Compassion, Perspicacity and Power

ANALYSIS, 12 Mar 2018

Dr. Naresh Jotwani – TRANSCEND Media Service

8 Mar 2018 – The word compassion conveys an extremely valuable human quality, but it also falls short in one key respect. One may feel compassion for another person who is in pain or misery of some kind. The dictionary meaning of the words implies that one thereby “feels” some of the other person’s pain or misery.

But a very basic question may bother us a little: What does a compassionate person “feel” when facing someone who is not in overt pain or misery? Let us say the other person is happy, or resolute, or angry, or greedy … or whatever. Does the compassionate person then in fact “feel” some of the other person’s happiness, or resolve, or anger, or greed … or whatever?

If he or she does so “feel”, then would that quality also qualify as compassion? No! – because compassion refers specifically to feeling another person’s pain or misery, not happiness, or resolve, or anger, or greed … or whatever.

Perhaps a more appropriate English word here would be sensitive, with the meaning that a person “senses” another person’s pain, or misery, or happiness, or resolve, or anger, or greed … or whatever.

However, the prevalent meaning of “being sensitive” implies that such a person also in fact exhibits a reaction to what he or she senses. Strictly speaking, though, “reacting to something” is quite distinct from “sensing something”. Surely, one may decide not to react to something that is sensed quite clearly.

So – if wish to we avoid using the word “sensitive” – what do we call the quality of “sensing accurately but without any reaction whatsoever”?

The word perspicacity refers to “the ability to see clearly”. Here the verb “see” is understood to mean “sense” as we have used that word above.

With perspicacity, we are in fact trying to get at the quality of “dispassionate awareness” – while opting to exclude any consideration of how one may or may not react to what is observed. There are sound logical and practical reasons for making this distinction between “being aware” and “reacting”.

“Reacting” – in one way or another – would generally be matter of a person’s objective and policy, whereas “being aware” is a much more basic requirement. The distinction between them is similar to the distinction in medicine between diagnosis and prescription; the first is a prerequisite for the second.

The author makes this confession without any hesitation: Most compassionate acts performed by him in the absence of perspicacity have yielded embarrassing outcomes! In fact – all said and done – greater perspicacity seems to be the most valuable reward in the difficult journey of life!

Perspicacity requires a still mind; and clarity is lost instantly in an agitated mind. The common metaphor used in the so-called “Eastern traditions” is that of being able to see a clear reflection in still water. A still but aware mind “reflects” clearly the state of the surrounding – including any pain, misery, happiness, resolve, anger, greed … or whatever. This “reflecting” is what we call “sensing”.

The difference between compassion and perspicacity can be brought out very well with the following simple examples.

Imagine that a rich man and a poor man live on the two opposite sides of a street, in any city of your choice.

The rich man may not feel compassion for the poor man’s condition; this would be quite a common situation. But the rich man may still be quite perspicacious about the poor man’s state of affairs.

Similarly, the poor man would not normally feel compassion for the rich man, unless the latter suffers from, say, an incurable disease or ungrateful and wanton wife or children. But the poor man can still be quite perspicacious about the rich man’s state of affairs, which may indeed be quite precarious.

Whether and how the rich man or the poor man choose to react to what each senses across the street is a different matter altogether. The basic quality of perspicacity does not presuppose any reaction.

Now consider another simple example.

Suppose one sees a miserable man in India, and learns that alcohol has been a major cause of the man’s extreme misery. An instinctive compassionate response may be to offer some help, and perhaps even to rationalize that the poor fellow probably “fell into the bad habit” because he did not know any better.

Perspicacity, however, requires that the miserable man’s responsibility towards his own life be also kept clearly in the mind. Without a firm commitment by the man to change his life for the better, a handout would be of limited help.


Having considered compassion and perspicacity, we now turn our attention to their nemesis – that is, power.

How exactly do we define power?

The original, simple meaning of power refers merely to “the ability to do something”. Electrical power, for example, is given as voltage multiplied by current, that being the amount of electrical energy available per unit time.

However, modern life is dominated by large – or very large! – collectives such as governments, corporations, social groupings, armed forces … et cetera. A person may be born into a collective (say a “tribe”), choose to join one, or may even be conscripted into one, as into an armed force.

The operation of a large collective requires some unity of purpose and discipline. However, the qualities of unity of purpose and discipline are notoriously difficult to maintain among large collectives. Therefore subtle or overt coercion is usually employed to achieve at least a semblance of unity of purpose and discipline in any large collective. Indeed, only the childishly naïve would imagine that coercion should never be necessary in maintaining a large collective.

A hierarchy being an efficient principle of organization, the task of maintaining unity of purpose and discipline within the collective is given to an individual – or a small group – deemed to be “at the top of the hierarchy”. The necessary enabling mechanisms of coercion – both subtle and overt – are “legally” provided to the deemed “leaders” of the collective.

Given this reality of collective life, power has also come to mean “the right to use coercion – or whatever else! – to achieve collective goals”.

In this context, a few important points should be noted.

  1. The words “necessary enabling mechanisms have been replaced by “right. With this change, power is seen as an end in itself – and various “perks and privileges” get attached to it. Individuals begin to covet power, and to compete and maneuver for power within the collective. Unity of purpose and discipline take a back seat – along with responsibility, perspicacity and compassion!

When individual ambitions, prejudices and insecurities enter this “heady mix”, we generally see power becoming a toxic rather than a beneficial quality. In such a situation, power loses its necessary connection to responsibility.

