Compassion v. Empathy SMACKDOWN!

SCENE: A boxing ring.

REFEREE: In the pink corner, weighing in at 52 kilos, in a pink tutu, Compassion!  In the baby blue corner, coming in at 200kg of quivering emo black is Empathy!  Round One! <bing!>

Empathy and Compassion approach each other, and start slapping ineffectually.

What do you think about empathy and compassion?  I’ve painted them above as weak, feminised (in a bad way), an ineffectual. I don’t think that’s a particularly uncommon view.  In my attempt to understand empathy and compassion I want to challenge that perspective, and then see how they differ: to drive a wedge between them to understand the differences between them, even though they are really very similar concepts, with a lot of overlap.

First, my view on the nature of empathy and compassion.  I see it more like a 120Kg of pure muscle, a psychiatric nurse riding the ambulance for EMS, ready to sit on someone having a bit of an episode and fill them full of  tranquilizers, gently pick them up and take them into care.  Empathy and compassion are elements of practical love.

I’ll bore you later with the neurobiological basis of empathy, once I’ve finished The Master and His Emissary (1), but here are some beginning thoughts on the difference between Empathy and Compassion.


  • Proximal
  • Autonomic
  • Passive
  • Internal
  • Invisible
  • Secular
  • Reactive

the OED says:

Pronunciation: /ˈɛmpəθɪ/

Etymology: tr. German Einfühlung (see einfühlung n.) (T. Lipps Leitfaden d. Psychol. (1903) 187), < Greek ἐμπάθεια….

The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.

Weirdly enough, the greek root work, “ἐμπάθεια”, means exactly the opposite: feelings of hostility towards the other.

Empathy is the internal feeling one has towards another person, helping one understand another.


  • Distal
  • Conscious
  • Active
  • External
  • Can be seen by others
  • Spiritual
  • Reflexive

The OED says:

Pronunciation: /kəmˈpæʃən/

Forms: Also ME -ioun, -ione, ME–15 -yon, ME compascyon.(Show Less)
Etymology: < French compassion (14th cent. in Littré), < late Latin compassiōn-em (Tertullian, Jerome), n. of action < compati (participial stem compass-) to suffer together with, feel pity, < com- together with + pati to suffer…. (Show Less)

†1. Suffering together with another, participation in suffering; fellow-feeling, sympathy. Obs

This is a much older word, with its first reference being in the 14th C.  The distinction here is in participation with another, rather than empathic feeling, which, though it implies interaction with another person.

Using a landscape metaphor, empathy is the bedrock, the underlying form of the landscape: compassion is the soil, the vegetation, the active geography once can act upon and with.  You can see the outline of empathy below the acts of compassion: always present, but sensed distinctly differently depending on the compassionate acts laid on top of it.

This is a metaphor I’m actively interested in developing, because I think it provides a number of useful angles with which to understand the world of practical love.   Later I will talk about mining compassion, and sustainably maintaining compassion: using the environmental language I have already suggested could be fruitful when I talked about ‘sustainable peace’.

These are just beginning thoughts, and I suspect when I look at the literature I’ll find I’ve been beaten to it, but it will provide and interesting fulcrum to use as critical leverage – something I’ve never consciously done before.

  1. Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Reprint. (Yale University Press, 2010). 

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