In Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, "You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it." How might one defend the validity of this statement by using references from history or from other works of literature?
Examples of empathy from history:
* Some people in Britain were able to empathize with the situatiuon of the American colonialists and thus sympathized with the American revolution.
* Many people who opposed slavery were able to empathize with the slaves and imagine themselves as slaves. As Abraham Lincoln memorably said
"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master."
* Many men who supported the right of women to vote were able to imagine how they would feel if they were denied such a fundamental right.
* Many white supporters of the civil rights movement were able to imagine what it must be like to be a black person suffering the horrors of racism.
* Many straight people who defend the rights of gays have been able to imagine what it must be like to suffer anti-gay discrimination.
In Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, "You can never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it." Finch’s statement might be defended by citing various examples from history and literature, including the following:
- In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, Beowulf seems to empathize with old king Hrothgar, whose nation is terrorized by a monster. Later, when Beowulf is himself an old king whose nation is being terrorized by a monster, he finds himself, in a sense, literally walking in Hrothgar’s shoes.
- In Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd, Billy seems to be able to empathize Captain Vere's sense that he has no choice but to execute Billy. Thus Billy goes willingly to his death proclaiming “God bles Captain Vere!”
- Near the very end of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, Rose of Sharon, a beautiful young woman, gives birth to a stillborn child after months of personal suffering and also seeing her family and friends suffer. Thus, when she is confronted by a man who is almost starving – a man she encounters shortly after the loss of her child, she offers him her milk-laden breasts and insists that he drink, despite his reluctance to do so:
slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. "You got to," she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. "There!" she said. "There." Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.
It is precisely because Rose of Sharon has herself suffered so much and witnessed so much suffering that she knows what it must be like to be this starving man. Steinbeck’s novel is one of the great treatments of empathy (and the lack of empathy) in American literature.
- In another highly memorable example of empathy in literature, Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, rebukes Polonius when Polonius tells the prince that he will treat some visiting actors as they deserve to be treated. Hamlet immediately replies,
God's bodykins, man, much better! Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
In other words, if we think people should be treated as they deserve to be treated, then no one at all would escape whipping, since all people are sinners. Hamlet urges Polonius, instead, to treat others as Polonius himself would wish to be treated. He should treat others with honor and dignity and merit and earn honor and dignity in turn.
- In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear does not fully appreciate the suffering of the poor until he experiences such suffering himself:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this!
- In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck in particular learns that Jim deserves respect despite the fact that Jim is black. Huck’s realization results, in part, from having lived and suffered alongside Jim.