 1: It would seem that mercy is not a virtue. For the chief part of
virtue is choice as the Philosopher states (Ethic. ii, 5). Now choice is
"the desire of what has been already counselled" (Ethic. iii, 2).
Therefore whatever hinders counsel cannot be called a virtue. But mercy
hinders counsel, according to the saying of Sallust (Catilin.): "All
those that take counsel about matters of doubt, should be free from . . .
anger . . . and mercy, because the mind does not easily see aright, when
these things stand in the way." Therefore mercy is not a virtue.
Objection 2: Further, nothing contrary to virtue is praiseworthy. But nemesis
is contrary to mercy, as the Philosopher states (Rhet. ii, 9), and yet it
is a praiseworthy passion (Rhet. ii, 9). Therefore mercy is not a virtue.
Objection 3: Further, joy and peace are not special virtues, because they
result from charity, as stated above (Question , Article ; Question , Article ). Now
mercy, also, results from charity; for it is out of charity that we weep
with them that weep, as we rejoice with them that rejoice. Therefore
mercy is not a special virtue.
Objection 4: Further, since mercy belongs to the appetitive power, it is not
an intellectual virtue, and, since it has not God for its object, neither
is it a theological virtue. Moreover it is not a moral virtue, because
neither is it about operations, for this belongs to justice; nor is it
about passions, since it is not reduced to one of the twelve means
mentioned by the Philosopher (Ethic. ii, 7). Therefore mercy is not a
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Civ. Dei ix, 5): "Cicero in praising
Caesar expresses himself much better and in a fashion at once more humane
and more in accordance with religious feeling, when he says: 'Of all thy
virtues none is more marvelous or more graceful than thy mercy.'"
Therefore mercy is a virtue.
I answer that, Mercy signifies grief for another's distress. Now this grief may denote, in one way, a movement of the sensitive appetite, in which case mercy is not a virtue but a passion; whereas, in another way, it may denote a movement of the intellective appetite, in as much as one person's evil is displeasing to another. This movement may be ruled in accordance with reason, and in accordance with this movement regulated by reason, the movement of the lower appetite may be regulated. Hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei ix, 5) that "this movement of the mind" (viz. mercy) "obeys the reason, when mercy is vouchsafed in such a way that justice is safeguarded, whether we give to the needy or forgive the repentant." And since it is essential to human virtue that the movements of the soul should be regulated by reason, as was shown above (FS, Question , Articles ,5), it follows that mercy is a virtue.
Reply to Objection 1: The words of Sallust are to be understood as applying to
the mercy which is a passion unregulated by reason: for thus it impedes
the counselling of reason, by making it wander from justice.
Reply to Objection 2: The Philosopher is speaking there of pity and nemesis,
considered, both of them, as passions. They are contrary to one another
on the part of their respective estimation of another's evils, for which
pity grieves, in so far as it esteems someone to suffer undeservedly,
whereas nemesis rejoices, in so far as it esteems someone to suffer
deservedly, and grieves, if things go well with the undeserving: "both of
these are praiseworthy and come from the same disposition of character"
(Rhet. ii, 9). Properly speaking, however, it is envy which is opposed to
pity, as we shall state further on (Question , Article ).
Reply to Objection 3: Joy and peace add nothing to the aspect of good which is
the object of charity, wherefore they do not require any other virtue
besides charity. But mercy regards a certain special aspect, namely the
misery of the person pitied.
Reply to Objection 4: Mercy, considered as a virtue, is a moral virtue having
relation to the passions, and it is reduced to the mean called nemesis,
because "they both proceed from the same character" (Rhet. ii, 9). Now
the Philosopher proposes these means not as virtues, but as passions,
because, even as passions, they are praiseworthy. Yet nothing prevents
them from proceeding from some elective habit, in which case they assume
the character of a virtue.
Article 4: Whether mercy is the greatest of the virtues?
Objection 1: It would seem that mercy is the greatest of the virtues. For the
worship of God seems a most virtuous act. But mercy is preferred before
the worship of God, according to Osee 6:6 and Mt. 12:7: "I have desired
mercy and not sacrifice." Therefore mercy is the greatest virtue.
Objection 2: Further, on the words of 1 Tim. 4:8: "Godliness is profitable to
all things," a gloss says: "The sum total of a Christian's rule of life
consists in mercy and godliness." Now the Christian rule of life embraces
every virtue. Therefore the sum total of all virtues is contained in
Objection 3: Further, "Virtue is that which makes its subject good," according
to the Philosopher. Therefore the more a virtue makes a man like God, the
better is that virtue: since man is the better for being more like God.
Now this is chiefly the result of mercy, since of God is it said (Ps. 144:9) that "His tender mercies are over all His works," and (Lk. 6:36)
Our Lord said: "Be ye . . . merciful, as your Father also is merciful."
Therefore mercy is the greatest of virtues.
On the contrary, The Apostle after saying (Col. 3:12): "Put ye on . . .
as the elect of God . . . the bowels of mercy," etc., adds (Col. 3:14):
"Above all things have charity." Therefore mercy is not the greatest of
I answer that, A virtue may take precedence of others in two ways:
first, in itself; secondly, in comparison with its subject. In itself,
mercy takes precedence of other virtues, for it belongs to mercy to be
bountiful to others, and, what is more, to succor others in their wants,
which pertains chiefly to one who stands above. Hence mercy is accounted
as being proper to God: and therein His omnipotence is declared to be
chiefly manifested [*Collect, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost].
On the other hand, with regard to its subject, mercy is not the greatest
virtue, unless that subject be greater than all others, surpassed by none
and excelling all: since for him that has anyone above him it is better
to be united to that which is above than to supply the defect of that
which is beneath. [*"The quality of mercy is not strained./'Tis mightiest
in the mightiest: it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown."
Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene i.]. Hence, as regards man, who has God
above him, charity which unites him to God, is greater than mercy,
whereby he supplies the defects of his neighbor. But of all the virtues
which relate to our neighbor, mercy is the greatest, even as its act
surpasses all others, since it belongs to one who is higher and better to
supply the defect of another, in so far as the latter is deficient.
Reply to Objection 1: We worship God by external sacrifices and gifts, not for
His own profit, but for that of ourselves and our neighbor. For He needs
not our sacrifices, but wishes them to be offered to Him, in order to
arouse our devotion and to profit our neighbor. Hence mercy, whereby we
supply others' defects is a sacrifice more acceptable to Him, as
conducing more directly to our neighbor's well-being, according to Heb.
13:16: "Do not forget to do good and to impart, for by such sacrifices
God's favor is obtained."
Reply to Objection 2: The sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy,
as regards external works: but the inward love of charity, whereby we are
united to God preponderates over both love and mercy for our neighbor.
Reply to Objection 3: Charity likens us to God by uniting us to Him in the bond
of love: wherefore it surpasses mercy, which likens us to God as regards
similarity of works.