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Sublime (philosophy)

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Eighteenth century...British philosophy

Grosser Mythen, Swiss Alps. British writers, taking the Grand Tour in the 17th and 18th
centuries, first used the sublime to describe objects of nature.
The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from
beauty was first brought into prominence in the eighteenth century in the writings of Anthony
Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, and John Dennis, in expressing an appreciation of
the fearful and irregular forms of external nature, and Joseph Addison's synthesis of concepts
of the sublime in his The Spectator, and later the Pleasures of the Imagination. All three
Englishmen had, within the span of several years, made the journey across the Alps and
commented in their writings of the horrors and harmony of the experience, expressing a
contrast of aesthetic qualities.[1]
John Dennis was the first to publish his comments in a journal letter published as
Miscellanies in 1693, giving an account of crossing the Alps where, contrary to his prior
feelings for the beauty of nature as a "delight that is consistent with reason", the experience of
the journey was at once a pleasure to the eye as music is to the ear, but "mingled with
Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair".[2] Shaftesbury had made the journey two years
prior to Dennis but did not publish his comments until 1709 in the Moralists. His comments
on the experience also reflected pleasure and repulsion, citing a "wasted mountain" that
showed itself to the world as a "noble ruin" (Part III, Sec. 1, 390-91), but his concept of the
sublime in relation to beauty was one of degree rather than the sharp contradistinction that
Dennis developed into a new form of literary criticism. Shaftesbury's writings reflect more of
a regard for the awe of the infinity of space ("Space astonishes" referring to the Alps), where
the sublime was not an aesthetic quality in opposition to beauty, but a quality of a grander and
higher importance than beauty. In referring to the Earth as a "Mansion-Globe" and "ManContainer" Shaftsbury writes "How narrow then must it appear compar'd with the capacious
System of its own Sun...tho animated with a sublime Celestial Spirit...." (Part III, sec. 1, 373).

Joseph Addison embarked on the Grand Tour in 1699 and commented in Remarks on Several
Parts of Italy etc. that "The Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror".[4] The
significance of Addison's concept of the sublime is that the three pleasures of the imagination
that he identified; greatness, uncommonness, and beauty, "arise from visible objects" (sight
rather than rhetoric). It is also notable that in writing on the "Sublime in external Nature", he
does not use the term "sublime", but uses terms that would be considered as absolutive
superlatives, e.g. "unbounded", "unlimited", as well as "spacious", "greatness", and on
occasion terms denoting excess[2]

Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke's concept of the sublime was developed in A Philosophical Inquiry into the
Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756).[2] Burke was the first philosopher to
argue that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. The dichotomy is not as
simple as Dennis' opposition, but antithetical to the same degree as light and darkness.
Beauty may be accentuated by light, but either intense light or darkness (the absence of light)
is sublime to the degree that it can obliterate the sight of an object. The imagination is moved
to awe and instilled with a degree of horror by what is "dark, uncertain, and confused."[5]
While the relationship of the sublime and the beautiful is one of mutual exclusiveness, either
one can produce pleasure. The sublime may inspire horror, but one receives pleasure in
knowing that the perception is a fiction.[6]
Burke's concept of the sublime was an antithetical contrast to the classical notion of the
aesthetic quality of beauty as the pleasurable experience described by Plato in several of his
dialogues (Philebus, Ion, Hippias Major, and Symposium) and suggested ugliness as an
aesthetic quality in its capacity to instill feelings of intense emotion, ultimately creating a
pleasurable experience.[7] Prior to Burke, the classical notion of the ugly, most notably related
in the writings of Augustine of Hippo, had conceived it as lacking form and therefore as nonexistent. Beauty was, for St. Augustine, the consequence of the benevolence and goodness of
God's creation, and as a category had no opposite. The ugly, lacking any attributive value,
was a formlessness in its absence of beauty.[8] For Aristotle the function of art forms was to
create pleasure, and had first pondered the problem of an object of art representing the ugly
as producing "pain". Aristotle's detailed analysis of this problem involves his study of tragic
literature and its paradoxical nature to be shocking as well as having poetic value.[9]
Burke's treatise is also notable for focusing on the physiological effects for the sublime, in
particular the dual emotional quality of fear and attraction noted by other writers. Burke
described the sensation attributed to the sublime as a 'negative pain' which he called delight,
and which is distinct from positive pleasure. Delight is taken to result from the removal of
pain (caused by confronting the sublime object) and is supposedly more intense than positive
pleasure. Though Burke's explanations for the physiological effects of the sublime experience
(such as tension resulting from eye strain) were not taken seriously by later writers, his
empiricist method of reporting from his own psychological experience was more influential,
especially in contrast to Kant's analysis. Burke is also distinguished from Kant in his
emphasis on the subject's realization of his physical limitations rather than any supposed
sense of moral or spiritual transcendence.


