The Quality of Mercy

Yesterday morning, from my window, I watched a feral cat trying to make its way through the bitter cold and deep snow of this winter. We have had a long acquaintance, that feral cat and I — a little black cat with a white face and bib.  Little Fella’ (as I call him) comes and goes, and I feed him when I can.  He is a sweet cat, although battle scarred and lightly limping, and he keeps a cautious distance. I seldom see him in the warmer months. But every winter he comes again. Then I’m quite glad to see him, and quite amazed also to find that he’s still alive in a place where temperatures can reach -50 C.

Some of the neighbours have tried to drive him off, considering him a pest. They don’t know what Little Fella’ and I know, and which is the essence of our solidarity. The living have a pact. We are all creatures, human and non-human alike, trying to survive in a world that is hostile to life and seemingly indifferent to the suffering of the living — the realm called “samsara” — and only the solidarity of the living within the realm of Pain prevents the surrounding gloom from overrunning us all.

This implicit solidarity of the living is called “empathy”. It is a true power that seems little understood because it is not exercised much, yet it is a real power, and it is a power that keeps the web of life from unraveling. Some call it “love” and some call it “compassion” and some call it “loving-kindness” and some call it “sympathy of the whole” and some call it “mercy”. It can expand and it can contract, and the more expansive it is, the more powerful life-as-a-whole is in resisting what is now called “entropy”, but was formerly called “chaos” or Abyss of Nothingness — or just simply “Death”.

Lasch’s “culture of narcissism” is, in fact, its contrary, and it stands in direct opposition to the culture of empathy, which is why narcissism is so deadening, death-like, and nihilistic in its effects.

A dog starv’d at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State — Blake, Auguries of Innocence

A false doctrine and false consciousness teaches that the “struggle for survival” pits living creatures and species (and even, in the case of humans, within the human species) against each other for supremacy. This pernicious and malignant doctrine is the product of human narcissism and perceptions of all-too-narrow self-interest. Beneath the apparent “competition of species” and of individuals there lies a tapestry of life’s general cooperation against an engulfing Voidness that is hostile to all life. The struggle for survival is life’s general struggle against this Abyss of Nothingness. That  is what the “pilgrim” perceives in the woodcut figure Urbi et Orbi  which we have often commented upon in the pages of The Chrysalis,

Urbi et Orbi

Urbi et Orbi

When you gaze at this famous woodcut, your own intuition will tell you what it means, I think — the solidarity of a living order in contrast to what Rosenstock-Huessy once called “the surrounding gloom” and Blake had called “the dark Satanic mill” — a lifeless, frozen, cold, and dead machine-like order.  And the woodcut is intended to make a visibly stark contrast between these living and these dead aspects of the cosmos.

Mercy is the expression of empathy. Where it is not, there is no empathy. And where there is no empathy, life’s general and cooperative solidarity against the powers of that which would dissolve it cannot be sustained. “Sustainability” has a far deeper meaning that is usually ascribed to it.

This, as Nietzsche well knew, is the profounder problem of the “death of God”, rather than just the superficial demise of a long-standing moral order. The shared “creaturehood” of all living forms provided the primary basis for the sympathy of the whole, expressed through the teaching of mercy and of the natural affinities. The a-finities were subsequently broken by the mental-rational consciousness into discrete “de-finitions”, and it is not accidental that this is coincident with the rise of atomistic and egoistic doctrines of “self-interest” and of the conceit of “the self-made man” and the supremacy of property rights and the proprium.  In effect, Indra’s Net and the web of life began to unravel in the human mind. And Nietzsche, finding no other recourse to preserve the solidarity of life’s efforts against this invasive dis-integration and nihilism — his own “stare into the abyss” — espoused his teaching of loyalty to the Earth.

Why, therefore, do some people find it so strange that, upon his first breakdown, Nietzsche threw his arms around a  beaten and fallen horse in the streets of Turin, and, weeping, called the horse “Brother!”? The Christian Saint Francis also taught the unity of all creaturehood explicitly, and so is remembered as the patron saint and protector of the animals.

(As an interesting side note: legend has it that Francis, as a young rogue, knave and sneak, met Shams, the friend and inspiration of the Sufi master Rumi, in Damascus. The encounter was apparently life-transforming for Francis (as partly reported here) just as the first meeting of Shams and Rumi in the marketplace of Konya was life-transforming for both).

Even Darwin could not conceive of life except as a singular tree — the Tree of Life — and in his statement of this there is even a shadow of the old doctrine of the affinities, but now partially fenced off and constrained by the concept of “class” and lacking its former depth,

“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have at all times overmastered other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was young, budding twigs; and this connection of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few have left living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these fallen branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved from fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.”

In Darwin’s terms, therefore, “the battle for life” is a battle of life — a cooperative affair, and life’s solidarity is still expressed in the form of a universal “tree”.

