On Awe – part 2

Hljóðaklettar. Photo by Sergii.
Hljóðaklettar. Photo by Sergii.

I am interested in awe as an emotion – and even as a potentially virtuous emotion. But what is awe?


The word ‘awe’ is thought to be derived from the Old Norse word ‘agi’ (terror, dread), a word which exists in contemporary Icelandic in permutations such as ‘ægilegur’ (terrifying). Over the centuries, however, the centre of gravity in ‘awe’ moved from the terrifying to the fantastic, probably hand in hand with a decreased fear of supernatural powers. Yet a slight hint of underlying terror may still remain in the term in some locutions, which makes awe less than an exclusively ‘positive’ emotion.


Ostensive definitions often constitute a helpful entry point to conceptual analyses. Václav Havel, the late Czech writer and statesman, once reminisced on a day when, languishing as a dissident in prison, he began to gaze into the crown of an enormous tree that rose up and over the prison fences: ‘As I watched the imperceptible tremblings of its leaves against the endless sky, I was overcome by a sensation that is difficult to describe: all at once, I seemed to rise above all the coordinates of my momentary existence in the world into a kind of state outside time in which all the beautiful things I have ever seen and experienced existed in total “co-present”’. Havel continues to describe the characteristics of this beatific experience as those of reconciliation and elation. I submit that however we specify awe, it must at least capture some of the essential features of Havel’s experience: those of elevation, the spontaneous overflow of feelings, heightened awareness, transcendence (of ordinary objects of experience), sense of unity, etc.


Another instructive starting point is to engage in introspection: to identify personal episodes that one would require any workable definition of awe to cover. Here are three from my own life.


(1) I first visited Hljóðaklettar – a well-known area of columnar-craters, presenting unique ‘basalt roses’, in a national park in the north-east of Iceland – on an early October day as a 17-year old. All the tourists had gone, there was not a single person in sight; only the ‘rosy’ columns surrounded by low birch trees in autumn colours, with a mighty grey glacial river providing a stark background contrast. I experienced feelings of aesthetic ecstasy, mingled with a sense of enormity, oneness and of time standing still. I have never been fully able to recapture that feeling, there or elsewhere, although I have caught glimpses of it when listening to great pieces of music such as Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.


(2) During a gap year as a 20-year old, I unwisely took up a job as a high-school teacher. Having to teach seriously disruptive students without being prepared to do so through either experience or training, this one-year of work stretched my mental and physical resources towards breaking point. I was basically at my wits’ end. My father watched my gradual mental deterioration from close by but without being able to do anything substantial to remedy the situation. Probably out of a sense of despair, more than anything else, he bought me an expensive watch. When he passed it on to me, without saying a word, I immediately sensed what had happened. I felt an overpowering sense of elevation – not so much in the form of moral admiration at my father’s gesture or a desire to want to emulate him as a moral exemplar (although those emotions featured also), but rather by way of intense appreciation that such depth of goodness could exist in the world. At the philosophical risk of ‘having one thought too many’, my most profound emotion was thus directed at the ideal of moral goodness rather than at my father as a person.


(3) When watching a Horizon documentary on BBC about the concept of infinity, I felt as if I had entered a magic kingdom. Covering topics such as those of possible parallel worlds, the mystery of the singularity of a black hole and the prospects of an endless array of universes, this documentary truly enthralled me. I felt intellectually elevated, spirited up to a transcendent reality where I existed as an ineluctable part of a great chain of being. I recorded the programme and have watched it again and again, each time reliving some of the emotion of the first viewing but never taken again to the same experiential heights.


Let me hypothesise that what these three experiences had in common was the single emotion of awe, but targeting the different ideals of beauty, goodness and truth, respectively. Working on that assumption, I propose to make it a condition of any plausible characterisation of awe that it can account for those experiences as experiences of awe.


To cut a long story short, I propose the following characterisation of awe, organised via the standard parameters of an Aristotelian emotion: (1) The subject of awe is the person experiencing it. (2) The feeling of awe is intense and predominantly pleasant although it may be slightly tainted with a sense of impending terror. (3) The object of awe is captured by the cognition that the subject is experiencing or has experienced an instantiation of a truly great ideal that is mystifying or even ineffable in transcending ordinary human experiences. This experience is perceived to have increased existential awareness and connected the subject to a greater whole. To put it technically, this means that awe constitutes an essentially self-reflexive experience. (4) The target of awe is constituted by the ideals of the famous Platonic triad of truth, beauty and goodness (while truth and beauty may be instantiated in amoral or immoral ways). Depending on whether the target is truth, beauty or goodness, awe presents itself as the more specific emotions of intellectual elevation (for truth), moral elevation (for goodness) or aesthetic ecstasy (for beauty). (5) The characteristic desire in awe is that of continuing to experience the emotion or experiencing it again, preferably more profoundly, by coming even closer to the targeted ideal itself.


A lot more needs to be said about the contours of awe and under what conditions it can be experienced virtuously – but these are, for me, at least the bare beginnings.

On Awe – Part 1, December 9, 2015

Kristján Kristjánsson is Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics;  Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.