What Ever Did We Do before the Invention of Empathy? and Prince Philip’s Confession in “The Crown”

Did you know there once was a time when empathy didn’t exist in the English-speaking world. During that time, all those poor souls lived in a “Dark Age” of feelings in which they had only sympathy to rely on when faced with others’ pain. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the word empathy was imported from Germany to save us from our uncaring detachment. As I wrote in “Empathy: A Ladder into Dark Places“:

Empathy . . . is a relatively new term, introduced into the English language by psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener in 1909. Titchener got the idea for empathy from einfühlung, a German word crafted 50 years earlier to describe a form of art appreciation based on projecting one’s personality into the art being viewed—thus, “a feeling in.”

Of course, I jest. Before 1909, our forebears did just fine commiserating with each other. In fact, here’s a passage on that point from a sermon by the British preacher Charles Spurgeon, delivered in 1890:

When a person who has been very despondent comes out into comfort, he should look out for desponding spirits and use his own experience as a cordial to the fainting. I do not think that I ever feel so much at home in any work as when I am trying to encourage a heart which is on the verge of despair, for I have been in that plight myself. It is a high honor to nurse our Lord’s wounded children. It is a great gift to have learned by experience how to sympathize. “Ah!” I say to them, “I have been where you are!” They look at me and their eyes say, “No, surely you never felt as we do.” I therefore go further, and say, “If you feel worse than I did, I pity you, indeed, for I could say with Job, ‘My soul chooses strangling rather than life.’ I could readily enough have laid violent hands upon myself to escape from my misery of spirit.”

Spurgeon’s “sympathize” certainly seems like what we call “empathize” today. Again, in my post, referring to Brené Brown’s saying that “sympathy drives disconnection” while empathy is “feeling with people,” I wrote that that second definition

actually sounds to me like a good description of sympathy. In fact, when the word sympathy came about over 400 years ago, it was from the Greek sin, “together,” plus pathos, “feeling.” . . . in other words, a “feeling together.”

It makes me think of the joke What did people used to call organic, non-GMO food? Answer: Food.

So what did people used to call sympathy that was filled with empathetic feelings? Answer: Sympathy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of empathy. It’s just that I’m a defender of sympathy, too. Empathy isn’t a special, emotionally gymnastic form of sympathy. Rather, it’s genuine sympathy, in a world where the concept of basic sympathy is too often seen as condescending or false. That’s why you’ll hear people say, “I don’t need your sympathy!” But it’s also true that most don’t mind getting a “sympathy card” in the mail. In fact, if you sent them an “empathy card,” they’d probably think you presumptuous.

With all that said, I’d like to present a wonderful expression of sympathy. It’s from Netflix’s The Crown, season three, in an episode titled “Moondust.”

It comes in two short monologues given by the character Prince Philip. (I say “character” because while The Crown is based on the lives of the royal family, it’s still a work of fiction.) Actually, the first doesn’t express sympathy at all, but it sets the stage for what is to come.

In “Moondust,” Prince Philip has just watched the 1969 moon landing on TV and is enamored with the American heroes of Apollo 11 . . . enamored, and envious, and agitated, as well. It is under this circumstance that Robin Woods, the newly appointed Dean of Windsor, invites him to meet some priests who have gathered at St. George’s House. As Prince Philip listens to the weary clergymen share their discouragements, with one grading his life accomplishments a D minus, Dean Wood’s asks Prince Philip for his thoughts. He responds,

I’ll tell you what I think. I’ve never heard such a load of pretentious, self-piteous nonsense. What you lot need to do is to get off your backsides, get out into the world, and bloody well do something. That is why you are all so . . . so lost. I believe that there is an imperative within man, all men, to make a mark. Action is what defines us. Action, not suffering. All this sitting around thinking and talking, I . . . Let me ask you this: Do you think those astronauts up there are catatonic like you lot? Of course not. They are too busy achieving something spectacular. And as a result, they are at one with the world, and one with their God, and happy. That’s my advice. Model yourselves on men of action, like Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins. I mean, these men score A triple plus. They’ve got the answers, not a bunch of navel-gazing underachievers infecting one another with gaseous doom. 

I must say that the circle of men reminds me of groups of cross-cultural workers I’ve been in, coming together to share our wounds. But Prince Philip doesn’t identify with that kind of gathering. He’s a man of action, not a pitiful navel-gazer. No, being a pilot, he sees himself as a comrade with the astronauts. So he arranges a personal visit with them when they come to London. But his high hopes for conversing with greatness are dashed when, alone with the three, he finds them to be shallow and uncurious about life’s bigger questions. “They delivered as astronauts,” he tells the queen, “but disappointed as human beings.”

He later returns to St. George’s, to the circle of priests, but this time with a new sense of belonging, a newly discovered kinship with other men who are facing mid-life crises—though he can only bring himself to say “that crisis”:

And of course one’s read or heard about other people hitting that crisis, and, you know, just like them, you look in all the usual places, resort to all the usual things to try and make yourself feel better. Uh . . . some of which I can admit to in this room, and some of which I probably shouldn’t.

My mother died recently. She . . . she saw that something was amiss. It’s a good word, that a . . . a-amiss. She saw that something was missing in her youngest child, her only son. . . . Faith. ”How’s your faith?” she asked me. I’m here to admit to you that . . . I’ve lost it. And without it, what is there? The . . . the loneliness and emptiness and anticlimax of going all that way to the moon to find nothing but haunting desolation, ghostly silence, gloom. That is what faithlessness is. As opposed to finding wonder, ecstasy, the miracle of divine creation, God’s design and purpose. What am I trying to say? I’m trying to say that the solution to our problems, I think, is not in the ingenuity of the rocket, or the science or the technology or even the bravery. No, the answer is in here [points to head], or here [points to chest], or wherever it is that . . . that faith resides.

And so, Dean Woods, having ridiculed you for what you and these poor blocked, lost souls  . . .[laughs] . . . were . . . were trying to achieve here in St. George’s House, I now find myself full of respect and admiration and not a small part of desperation . . . as I come to say, . . . “Help. . . . Help me.”

Notes after the episode inform us “For over fifty years St. George’s House has been a centre for the exploration of faith and philosophy. Its success is one of the achievements of which Prince Philip is most proud.”

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021).

(Charles Spurgeon, “The Shank-bone Sermon—Or, True Believers and Their Helpers” March 23, 1890; “Moondust,” The Crown, created by Peter Morgan, season 3, episode 7, Netflix, 2019)

[photo: “Earth over the Moon – Apollo 11,” by Kevin Gill, used under a Creative Commons license]