And full as much heart

More on that question of empathy and fiction we were talking about the other day, from a 2010 article by Joshua Leach on the ur-B&W.: Individual Rights and Collective Responsibility.

This is a truth commonly understood: that people fighting for human rights are not animated by self-interest or callous self-regard. In fact, human rights arise out of our most fundamental collective moral imperative: namely, to protect the weak and vulnerable from harm. Empathy is where they begin and end.

According to Lynn Hunt’s fantastic book, Inventing Human Rights, rights language grew up in tandem with eighteenth century epistolary novels, such as Richardson’s Clarissa and Rousseau’s Julie, which introduced empathy into fiction and extended human feeling across class boundaries. By presenting the lives and needs of servants and governesses (women at that!) these novels made possible a kind of affectionate identification that traditional literature could not provide. Even if modern readers have a hard time relating to these sentimental eighteenth century novels, we can see the same sort of effect at work in Charlotte Bronte and other later writers. The goal of the author is clearly to present the hero or heroine as an individual worthy of respect, dignity, and personhood. As Jane Eyre declares at one point to Mr. Rochester: “Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings?… Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!” This is not a self-interested or individualistic ideal—precisely because it insists on the rights of individuals!

Individuals in the plural. Tories like to portray human rights as all about me me me, but they’re not, because it’s about every me, not just my personal me.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Clarissa – 1748
    Julie -1761
    American Revolution – 1776
    French Revolution – 1789

    Is it too much to associate the birth of the novel with the birth of liberalism? Of course, there’s that whole Enlightenment business too, but still. They all see to go hand in hand.

  2. latsot says

    I can’t decide whether the idea that narrative is necessary for empathy is depressing or encouraging. Over the years I learned, when writing grant proposals, first to tell a story about the technology I’m pretending I’m going to build and then later to tell a story about how the people reviewing the proposal will use that technology. Often, it’s a story about how they’ll write their own grant proposals based on the proposed technology, whether it ever exists or not. That’s one of the reasons computer science isn’t really science.

    This approach has been spectacularly successful and, as I said, I can’t decide whether that’s good or bad. But persuading people to support a cause – even to the extent of spending enormous sums of money on it – is often seriously helped out by narrative. By literature. By spinning a yarn. By telling a tale with the reader as the protagonist, as the hero. Or even as the villain; I’m talking about computer science, after all.

    That should surprise nobody. But in my experience, that narrative sticks and will make the people who bought into it more inclined to support future projects, regardless of the success or otherwise of the previous ones.

    It wouldn’t surprise me much if those of us who did a lot of our earlier socialising via literature had a more well-established and fundamental sense of empathy than some others, even if (though?) we’re shit at actually interacting with real people. Narrative in literature is about explaining something. Someone’s feelings, their motives, their intentions. Sometimes it’s about explaining those things about someone who isn’t a party to the discussion. Sometimes it’s an argument about a third party’s feelings or motives, sometimes speculative.

    Either way, it’s an artificial construct designed to help tell a story and I have a nagging suspicion that something about that abstraction can help tune natural inclinations toward empathy.

    Or perhaps people who read a lot of books are just awesome, I don’t know.


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