According to Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755), sympathy is defined as "fellow-feeling; mutual sensibility; the quality of being affected by the affections [feelings] of another." More than one hundred years later, John Ruskin, the great Victorian critic of art and society, similarly explained that sympathy, "the imaginative understanding of the natures of others, and the power of putting ourselves in their place, is the faculty on which virtue depends" (Fors Clavigera, 1873).

During the second half of the eighteenth century and throughout most of the nineteenth, sympathy, which today signifies little more than compassion or pity, was a word of almost magical significance that described a particular mixture of emotional perception and emotional communication. Johnson and Ruskin derived their ideas of sympathy from a British school of moral philosophy that referred ethics to feelings in a radical manner, one that eventually caused fundamental changes in politics, culture, religion, and conceptions of human nature. This sentimentalist or emotionalist school of ethics, which provided an important part of the foundations of both Romanticism and the French Revolution, developed in response to the English empiricists Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

1. Locke claimed that we have no innate ideas of good and evil.

2. In an attempt to find another basis for arguments that men and women were moral beings, Thomas Burnett and Anthony Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury, founders of this new school of moral philosophy, replaced innate ideas with emotional reactions, thought with emotion. Extending Locke's own notion that the mind has an innate power or principle that perceives differences in color, Burnett suggested that a similar power perceives differences in moral value. Shaftesbury, the more influential of the two, then argued that we have an internal moral sense much like the senses of sight, hearing, and taste.

3. The Scottish school of emotionalist moral philosophers -- Adam Smith (better known now for his economics), Dugald Stewart, and Thomas Reid -- identified the moral sense with the imagination, whose job it is to make us feel the effects upon others of our actions. In other words, the sympathetic imagination, as it was called, provides the psychological mechanism of the Golden Rule: we do not steal from others because our imagination projects us into their vantage point (into their minds), and we thus experience how it would feel to be a victim.

1. Implications for psychology and theories of human nature

For the first time, philosophers no longer urged that the healthy human mind is organized hierarchically with reason, like a king, ruling will and passions. Reason now shares rule with feelings or emotions. (Note how passions, a word with negative connotations, is replaced by a pair of more positive terms and how more democratic the new theory appears.)

2. Implications for art and literature

The emotions become the proper subject of the arts, and the ideal of art moves from one of neoclassical order and balance to a Romantic emphasis upon power, energy, intensity, and sincerity.

3. Implications for religion

If human beings have this inborn ability to discern good and to distinguish it from evil, then Christianity's doctrine of Original Sin and human depravity must be wrong. Christianity and religion in general appear founded on an error.

4. Implications for politics and revolution

If human beings are not innately evil, if they do not bear the burden of original sin, then some other factor must explain why the overwhelming majority of them suffer from poverty, ignorance, and illness. The answer, many late 18th-century thinkers decided, lay in the system: people were good, but the system (of government, religion, and society) made them evil and unhappy. Change the system, change the person. Thus, the French Revolution. Thus Socialism, Marxism, and other -isms.

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Last modified 4 April 2012