Furthest Right

Florence Nightingale on Women

From The Life of Florence Nightingale, vol. 2 of 2, by Sir Edward Tyas Cook:

(Miss Nightingale to Madame Mohl.) 32 South Street, London, Dec. 13 [1861]. I have read half your book thro’ [Madame Récamier], and am immensely charmed by it. But[14] some things I disagree with and more I do not understand. This does not apply to the characters, but to your conclusions, e.g. you say “women are more sympathetic than men.” Now if I were to write a book out of my experience, I should begin Women have no sympathy. Yours is the tradition. Mine is the conviction of experience. I have never found one woman who has altered her life by one iota for me or my opinions. Now look at my experience of men. A statesman, past middle age, absorbed in politics for a quarter of a century, out of sympathy with me, remodels his whole life and policy—learns a science the driest, the most technical, the most difficult, that of administration, as far as it concerns the lives of men,—not, as I learnt it, in the field from stirring experience, but by writing dry regulations in a London room by my sofa with me. This is what I call real sympathy. Another (Alexander, whom I made Director-General) does very nearly the same thing. He is dead too. Clough, a poet born if ever there was one, takes to nursing-administration in the same way, for me. I only mention three whose whole lives were remodelled by sympathy for me. But I could mention very many others—Farr, McNeill, Tulloch, Storks, Martin, who in a lesser degree have altered their work by my opinions. And, the most wonderful of all, a man born without a soul, like Undine—all these elderly men.

Now just look at the degree in which women have sympathy—as far as my experience is concerned. And my experience of women is almost as large as Europe. And it is so intimate too. I have lived and slept in the same bed with English Countesses and Prussian Bäuerinnen. No Roman Catholic Supérieure has ever had charge of women of the different creeds that I have had. No woman has excited “passions” among women more than I have. Yet I leave no school behind me. My doctrines have taken no hold among women. Not one of my Crimean following learnt anything from me, or gave herself for one moment after she came home to carry out the lesson of that war or of those hospitals.… No woman that I know has ever appris à apprendre. And I attribute this to want of sympathy. You say somewhere that women have no attention. Yes. And I attribute this to want of sympathy. Nothing makes me so impatient as people complaining of their want of memory. How can you remember what you have never heard?… It makes me mad, the Women’s Rights talk about “the want of a field” for them—when I know that I would gladly give £500 a year for a Woman Secretary. And two English Lady Superintendents have told me the same thing. And we can’t get one.… They don’t know the names of the Cabinet Ministers. They don’t know the offices at the Horse Guards. They don’t know who[15] of the men of the day is dead and who is alive. They don’t know which of the Churches has Bishops and which not. Now I’m sure I did not know these things. When I went to the Crimea I did not know a Colonel from a Corporal. But there are such things as Army Lists and Almanacs. Yet I never could find a woman who, out of sympathy, would consult one—for my work. The only woman I ever influenced by sympathy was one of those Lady Superintendents I have named. Yet she is like me, overwhelmed with her own business.… In one sense, I do believe I am “like a man,” as Parthe says. But how? In having sympathy. I am sure I have nothing else. I am sure I have no genius. I am sure that my contemporaries, Parthe, Hilary, Marianne, Lady Dunsany, were all cleverer than I was, and several of them more unselfish. But not one had a bit of sympathy. Now Sidney Herbert’s wife just did the Secretary’s work for her husband (which I have had to do without) out of pure sympathy. She did not understand his policy. Yet she could write his letters for him “like a man.” I should think Mme Récamier was another specimen of pure sympathy.… Women crave for being loved, not for loving. They scream out at you for sympathy all day long, they are incapable of giving any in return, for they cannot remember your affairs long enough to do so.… They cannot state a fact accurately to another, nor can that other attend to it accurately enough for it to become information. Now is not all this the result of want of sympathy?…

You say of Mme Récamier that her existence was “empty but brilliant.” And you attribute it to want of family. Oh, dear friend, don’t give in to that sort of tradition. People often say to me, You don’t know what a wife and mother feels. No, I say, I don’t and I’m very glad I don’t. And they don’t know what I feel.… I am sick with indignation at what wives and mothers will do of the most egregious selfishness. And people call it all maternal or conjugal affection, and think it pretty to say so. No, no, let each person tell the truth from his own experience. Ezekiel went running about naked, “for a sign.” I can’t run about naked because it is not the custom of the country. But I would mount three widows’ caps on my head, “for a sign.” And I would cry, This is for Sidney Herbert, This is for Arthur Clough, and This, the biggest widow’s cap of all, is for the loss of all sympathy on the part of my dearest and nearest.[7]

I cannot understand how Mme Récamier could give “advice[16] and sympathy” to such opposite people as, e.g. Mme Salvage and Chateaubriand. Neither can I understand how she could give “support” without recommending a distinct line of policy,—by merely keeping up the tone to a high one. It is as if I had said to Sidney Herbert, Be a statesman, be a statesman—instead of indicating to him a definite course of statesmanship to follow. Also I am sure I never could have given “advice and sympathy” to Gladstone and S. Herbert—men pursuing opposite lines of policy. Also I am sure I never could have been the friend and adviser of Sidney Herbert, of Alexander, and of others, by simply keeping up the tone of general conversation on promiscuous matters. We debated and settled measures together. That is the way we did it. Adieu, dear friend.… I have had two consultations. They say that all this worry has brought on congestion of the spine which leads straight to paralysis.…

Follow-up question: how important are sympathy, empathy, and compassion?

As a nihilist I say they are not important at all, mainly because these things are the result of understanding and not a goal in themselves.

When you see what other people are and what they struggle with, sympathy results. It is a logical process, and trying to make it an innate emotional one will lead you to only recognize the sappy and miserable, while ignoring people (including, yes, benevolent sociopaths like myself) who produce excellent results because we recognize that doing so is our only path to actual success.

In the same way, who trusts those who are overflowing with emotions of tolerance and mutuality? These people are emotionally promiscuous, offering an emotion not as the conclusion of a thought process, but as a projection of themselves. In that way, they are emotionally egalitarian, and face the same problem that all egalitarians do: by extending this emotion in a uniform context, like a bureaucracy with its triplicate forms or an assembly line with its interchangeable cogs, they remove its value, and this makes it manipulative because now it is a burden to uphold instead of a rare hard-fought and hard-won treasure.

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