Empathy is defined by the Concise Oxford as “the power of projecting one’s personality into [and so fully comprehending] the object of contemplation”. I would regard it as a skill to be acquired by practice, rather than a ‘power’. Very few of us can empathise with another person or unfamiliar situation one hundred per cent. but empathy is a highly useful – indeed, essential – habit to cultivate. Another, less formal, definition is “standing in someone else’s shoes without stepping out of your own”.
One of the benefits of studying history at university degree level is – or was, in my student days – being encouraged to comprehend what it was like to BE the people or age one was learning about. By reading their biographies, letters, and other contemporary documents it becomes possible to grasp, at least sketchily, what they thought and felt about their life-experiences as these happened. A pervading historical fallacy is anachronism – viewing the past with hindsight from the present, instead of grasping that those in the past were living in THEIR present, and didn’t know [as we do] what was going to happen next. King Charles I, when he raised his standard at the start of the Civil War, had no notion that he would end up having his head cut off; but we know from the outset that was to be his fate. We have to banish this knowledge from our minds if we are to begin to comprehend the decisions he, Cromwell, and others took and their intended and unforeseen consequences.
The philosopher R.G. Collingwood, in The Idea of History, says that in order to understand Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon, we must imagine ourselves as being Caesar at that moment – empathise with him, in other words. Similarly today, in order to begin understanding why our contemporary politicians, and others, do the things they do which often seem crazy to us, we have to do our best – difficult though that is – to get inside their minds and get an intuitive ‘feel’ of their characteristic beliefs and assumptions. Striving to do this with George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, or the Pope, isn’t easy, even when we have copious external information about them. But it’s an essential effort for anyone to make who wishes to contribute useful input to ongoing discussion.
Finally, a little anecdote about the perils of empathy. In the 1970s, when I was involved in the development of what later became the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, we had a delightful ex-army officer, then working in the City, who volunteered to help us with fund-raising. Archie was the epitome of a Guards officer in civvies: immaculate pin-striped suit, rolled umbrella and bowler hat. He came to one of our training workshops and asked to be shown what was going on. Well, he was told, in this room is a role-play session. “Really?”, said Archie, “how interesting! May I join in?”. By all means, he was told, and was teamed up with a lady trainee. “Now”, said the trainer, “you are an unmarried West Indian lady with three children visiting a family planning clinic”. Archie’s empathetic skills didn’t rise to the challenge. He freaked out.