Admiration, emulation, and the description of character

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The emotion of admiration has recently captured the interest of philosophers and empirical psychologists, with attention especially focused on its implications for the moral domain. Central to these discussions is the claim that admiration of virtuous exemplars leads us to emulate them. Beginning from this familiar claim, in this paper I take a different approach by focusing on the expressive dimension of this affective experience. George Eliot’s best-known novel, Middlemarch, serves as a reference point for my discussion. Bracketing thicker forms of emulation, a more basic form of mimesis that the admiration of character naturally elicits is the attempt to represent this character to others. This descriptive project is attended by challenges of different kinds that tell us something important about its nature and parameters. The description of character is here motivated by a desire to convert others to one’s reasons. It is not so much a science as an art, one that demotes the standard virtues to the status of merely one, often not maximally expressive, tool among others. How does narrative mimesis become real-life emulation? How do encounters with outstanding character change us? One way of answering this question involves highlighting the role of such encounters in giving focus and content to desire, helping develop what Adam Smith called the standard of “absolute perfection.” Yet sensitivity to beauty of character is not merely a means to the formation of good character but one of its very constituents.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-69
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Aesthetic Education
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jul 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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