Some recent studies have asserted that reading literary fiction improves empathy, or the ability to understand and participate deeply in another person’s experience:

• Scientific American: “Literary fiction improves empathy

• NYTimes: “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction

• The New Yorker: “Should Literature Be Useful?”

• Psychology Today: “Can Reading a Fictional Story Make You More Empathetic?”

Philosophers have been making this claim for some time, e.g. Martha Nussbaum or Roman Krznaric. The 18th century philosopher David Hume would have used “sympathy” as a nearly synonymous term. In his 2015 lecture at Rhodes College, Scott Samuelson posited there are two general visions of suffering – the “Promethean” attitude, which holds that we’d be better off if we could minimize, perhaps even eliminate, suffering; and the “Orphic” attitude, which holds that finding ways of coming to terms with suffering is a crucial part of how we form our identities – what John Keats called “soul-making.”

Virgil’s Aeneid recurrently depicts suffering, most memorably through the abandoned Dido, but also through Aeneas’ repeated tears. Dido asserts, “Fate dragged me through much suffering myself / Until it let me settle in this land. / My own experience has taught compassion” (1.628-30).


William Blake, Laocoön, c. 1826-27 (Collection of Robert N. Essick). From the Blake Archive: Dates are the probable dates of printing. In an inscription beneath his detailed reproduction of the Laocoön, Blake reinterprets the famous Greek sculpture as a copy of an original Hebraic work representing Jehovah and his two sons, Satan and Adam. Other inscriptions surrounding the central design set forth Blake’s interrelated opinions on money, empire, morality, Christianity, and the arts. The central image of the statue may have been executed as early as c. 1815 in connection with Blake’s work on illustrations for Abraham Rees, The Cyclopaedia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature. The inscribed texts surrounding the statue were almost certainly added at a much later date, c. 1826-27. Both impressions (A and B) of the single plate, etched and engraved in intaglio, were printed in 1826 or 1827.

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