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The Duties of Mercy

For Jade

Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy (Sette opere di Misericordia), 1607
Oil on canvas, 153 1/2 x 102 3/8 in.
Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples

A few years before his death in 1610, and at the height of his powers, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio would be exiled in Naples, then a dark city much unlike his favored Rome. Because of the difficulty to find employment, its people were struck with poverty; they had to live with the everyday dangers of crime and violence on the streets. Such a place suited the itinerant and brash painter. Welcomed both by its painters and art collectors, Caravaggio was something like a celebrity in Naples. He would soon be commissioned to paint for those who can afford him. His first major work in Naples would be a commission requested by some aristocrats for an altarpiece in the Pio Monte della Misericordia. Caravaggio’s dominant Seven Works of Mercy (Sette opere di Misericordia), considered to be his greatest Neapolitan work, remains there today. Addressing the dire situation of the people of Naples, Caravaggio was asked to depict the six corporal acts or works of mercy as can be found in the Gospel of St. Matthew: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to the wanderer, visit the sick and the imprisoned. A seventh act will be added to the six, also found in the Book of Tobit, to illustrate the problem of the city after a recent plague: to bury the dead. Finally, in addition to what already promised to be a very complex painting, Caravaggio was also asked to portray the Madonna della Misericordia.

Challenging as it was for Caravaggio to place multiple figures with different intentions on one canvas, what he would produce after would be one his most remarkable and most beautiful works in his lifetime. The Seven Works of Mercy easily mirrored the dark and impoverished streets of Naples, and most of its figures portrayed its people—one reason why the aristocrats of Naples, unlike the many sponsors Caravaggio earlier scandalized in Rome, praised the work. The scene is set deep into the night in a cramped space when most should be asleep at home. Yet Caravaggio’s scene is charged with activity and life. Caravaggio populates the lower part of the canvas with multiple figures which may confuse the gaze as to what is really happening. The torch of a man to the right is supposed to be the only light source, but Caravaggio remains faithful to his mature technique of dark backgrounds with multiple sources of radiant light reflecting on the figures. Put together the nine figures at the lower part all make for a dramatic scene, a kind of theatrical tableau. But nothing in the painting is staged, as it were, for the gaze. It is a spectacle while it is also silent, as mute and calm as the faces of the figures who go about performing their acts of mercy with almost no perceptible emotions, as quiet as the acts of mercy are themselves.

Drawing most of the light in the scene, the woman to the right exposes her breast to a prisoner who forcibly extends his head through the grills as far as possible. She lifts her skirt to provide the prisoner a sort of bib as he drinks the milk from her breast. But she is startled by what goes on around her; so she ashamedly covers her right breast to avoid exposing herself to the public and to hide what she is doing for she may be scoffed at. Behind her and contrasting the nourishment and life that the milk she gives symbolizes, the feet of a dead man can be seen. The corpse is carried by two men, but only one is visible under the fire of the torch that the priest who administered the last rites carries. The priest appears to be praying for the soul of the poor man who is to be laid to rest in eternal darkness in the dead of night. Here birth and death, light and darkness, the beginning of life and its end, freedom from life and imprisonment in it—these privileged circumstances defined by helplessness and isolation require from others, may it be from its mother at the beginning or the priest and the gravedigger at its end, aid or assistance from another human being. I was not “there” in the beginning to feed myself, care for myself, as I will be helpless when my freedom is taken from me or when I am dying. I, too, am then asked to attend to those who can no longer attend to themselves. It is already a matter of decency.

On the foreground to the left, the back of a half-naked man is illuminated from a source of light outside the visible field of the painting. He lies on the ground together with a man regarded to be either a sick man or a beggar who is clasping his hands, asking for aid. But they are both received by a man, modeled after St. Martin of Tours, who cuts with his drawn sword the cloak on his back to share with the half-naked man. The act of the man in the picture recalls the vision of Christ Saint Martin had after he had given half of his cloak to a naked man. Also on the left, two men converse with each other. The pudgy man directs what seems to be a wanderer to the direction of his inn so that he and his barely visible companion behind him may have shelter for the night. Finally, between the innkeeper and the wanderer we find something out of place. It is supposed to be a weary Samson who zealously gulps down water from the jawbone of an ass, which was what he used as a weapon to kill an army of Philistines as it was written in the Old Testament. Taken together to the left of the painting we see the corporal acts of mercy—corporal in the sense that man in the flesh needs drink, clothing, and shelter from the elements for its body to survive. In a certain sense an act of corporal mercy is simply giving a man what is due to him. As a human being who also needs these necessities, I also owe it to the famished, the naked, the sick and the homeless to give them only what is properly theirs, what all men should have and enjoy.

