The 20th-century philosopher and historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, once commented on the historian’s craft. “To exercise their proper function, historians require the capacity for imaginative insight, without which the bones of the past remain dry and lifeless” (“Giambattista Vico and Cultural History,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, 69). For Berlin, this instrument of historical method was exemplified in the work of the 18th-century thinker Giambattista Vico, who called this capacity fantasia.
Vico pointed toward cultural diversity, but in fantasia provided a means for connection. The process of entering into another age and another culture is not a strictly scientific one but requires imagination, the ability to call to mind people distant from us in time and place. Implicit in this process of understanding is the notion that there are significant continuities between people in different contexts: how they live, love, think, and aspire.
History points us to particularity, the “rich variety” (57) and irreducible difference of certain events, individuals, and peoples, in time and space. These cannot be exactly like any other, and to think so is ahistorical and wrong-headed. For Berlin, the risk is that, in giving undue weight to particularity, what is universal and constant will be eclipsed and forgotten in a riot of irrationality. Berlin saw in Vico’s work the art of balancing the sense of what is uniquely specific in other cultures with the capacity for an “acute and sympathetic historical insight” (58) in understanding and connecting with the other. Berlin here echoes the 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt, when he wrote that it is “the duty of the historian to seek for evidence in which moral judgment is tempered by human sympathy” (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, London: Phaidon Press, 1960, 166).
There is risk involved in the discounting of the sympathetic imagination. Without it, and a recognition of connection, other people, times, and places, may remain simply alien, unknowable, and irrelevant. Peter Brown, the distinguished historian of the Late Antique Roman period, writes about “the chill shades” of this historical epoch, which requires study of its precise context in order to allow the shades “to speak to us again… in the strange tongue of a long-lost Christianity” (The Body and Society, 447). Brown is a great practitioner of the historian’s art and his work demonstrates again and again the capacity for imaginative engagement, but his cautionary words indicate the real difficulty of making this leap from one age to another, and the real danger of disconnection from our own past.
If Brown’s work reminds us that the world of the early church is “a long extinct and deeply reticent one” (Brown, xvii), he also wants us to know that its insights shouldn’t be ignored or patronizingly dismissed. He calls upon Michel Foucault, who pointed out that “There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on thinking and reflecting at all” (The Use of Pleasure, 8. Cited in Brown, xviii). In other words, one of the virtues of a different perspective is that it provokes us to thought. Recognizing difference is crucial. Without this recognition, different insights are simply reduced to our own shop-worn ideas, our own cultural conceits, as comfortable and unchallenging as an old shoe; or, on the other hand, identified with their opposites and rejected out of hand.
To bring other perspectives to bear at all upon our own ideas requires some connection and some exercise of imagination. Without that spark of connection, other ideas remain simply unintelligible or alien. Foucault’s own work points toward the need “to examine both the difference that keeps us at a remove from a way of thinking in which we recognize the origin of our own, and the proximity that remains in spite of that distance which we never cease to explore” (Foucault, 7). Sympathetic imagination is crucial to exploring this space, in both its distant and proximate modes.
Berlin’s essay also considers what fiction can teach us about sympathetic imagination. According to him, the historical novels of Walter Scott may have been the first artefacts to give substance to this capacity. They presented peoples and times
in the round, as fully realized characters, not as figures on a stage, the two-dimensional, generalized types of Livy or Tacitus and even Gibbon and Hume…To see the past through the eyes of those who lived through it, from the inside, as it were, and not merely as a succession of distant facts and events and figures in a procession to be described from some external vantage-point as so much material for narrative or statistical treatment – to be able to achieve this kind of understanding, even though with considerable effort, is a claim to a capacity that could scarcely have been made before the modern age by historians concerned with the truth (Berlin, 59).
We might say that what makes the historical fiction of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall such compelling reading is the author’s successful deployment of sympathetic imagination. The character of Thomas Cromwell, for instance, speaks in a voice that seems anachronistic on one level, but at another level something of the man himself has been caught by the author. Mantel’s Cromwell is no dry bone or chill shade. The character connects the past and the present. It’s only a work of fiction, a particularly good one of course, but it illustrates the way imaginative insight works.
We need the capacity for sympathetic imagination, and not just if we are historians or novelists, or students of these genres. We live in a time of stunted imagination, in the midst of the clash of civilizations and the culture wars of our own society, where the virtue of sympathy itself languishes. Imagine the novels of Dickens, peopled by the caricatures of each other that populate our political discourse! Oliver Twist would be tedious and unreadable, containing a succession of stick-figure bad guys, instead of being full of three-dimensional evil doers like Bill Sikes and Fagin and their associates. Aren’t we glad that the Artful Dodger survives his brush with the law? These figures are tragic precisely because we have sympathy with them. Dickens himself recognized and countered the criticism that came with a sympathetic treatment of what was morally disturbing. Sympathy does not make us sympathizers in the sense of political dupes or fellow travelers, but it does allow us to connect.
Sympathetic imagination is not only historical and literate; it is humane. Christians ought to be seasoned practitioners of the art of imaginative insight, able to make connections with others and to imagine their lives and values. A sympathetic imagination doesn’t make us traitors to our own fundamental commitments as human beings, or as Christians, but it does allow us to extend ourselves to others in ways that make for graceful connection. We must not settle for disconnection. A sympathetic imagination is essential to understanding, not only distant times and places, but also to living with our neighbors here and now.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.