Sympathy (Liberalism) Solidarity

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Reading Moses Mendelssohn, it occurred to me that “sympathy” is the cardinal liberal virtue. Reading Michael Walzer only confirms this suspicion. Sympathy is what, I think, distinguishes Mendelssohn, who was  sympathetic, from Spinoza, who was not, especially in relation to Judaism. This includes Walzer as well.

By sympathy I would want to include gross forms of teary sentimentality along with a more clear-eyed, basic, and critical care for and interest in people, warts and all, as they are —as opposed to how more jaundiced critic thinks they “ought to be.” Sympathy has to do with the formation of binding and associational ties that are affective, moral, political, and sometimes spiritual.

Instead of seeking to remold the human condition, liberal sentimentalists look to improve or to “perfect” the common good by extending and expanding it. They seek to do so not on the basis of “tolerance,” but on the basis of pluralism and on what Walzer calls “complex equality.”

Sympathy lends itself to the form of “solidarity” championed by the soft social democrats of the old socialist left, as opposed to the more intense and hard forms of militancy. Invested solely in systems and structures, scientific Marxists, Bolsheviks, Maoists, and critical theorists tend not to be too terribly sympathetic.

Sympathy is never good enough. It always requires criticism, perhaps a kind of sympathetic toughness, and, yes, the will to make decisions and get things done.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Sympathy (Liberalism) Solidarity

  1. dmfant says:

    as was once said we need contingency, irony, and solidarity, all in a liberal democratic framework.

  2. efmooney says:

    Thoreau said we need, not knowledge or power but “sympathy with intelligence” — as the eye of the camera, you look for things intelligible out of sympathy for them; as the mind of the scholar you read one text because it makes things intelligible through order (Spinoza) or another text because it makes things intelligible through its sympathies (Mendelssohn?). Hume said ethics was based on sympathies, not knowledge or reason. Yet the primal attunements of sympathy can make knowledge and reason appear. Sympathy directed back on one’s life in New york or San Francisco mustering autobiographical sketches can reveal all that’s philosophical and artistic and sensible in one’s own life and in lives more generally. These are exercises of a liberal spirit, a spirit that frees, whether manifest in politics, art, scholarship, or philosophy.

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