The Empathetic Turn: The Relationship of Empathy to the Utopian Impulse
In the Empathetic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin makes the bold claim that “the [e]mpathetic consciousness would be strangely out of place in either heaven or utopia.”1 Interestingly, he levels this assertion in the midst of an impressive analysis of the primacy of empathy in human life and contends that when we empathize, we employ a capacity for which we are genetically soft-wired.2 “A world without empathy,” he writes, “is alien to the very notion of what a human being is.”3 One could reasonably infer from the entirety of his argument that the utopian impulse-the propensity to strive to better the world as one knows it, in the ways that one knows-is predicated on empathy. Nevertheless, at certain junctures, Rifkin explicitly discourages readers from drawing such a conclusion, especially in a chapter that explores the attitudes and events leading up to the Industrial Revolution. In this section, he specifically refers to a “utopian vision.”4 He mentions both a “material utopia”5 situated in the temporal world as well as an abstract, idyllic site free of woes, outside of time. In these sections, he pronounces empathy and utopia to be antithetical.6 “Empathy,” he maintains, “does not exist in utopian worlds, where suffering and death are eliminated.”7 In Rifkin’s view, utopia is an otherworldly place-edenic-certainly, where pain is atavistic and death vanquished, a place inhospitable to change, static in ideology, and limited in practice. Any deviation might tip the delicate balance, opening Eden, anew, to angst, contempt, and misery. But in the historical and imaginary utopian spaces I study with my students, whether it be Plymouth Colony or the Twin Oaks Community, the conceptual city of the Republic, the mystical Herland, or the
pastoral but practical Walden Two, the potential for suffering and the reality of mortality are very much on the minds of the individuals who populate them, the fear of which often impels the inhabitants to pursue and sustain communitarian practices to lesson pain and stave off death.