Thus when I see a child on the street who says that he or she has yet to eat since the previous night, how can I not give the alms or the food that I am asked for? All of a sudden, in front of the face of suffering, I am placed in a new situation where I now have to act with urgency. But what ought I do then? On the one hand, if I were to think this through rationally, I cannot really arrive at the decision of giving alms or aid to the needy street urchin if I base my decision on what my duty is. Say I formulate the maxim Thou shall give aid to those in dire need, and apply it as moral principle that I am to observe and accomplish in each possible case, I will always run into contradictions and problems. By what standard do I measure “need” or “dire need,” much less the amount suffering in front of me that I am asked to attend to, so I may decide on whether or not this or that case warrants giving aid or not? And what is the intention or motive behind giving aid? I say that such an act only furnishes another human being with what he properly needs. But I can also answer that such a motive, because it is not based solely on the laws of duty, can be subsumed to the motive of only giving in to the “natural inclination” of pity and sympathy, which, to recall Kant, cannot qualify as a moral motive worth the name. And as indicated earlier, Kant was very clear on this: “To help others when one can is a duty. . . . Yet I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however right and however amiable it may be, has still no genuinely moral worth.” Thus if I am to follow Kant, if I do give aid to this child, I paradoxically do so with indifference as I only respect the law, or I simply do not have to do so.

But on the other hand, if I were to understand my desire to aid the needy as only a contingent or particular case which pertains to this child and not for all children in need, or I in other words do not base my action on what is rational and thus “ethical,” and if I only base my action on the specific conditions in which the child presents himself or my current situation (perhaps the child’s face is more pitiful than that of others, he seems sincere, or I feel unusually generous that time or was in a “good mood,” whatever that may mean), I also fall into vertiginous dilemmas. I shall have to in each case decide who I shall dress, feed, and give drink to, and when I should do so given that there are so many who are naked, hungry, and thirsty. In all appearances there may not be any problems here. Everyday experiences confirm this easily: Not everyone helps another who is in need at all times, and even if he who by his extraordinary generosity helps everyone that he encounters, he can logically presume that there will always be more people who are naked, hungry and thirsty in other places. “We do what we can,” of course, each one excuses himself rather easily. Generosity, too, has practical limits in this sense. But the moral problem at stake here is the relativity of goodness (to whom or when it is displayed because human limits prevent me from performing it at all times and to all men)—or, better, its particularity. In this light, I shall always have to decide whether I will be good to this particular man or child—or not. And since I am neither required by the moral law to perform works of charity, nor am I able accomplish them at all times even if I wanted to do so because of my finitude, I thus end up only helping a few, only helping sometimes, or in a word, I help only arbitrarily.   

In other words, if I follow rationality I will not really be good to this child but I will merely be obeying a universal law; and if I answer only to this particular child who calls on me for help, I may not really be good. Can such an aporia be transgressed? There is one possibility: if I am to understand an act of corporal mercy as a quasi-duty that I am obliged to accomplish not because it is required by the law or by rationality, neither because I want to be esteemed or praised by doing what is unnecessary, but because each case of suffering demands from me a most basic act of mercy. Mercy resides in between what is a duty and what is unnecessary for me to do.That an act of mercy is not a strict duty can be understood in the sense that I can always excuse myself from having to be the one to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, etc. I can always think of others who can do that instead of me (I may even absurdly require so from them), others perhaps who can do the “job” for me and thus relieve me of my duties. But that an act of mercy nevertheless has something obligatory to it, and thus not totally unnecessary or “optional,” is evidenced by the concrete feeling that it is I who am asked to give aid to this naked, hungry, or thirsty man. I cannot really excuse myself and defer to others this sudden responsibility I receive in the face of concrete suffering. In the face of suffering I receive out of nowhere a new duty I did not have before. I cannot really “look away,” or be indifferent to an open face which asks from me and from no one else here and now something that he truly deserves simply because he is a human being. The other human being alone imposes upon me a moral injunction which in this one perfect instance acquires the force of a moral law to be obeyed at all times (Levinas). Upon the arrival of another human being who sees me, “the rights of the I collapse beneath the infinite obligations that come down to me” (J. L. Marion). Beginning with this perfect instance of mercy, I acquire for the first time new obligations that I cannot but understand in my flesh as an ought which has to be obeyed not arbitrarily or when I want or when I can, but from now on and as long as I live. I may fail, to be sure, even most of the time owing to different circumstances and to my own weaknesses. But such failures do not diminish the clarity nor the gravity of my responsibilities for those who suffer.

