Sympathy for the Devil: The Rhetoric of Compassion
Is compassion the foundation of human morality or a dangerously unreliable emotion? This course examines the strategies and motivations in different media of fostering empathy for commonly held enemies or discriminated groups. We examine the ways that casting minorities as objects of pity can strategically forward—but structurally undermine—the project of creating a more open and tolerant society. The syllabus runs from Ancient Greece to depictions of Nazis and terrorists in modern film, and considers philosophical assessments of sympathy alongside examples of its aesthetic manufacture. Half of our readings are in moral philosophy (e.g., Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Nietzsche, Arendt), and in each case we use the literary text or film (e.g., Aeschylus, Sophocles, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Lessing, Eliot, Brecht) as a kind of experimental field to evaluate the philosophers’ concepts and claims about the moral efficacy of compassion. Students will also work creatively to engender sympathy in four genres (rhetoric, drama, narrative, film).
This course engages in team-based learning. Students will complete four projects that include both creative and analytical components. Groups work to engender sympathy for a “bad guy” in four genres: a speech, a scene, a story, and a visual project. During the final, groups will present their project to the class.