Essay Sympathy

The great Adam Smith, in a book called Moral Sentiments, which he seems to have thought out as a sort of antidote to the selfishness of the Wealth of Nations,[5] managed to deduce all the virtues from this one root of sympathy. Starting from the fact that man is a gregarious animal, with social instincts, he showed that the desire to be in sympathy with our fellow-creatures, and so command their love and respect, made us watch them, consider what they felt about us, and avoid everything which might shock or hurt their opinions or their feelings. It was this indefinite and impersonal public opinion which was by degrees made a part of ourselves, and under the 63name of conscience was set up as ‘a man within the breast’ of each of us to approve and disapprove even our most secret actions.

  1. Cf. on the relation of these two books, the highly interesting passage in H. T. Buckle’s chapter on the development of the Scotch intellect in his famous History of Civilisation.

I quote this once famous theory here, to show how a great thinker, probably the greatest of his age, estimated the force and influence of sympathy; and whatever exaggerations he may have made concerning it in the province of morals, it seems hard to over-estimate it in the province of social intercourse. The first condition of any conversation at all, is that people should have their minds so far in sympathy that they are willing to talk upon the same subject, and to hear what each member of the company thinks about it. The higher condition which now comes before us is, that the speaker, apart from the matter of the conversation, feels an interest in his hearers as distinct persons, whose opinions and feelings he desires to know.

64This is the real secret of the power of personal beauty in society. Only a very small number of people will fall in love with each beautiful man or woman. But nearly every one will be so far attracted by beauty that he will pay attention to what the beautiful person says, and feel a keen interest to know what mind and temper accompanies such perfection of form. Thus personal beauty secures the sympathy of any company, so much so, that even when found out to be a mere shell, with no mental force behind it, the attraction lasts, and lends some charm to what would otherwise be called trivial and stupid. This natural sympathy with beauty of external form is a sort of symbol of the feeling which seeks for any mental beauty or advantage to be found in a company, and by showing an interest in it, disposes the possessor of it to expand and become friendly in response to such appreciation. The sympathetic man will feel 65that his company talk best about the things they know best, or have had special opportunities of learning, and he will be naturally anxious to find the best side of them, and to exhibit it by his suggestions. And as in every conversation there must not only be good talking but good listening, the intellectual gifts which make the talker are often marred if he has not the sympathy which makes the listener.

This remark suggests that the social virtues of the sexes are broadly distinguished by some such principle. Women ought not to be obliged to lead in a conversation, but it will grow dry and dull if they are not ready with their sympathy to hear what is said with pleasure, and to stimulate others by quick and intelligent appreciation. I have known a clever woman maintain a deservedly high character for her conversation who really said very little, but was so sympathetic that she 66made her guests eloquent, and thus so thoroughly pleased with themselves, that she was lit up by the glow of their satisfaction, and earned very justly the credit for talking well simply because she made others talk. There is probably no social talent higher than this—or rarer.

  • 23. But I suppose no one will be disposed to dispute this, or to underrate the value of sympathy as a quality for conversation. It is much more likely that people may think to simplify the whole matter by arguing that, with the postulate of some brains and some education, all that is required is sympathy, and the more of it the better, so that nothing else remains to be said. We must, therefore, consider carefully how far this is true, and whether there be not some important limitations which complicate the question.

There is one on the very surface. Sympathy must not be excessive in quality, 67which makes it demonstrative, and therefore likely to repel its object. We have an excellent word which describes the over-sympathetic person, and marks the judgment of society, when we say that he or she is gushing. Of course as women are more frequently endowed with this virtue than men, they also err more frequently in the excess, at least in Teutonic races, for among Latin races a gushing man is quite a common phenomenon. This sort of person not only volunteers to show his sympathy before it is required, and often spoils conversation at the outset, but is ever ready to agree with everybody, so making a discussion, which implies differences in opinion, impossible. There results a social impression of a mixed kind, which is even more disagreeable than downright dislike, and therefore socially worse—I mean that of feeling a dislike and contempt for a person who is known to be full of goodness and 68benevolence. Many people resent being obliged to confuse their judgment in this way, and feel a stronger antipathy to this marred goodness than to proclaimed evil.

In the next place, sympathy must not be excessive in quantity or indiscriminate, otherwise it ceases to have any great social value. The most seductive way of conveying your sympathy to another is to join with him in some strong antipathy, thus showing that all the world cannot claim your friendship, but that you distribute your likes and dislikes with judgment and discrimination. A man who is known to have a special sympathy for some particular age or sex or class in society is far more agreeable to that class than he who embraces all the world in his affections. Nay, if one usually reserved or shy expands for once, or to some few people, in contrast to his usual habit, this sympathy is indeed treasured as a real token of confidence.

69These and many similar observations, which will occur to the intelligent reader, will indicate how important are the limitations of sympathy, and how essential it is that this, like every other social virtue, should be carefully husbanded, and not squandered at random without regard to its value. I should add that the foregoing remarks are specially applicable to English (I do not mean English-speaking) society. There is no people more distant and reserved in social intercourse, or that more resents any display of feeling, most of all of sympathy, without a careful introduction and considerable intimacy among the company. Thus those who are accustomed to freer and more outspoken societies, not to say French and Italian life, may make social mistakes in England on the score of sympathy, which are sins only in the heavy atmosphere of Anglo-Saxon manners.

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