Michael Brannigan: Literature and the arts can help us resuscitate empathy

How can we resuscitate empathy?
Empathy cannot be taught; it can only be lived through. One critical path lies in the humanities, arts and natural sciences. Hence the immense value of reading. Through literature, history, etc., we get into the world and mindset of others.

Literature and arts sting us into the grime of human frailty. Their ever-radical agenda can free us from blunted, blinkered vision. Writes University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum, they are what “our academic institutions should promote in order to foster an informed and compassionate vision of the different.”

Can we imagine what it is like to survive disaster?


Or be a drowning passenger, hands flailing above and in the water?


Imagining what it is like to be “in that person’s place,” what Nussbaum calls “compassionate imagination,” is a vital step in moral sensitivity. Through it, we recognize our shared humanity in our vulnerability to suffering. Through it, we open our eyes, our doors, and hopefully our hearts.

Michael Brannigan


Girl Reading (1889), by Fritz von Uhde