The Sublime

First explored in an anonymous ancient Greek Text, the idea of the sublime became especially popular in the 18 th Century. The Sublime contains ideas of the awe inspired by vast phenomena (especially natural pheomena) and the strong emotions associated with religion. The idea influenced several art forms, especially literature (where it influenced both the imagery of landscape painting and of canavasses depicting supernatural subjects, such as ghosts).


The term especially refers to a grandeur with which nothing else can be compared or associated and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation. This greatness is often used when referring to nature and its vastness.


The first study of the importance of the sublime was the treatise of Longinus: On the Sublime. Longinus regarded the sublime as an adjective that describes great, elevated, or high thought or language. Therefore, the sublime inspires awe and veneration.


Prior to the eighteenth century, sublime was a term of rhetoric predominantly relevant to literary criticism. Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant both investigated the subject (Burke’s Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756, and Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, 1764). Both philosophers distinguished the sublime from the beautiful. Later writers, ignoring the distinction, tend to conflate the sublime with the beautiful.


British philosophy


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 Cooper’s and Dennis’ concepts of the sublime in his, The Spectator (1711), and later the Pleasures of the Imagination. All three Englishmen had, within the length 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.


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.” 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”, 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.


Joseph Addison embarked on the Grand Tour in 1699, and commented in the Spectator (1712) that, “The Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” 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; for example, “unbounded,” “unlimited,” as well as “spacious,” “greatness,” and on occasion terms denoting excess.





Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime – A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756).

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. 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.


German philosophy


Immanuel Kant


In his Critique of Judgment (1790),Kant investigates the sublime, stating “We call that sublime which is absolutely great” . He distinguishes between the “remarkable differences” of the Beautiful and the Sublime, noting that beauty “is connected with the form of the object,” having “boundaries,” while the sublime “is to be found in a formless object,” represented by a “boundlessness”. Kant then further divides the sublime into the mathematical and the dynamic, where in the mathematical “aesthetical comprehension” is not a consciousness of a mere greater unit, but the notion of absolute greatness not inhibited with ideas of limitations .

The dynamically sublime is “nature considered in an aesthetic judgment as might that has no dominion over us,” and an object can create a fearfulness “without being afraid of it”. He considers both the beautiful and the sublime as “indefinite” concepts, but where beauty relates to the “Understanding,” sublime is a concept belonging to “Reason,” and “shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense”.

For Kant, one’s inability to grasp the enormity of a sublime event such as an earthquake demonstrates inadequacy of one’s sensibility and imagination.



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.


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).




Romantic period


Victor Hugo


Victor Hugo touched on aspects of the sublime in both nature and humanity in many of his poems. 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 Miserables.


The experience of the sublime involves a self-forgetfulness where personal fear is replaced by a sense of well-being and security when confronted with an object exhibiting superior might, and is similar to the experience of the tragic.



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