A History of the Concept and Its Representations in Antebellum American Literature
Chapter 8. Sympathy
Chapter 8. Sympathy
David Hume and Adam Smith are the best-known eighteenth-century theorists of sentiment-based ethics and their contributions to the semantic field of sympathy remained influential through the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain as well as in the United States. In contrast with Thomas Hobbes, who saw moral sentiments as thoroughly subordinate to self-interest, Smith and Hume grounded their ethical theories on the valorization of sympathy. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) Adam Smith explains the concept of sympathy in terms equivalent to what present-day psychologists call “empathy”1: unlike compassion and pity, which are restricted to “fellow-feeling” with sorrow, “sympathy” is “our fellow-feeling with any passion whatsoever” (5). But Hume goes one step further and, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), he describes sympathy as fundamental for social communication and mutual understanding. Cultivating this “passion” at the expense of selfish impulses is a prerequisite of the enlightened society. “Sympathy”, he writes, “is much fainter than our concern for ourselves, and sympathy with persons, remote from us, much fainter than that with persons, near and contiguous; but for this very reason, ‘tis necessary for us, in our calm judgments and discourse concerning the characters of men, to neglect all these differences, and render our sentiments more public and social” (49).
The concept of sympathy proposed by the Scottish Philosophers operates as a mediator between self-interest and social stability. Its social function was well-known to the American Founders, especially...
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