Almost daily, we read and hear of car bombings, violent riots and escalating criminal activities. Such actions are typically condemned as “cruel” and their “cruelty” is taken as the most blameworthy trait, to which institutions are obliged, it is implied, to respond by analogously “cruel but necessary" measures. Almost daily, we read and hear of tragic cases of suicide, usually involving male citizens of various age, race, and class, whose farewell notes, if any, are regularly variations on an old, well-known adagio: “Goodbye cruel world.” Additionally, many grave cruelties are neither reported nor even seen by the media: people are cheated, betrayed, belittled and affronted in many ways, which are as humiliating as they are ordinary. Yet, what is cruel? What meaning unites the plethora of phenomena that are reported “cruel”? How is it possible for cruelty to be so extreme and, at the same time, so common? This essay wishes to offer a survey of the main conceptions of cruelty in the history of Western thought, their distinctive constants of meaning being considered in view of a better understanding of cruelty’s role in shaping each person’s selfhood.