Pathos at Patheos, Or the Dangerous Value of the Pathetic

Pathos at Patheos, Or the Dangerous Value of the Pathetic January 29, 2019

Thus died Clotel, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, a president of the United States; a man distinguished as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, and one of the first statesmen of that country.

So William Wells Brown begins the wind up to his novel Clotel. This is a pathetic scene: stirring pity. Only the soulless or a Confederate could read the story of Clotel and not sympathize with her. Clotel was not a living soul, but an icon picturing the merciless nature of American race based slavery.

The book is a series of such ugly, true to life images, and the weight of such evil passionately presented brought positive change.

Most excellent, as far as it went, but as far as it went was not far enough. The change should have come faster, more deeply, and with fewer excuses. Good Christian souls read the novel and and many wept and supported abolition abstractly, perhaps by joining the Republican Party . . .  a group much given to human rights causes in the abstract but hesitant to act.

There is danger in pathos, stirring up so much it can go too far and become merely an emotional release. We begin stirred to sympathy and unless very careful end in bathos. The brave soldiers that saved the Union too often petered out with maudlin sympathy for the rebels that killed so many of their comrades: pathos ending in bathos, the anticlimactic let down of Reconstruction fading to segregation.

Any enslaved American knows how the unborn children of America feel: support at the level of sympathy, tears, worries, pathos, but not action. Later in the novel Brown has an enslaved man on trial who bravely defends himself using American ideals: Jefferson’s sin confronted with Jefferson’s ideals:

Nearly everyone present was melted to tears; even the judge seemed taken by surprise at the intelligence of the young slave. But George was a slave, and an example must be made of him, and therefore he was sentenced.

These good Americans, so godly and grand, were moved to tears and then moved to hang the man. They had to act since:

“The next day was the Sabbath. The bells called the people to the different places of worship. Methodists sang, and Baptists immersed, and Presbyterians sprinkled, and Episcopalians read their prayers, while the ministers of the various sects preached that Christ died for all; yet there were some twenty-five or thirty of us poor creatures confined in the ‘Negro Pen,’ awaiting the close of the holy Sabbath, and the dawn of another day, to be again taken into the market, there to be examined like so many beasts of burden. I need not tell you with what anxiety we waited for the advent of another day.

The pathos of God sent God to Earth to know our pain, evil, and brokenness. The bathos of men reduces the sublime goodness, truth, and beauty of the Cross to cheap emotionalism untethered to action. Too much of our Christian art begins looking for mercy and ends wallowing in a bathos stimulated by grifters looking for money. Much of our worship, works, and ways are bathetic.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.


*Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter (p. 86). Kindle Edition.

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