Empathy in Literature, History, and Philosophy
All engagement with literature is an act of empathy. By reading, we are concerning ourselves with the thoughts and lives of people we have probably never met, and in the case of fiction who never existed. The fictional characters, historical figures, and poetic persona about whom we read are expressions of our common humanity. They are the creations of the writer but also of the reader, and as such we may empathize with them very deeply. In order to enhance the ability of literature to develop our sense of empathy, it may be useful to “name it,” to explicitly ask ourselves and one another how this reading can expand our range and depth of empathy, and perhaps most important how it can develop our ability to practice empathy in the world outside of our reading. Some of the most valuable reading for empathy may be of works about people most different from us, and even neglected or even derided for some reason, because of their race, or gender, or sexuality, their temperament, and even their values. There may even be a special benefit to be gained from reading about frankly unsympathetic or dislikeable characters, even the wicked, those who appear to be without empathy themselves. We may have to deal with such people in the world of the living, after all, and we must know how to meet them and overcome them, if necessary, while perhaps recognizing some of them in ourselves. I will mention two examples.
In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, both the cynical tribunes and belligerent Coriolanus fail to understand other people’s real motives. The tribunes can’t imagine anyone acting other than out of self-interest. Noble motives, observes one character, comparing the tribunes to Coriolanus, are as alien to them as the mysteries of heaven. Coriolanus himself possess a kind of nobility, but his unrelenting belligerence and self-involvement limits him as a military leader, and it is fatal when he ventures into politics. His end is tragic, and the receptive reader or audience will likely experience the strong empathy and even sympathy with him that is typical of tragedy.
In the Herbert Read poem “Meditation of a Dying German Officer,” part of a longer work, “The End of a War,” the dying German officer is intelligent and thoughtful, but also a dangerous, murderous fanatic. Read was an infantry officer in World War I who had first-hand knowledge of some of the tactics employed by the Germans as they retreated in the last days of the war. They laid deadly traps for the advancing allies and killed French civilians who might have revealed them. Read likely found this conduct inexcusable, but his poem is an extended effort to understand why someone would fight this way in a war already lost.
Empathy might be considered a neglected subset or product of the ancient virtues of prudence and wisdom. In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas concludes after consideration that military command is an act of moral prudence. An attribute that distinguishes the morally prudent commander is that she will consider, not just her own military objectives, but the good of mankind. As I have written on this blog and elsewhere (for example in How to Think Like an Officer), literature and history are replete with examples of both prudent and imprudent command, Marshall and Coriolanus among them respectively. Aquinas also called for amity among nations in addition to legalistic virtues like faithfulness to treaties. This was echoed by Kant, whose formula for peace included open borders and limits on government secrecy, two practices which could contribute to empathy. War is the product of human relationships gone terribly wrong on a large scale, sometimes of a failure of empathy expressing itself in tyranny and violence, of a failure to consider the feelings of others, or even of a failure to see others as human and entitled to feelings at all.
I’ll end with a few personal thoughts on empathy. The first is that empathy often requires that we let go of anger. In a time of maximum political divisions and social estrangement, this may be important to remember. It is also often necessary in war. Good leadership, as noted by military historian Corelli Barnett, is a matter of cherishing human relationships, even perhaps with an adversary, even with those we consider bad, whether in order to defeat or to redeem them, or both. My reading of military history has often given me a feeling of kinship with the soldiers of the past. I’ve felt their burdens, their pride and fear partly because I have experienced these things myself. Still, my own reading should be more diverse. I probably spend too much time reading about “military types” like myself! I will say that it helps to belong to a book club, which has one reading books that would probably not have been picked up otherwise. My current book club selection, a biography of Leonard Bernstein, is an example. Another was a collection of poems written by Navy wife Jehanne Dubrow, which gave me a perspective on military service of which I have taken too little mind. Writing as well as reading can develop empathy, whether we are crafting a fictional character, researching an historical person, philosophizing about the human condition, or rendering some of the paradoxes of our common existence into poetry. Lastly, a necessary preliminary to empathy is a strong degree of self-understanding, the form of knowledge most prized by Socrates. The posturing and lack of authenticity that may come of insufficient self-knowledge are surely impediments to empathy. Unless we have faced our own faults squarely, with perhaps some indulgence mixed with a desire for self-improvement, how can we understand and aid others? We’re all in this together.