A final aspect of the Christian legacy of human fallibility and ordinary satisfaction should be stressed. This is our culture’s powerful emphasis on compassion, on helping the needy, and on alleviating distress even in distant places. If there is a huge famine or reports of genocide in Africa, most people in other cultures are unconcerned. As the Chinese proverb has it, “the tears of strangers are only water.” But here in the West we rush to help. Massive relief programs are organized. The rock singer Bono launches a campaign to raise funds. Sometimes even military intervention is considered as a last resort to stop the killing. Part of the reason why we do this is because of our Christian assumptions. Those people are human like us. They too deserve a chance to be happy. If we are more fortunate than they are, we should do what we can to improve their lot.

The ancient Greeks and Romans did not believe this. They held a view quite commonly held in other cultures today: yes, that is a problem, but it’s not our problem. Aristotle, who came closest to the Christian view, wrote that the great-souled man does in fact assist thosein need. But in Aristotle’s view he does so out of liberality, in order to demonstrate his magnanimity and even superiority to those beneath him. Ancient aristocrats funded baths, statues, and parks that prominently bore their names and testified to their family nobility and personal greatness. This is not the Christian view, which demands that we act out of compassion, which means “suffering with others.” We help starving infants in Haiti and Rwanda not because we are better than they are but because we are, humanly speaking, all in the same boat. Christian humility is the very opposite of classical magnanimity.