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Epiphanies

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Back to Sophie-Grace Chappell and her work on epiphanies. In the podcast, she talked of Murdoch's kestrel moment* as an epiphany and suggested that what epiphanies do is, through experience, show us what is valuable - outside of us. They move us to love, pity and/or creativity in her view. Love expands our horizons as we appreciate something outside of us; pity moves us to compassion for another; creativity seems also to be an other-focused drive.


The idea of pity comes through, I think, in my post Glimpses. Midgley's outward-looking and Murdoch's unselfing both express how this move from ego to breadth can be be accomplished. And I have had my famous experiences of wonder.


Anyway, what made me brood on this was Bob Solomon talking about how many emotions are relational and/or self-related. So, in love, one loves another - and may almost lose oneself in the other, but it's the relationship between self and other that is the driving force. Anger has similar dynamics but with a hostile rather than affectionate content. On the other hand, shame is social, in that it matters that others know, but one's own responsibility and the denigration of the self are also important. In guilt, no one even needs to know, the emotion is related to one's conception of self.


Sympathy and empathy, depending on the definition one takes, seem to blur the lines between self and other - but in a different way from that in love. Love enhances the tendency to empathise and sympathise, yet one can, perhaps, love without feeling into the love object's emotional state. This might be a rather limited form of love.


Courage demonstrates a different perspective in that one is focused on the activity or danger, perhaps, rather more than the self. Likewise with fear. Yet there remains the sense that the self either has to overcome danger or is threatened by danger.


Moral indignation when faced with injustice to another might be somewhat different, in that the concern is for the other, the anger is felt on behalf of the other. Pity and compassion share this kind of logic. In all these cases, it may be that the emotion is a spur to action on behalf of the other. There is something to do.


In addition to these issue of the relations in which emotions may exist, there is also the axis, if you like, of responsibility. In shame and guilt, the self is responsible. In blame and anger, responsibility for wrong is placed on the other. Compassion, as noted above, places responsibility on the agent - more so than pity. In fact, I tend to see pity in a different way from that suggested by Chappell, which I'll come to in a bit.


Hatred and love may move to action, but the responsibility to act comes with anger and vengeance, with compassion or desire.


Of course, emotions can be positive or negative; they can draw us closer to others or push us away. Curiosity is a powerful draw. As are greed and lust. Grief can lead to a search for solitude, but not always.


There are emotions that dampen us down, like depression, or fire us up, like hatred, vengeance and lust.


Pride is interesting - it can be like shame and guilt in this respect - there is pride in (or guilt about) a particular action or attribute which can become generalised into a sense that the whole self is brilliant (or awful).


There is also often a hierarchical relationship suggested by emotions. One feels superior in contempt - and pity in my interpretation of it, which differentiates it distinctly from sympathy and compassion. One feels inferior in resentment and also, though in a particular way, when one respects another person. With respect, one isn't pushed down by honouring the other, while one might feel diminished with resentment. Respect also shares with pride the way in which one might respect someone for an individual trait and generalise that so that one respects the whole person. Gratitude can act on various levels - one can feel grateful and feel equal, but one can also, unpleasantly, sometimes feel diminished by gratitude (it bleeds into a kind of resentment). On the other hand, one can enhance the stature of the person who has done the favour, and thus feel a kind of respect for them.


And then there's the way in which emotions can bestow sins or blessings on the world. When one loves another, one bestows upon them certain qualities. One 'sees' them as beautiful. When angry, one sees only the faults and often enhances them.


It's also noticeable that while there may be central features about distinct emotions, they can blur into one another, intermingle with other feelings, conflict or correspond. They can't be analysed, I think, like mathematical units. Categorising them is art more than science.


With wonder, though, I am inclined to feel that there is something of a real distinction. It seems utterly unrelated to the self. It does not urge action. Nothing is responsible. And while it enlivens, very much so, it does that in a unique way. It is brief, yet can have lasting consequences, deep lasting consequences. Compare that with love or hatred - they are only important, really, if prolonged, if maintained and fed over time. Wonder, in contrast, can be immediately transformative - in a way that, I think, no other emotion can be over such a short period. It does not, I think, involve bestowing a subjective colour or value on the object. Indeed, it's like one sees the object and only the object. A little akin to the stereoscope experience I outlined in meditation.


