On some occasions, our feelings towards something suggest a depth, a profoundness that is hard to describe, and possibly even harder to explain. (Perhaps explanations have to come to an end at points like this.) Such occasions can be of various sorts. Sometimes we are touched by the beauty of a piece of music, a work of art, or a bed of flowers; or the sublime spectacle of natural phenomena moves us: a grand landscape at sunrise, a violently raging thunderstorm, the boundless calm surface of a sleeping ocean.

Yet perhaps the deepest feelings in us are inspired by people and their qualities of character: their consistently fair and just behavior, their strength in enduring adverse conditions, their calmness in the midst of turmoil, courage in the face of risk and danger, and generosity even in uncertain times. And while feelings originating thus seem to have a certain quality in common with the more aesthetic experiences coming from encounters with physical beauty or natural spectacle, there is an extra dimension that can only spring from the specifically human excellence we find exemplified in them, and our response to it. In a word, what we feel towards the excellence of character in people we encounter is constituted in part by admiration.

Admiration itself is not a feeling — it's an attitude. It's not something that merely happens to you, it's something that you choose to exhibit. And in order to really be admiration, it must be expressed towards others; it's not enough that you privately experience it. Admiration is an activity, a chosen course of action. And, not surprisingly, I strongly recommend that you very carefully consider by which criteria you single out someone as worthy of your admiration. Whom you admire, and for what reasons, tells as much about yourself and your own values as it signals something to the admired person.

You can only admire what you value. (You may not be able yourself to do what you admire in others; but you must be aware of it, and you have to be convinced that it is of value. Otherwise whatever you feel isn't based on admiration.) So if you admire someone's courage, that presupposes that you think of courage as something worth having. If you feel great respect for someone who can remain composed and be fair even under pressure, that shows that you see value in that ability. But people consider a diversity of things as worth having, don't they? What about money? Would you think of someone as admirable because of their wealth? Be it that it came from lucky accident, heritage, or that person's own ability to amass it: we'd not take this as something admirable. For one thing, this should perhaps have us thinking about what the worth of wealth really is; and there is another aspect: we can admire only what a person has achieved herself — not something that happened to them by lucky accident, or was gained by gift or heritage. Really praiseworthy is only what is of stable value, what cannot be given or taken away by circumstances, doesn't depend on fortunate events: an excellence of character, consistent decent behavior, clear and honest thinking and appropriate feeling towards others and yourself.

On a side note: this means also that there is no point in hoping (or praying, if you are with some religious faith) for a good character (something that can be admired) — you have to achieve it yourself, and whether you do that doesn't depend on anything else but you. (If it did, again it wouldn't be something we could admire.) If there is anything that can produce this, make us admirable ourselves, then it is human spirit and the rational capacity in us — nothing else. Nothing from the outside will make one admirable; nothing should be admired that didn't come from within. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.