If dignity has been perhaps the most transforming and revolutionary concept of the 20th century, and one that has been disseminated with greater precision since the philosopher Javier Gomá published his work with the same title, 'Dignity', the concept of compassion could take over in this 21st century.
This can happen precisely because it is opposed to ideologies such as culture. wokeThe culture of cancellation, as referred to by the French thinker Rémi Brague at the CEU's own Catholics and Public Life Congress last November, or to the idolatry of violence, which Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of the Greek Catholic Church of UkraineThe report was published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in relation to the conflict affecting that country and Europe. Omnes.
One of the authors who can best contribute to the analysis and dissemination of compassion is the Professor of Medieval History at the CEU San Pablo University, Manuel Alejandro Rodríguez de la Peña, who has just been awarded by the San Pablo CEU University Foundation with the CEU Ángel Herrera Award, in its XXV edition, for the best research work in the area of Humanities and Social Sciences.
His story is linked in some way to that of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, since in 2011, at World Youth Day held in Madrid, he was. spokesperson of the professors at that meeting held in El Escorial. Perhaps many remember him, as well as the speech in response to the then Pope Ratzinger. In the interview we alluded to that moment.
The award went to Professor Rodríguez de la Peña for his work 'Compassion. A History', which analyzes compassion through the centuries and provides a new approach to the ethical roots of the West and a comparative analysis of Israel, classical Greece and Christianity.
The official note highlights the "social relevance of this work in these times of nihilism and confusion, given its optimistic character, by nurturing hope in the goodness of man inspired by the message of Jesus who, in difficult situations, was faithful to an ethic of compassion unknown to outstanding figures of Antiquity".
We talked to the medievalist professor Manuel Alejandro Rodríguez de la Peña, who has been vice-rector of Research and Teaching Staff, vice-dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the same CEU San Pablo University, and visiting professor at universities in other countries.
How many years have you been teaching?
- I read my thesis in 1999, I was in Cambridge for two years and then I came to CEU, where I have been a professor for 20 years. I have a PhD in Medieval History and, since a few months ago, I am Professor of Medieval History.
He has been awarded the CEU Ángel Herrera Prize for the best research work in the area of Humanities and Social Sciences.
- It is an award that is given every year and the projects that compete are submitted by the three CEU universities by area of knowledge. They can be books, as in my case, but there are also research projects.
'Compassion. A History' is the title of his work, an account of compassion through the centuries....
- Essentially, what I defend is the thesis that compassion is not a biological attitude, it is not something genetic, but something learned. What I do is to study the origin of this ethic of compassion in different civilizations and mainly, and what I dedicate more time in the book is to the biblical world, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Greek world, the Greco-Roman philosophy.
But there is also a part on the Near East, India and China. So the idea is a comparative analysis, and to see to what extent compassion is linked to religion, because one of my theses is that at least in one of the religions is the origin of compassion, the ascetic spirit of renunciation and the origin of compassion that is linked.
And then, through this comparison, to see what is special or singular in the Christian mercy that is the compassion of the Gospels. Because in the comparative analysis between these cultures and when comparing it also with the Greco-Roman philosophy, it is appreciated that in the Gospel there is a different idea of compassion, more elevated, more advanced than in the rest of cultures. This would be the summary of the book.
In what way is the approach to Jesus?
- There is a chapter dedicated to Jesus of Nazareth, to Jesus Christ, not as Redeemer because it is not a book of theology, but to the Master of ethics. To what is the ethical dimension of the Gospels, to the Sermon on the Mount, to what extent Jesus Christ has introduced the idea of love of the enemy and the universal neighbor that reaches an ethical maximum that goes beyond the prophets in ancient Israel, that goes beyond Socrates, Buddhism or Confucianism.
A: The rejection of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"?
- Yes, he revises it. And then he also reformulates the Levitical commandment. This commandment is already written in the Torah, which is "to love your neighbor as yourself and God above all things". Then there is a very important rabbi, a Jew, contemporary of Jesus, older, but he coincided with Jesus for some years of his life, who came to say that this commandment summarizes the whole Torah, the whole Law.
What I have tried to do is to see what was so special about Jesus, what ethical novelty there is in Jesus. I analyze how he turns it around, because the neighbor in the Hebrew reality was only the "Jew", he did not include the gentiles of that neighbor, and what he does is to universalize that neighbor.
Secondly, he picks up the concept of "love" and gives it a dimension that is already in Isaiah, but which he develops with the different types of love, for example. He uses 'agape' love, which is an unconditional, self-giving love. And finally, he includes in the neighbor the enemy, the love of the enemy. No one in any culture or civilization had ever said this. The enemy by definition was not included in love.
The truth is that loving the enemy is a challenge, isn't it?
- Absolutely. So, it goes beyond the golden rules. One of the things I advocate is that this is not Kant's golden rule or Seneca's golden rule. The golden rule doesn't say love your enemy.
Applied a bit to our days, to these decades; for example, in the economic or political culture, it is difficult to observe this ethical norm of compassion. In general, there is a tendency to hurt where it hurts.