I do not have to have compassion, nor do I need to feel sympathy, or even be kind of heart, to perform an act of mercy; all I need is to see with my eyes without having to feel anything in my heart—I know in my flesh what I ought to do. I do not, in a word, have to become a saint to have mercy. Mercy is perfect in itself; it does not need to fear reprimand when it is not administered, nor does it receive an award or honor when it is shown because nothing is really given or taken, because it only gives back what is due to every human being. And because mercy is apathetic, it is able to stand the Kantian test for what qualifies as a valid moral motive for action. Having mercy, to answer Kant, is not regarded to be a natural inclination: it is not a shadow of self-interest, obviously, and it cannot be reduced to vanity as “nothing special” was really done; it was only fitting that I have mercy, and it required from me neither generosity nor benevolence but only to be human.  

More importantly, mercy does not give to those who show it “an inner pleasure in spreading happiness around them” and “delight in the contentment of others as their own work” (Kant). For one, happiness can only proceed when the basic needs are already in place to act as its stable base. But because corporal acts of mercy attend first and primarily to that physical substratum of human life, they only provide the conditions of the possibility of happiness, and not yet happiness or pleasure itself; in this sense I also fall short in “spreading happiness” around me. Because I only perform a duty, as it were, to the one who suffers, it is likewise difficult to imagine myself as in turn gaining pleasure in doing what I am supposed to do anyway. The merciful are rarely thought to enjoy any delight in the results of their work. On the contrary, it is frequently experienced that in giving only what is asked and what is needed in a particular moment, an uncanny sadness dawns upon me, a feeling of incompetence and even of greed, of being “not good enough,” because I know I could have given more, much more, than a few coins, a drink of water or a piece of cloth.

Caravaggio’s figures show precisely the indifference and apathy of the works of mercy: they all go about their work, as one goes about doing his job. The circus of activity in his The Seven Works of Mercy can at first glance be mistaken as what one will usually see in the piazza or marketplace where everyone unmindfully pass each other by on his or her way to do their own labors (opera or work). To borrow the words Urmson used to describe the actions of saints and heroes, all of  our actors seem to work with “disinterest or without effort,” as if they were all merely performing their duties. And the motive of mercy seen in this way can arguably pass the Kantian test for a valid moral action because mercy does not need to be pathological. Instead, we can take mercy as a form of what Kant described as “kindness done from duty,” which he, as stated before, describes as “practical, and not pathological, love, residing in the will and not in the propensions of feeling, in principles of action and not of melting compassion; and it is this practical love alone which can be an object of command.” One of the possible reasons why those who commissioned Caravaggio for this main altarpiece for the Pio Monte della Misericordia showed great appreciation to him was because it delivered the strong message that aiding the poor on the streets of Naples from their suffering should be seen as each one’s duty and one’s work—as a “practical love,” or a love that works—and as nothing fantastic, heavenly or even praiseworthy, but as having the force of “an object of command.” Perhaps it is in this sense that we may begin to understand not only part of the philosophical nature of supererogation, but more importantly, how it is possible for rational agents to perform acts of saintliness and heroism that for the most part may seem to be irrational actions.


In Caravaggio’s powerful portrait of what it should mean to be human, mercy is seen not from on high, or as something that only God can bestow because of His power. Mercy here becomes a human and not necessarily a religious or theological virtue. Instead of painting the majestic saints on the grand altar of the Pio Monte della Misericordia as in many other churches, what Caravaggio put there were the real men and women of Naples who perform ordinary but saintly acts. Mercy in this masterpiece is brought down from the level of the superhuman to the soil where the works of man are performed. The separation of the two realms can be seen in how Caravaggio distinguishes between the lower plane where the works of mercy are done, and the upper realm where the Virgin and her child, and two powerful angels,observe the actors with compassion. The muscular boy-angel to the left stretches out his right arm which stops short of entering the imaginary horizontal line where the priest’s head stops. The other angel to the right embraces him, as if to keep him from crossing over unto the human realm, and to let the mortals below continue their works of mercy by themselves, without aid or reward. I do not need help from above or a command from a hidden God to see and to know what I ought to do in front of poverty and suffering and the death of my brother. I show mercy not because I feel compassion or because I gain happiness or I perceive a future heavenly recompense, but because I already perceive it is as what I ought to do.

The duties of mercy are at bottom the works of man. The angels, the Madonna and the child may see beauty and goodness in these works, as Caravaggio shows in the compassionate faces of the heavenly beings—yet I need not know this nor do I have to hope for it. God may praise a good man who makes it his duty, who wills and takes it upon himself to do acts of mercy, but he does not require such a confirmation. Perhaps to learn that, and to earn any reward, would be one of the last things, even the last of the last—a revelation that can only be made at the end of mercy’s duties. We recall how upon asked when they saw the Christ hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick or in prison, he answered to their amazement: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25: 40).

Last part of a paper in Advanced Ethics 


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