2017 Aquinas Lecture addresses essence of mercy

By Sara Coello and Christine Newman

Dr. Holger Zaborowski gave a talk on justice and mercy in the Church of the Incarnation last Thursday for the annual Aquinas Lecture. Photo by Sara Coello.

Due to what philosophy professor Dr. Chad Engelland called the “pre-emptive destruction of Lynch Auditorium,” the University of Dallas Philosophy Department hosted the 2017 Aquinas Lecture in the Church of the Incarnation on Thursday, Jan. 26.

The change of venue seemed appropriate, however, given the talk’s title: Going Beyond Oneself: The Revolution of Mercy. Dr. Holger Zaborowski, 2017 Aquinas Medalist and chair of the history of philosophy and philosophical ethics at the Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule, explained the relevance of mercy to a culture focused on justice.

Especially at an institution as focused on classical philosophy as UD, mercy and compassion can often be overlooked in favor of virtue and justice.

“The word ‘justice’ appears 641 times in the [Core philosophy] course readings,” Engelland told the audience in his response to Zaborowski.

Mercy is not nearly so popular a subject. And yet, without mercy, justice is both cruel and incomplete. Mercy, however, can revolutionize it.

“[Justice] always looks backward, to something in the past which must be corrected,” Zaborowski said. “Mercy looks forward.”

When an attendee asked Zaborowski about the idea of a merciful judge, he clarified that a judge gives a punishment based off of the justice that the criminal deserves.

Being merciful does not mean neglecting to serve justice, but rather to offer the chance to reform behavior in the future.

This is not to say that mercy should be implemented as an alternative to justice, or even standardized within the justice system.

“Mercy doesn’t question the significance of justice,” Zaborowski said.

Rather, it works in addition to law and obligation, and this separation allows it to go beyond both.

A person who receives comfort or help that is not owed to them receives not only what they need, but a human connection which cannot be provided through the state or duty.

Zaborowski used an example of a corporal work of mercy, feeding the hungry, to discuss the components necessary for a work to be considered merciful.

First, compassion is a key prerequisite. Kind acts done for credit from others, to gain power over the recipient or even for self-satisfaction do no quality, for they objectify the recipient and even the giver, essentially using humans as means to the end of mercy.

While it might seem noble to sacrifice oneself for the sake of such a virtue, no true act of goodness would require the objectification of persons.

This can be avoided by performing merciful acts out of true compassion and taking care to value the person receiving help throughout the process.

Second, it must be effective. Compassion which is not acted upon is incomplete; one cannot simply have a merciful thought or feeling, but it must be accompanied by a merciful act.

Additionally, no action can be motivated entirely by emotion.

Zaborowski used the biblical example of the good samaritan, whose promise to repay the innkeeper in the future for any costs of helping the poor traveler demonstrates a premeditated decision to sacrifice for the good of another, which cannot be entirely explained by emotions, which are temporary.

True mercy, on the other hand, reveals the essence of humanity and connects the giver and receiver on an equal level.

In fact, the person receiving an act of mercy is in some ways helping the giver, by offering them an opportunity to act virtuously and to discern the essential humanity they share.

“Mercy is crucial to be human,” Zaborowski told the audience.

He explained that humanity is most evident when we are at our most vulnerable, and thus in need of mercy.

By acting with mercy to such persons, even the less unfortunate can in a way participate in this state of essential humanity, connecting with the person they help on the deepest possible level: by giving of, and thus transcending, themselves.

Ultimately, Zabrowski urged the audience to practice radical acts of mercy in addition to simply contemplating the idea.

“Mercy evades attempts to define it,” Zaborowski concluded. “It doesn’t know what it is, and it doesn’t need to. It simply is.”



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