On Awe – part 1


Photo by Tom Rossiter/The University of Chicago

Neo-Aristotelian accounts of emotion virtues would benefit from the inclusion of awe. Fitting awe into an Aristotelian architectonic makes better sense of it than recent analyses from the perspective of positive psychology. Awe can be seen to encompass the transpersonal attachment to ideals such as truth, beauty, and goodness – with ‘elevation’, for example, best understood as awe directed at moral goodness. Aristotle did not pay attention to awe or similar emotions, and he was wrong in not doing so, because awe can produce a heightened sense of the status of one’s self in the grand scheme of things.


In his 1864 book on Aristotle,[1] English literary critic and philosopher George Henry Lewes describes him as ‘utterly destitute of any sense of the Ineffable’. ‘There is no quality in him more noticeable’, Lewes observes, ‘than his unhesitating confidence in the adequacy of the human mind to comprehend the universe’, and this ‘unhesitating mind’ is utterly ‘destitute of awe’. Given some of Aristotle’s passionate remarks about the wonders of nature, as well as his whole Book 10 celebration of contemplation of unchanging universals, in the Nicomachean Ethics, Lewes’s comments may seem churlish. Yet it remains true that Aristotle offers no account of transpersonal emotions such as awe, directed at ideals and idealisations, as distinct from emotions directed at oneself, other persons, or external events. What many commentators consider one of the main attractions of an Aristotelian account of flourishing as the aim of education and of life in general, namely its this-worldliness and its ‘affirmation of [the attainments of] ordinary life’[2], may easily degenerate into a philistine fetishisation of the mundane, possibly accompanied by a sense of ‘emptiness, or non-resonance’.[3] I see eerie signs of that in some neo-Aristotelian accounts of late (and I do not exclude my own account there).


In World Light[4], the 1937 tour-de-force Hardy-meets-Cervantes-meets-Dostoyevsky novel of the Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, we encounter the protagonist (anti)-hero Ólafur Kárason and follow his chequered trajectory through life. Abandoned by his mother and living in squalor with an abusive foster family, Ólafur remains bedridden through much of his childhood, suffering from a condition that would probably be DSM-diagnosed as a mixture of post-traumatic stress disorder, vitamin deficiency and hypochondria. After being cured by a mystical figure (at a juncture where the writing style of the novel subtly moves from social realism into magic realism as is the author’s wont), Ólafur embarks on a Quixotic journey of continued physical and emotional torments, ruinous love affairs, a tortured marriage, several children, shady dealings with crooked capitalists, supernatural encounters of varied provenance, and a descent into paedophilia (which destroys his ambitions a teacher).[5] Always the loser but never embittered or beaten, Ólafur strives to achieve his childhood vision of becoming a great poet; yet he never succeeds in achieving anything close to greatness, partly because of lack of any noticeable talent, partly because of adverse circumstances.


In a life that only seems to offer recipes for disaster, Ólafur is sustained by one consolation: his quest for ‘the epiphanic resonance of the divine’, attained through glimpses, far and few between since childhood and recurring flashbulb recollections of those glimpses, where he comes ‘face to face with the inexpressible’ and experiences ‘infinite chorus glory and radiance’. In those rare moments of exaltation, Ólafur’s whole sense of self dissolves into ‘one sacred, tearful yearning’ to be united with something higher than himself – transfigured by infinite truth and beauty. Symbolically, at the end of his life, he embarks on a final redemptive journey (at Easter) up to a glacier, the earthly representation of his vision of vastness and transcendence, where the mountain meets the sky and ‘becomes one with Heaven’. He disappears into the depths of the glacier, becoming one with it, in a place ‘where beauty reigns forever, beyond all demands’.


Ólafur Kárson’s life is almost as far away from that of the privileged phronimos as one can imagine. Deprived of moral luck and hampered by his own dearth of moral character and intellectual stamina, Ólafur’s life may, at first sight, seem to be best described as wretched rather than eudaimon or blessed. Yet there is something exquisite about its wretchedness. The hope of ‘the epiphanic resonance of the divine’ gives it meaning and unwavering purpose. Some readers see World Light as a simple reminder of how a creative spirit can survive in even the most crushing environment and the most uncompromising human vessel. But there is, I submit, more to it than that. Imagine Ólafur as having been brought up by good people under fortunate life circumstances, yet retaining his ecstatic, enchanted encounters with the ideals of oneness and beauty, and you have a life that somehow seems to surpass that of the fully virtuous phronimoi, or the great-souled megalopsychoi, or of the successful contemplators described by Aristotle. Despite its abysmal failings, Ólafur’s life appears to retain something of the putative attainments of the human ergon that Aristotle misses. If that is the case, philosophers and educators developing an Aristotelian vision of human flourishing need to take notice.


[1] Aristotle: A Chapter from History (London: Adamant Media, 2001).

[2] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 370.

[3] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 308.

[4] London: Vintage Books, 2002, translated by Magnus Magnusson.

[5] Iceland had a long history of sending young men incapable of any respectful job into teaching.

On Awe – Part 2, December 10, 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.