In order to clarify the concept of the feeling of the sublime, Schopenhauer listed examples of
its transition from the beautiful to the most sublime. This can be found in the first volume of
his The World as Will and Representation, 39.
For him, the feeling of the beautiful is pleasure in simply seeing a benign object. The feeling
of the sublime, however, is pleasure in seeing an overpowering or vast malignant object of
great magnitude, one that could destroy the observer.

Feeling of Beauty - Light is reflected off a flower. (Pleasure from a mere perception of
an object that cannot hurt observer).

Weakest Feeling of Sublime - Light reflected off stones. (Pleasure from beholding
objects that pose no threat, yet themselves are devoid of life).

Weaker Feeling of Sublime - Endless desert with no movement. (Pleasure from seeing
objects that could not sustain the life of the observer).

Sublime - Turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from perceiving objects that threaten to hurt or
destroy observer).

Full Feeling of Sublime - Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding

very violent, destructive objects).

Fullest Feeling of Sublime - Immensity of Universe's extent or duration. (Pleasure

from knowledge of observer's nothingness and oneness with Nature).

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Hegel considered the sublime to be a marker of cultural difference and a characteristic feature
of oriental art. His teleological view of history meant that he considered 'oriental' cultures as
less 'developed', more autocratic in terms of their political structures and more fearful of
divine law. According to his reasoning, this meant that oriental artists were more inclined
towards the aesthetic and the sublime: they could engage god only through 'sublated' means.
He believed that the excess of intricate detail that is characteristic of Chinese art, or the
dazzling metrical patterns characteristic of Islamic art, were typical examples of the sublime
and argued that the disembodiment and formlessness of these art forms inspired the viewer
with an overwhelming aesthetic sense of awe. [13]

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817, Kunsthalle Hamburg.
Romantic artists during the 19th century used the epic of nature as an expression of the
Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo touched on aspects of the sublime in both nature and man in many of his poems
(Poems of Victor Hugo). In his preface to Cromwell (play) he defined the sublime as a
combination of the grotesque and beautiful as opposed to the classical ideal of perfection. He
also dealt with how authors and artists could create the sublime through art. Both the
Hunchback and Notredame Cathedral can be considered embodiments of the sublime as can
many elements of Les Misrables. }{{citation needed|date=January 2007}
Romanticism is a complex artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in the
second half of the 18th century in Western Europe, and gained strength during the Industrial
Revolution.[1] It was partly a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age
of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature,[2] and was
embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature.
The movement stressed strong emotion as a source of aesthetic experience, placing new
emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and aweespecially that which is
experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities, both
new aesthetic categories. It elevated folk art and custom to something noble, and argued for a
"natural" epistemology of human activities as conditioned by nature in the form of language,
custom and usage.
Romanticism reached beyond the rational and Classicist ideal models to elevate medievalism
and elements of art and narrative perceived to be authentically medieval, in an attempt to
escape the confines of population growth, urban sprawl, and industrialism, and it also
attempted to embrace the exotic, unfamiliar, and distant in modes more authentic than
chinoiserie, harnessing the power of the imagination to envision and to escape.

Our modern sense of a romantic character may be expressed in Byronic ideals of a gifted,
perhaps misunderstood loner, creatively following the dictates of his inspiration rather than
the mores of contemporary society.
Although the movement is rooted in German Pietism, which prized intuition and emotion
over Enlightenment rationalism, the ideologies and events of the French Revolution laid the
background from which Romanticism emerged. The confines of the Industrial Revolution
also had their influence on Romanticism, which was in part an escape from modern realities;
indeed, in the second half of the 19th century, "Realism" was offered as a polarized opposite
to Romanticism. Romanticism elevated the achievements of what it perceived as heroic
individualists and artists, which would elevate society. It also legitimized the individual
imagination as a critical authority which permitted freedom from classical notions of form in
art. There was a strong recourse to historical and natural inevitability, a zeitgeist, in the
representation of its ideas.