Selection from – Ethics – Part III. On the Nature and Origin of the Emotions (Page 9)

Spinoza's Words: (on the emulation of emotions - empathy)

Proposition. XXVII. By the very fact that we conceive a thing, which is like ourselves, and which we have not regarded with any emotion, to be affected with any emotion, we are ourselves affected with a like emotion.

Note I.—This imitation of emotions, when it is referred to pain, is called compassion, when it is referred to desire, it is called emulation, which is nothing else but the desire of anything, engendered in us by the fact that we conceive that others have the like desire.

Corollary I.—If we conceive that anyone, whom we have hitherto regarded with no emotion, pleasurably affects something similar to ourselves, we shall be affected with love towards him.


This proposition and the sentences that follow in Spinzoa's phraseology sounds very dense to modern ears and we are prone to pass it by. But when carefully considered it is too important not to try to understand it.

If we consider something or someone for whom we have no emotional attachment but who nevertheless has some similarity to ourselves, a fellow human being for example, who seems to be in pain then we likewise feel that pain. If person A, for whom we felt nothing, pleases one we love we become favorably disposed toward person A.

Spinoza knew nothing about the very modern discovery of mirror neuron circuitry in primate brains. Mirror neuron circuits are neuronal networks that fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.The neurons "mirror" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. They were discovered in the 1990s in chimpanzees but their significance was ignored until 2002 when they were recognized as one of the sources of human empathy. We literally feel in ourselves another's pain or joy.