We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light  — Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Blake’s entire poem, Auguries of Innocence, is a commentary on the implicit solidarity of all living,  on the real power of empathy and the act of mercy — these things which are endangered and imperiled today. For, as he put it, “everything that lives is Holy”. His poem is, in effect, prophecy, and I recommend you study it carefully in light of these remarks, for it is about the fundamental interdependency and inter-connectedness of all living beings — the old affinities — and their role in the web of life and even as “guardians of being” (as Eckhart Tolle described it). Also, about the malign contraction of empathy (which diminishes us correspondingly) and the consequences of the unmerciful,


To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.
A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A Horse misus’d upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear.
A Skylark wounded in the wing,
A Cherubim does cease to sing.
The Game Cock clipp’d and arm’d for fight
Does the Rising Sun affright.
Every Wolf’s & Lion’s howl
Raises from Hell a Human Soul.
The wild deer, wand’ring here & there,
Keeps the Human Soul from Care.
The Lamb misus’d breeds public strife
And yet forgives the Butcher’s Knife.
The Bat that flits at close of Eve
Has left the Brain that won’t believe.
The Owl that calls upon the Night
Speaks the Unbeliever’s fright.
He who shall hurt the little Wren
Shall never be belov’d by Men.
He who the Ox to wrath has mov’d
Shall never be by Woman lov’d.
The wanton Boy that kills the Fly
Shall feel the Spider’s enmity.
He who torments the Chafer’s sprite
Weaves a Bower in endless Night.
The Catterpillar on the Leaf
Repeats to thee thy Mother’s grief.
Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly,
For the Last Judgement draweth nigh.
He who shall train the Horse to War
Shall never pass the Polar Bar.
The Beggar’s Dog & Widow’s Cat,
Feed them & thou wilt grow fat.
The Gnat that sings his Summer’s song
Poison gets from Slander’s tongue.
The poison of the Snake & Newt
Is the sweat of Envy’s Foot.
The poison of the Honey Bee
Is the Artist’s Jealousy.
The Prince’s Robes & Beggars’ Rags
Are Toadstools on the Miser’s Bags.
A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent.
It is right it should be so;
Man was made for Joy & Woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
The Babe is more than swadling Bands;
Throughout all these Human Lands
Tools were made, & born were hands,
Every Farmer Understands.
Every Tear from Every Eye
Becomes a Babe in Eternity.
This is caught by Females bright
And return’d to its own delight.
The Bleat, the Bark, Bellow & Roar
Are Waves that Beat on Heaven’s Shore.
The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath
Writes Revenge in realms of death.
The Beggar’s Rags, fluttering in Air,
Does to Rags the Heavens tear.
The Soldier arm’d with Sword & Gun,
Palsied strikes the Summer’s Sun.
The poor Man’s Farthing is worth more
Than all the Gold on Afric’s Shore.
One Mite wrung from the Labrer’s hands
Shall buy & sell the Miser’s lands:
Or, if protected from on high,
Does that whole Nation sell & buy.
He who mocks the Infant’s Faith
Shall be mock’d in Age & Death.
He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the Infant’s faith
Triumph’s over Hell & Death.
The Child’s Toys & the Old Man’s Reasons
Are the Fruits of the Two seasons.
The Questioner, who sits so sly,
Shall never know how to Reply.
He who replies to words of Doubt
Doth put the Light of Knowledge out.
The Strongest Poison ever known
Came from Caesar’s Laurel Crown.
Nought can deform the Human Race
Like the Armour’s iron brace.
When Gold & Gems adorn the Plow
To peaceful Arts shall Envy Bow.
A Riddle or the Cricket’s Cry
Is to Doubt a fit Reply.
The Emmet’s Inch & Eagle’s Mile
Make Lame Philosophy to smile.
He who Doubts from what he sees
Will ne’er believe, do what you Please.
If the Sun & Moon should doubt
They’d immediately Go out.
To be in a Passion you Good may do,
But no Good if a Passion is in you.
The Whore & Gambler, by the State
Licenc’d, build that Nation’s Fate.
The Harlot’s cry from Street to Street
Shall weave Old England’s winding Sheet.
The Winner’s Shout, the Loser’s Curse,
Dance before dead England’s Hearse.
Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet Delight.
Some are Born to sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro’ the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to Perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light.
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in the Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.
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5 responses to “The Quality of Mercy”

  1. Abdulmonem says :

    Beauty is raining down , the universe and all creations are erected on mercy, that is why all the chapters of the Koran start with the merciful. I like Blake as the true representative of the solidarity off all living and not Darwin of the fatal competition. It is not surprising that the visions of Blake and Nietzsche coincide because they water their souls from the same divine river. Blake a horse misused upon the road and Nietzsche hug of the horse in Turin. All that creep on the earth and all that fly in the sky are nations like you ,, god has not made anything in vain , this is the assertion of those that have no faith. God dose appear and god does hide and only reveal himself to those who want to leave the night. Faith is not a human wish but a divine endowment on those who deserve it. It is sad that humanity always leave real life to the artificial life as depicted in the woodcut.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I just recalled, too, a story about Muhammad from Walter Ling’s biography. In his march on Mecca, he came across a dog nursing new born puppies in a ditch, and was moved by it. He posted sentries to guard the dog and her puppies from being abused by any of his troops.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    It is sad that humanity always leave real life to the artificial life as depicted in the woodcut.

    So it is.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    What marvelous profoundness! Blake’s poem has me walking amongst the clouds 🙂 Indescribably uplifting! How dare he died? What a great loss for humanity.

    I had never thought of empathy as power, but indeed it is. They say it is very difficult to change behavior. Well, empathy seems to be just the shortcut:

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    By the way, I love the name “Little Fella” 🙂

    One time when I was visiting my parents, I heard my dad saying “Come here! Come here! Come here!” Wondering who he is talking to on the outside, I poked my head out the house’s main entrance and asked “Dad, who are you talking to?”

    He said “There’s a cat here that comes and visits us every now and then.” So, I went out and looked in the direction my dad was calling out to. I saw this sweet young cat with golden fur and white paws. Right there and then, I named the cat “Come Here.”

    That was a very very long time ago. For years after that, whenever I went back for a visit (or sometimes even over the phone), I asked my dad or mom if “Come Here” still came around? They would always say that yes the cat still showed up around the house once in a while and my dad always fed him with something out of the fridge or a can. But one day, the visits ended and “Come Here” was never seen again. I hope he found a permanent home.

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