An example will illustrate this point:

A global “power-monger” of yore – who is now well past his “use by” date – said once that power was an aphrodisiac. That statement may well be a true reflection of fact. Given how “power-mongers” operate, however, the statement may also have been a calculated boast, made for effect. In any case, the statement is surely a reflection of power losing its necessary connection to responsibility, as also of a conflation of the public and private aspects of the person’s life.

  1. Collective goals begin to be proclaimed by so-called “leaders”, and the proclaimed goals may not even reflect the well-being of ordinary individuals. If this sounds incredible, the reader only has to examine closely the current goings-on within the huge collective known as the U.S. Government.
  2. Increasingly, collectives around the world are contriving to get into strongly adversarial relationships with one another. In such situations, the “leaders” of collectives may end up buttressing each others’ positions – even as they formally oppose each other! The configuration is akin to that of the various members of a mechanical structure, such as a truss, which oppose and buttress each other.

In a lighter vein, we may say that the possibility of “mutually assured destruction” leads to the actuality of “mutually assured power and perks for life”!


Coercion implies the absence of compassion, and usually also at least some lack of perspicacity. “Leaders” and their “inner circle” tend to take the position that any feeling or view which is judged to be at variance with “collective goals and values” needs to be suppressed – or even perhaps “rooted out”.

Within an individual’s psyche, power generates ambition and rapacity. By their inherent nature, the qualities of ambition and rapacity know no bounds except those of death and crushing defeat. Till then, in the spirit of veni, vidi, vici, “all that is seen must be conquered”. From “ruling over” one country, the ambitious and the rapacious begin to dream about “ruling over the whole world”.

This is by no means a recent phenomenon. For example, Shah Jahan was a Mughal emperor whose name means “Lord of the world”. And today’s wannabe financial emperors dub themselves “Masters of the Universe”. In geopolitics, phrases such as “leaders of the free world” are bandied about; with the implicit assumption that these “leaders” will soon make the whole world “free”!

Do the self-proclaimed “leaders of the free world” today know the true meaning of “freedom”? Are they capable of knowing it?

The delusion of power – like any other delusion – relies upon a selective and inaccurate grasp of reality. A kind of “pathology of power” follows inevitably, to which we may now turn our attention.

Lord Acton’s observation is justifiably famous: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Today we can adduce further evidence in support of Lord Acton’s observation.

  1. The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 provided eye-opening and conclusive evidence of the corrosive influence of power.
  2. In the online edition of July/August 2017, The Atlantic magazine carries an article by Jerry Useem entitled Power Causes Brain Damage. The report is based on recent research carried out using advanced medical imaging technology. A one-line summary of explains: How leaders lose mental capacities — most notably for reading other people — that were essential to their rise.

It may be noted that, in our terminology, “losing the mental capacity to read other people” is nothing but “loss of perspicacity”.

  1. Based on extensive study, the historian Arnold Toynbee famously concluded: Civilizations die from suicide, notby murder. The fate of civilizations, he wrote, is determined by their responses to the challenges facing them. In the absence of a creative response to a new challenge, decline follows.
  2. Nelson Mandela, in Conversations with Myself, wrote:

… most successful men are prone to some form of vanity. There comes a stage in their lives when they consider it permissible to be egotistic and to brag to the public at large about their unique achievements.

Note: As an aside, the author would like to put forward this conjecture for the reader’s consideration:

Many or even most of the modern symptoms of mental stress and illness are rooted in the unresolved conflicts between an individual’s innermost instincts and the collective mechanisms of coercion – subtle or covert – that the individual may be facing in his or her daily life.


“Civilization”, however it is defined, relies on perspicacity and at least some degree of compassion. The phrase “ruling over an empire” seems to have a kind of seductive appeal to many – but surely any position which impacts the lives of millions of people also carries huge responsibility.

What do we see today?

Today we see “conservatives” competing with “liberals” to become the wielders of political power. On both sides, the lack of perspicacity is conspicuous, while claims of compassion are plentiful. Claims of compassion are often made in the garb of “tough love”. The reality is that “tough love” is reserved for the weak – while “near and dear ones” always receive a rather tender variety of love.

Experts debate whether we are in a “unipolar” or a “multi-polar” world, and talk of “ideologies” and “spheres of influence”. Does this terminology reflect anything new? Are we not really speaking again of “empires”? Are “ideologies” anything more than sham intellectual “cover” for rapacious behavior?

There is nothing inherently good or evil about an “empire”. The test should be based on the well-being of people around the world. To achieve this well-being, any self-proclaimed “emperors” have to be perspicacious and sagacious.

In the absence of these qualities, we may well say: “Emperors have never been more naked!” No doubt Saville Row and any number of fashion designers are ever at work “clothing the modern emperors”. However, any so-called “emperor” who is lacking in perspicacity and sagacity has no clothes.

Gautam Buddha lacked neither compassion nor perspicacity – and he turned his back on all forms of coercive power. Does any person today, representing any so-called culture or civilization, ancient or modern, come even close?

Links to references and related articles by the author:

Stanford Prison Experiment

Power Causes Brain Damage

What is freedom?

It’s the Rapacity, Stupid!

Identity and Peace


Dr. Naresh Jotwani is a semi-retired academic living in India. Apart from part-time engagements in engineering education and consulting, he engages in an in-depth, personal exploration of how Gautam Buddha’s profound discoveries and teachings can be applied to the acute problems of modern life.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Mar 2018.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Compassion, Perspicacity and Power, is included. Thank you.

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