Emotional Contagion: Évrart de Conty and Compassion
Yawning is contagious. Likewise, seeing someone crying makes one cry, hearing chalk scraping a hard surface makes one shiver, observing someone eating makes one salivate, and hearing running water makes one feel the need to urinate. These examples capture the contagion-like dimension of emotion, spreading rapidly among people with tangible behavioral manifestations. In medieval sources, there is a specific name for this contagion: “compassion.” The word covers two different meanings. In its common usage, compassion is an act or a state of mercy to another’s suffering, just as the term is used today. But it also has a mechanical meaning to designate the involuntary imitation of someone else or of the environment. Compassion is a passion felt together and provoked by a principle of sympathy. It is a mixed emotion, at the same time psychological and physical. The notion of “compassion” is introduced into medieval culture by the Latin translation of Problems attributed to Aristotle. It occupies a particular place in medieval scientific discourse as an object of debate. The mechanism has interested medieval doctors, in particular a French doctor living at the end of the fourteenth century, Évrart de Conty. Describing compassion, Évrart studies emotion in terms of its somatization. His analysis of the mechanism of emotional contagion probes into its physiological and philosophical significance. This discourse on intersubjectivity offers insightful inquiry into the balance between will and passion, the idea of concordance and universal harmony, and the roles of sensory perception and the imagination in mind-body interaction.