Today I had to use the tube, not usually a hardship but in this hot weather and in the post pandemic (?) angst about being near to other human beings, not my favourite activity. I was with an older person who was feeling a little unwell so they got the seat at the end of the carriage and I had to sit one seat along on the same side next to a man who needed to claim his space by sitting legs akimbo, one foot resting on top of the other leg’s knee. Anyway, you get the picture; a great example of self-focused contemporary person, so lost in self that:
a) he hadn’t clocked that the man next to him was showing all the signs of being unwell
b) he was oblivious to the fact that I was with this person and really needed to be next to him so the simple solution of moving one seat along would have been much appreciated
C) his dirty shoe hovering next to my light trousered legs, within my seating area was not the best.
Now, call me quaint and old fashioned, if you like, but how different might the world be if empathy was as valued and lauded anywhere as much as other types of human intelligence, like mathematical ability, literacy, entrepreneurship, scientific acumen etc. etc. Might we have a very different systems of social order, family life, relationships, social justice etc. etc.?
Aristotle had a lot to say about happiness and he linked it inextricably with leading a good life and being a virtuous person with the right kind of character. Most of his examples of this related to the immeasurable aspects of being a person living in the world with other people, for example, bravery, kindness, generosity and, of course, empathy. Not all philosophers share his benign view of human nature but then again, given the referential and foundational nature of his ideas to what we call philosophy, they wouldn’t would they? Giving a different perspective, seeing people as selfish, self-seeking, etc.etc. gave them something different to say. Take Thomas Hobbes, for example, who was an English philosopher (1588 – 1679) and considered one of the greatest political thinkers: his was a rather low view of human nature who considered we were all in competition with each other and would do almost anything to triumph over others. When I consider modern-day politics I can see where he is coming from but that is no reason to give up on something better.
I want to suggest that acts of every day kindness, however small, be noticed and applauded more. I want to see people who are genuinely empathic, noticed and revered and I want to see media highlighting this quality in all its every day and tiny detailed glory. Even if this were to squeeze out the vain glorious and self-seeking celebrities from the public consciousness, even a little, it would be no bad thing.