The sublime 

In the history of philosophy there’s a long tradition about the concept of sublime. An inspired artistic experience without rational rules it’s how Plato tries to frame it in the Phaedrus, dated around 370 BC. In the first century DC in the essay “About the sublime” by an unknown author there’s an explicit distinction between the beautiful, founded on formal perfection and the sublime, which finds its origin in powerful feelings and belongs entirely to the emotional domain. This essay was rediscovered in 1554, translated in french by Boileau in 1674 and then brought to the “Spectator” pages by Addison between 1711 and 1712. He misunderstood the original meaning of sublime, intended just as the passion of the content and the noble and vigorous character of inspiration. Nevertheless, thanks to him the distinction between beautiful and sublime was highlighted and gained a primary attention in the philosophical community. Edmund Burke in his 1759 “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” opposes the sublime to the beautiful as the first is caused by horror and fear, sublime is what can compels and destroys us and it’s connected to the idea of death. The observer is however far from the phenomenon and thus can feel this peculiar “delightful horror”. The topic had an ample diffusion in Germany too thanks to Mendelssohn and was analyzed by Kant first in the 1764 “Observations on the feeling of the beautiful and sublime”  and after in the “Critique of Judgment”. Kant makes a distinction between mathematical and dynamic sublime. The first is the magnitude of nature such as the immense mountain, oceans and galaxies, the second considers the natural forces in action like a storm, an hurricane, a volcano. The revolution operated by the german philophers is that the sublime is not a characteristic of the object but can be found in the observer, yes Kant did it again: the copernican revolution of the sublime, he grabbed the sublime and brought it in front of the tribunal of reason. The debate continued trough the romanticism with Schelling, Hegel and Schopenhauer but was gradually abandoned to the point that now it’s not even considered a separated category and doesn’t have any attention.

What happens when we’re in front of something immensely vast? A huge mountain with snowy peaks, the ocean, the earth seen from an airplane. We feel dwarfed, we know we can only imagine the whole thing because it’s out of our sight, we see only one side of the mountain, we see the water only until the horizon and we can see the surface, not what’s under it. We may experience a peculiar sensation of void in the abdomen and a bit of confusion, we stop, observe and get  goosebumps, there’s an amount of bewilderment and a negative emotional response while we struggle to embrace the whole thing, after the initial wow effect we fail in elevating our senses to the point of sense it all and we have to switch to imagination and reasoning. We know that as intelligent being we created instruments like satellites and spaceships and submarines that can observe these mastodontic natural creations and we also know that for how big they are  there’s something much bigger and we feel a slight pleasure in knowing that our rationality can elevate to get a hold of this idea. I think the sublime here is the contrast between the disappointment for our tiny dimension and for our limited senses and the pleasure to see the big dwarfed by the bigger and our ability to grasp this concept. One peculiarity about the sublime is that it can be perceived only by creatures of a certain intelligence because individuals with low iq or animals may only feel fear or indifference and this is especially true for the dynamic sublime. The dynamic sublime can be felt in front of powerful natural events like a storm on the sea with thunders, bolts and waves, the eruption of a volcano so powerful to melt the rocks earth is made of, a huge fire without control. These forces must be seen from a privileged safe position. If we’re life threatened we  don’t feel the sublime but only terror. If we’re safe inside a building and we see a storm far away we feel a discomfort because we know we could easily be blown away but, as before with magnitude, we know the storm is not the biggest force in the universe and that we are able to build structures capable of withstanding its fury, it can even inspire a sense of awe. So again there’s a contrast between the fear of a formless and terrifying entity and the excitement of our reasoning. We are extremely small from a physical point of view but our reason is extremely capable and aspires to infinity. The difference between the beauty and the sublime lays in the contrasted feelings of the latter versus the positive emotional response to perception of the first and in that the sublime can be formless while the beauty has a shape.

What is the most sublime thing you have ever seen? Leave a comment below! Among the things I remember one stands out from the others. I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean from the US to Europe and I looked outside the airplane window and saw the red light of the last sun far behind me and the starry sky far ahead of me where it was already night, in between the various shades of light and darkness and the immense ocean there as a reflecting carpet…truly sublime…


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