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  • Empathy, Sympathy, Aesthetics, and Childhood:Fledgling Thoughts
  • Ellen Handler Spitz

Small girl to parent, on finding a dove in the driveway: "Let me try: I speak bird a little."

—Leah Garchik, "Public Eavesdropping"

"Our imaginations put us in the Lion's skin, place the sparkling slippers on our feet, and send us cackling through the air on a broomstick."

—Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz


This essay puts forth gently, in nondoctrinaire fashion, two claims, the first being that what we call empathy ought more properly to be called sympathy; the second that empathy per se may be found in its purest form in childhood rather than in adulthood. Unlike mercy, at least in Portia's view, the quality of empathy does not drop as the gentle rain from heaven. It does not bless all souls ubiquitously and without discrimination. Empathy is not, that is to say, equivalent to the fellow feeling that occurs routinely in adults. Rather, it appears rarely and wondrously like a sudden downpour on a blistering summer's day.

Writing from his quarterly column in American Imago, Warren Poland (2007) laments the misuse and overuse of the term [End Page 545] empathy in mental health circles, specifically in clinical psychoanalysis. His major complaint, as I read him, is the widespread preference for what he calls an "all-accepting sweetness" over the laborious task of emotional sense-making. He decries the substitution of facile assumptions of "oneness" for the daunting truth that no single individual is ever fully knowable to any other. Although I find myself very much in accord with those sentiments, I want to suggest—without seeming quixotic—that primal empathy may actually be lost to us as we mature from infancy to adulthood in our culture and that it may be counted among the casualties of this process Freud (1930) sets forth in Civilization and its Discontents.

For rather than construing empathy as the correct understanding of another person's feelings (as to some extent I believe Poland does), I shall, in this essay, suggest that whereas understanding is indisputably a cognitive act, empathy is not. To empathize is to experience in a deeply physical way, one that causes metaphor to blossom into reality. Poland's remarks are, nevertheless, highly persuasive to me; and, while I admit to a certain nostalgia for oneness and sweetness, I agree that empathy has been misconstrued and misapplied in clinical circles as well as more widely in today's popular culture. Inspired by his work and in hopes of extending his claims, I shall try hopscotching across the chalked lines that mark the boundaries of our respective disciplines so as to offer a brief gambol on empathy, sympathy, aesthetics, and childhood. I hope I may be forgiven if my toe or pebble occasionally falls outside the grid.


First, some origins. Since empathy is derived from the ancient Greek, let's begin with the prefix em-, which signifies "in," and the root pathos, which means, literally, "experience"—in other words, that which happens to one, or what one undergoes and feels. Construals of pathos have included anything that happens to a person or thing, an incident or accident, and what one has experienced, whether good or bad. These translations, offered by Liddell and Scott (1843), gloss passages [End Page 546] that run the gamut from Aeschylus's Agamemnon, line 177, and Sophocles' Ajax, line 313, to Plato's Theatetus 193c and Republic 612a. This original broad meaning of pathos narrowed over the centuries—even occasionally within the ancient world—and it gradually acquired a negative connotation (i.e., pain and suffering) despite the expansiveness of its original meaning, which, however, persisted notwithstanding.

Parenthetically, a test case for pathos may be found in several highly respected but disparate commentaries on Aeschylus's celebrated line 177 in the Agamemnon, where we discover, in the first choral ode, the notion expressed that knowledge comes through experience, though the line is often read, more darkly, to mean that knowledge comes through suffering (Lattimore 1953, ll.177–79; Hogan 1984, 42–43; Freyman 2007). Working therefore from the Greek, the denotation of empathy would seem to be "feeling or experiencing or suffering...


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