"The Sublime"

"The Sublime" is a central concept in Aesthetics--a branch of philosophy that describes and analyzes the nature of beauty (or its counterpart, ugliness). For an audience, beauty is that which gives us pleasure (or, ugliness > pain).

Besides philosophy, another place you may hear the word "aesthetics" these days is on cable TV "design shows" like Designed to Sell, Curb Appeal, or
Spice Up My Kitchen
. An interior designer might say, "This room is comfortable, but we need to improve its aesthetics"--that is, "make it look better," more beautiful or pleasing.

 Another recent use is "Aestheticians" (facial & body enhancements--see website)


"The Sublime" isn't a feature in home decor or facials but appears in discussions of beauty, as in "The Sublime and the Beautiful."

The Sublime is a phenomenon whose beauty is mixed or edged with danger or a threat--usually on a grand or elevated scale.

For an audience, experiencing the sublime involves a powerful mixture of pleasure and pain.


The term "sublime" is usually restricted to academic language, but the concept appears in familiar speech:

Examples: "Awesome" . . . "larger than life" . . . "Wow!" . . . "I was blown away" . . .

Another evidence of the sublime is  when people can't find words for what they're feeling.

"I'm speechless."

"I'm overwhelmed!"

"I don't have words . . . . This is too big--words fail me."

The sublime transcends  or overwhelms human perception or expression.

In all these examples, the audience has a generally positive reaction of pleasure, but the aesthetic power is increased or destabilized: something threatens their comfort zone or exceeds the familiar.

Other examples?

"Bodacious"; "impressive"; "over the top"

"The Sublime" has a long philosophical lineage that reaches its peak during the early Romantic era in western Europe and the New World, including the
early USA.

From Classical Greece, Longinus is the name traditionally given to the author of a treatise on the sublime. He appears to have been a Greek teacher of
rhetoric or literary critic who lived sometime in the first to third centuries CE.

Longinus's main contribution is the idea of the sublime as something great, noble, elevated.

Longinus on the Sublime, trans. W. Rhys Roberts (Cambridge University Press, 1899); from Peithos’ Web, 10 June 2008.


 . . .

VI. The best means would be, friend, to gain, first of all, clear knowledge and appreciation of the true sublime. . . .

VIII. . . . There are . . . five principal sources of elevated language. . . .

First and most important is the power of forming great conceptions . . . . [i. e., imagining great visions]

Secondly, there is vehement and inspired passion.                             [vehement = deeply felt]

These two components of the sublime are for the most part innate. Those which remain are partly the product of art.

The due formation of figures deals with two sorts of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression.

Next there is noble diction, which in turn comprises choice of words, and use of metaphors, and elaboration of language.

The fifth cause of elevation--one which is the fitting conclusion of all that have preceded it--is dignified and elevated composition. . . .

IX. Now the first of the conditions mentioned, namely elevation of mind, holds the foremost rank among them all. We must, therefore, in this case also,
although we have to do rather with an endowment than with an acquirement, nurture our souls (as far as that is possible) to thoughts sublime, and make
them always pregnant, so to say, with noble inspiration.

2. In what way, you may ask, is this to be done? Elsewhere I have written as follows: 'Sublimity is the echo of a great soul.' . . .

XV, 7. Magnificent are the images which Sophocles has conceived of the death of Oedipus, who makes ready his burial amid the portents
of the sky. [Oedipus at Colonus]


Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful (1757; rev. 1759)

“On the Sublime”

WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasure which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy. . . .  But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain . . . . When danger
or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience. . . .

“On Beauty”

I call beauty a social quality; for where women and men, and not only they, but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them, (and there are many that do so,) they inspire us with sentiments of tenderness and affection towards their persons; we like to have them near us, and we enter willingly into a kind of relation with them, unless we should have strong reasons to the contrary.

“The Sublime and the Beautiful Compared”

ON closing this general view of beauty, it naturally occurs, that we should compare it with the sublime; and in this comparison there appears a
remarkable contrast. For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished;
the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when
it deviates it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and
delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the
other on pleasure.



Thomas Jefferson, “The Natural Bridge,” from Notes on Virginia (1784-85). The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson,
eds. Adrienne Koch and William Peden (NY: Modern Library, 1944).

The Natural Bridge, the most sublime of Nature's works, . . . is on the ascent of a great hill, which seems to have been cloven through its length by some great convulsion.  The fissure, just at the bridge, is by some admeasurements, 270 feet deep, by others only 205.  It is about 45 feet wide at the bottom and 90 feet at the top; this of course determines the length of the bridge, and its height from the water. Its breadth in the middle is about sixty feet, but more at the ends, and the thickness of the mass, at the summit of the arch, about forty feet. A part of this thickness is constituted by a coat of earth, which gives growth to many large trees. The residue, with the hill on both sides, is one solid rock of lime-stone. The arch approaches the Semi-elliptical form; but the larger axis of the ellipsis, which would be the cord of the arch, is many times longer than the transverse.

Though the sides of the bridge are provided in some parts with a parapet of fixed rocks, yet few men have resolution to walk to them and look over into the abyss.  You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it.  Looking down from this height about a minute gave me a violent headache. If the view from the top be painful and intolerable, that from below is delightful in an equal extreme. It is impossible for the emotions, arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing, as it were, up to heaven. The rapture of the Spectator is really indescribable! 

The fissure continuing narrow, deep, and straight, for a considerable distance above and below the bridge, opens a short but very pleasing view of the North mountain on one side and the Blue Ridge on the other, at the distance each of them of about five miles. The bridge is in the county of Rockbridge, to which it has given name, and affords a public and commodious passage over a valley which cannot be crossed elsewhere for a considerable distance. The stream passing under it is called Cedar creek. It is a water of James' river, and sufficient in the driest seasons to turn a grist-mill, thought its fountain is not more than two miles above.

Another phrase in which "the Sublime" survives is comparisons of "the ridiculous and the sublime."

In this form, from a remark made by Napoleon to the Polish ambassador De Pradt (D. G. De Pradt Histoire de l'Ambassade(1815) 215), following the retreat from Moscow in 1812: Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas, there is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The idea, however, was not original to Napoleon:

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1795: The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime, makes the ridiculous; and one step above the ridiculous, makes the sublime again.