- I talk about that in the book, in the epilogue and the introduction. I agree very much with what you have said; on the one hand, there is a hypercompetitiveness, there is a secularization of society that has caused this to be partly lost, but what I point out is that beyond that, there is a loss of compassion in the individualistic, western way of life..., and this coincides with what is a trivialization of compassion.
It is a term that I use from the reflection of several thinkers on how in the world, or in World War II, it can be said that Nazism or totalitarianisms in general, generate a dehumanization of man. They mark the historical minimum of compassion, that is to say, it goes to a cruelty or inhumanity, and then there is a reaction after World War II, which is the Declaration of Human Rights, civil rights... It can be said that during some decades in which many politicians and Catholic thinkers had a lot to do, there is an attempt to return to Christian humanism.
After May 68 and post-modernity, this has become trivialized. What I denounce is that this is a society that is constantly, unlike the Nazis for example, talking about solidarity, compassion, humanization, helping the weak...; but the reality is that it is a hypercompetitive world that hypocritically is constantly talking about solidarity, empathy; but true compassion, and this is what I explain in the origin of compassionate ethics, has to do with renunciation, with a religious life and with spirituality. So what it really is, then, is a kind of hollow and hypocritical discourse, and it is banal.
Just as Arendt speaks of the trivialization of the concentration camps, of evil, as she says; the trivialization of compassion is that we have routinized compassion and we have taken away all its value, because the value of compassion implied a way of loving one's neighbor that only fits in religious life and that has been lost because it has to do with renunciation, with not having interests....
If you are in a hypercompetitive and super individualistic society, everything that is this life of solidarity is nothing more than a kind of speech to look good, it is hollow, it is banal.
At an upcoming Congress you have a paper on 'Spiritual Roots of Europe'.
- I am going to talk about Christian humanism, but in a double dimension. Christian humanism is humanism in the sense of culture, because of all the Christian legacy, but, and this is one of the things I defend the most, the humanist is human in the sense that he has humanity. That is, Christian humanism is culture, wisdom and compassion. It is the mixture of both. Using this idea that Christian humanism has this double component, I am going to link all the classical Christianized cultural legacy, the humanism that changed Europe and then also the other dimension, the compassionate dimension, of humanity.
Does it seem to you that this "woke culture" or "culture of cancellation", also in history, is essentially non-compassionate? What is your reflection on this "culture of cancellation"?
- I completely agree, it goes against all this. Because by denying the tradition of the ancestors, by denying the past, he wants to cancel it and start from scratch. There is, in the first place, a kind of historical nihilism, there is a hyper-rationalism that basically goes hand in hand with the rationality of post-modernity; and all this leads to a contempt for everything that is your origins, for everything that has been transmitted to you by your elders.
The woke movement can only degenerate into a censorious, inquisitorial movement that bans books, that persecutes people, that cancels others, that prevents freedom of expression... All this cannot be more contrary to the Western tradition, which is that humanism that is human and at the same time seeks culture and wisdom. In short, it denies compassion.
Compassion is closely linked to forgiveness. Is this correct?
- Exactly. There is no forgiveness without compassion, just as there is no love without mercy. Divine mercy is the ultimate expression of divine love, so he who says he is compassionate and does not forgive, is not compassionate.
You greeted Benedict XVI at WYD 2011, representing Spanish professors. What are your memories of that moment?
- Well, he is very dear to me, because for me he is the wise Pope. I have always had a great intellectual admiration for him, but then the fact of meeting him there, beyond the special occasion, I had the opportunity to talk to him for just a few minutes and he transmitted kindness to me. It is curious, it may sound like a stereotype, but this intellectual man, in close contact, melted me. I noticed that he was a deeply human person, beyond the shyness that made him, unlike St. John Paul II, not so easy to transmit sympathy from afar, from a distance.
Now some people are attacking him.
- It is deeply unfair, because the pope who initiated the fight against abuse was Benedict XVI.
Let's conclude. He has been at a prestigious Catholic university for so many years. A brief reflection on the role of Catholic universities, in Spain and in the world.
- I have written several articles on what a Catholic university is. My reflection, very briefly, on three ideas: the first is that traditionally the Catholic university has had two characteristics. One is the defense of truth, in the sense of seeking and inquiring into the truth about creation, ethics....
Secondly, in their medieval origin, Catholic universities had the idea of 'community', and both John Paul II and Benedict XVI insist on this. The university was a community where fraternity among professors, students and researchers was an expression of community. And thirdly, Catholic universities, and this is beginning to happen in Spain, have become a refuge for freedom of thought, because right now in many public universities this freedom of thought is beginning to be threatened.
It is happening in the United States as well, in some other countries... The Catholic university has remained as a place where everyone can really freely exercise their academic freedom without restrictions. I am not saying that public universities persecute anyone, it is the pressure of colleagues and students that in some places causes some professors to have restrictions, to be somehow coerced in a silent way. So, the Catholic university has become a place where there is still academic freedom in the strict sense.
We end a conversation that could have more continuity with various topics. The work on compassion by Professor Rodríguez de la Peña can be found in CEU Ediciones, framed in the collection of the Ángel Ayala Institute of Humanities.