Death of empathy - barbarism
As Dostoevsky's "idiot" would remind us, it may be beauty that will save the world, but is it impertinent to suggest that right now a more pressing requirement for saving the world may be empathy?

Empathy is that quality that enables us - theoretically at least - to enter into the feelings of others, particularly those in trouble, pain or distress. Social psychologists suggest it may be a basic and inbuilt moral instinct within most of our human species, something for which we are hard-wired.

It is beyond sympathy which may contain some element of detachment or sentimentality. As the derivation of the two words suggest, sympathy is to be alongside the emotions of others, whereas empathy is to be totally inside those feelings.

At its best, empathy makes us grasp that another person - every other person indeed - is not an object on a landscape but a real subject, a subject of beauty and of infinite value, regardless of who or what he or she may be.

It is empathy that refuses to allow us to distinguish and, in the worst sense, discriminate between those who are like us and those who are not. The Christian perspective will link all of this instinctively with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, but it does, of course, have a wider dimension for all of humanity, including those who do not profess religious faith.

Greatest threat

As with all moral instincts, however, empathy may be suppressed, distorted or deliberately stunted in its application. Perhaps the greatest threat to empathy in the human psyche of today is the new attitude to truth in our culture.

"Truthiness" is a modern Americanism to describe that which need bear no relationship whatsoever to actual truth - in other words, truth which may be verified empirically or be based on objective logic; instead it will simply appeal to the hearer, be happily appropriated as convenient to believe and hence become the only "truth" they wish to hear.

The word "truthiness" was coined a decade ago as satirical, but it is satire no longer. There have, of course, always been lies, distortions and prevarications in public discourse (and in abundance) but whereas in a previous generation, for anyone in public life to have been caught out telling bare-faced lies in the public arena would have brought immediate disgrace and humiliation - think of John Profumo - this is no longer a reality; the Brexit debate and the US presidential election campaigns give ample enough evidence of this.

The mouthing of ludicrous untruths is regarded as requiring merely a shrugging of shoulders by way of response. Nor should we congratulate ourselves on this island that truthiness is an unknown aspect of public discourse.

Disposable commodity

When truth becomes a disposable commodity we are endangered beyond measure, and one of the casualties will be an empathy that extends beyond those whom we can identify as somehow worthy of our concern.

General Sir Ian Hamilton, who commanded the British and Allied forces in the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign in 1915, extolled propaganda (and we might here substitute the term "truthiness" for this) as "drawing nourishment from the sins of the enemy. If there are no sins, invent them! The aim is to make the enemy so great a monster that he forfeits the rights of a human being."

The arrival of such an approach - totally unblushingly - into public discourse within a democratic society has corrupted the moral foundations of free speech. If we cannot defy and defeat the openly manipulated half-truths, the total and unapologetic disregard for objective facts and the blatantly unsubstantiated but vicious innuendos that are the stock-in-trade of what passes for public debate in western societies, we are on a road to totalitarian vileness.

True and unfettered empathy is what makes civilised humanity of us.

Simone de Beauvoir recounted how her contemporary at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Simone Weil, was found weeping in pain on hearing of an earthquake in China that had taken thousands of lives. This was no sentimental self-indulgence; it was because, as de Beauvoir put it, Weil had "a heart that beat across the world".

Truthiness in the hands of those who have no care but for themselves encourages us to have a heart - an empathy - that would barely beat across a cupboard.

We live in an age when we can know a great deal of what happens around our world. Only when we are ready to interrogate the laziness, self-indulgence and mendacity of truthiness can we be fully human, capable of a true empathy for all who need us.

Logos - logic, truth, reality - does not create empathy, but a contempt for logos will certainly turn empathy into self-indulgent pretense.