, Volume 45, Issue 2, pp 43-59

Levinas on suffering and compassion

Abstract

This paper provides an analysis of suffering and compassion in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas describes compassion as ‘the nexus of human subjectivity’ and the ‘supreme ethical principle’. In his early texts, suffering discloses the burden of being, the limits of the self, and thus the approach of alterity. Levinas’s later phenomenology of suffering as passive, meaningless, and evil, functions as a refutation of rational explanations of suffering. I argue that Levinasian substitution, the traumatic election to an excessive responsibility, is the compassionate suffering that Levinas terms the nexus of human subjectivity. For Levinas, ethics is the compassionate response to the vulnerable, suffering Other.