I once said to a class of undergraduates in a course on the Philosophy of the Russian Novel that pity––a subspecies of love–– was the most important emotion. The context was a discussion of the four Jerusalem chapters in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the greatest novel of the twentieth century. Parenthetically, the two greatest novelists of the Russian canon might both be said to privilege pity indirectly, each in his own way: Dostoevsky by posing the question, “How do we live a life?,” Tolstoy by asking, “How do we achieve happiness?”
In English, the word pity is part of a lexical family that includes mercy, compassion, and perhaps even loving-kindness, a compound noun coined by Myles Coverdale for his Coverdale Bible of 1535 as an English translation of the Hebrew word khesed חסד ‘kindness’, which appears in the Vulgate as misericordia.
Here is some historical information from the Oxford English Dictionary Online that helps situate the centrality of pity:
a. The disposition to mercy or compassion; clemency, mercy, mildness, tenderness
b.Tenderness and concern aroused by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another, and prompting a desire for its relief; compassion, sympathy
Etymology: < Anglo-Norman pité, pittee, peté, peti, Anglo-Norman and Old French pitet, pitee, pitié (Middle French pité, pitié, French pitié) compassion (c1100), piety (15th cent.; rare) < classical Latin pietās .
The sense of Latin pietās ‘piety’ was in post-classical Latin extended so as to include ‘compassion, pity’ (Vetus Latina), and it was in this sense that the word first appears in Old French in its two forms pitié and pieté. Gradually these forms were differentiated, so that pieté, which more closely represented the Latin form, was used in the original Latin sense, while pitié retained the extended sense. In Middle English, both pity n. and piety n. are found first in the sense ‘compassion’, and subsequently in the sense ‘piety’, and the differentiation in sense is not complete until the 17th cent.
It is both interesting and germane to realize that pity is related to piety and pious, whose classical Latin etymon pius means ‘dutiful, devout’:
a. Of an action, thought, resolve, etc.: characterized by, expressing, or resulting from true reverence and obedience to God; devout, religious
b. Of a person: having or showing reverence and obedience to God; faithful to religious duties and observances; devout, godly, religious.
Etymology: < Anglo-Norman piu, pi, etc. and Middle French pius (end of 10th cent. in Old French) and its etymon classical Latin pius dutiful, pious, devout (cognate with Oscan piíhiúí , Umbrian pihaz ; perhaps related to classical Latin pūrus pure adj.) + -ous suffix, perhaps after Middle French pieux (1st quarter of 15th cent.; compare Old French pieus, pious; French pieux). Compare Old Occitan pis, piu ( c1070), Catalan (rare) pio (1560), Spanish pío (late 14th cent.), Italian pio (1255 or earlier).
Mercy is subtended by a moral compass pointing toward a different azimuth, the most surprising datum being its origin in the language of commerce (payment and reward):
a. Clemency and compassion shown to a person who is in a position of powerlessness or subjection, or to a person with no right or claim to receive kindness; kind and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected, esp. in giving legal judgment or passing sentence.
b. spec. Forbearance, compassion, or forgiveness shown by God (or a god) to sinful humanity, or to a particular person or soul.
Etymology: < Anglo-Norman merci, mercie, Old French merci (c1000; Middle French, French
merci), mercet (c1000), mercit (c900) < classical Latin mercēd-, mercēs wages, fee, bribe, rent, price, commodity (in post-classical Latin also: favour, grace (see further below)), cognate with merx (see market n.). Compare Old Occitan merce favour, mercy, thanks (12th cent.), Catalan mercè favour, mercy, thanks (c1200), Spanish merced reward, favour (1207), Portuguese mercê payment, reward, favour (13th cent.), Italian mercè grace, mercy, (arch.) reward, thanks (13th cent.), mercede payment, reward, (arch.) mercy (13th cent.).
The basic sense ‘wages, payment, reward for service’, present in classical Latin, survives in several Romance languages, but this sense seems not to have been present in Gallo-Romance (Middle French, French †mercede is a borrowing < Spanish: see merced n.). Senses attested in post-classical Latin include ‘pity, favour, (secular) grace, heavenly reward’ (6th cent.), ‘thanks’ (9th cent.), and the earliest senses attested in Old French are ‘pity, (secular or divine) grace, discretionary judgement, mercy’. Except in certain fixed expressions, merci is in modern French chiefly restricted to use as noun or interjection in the sense ‘thanks’ attested in Old French from the mid 12th cent., frequently in the phrase grand merci (see gramercy int.); in religious application merci has in French been largely superseded by miséricorde misericord n.
The Middle English adoption < Anglo-Norman shows stress-shifting and shortening of the final vowel, although, in common with many other words showing Middle English ĭ of various origins in a post-tonic syllable, variants with secondary stress and the reflex of Middle English ī in the second syllable are recorded in the early modern period by orthoepists. Forms in a show normal late Middle English lowering of e to a before r. Regional pronunciations with loss of /r/ and a short vowel in the first syllable probably result from assimilation of /r/ to a following /s/.
Contrast the above with the history of the word compassion:
The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.
Etymology: < French compassion (14th cent. in Littré), < late Latin compassiōn-em (Tertullian, Jerome), n. of action < compati (participial stem compass-) to suffer together with, feel pity, < com- together with + pati to suffer.
That even the designation of the most fundamentally benign emotions can become linguistically perverted is attested by the partial historical coalescence of the adjectives pitiful and pitiable:
1. Full of or characterized by pity; compassionate, merciful, tender.
2. Characterized by piety; devout.
3. Arousing or apt to arouse pity; deserving pity; moving, affecting.
4. Evoking pitying contempt; very small, poor, or meagre; paltry; inadequate, insignificant; despicable, contemptible.
How pity came to be degraded in meaning from ‘loving-kindness’ to ‘contempt’ would be an object lesson in human morals were its trajectory not a commonplace of historical semantics.