In addition, following on from another thinker - I attended a talk some years ago but can't remember the guy's name - there is other similar and yet separate emotion: awe. Whereas wonder seems to me to be connected with... hmmm. Not calm... not of necessity beautiful...not exactly familiar... but certainly not frightening... what's the right concept? Wonder encapsulates joy, maybe, in a way that can be serene or thrilling. Awe, on the other hand, can be terrifying. It is, to make it tautological, awe-inspiring. One is face to face with the transcendent, the sublime.


I get the feeling from this quote:


Admittedly, we know no greater game of chance than the game of life and death. Here every decision is faced with supreme suspense, concern, fear. In our eyes, it is all or nothing. On the other hand Nature, ever honest and open, does not lie. It speaks very differently on the theme, much as Krishna does in the Bhagavad Gita. Its testimony is that nothing at all rides on the life or death of the individual. - Arthur Schopenhauer, World as Will and Idea


Maybe wonder is a losing self in the world and awe is a realisation of one's insignificance in the world. Not in a bad way, not in a humiliating way, but like in a drenching with freezing water way. One is the world saying, 'Child!', the other is the world just doing its own stuff and utterly dispassionate and glorious. It's not the same kind of hierarchical experience as in respect - the object is so big that it's out of the subject's reckoning. In wonder, hierarchy is simply irrelevant somehow - it's not a case of equality, but the object does not in any way diminish the subject either, but nor is it placed in some sense 'above'.


Wonder might indeed lead to love and pity (compassion) and creativity; awe leads to creativity too, as this article on Aeon suggests, but also to a kind of erasure of self too radically to lead to love. The benefit it brings, I think, is more like an understanding of how limited is one's perspective, how shallow. Wonder gives, but awe takes away. Wonder subsumes self in other, awe strips self for other. I think it's awe that real tragedy inspires; wonder is more like Shakespeare's Late Plays.


Both, though, reinforce this awareness of the permeability between consciousness and world: they force us to recognise that experience is this in-between state, where self shifts, disappears, watches on, is transformed. They remind us that neither mythos nor logos will ever, ever, explain everything. They are moments of living art, when the self is shaped by the finest artist.


We cannot make these moments happen. But we can set ourselves up for them. By noticing what goes on, by attending. Engaged exploration is their little cousin; art and theatre may be their adopted offspring; but the natural world is their glorious child.


And, what is wonderful to me is that after writing this post, I listened to the final lecture in Robert Solomon's Great Courses series. In that lecture he talks of spirituality, which he distinguishes from religion. Indeed, his focus is on what he calls the sublime but which seems to me to be a combination of or encompasses both of my concepts of awe and wonder. He talks of sensing one's insignificance in the great wonder of the world, the universe and being inspired by that feeling of mystery and magnificence. This is a pure passion, an outward looking passion, in which the ego is enraptured not by itself but by all there is and how gloriously vast, incomprehensible and incredible it is. Consciousness has this magic of allowing us, on occasion, not to be attempting to turn everything into something that we can understand, make sense of, order, chop into bite-size portions, but instead to expand into a universe of pure experiential accepting and awesome wonder.


All.


That, surely, is enough for anyone.


NOTES


*I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. - Quoted from page 82 of The Sovereignty of Good, by Iris Murdoch. Routledge Classics, 2001


As further moment of serendipity - there's an article on the sublime here on Aeon.


And regarding the painting, until in a previous attempt, here I rose to the mane occasion.


And a third serendipity! I started to read Martha Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, which, by the way, is fantastic - she gives a talk on it here. She makes precisely the same points about wonder and awe as I do here. She says that wonder responds to 'the pull of the object'. The subject is profoundly aware of and attending to the value of the object, while almost unaware of the role of that value in her own life. For Nussbaum, emotions are cognitive evaluations of the world related to the eudaimonistic scheme of the subject. So, they are value judgements localised in the subject and related to her view of what is important to her in living a good life (in the Aristotelian conception). She sees awe as an acknowledgement of the 'surpassing value of the object, not just from the person’s point of view, but quite generally.' Nussbaum, M., Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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