quite a long title that 🙂 i was watching a programme on the tv earlier and it was showing a Victorian courtroom and that had a large table in the center and the narrator explained that in the victorian times after the sentencing and the subsequent hanging of the criminal the body would be brought back and dissected for medical science , this was done in front of an audience in the belief that if others saw what happened to the body they would refrain from criminal activity, great stuff, however they had to stop this rather gruesome show because they were so popular the crowds couldn’t be controlled! it go me thinking about the idea of empathy, the dictionary definition of empathy is the ability to have sensitivity to the feelings of others and have an awareness of another’s situation, more than sympathy then empathy needs an understanding of the situation and be able to see it from their point of view appreciate what they go through.
now some argue this has always been an ability, but I think not I think it’s a modern ideal because it seems to me that although there may have been the odd individual who was able to feel empathy, they were few in number as through the centuries it seems that humans have delighted in others tragedy , in fact to the Victorians it was entertainment , not just death either but in many cases the living were a constant source of amusement , take for instance bedlam – or bethlam to give it its original name ,
a place where the custody care and often painful ‘cure’ of those with mental disorders happened beginning as the priory of St Mary of Bethlehem, built just outside London’s city walls, began as a religious refuge. By the 14th century it was specialising in the treatment of mental illness. Its techniques – restraining with manacles and chains those deemed dangerous but it became known for more inhumane treatments , that was all done in the name of medical science however what isn’t mentioned as much is how it was often opened to the public as a kind of entertainment , a trip out on a saturday , kind of like we would go to the cinema ,
Hogarth was rather brilliant at capturing all of the human ugliness his gin lane being one of the more famous of his works but also this;
one I like showing just how we manage to include cruelty to animals as one of the many ways in which to show a complete lack of empathy, through the ages then humans have shown a distinct and pretty much universal lack of empathy, how then did it start to emerge? how did it take so long to sink in that we should place ourselves in the shoes of others? and much as we discuss the industrial revolution should we also consider that time to be a social revolution? those wonderful Victorians for all their delights in suffering of others, I still find it hard to envisage sitting knitting as people hang to their death beside me! but it was such that they took along food and drink as well as the knitting and was even considered a family day somewhere to take the kids,( life was cheap then is often trumped out as a reason or excuse , but I know that no matter what each life is precious how did they become so desensitized? ) but the victorian age was also a time when the idea of organised charity started to become known, dr Barnado’s for instance setting up to look after homeless children, how wonderful to find someone who saw children en masse as persons with feelings needs not by products of society, this shift in one mans consciousness no doubt helped along the paradigm shift needed at the time to elevate all children to the respected and deserved position they now have , by the time dr barnado died in 1905 he ran 96 homes for children how brilliant is that? my respect goes to the man ,
to find how empathy emerges, the concept of empathy itself needed to be defined I think as humans we always feel better at experiencing something when we have a name for it , a label we can put on it, and even better then to find a way of defining it, then we really get into it and sometimes it becomes fashionable :), ok then we look at when the concept was first envisaged the more we look back in history we do find philosophers who love to attempt to define characteristics of humans especially anything that might be soulful 🙂 as here empathy becomes good subject matter , added to this is the evolution of the concept of empathy being a cross breed somehow of sympathy and awareness of others and awareness of suffering that others can go through because of either situations or actions forced on them by other humans or even nature or circumstance.
after I did a bit of reading I discovered the word empathy first used in 1910 and the more I read I discover I need a book by someone called lauren wispe , apparently goes into all this in detail so there we go another to add to my christmas list :), anyway back to empathy and I discover that difference between empathy and sympathy as how it is felt, with sympathy we feel the need to show it to others but empathy we feel ourselves , and from what i learn it was around this time 1910, that philosphers were discussing the idea of empathy being an abstract feeling and how sympathy moves us to act or express to others so as to alleviate their situation and with empathy it is something we feel inside ourselves and in fact i read a whole wonderful detailed discussion on both concepts but that is for another time; for now i can rest easy knowing i was right empathy is a modern idea a modern concept and along with sympathy makes our world a better place, now all we need to do is teach these concepts to everyone 🙂
still gotta love those victorians though, i find them most entertaining 🙂