Biographies: a school for empathy

Professor Anna Caballé examines the role biographies play in developing empathy, from the ancient world to their ongoing importance in our complex modern society.

In the second “Reasons for Hope” webinar, organized by IE Law School and the Arts and Humanities Division of IE University, Professor Anna Caballé of the University of Barcelona presents a compelling case for the place biographies have in human culture and mutual understanding. Professor Caballé, a writer, literary critic, and biography specialist, began by addressing our universal need for hope.

Opening horizons

Under the large umbrella of hope itself, one of our best hopes for a better future is for mutual understanding, Caballé explained. Given the current challenges facing humanity, hope can still open horizons in the future. To illustrate how this particular hope can best be represented, Professor Caballé contrasts biographies and autobiographies.

Both represent a life written down, she stated. But while autobiographical details are known to ourselves, a biography is an exercise in reporting the complexity of another person’s life—it is not a science. While both autobiographies and biographies function as descriptions, an autobiographer knows their own story in depth, whereas a biographer doesn’t.

Biographies require the writer, and the reader, to submerge themselves in the knowledge of someone else’s life. Referring to famously private individuals like J.D. Salinger, Professor Caballé explains that a biographer must understand their subject from the fragments their life unconsciously left behind.

An ancient form with modern relevance

Contextualizing natural human curiosity about the lives of others, Caballé notes that biographies are one of our oldest cultural forms—dating back to Plato’s writings on Socrates and Plutarch’s work Parallel Lives, and now extending to mass media. Despite having recently undergone what she calls a “hostile takeover,” due to exploitative, profit-seeking television programs, Caballé remains confident that biographies still hold the power to impart knowledge.

While it may seem that biographies have become solely business to some, Professor Caballé contends that they can still be inspirational. Their real modern value is not in the voices only of the elite, but in the myriad voices that can come together to place events in context—citing Russian writer and Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexiévich’s book Voices of Chernobyl as an example.

She expresses that such important works are a cultural must in order to not see history as merely a “bag of existences.” If we can draw inspiration from biographies, they become a school for empathy.

Biographies require the writer, and the reader, to submerge themselves in the knowledge of someone else’s life.

Asking questions

Examining their role in modern society, Professor Caballé urges any writer or reader of a biography to approach the subject with a critical mindset. Stating that we must not use biographies for exploitative purposes, but instead harness their power to inspire us and help us understand each other.

To this end, Caballé concludes that using biographies to develop empathy will always be a work in progress. New facts may come to light, changing our interpretation of someone’s life and forcing us to think differently. Ultimately, that is the point of biographies—to bring us closer to the lives of people who have inspired us. And in doing so, they ask questions that affect us all. Biographies are truly a school for empathy.

Biographies: a school for empathy | IE LawAhead

Professor Caballé went on to take questions from an enthralled webinar audience. To hear her insights firsthand, the entire lecture can be seen here. Further “Reasons for Hope” lectures will take place in May and June 2021.