Finding Awe Amid Everyday Splendor: A new field of psychology has begun to quantify an age-old intuition: Feeling awe is good for us. (HENRY WISMAYER, JANUARY 5, 2023, Noema)

“Yeah, that’s very nice,” he replied in a slow, portentous way, which I took to imply that I should stop commentating. And then we stood in silence for a long time.

“I’m 60, so I need to pee,” Keltner said suddenly, striding off down the slope. “It’s the great antagonist of awe in later life!”

With that, the moment passed. […]

The word “awe” derives from the Old Norse “agi” and the Old English “ege,” both of which denoted feelings of fear or terror. Its modern English derivative evolved to encapsulate a more nuanced emotion, one in which that same medieval dread mingles with a sense of pleasing, almost euphoric, overwhelm.

During the Scientific Revolution in Europe, awe fell into vogue as an explosion of discovery prompted fascination in all that remained inexplicable and out of reach. Europe’s wealthy developed a fashion for wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, collections of esoteric miscellanea from around the world. These displays, which often included animal specimens, arcane artworks and scientific instruments, were partly an ostentation: a show of their owner’s discernment. But they were also a cognitive tool. Awe, and its milder cousin “wonder,” had come to be seen as an aesthetic prompt for the inquiring mind.

In 1757, the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke revolutionized the intellectual contemplation of awe with his celebrated “Philosophical Enquiry,” in which he described the distinction between beauty and “the sublime,” a de facto synonym for awe. Burke argued that the sublime was “our strongest passion.” It could often stem from sensory impression, but it differed from beauty in that it also required a note of astonishment, the hint of threat. “Terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close,” he wrote.

Soon, this blossoming interest in wonder would give rise to great literary movements. In Europe, the Romantic poets found lofty words to echo the rarefied feelings of the awestruck soul. America’s transcendentalists struck out into the woods and mountains of New England to seek sanctity in the everyday.

Such thinking was at once a retort to the burgeoning fields of empirical science and a source of inspiration for some of its most famous exponents. In his history of the Romantic scientists, “The Age of Wonder,” the biographer Richard Holmes quotes an early poem by William Wordsworth, in which he describes a statue of Isaac Newton in terms that transform him from scholarly philomath to dauntless navigator, “Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”

William Herschel’s maps of the cosmos; Alexander von Humboldt’s concept of the web of life; Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: Generations were spurred to genius by a desire to unlock the mysteries of the interconnected universe. Decades later, Albert Einstein would write: “He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: His eyes are closed.” For trailblazers and heretics, awe was a driving force, the handmaiden of revelation.

As these notions of the virtue of explorations both physical and intellectual percolated through to the masses, this era yielded what we might recognize today as the modern pursuit of awe. The transition away from agricultural work and intermittent peace in Europe would eventually give rise to the weekend, to holidays, to leisure. “When previously wildernesses had been shunned,” Robert Macfarlane wrote in “Mountains of the Mind,” “now they were sought out as arenas of intense experience.”

Still, awe itself remained a scientific enigma. In his 1605 treatise “The Advancement of Learning,” the father of empiricism, Francis Bacon, described wonder as “broken knowledge” — a facet of the human condition, in other words, that defied his scientific method. For all the words expended on its cause and effect, awe was still the preserve of the metaphysical, its vagaries explained away as the handiwork of God, beyond human comprehension. Awe and science existed in tension, even as the one fed the other. It was a lacuna in our understanding of the human condition that future wonderers would seek to fill.