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Aesthetics: The Branch of Knowledge Dealing
with the Aesthetic Diversity of Life and Art


The Sublime in the History of Aesthetics

The sublime first came to man's attention not as an aesthetic category but as a figure of speech. In the 1st century A. D., Caecilius, a pupil of the famous Greek rhetorician Apollodorus born in the Sicilian town of Kalakty, wrote a treatise On the Sublime where he discussed the laws of the sublime and the oratorial devices and classified figures of speech and tropes. The stylistic principles of oratory advanced by Caecilius could be easily extended to literature, which was strongly affected by rhetoric. Caecilius' treatise has not come down to us, but we can form an idea as to its contents from a few extant fragments and criticism to be found in works by other authors. There exists an anonymous treatise On the Sublime which was written as a reply to Caecilius' effort but far outgrew its immediate purpose. Most probably, it was also produced in the 1st century A. D. For a long time, it was ascribed to Longinus, but recent research has proved this wrong, and the author came to be known as Pseudo-Longinus.
The latter adhered to Caecilius' concept of the sublime as a feature of style1 but interpreted it more broadly, i.e., as an aesthetic category. He considered the best works of literature to be the domain of the sublime.
Naming the major spiritual sources of the sublime (original ideas, extraordinary passions, the beauty of speech combined with greatness of thought), Pseudo-Longinus said that the sublime was far removed from the bustle of everyday life, petty vanity, the desire to dominate: "Such are Riches, Dignities, Honour, Power, and those other specious, and as it were, theatrical Things, which, notwithstanding all their outward Pomp, will never be esteemed real and substantial Goods in the Judgement of a wise Man. On the contrary, no greater Good can accrue to us, than to be able to despise them: and therefore we lets admire those, who actually possess them, than those who, when they have it in their Power to do so, reject them with a noble Disdain and Greatness of Soul."2
Pseudo-Longinus saw the sublime as a powerful natural force reflecting the greatness of god which had a profound philosophical meaning and could help solve the problem of the meaning of life."Nature did not regard Man as a Creature of a low and mean Condition; but sent him into Life and this World, as into a vast Amphitheatre, to be a Spectator of all that pass'd; the enter'd him, I say, in those Lists, as a valiant Candidate, who was to breathe nothing but Glory; and therefore inspir'd his Soul with a strong and invincible Passion for every Thing that was most great and divine: Hence is it, that the whole World is not capacious enough for the extensive Contemplations of the Human Mind, and that our Thoughts soar above the Heavens and penetrate even beyond those Boundaries which encircle and terminate the Universe."3 According to Pseudo-Longinus, the sublime renders man the greatness of god, gives him immortality and leaves a strong and indelible imprint on his memory. People do not feel they are in the presence of the sublime when they see a brook no matter how clear and useful it may be, but are profoundly impressed by the sight of the Nile, Danube or Rhine, and particularly of the ocean. A volcanic eruption is also perceived as sublime.
In 1757, Edmund Burke, the English theorist, published A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which was the first work to draw a contrast between these two categories. In Burke's opinion, the ideas of the sublime and of the beautiful were so different that it was difficult and even impossible to blend them in a single emotion.
Kant propounded a subjectivist point of view on the sublime: it is a property not of any object or nature but of one's soul only. He thought that the sublime now attracted, now repelled, exciting not positive pleasure but amazement and reverence, which can be called negative pleasure. The sublime is man's pride which emerges when faith helps him to overcome fear. The sound aspect of Kant's theory is the idea that a sublime phenomenon is grand and incomprehensible, and that man cannot feel free when in contact with something which is sublime; hence the need to overcome fear, hence attraction and repulsion, amazement and negative delight.
The sublime and the beautiful were opposed by Friedrich Schiller, the German poet and art theorist, who said that as distinct from the beautiful, the sublime is a source of unpleasant sensations; as an instance, he gave a raving thunderstorm.
The history of aesthetics has also evolved a theory bringing together the beautiful and the sublime. French aestheticians of the 19th century maintained that the sublime was the crown of the beautiful (E. Souriau, Th. Gouffroy), or the beautiful "in itself", the infinite beauty which cannot be comprehended (Ch. Leveque).
Hegel saw in the sublime the stage in the evolution of the Absolute Spirit, or of world historical process, matched by romantic art, in which the spirit or content prevails over matter or form. The romantic period was most adequately represented by music and poetry, the most spiritual of all arts, which are almost totally divorced from material. It is for that reason that the element of the sublime is particularly strong in poetry and music.
Nikolai Chernyshevsky sought to find the material basis of the sublime and bring it down to earth. He believed that the sublime was more powerful and grand than other phenomena it was compared to. A gust of wind during a thunderstorm which is a hundred times stronger than usual winds or a love which rises above petty calculations and motives are both instances of the sublime. The sublime is revealed through a comparison with other phenomena. The definition of the sublime suggested by Chernyshevsky is a quantitative, not a qualitative one; besides, it is too broad and therefore not accurate enough. As he himself noted, one man may have a huge appetite as compared to others, but this does not make his personality sublime. And yet, Chernyshevsky's definition is valuable as the one which treats the sublime materialistically.
The German philosopher N. Hartmann approached the sublime from the point of view of perception. For him, it is the beautiful which satisfies man's craving for the grand and the magnificent. Anything immensely powerful frightens and subdues man. Perceiving the sublime, he resists its impact overcoming the feeling of his own insignificance.
To sum up. The history of aesthetics has produced two points of view on the relationship between the beautiful and the sublime: (1) the sublime is the crown of the beautiful, a special kind of the beautiful marked by greatness or force; (2) the beautiful and the sublime are opposites; perception of the latter produces an aesthetically negative reaction. However, both approaches are one-sided. To overcome this deficiency, it is necessary to define the sublime using the sound element of both theories.

The Nature of the Sublime

If the beautiful can be defined as a positive universal human value of the phenomena which have already been thoroughly understood and utilised by society, the sublime is the aesthetic property of objects which have positive value for society but also possess an enormous unexplored potential. Their unconquered power may at times become menacing. Full mastery of such phenomena is a thing of the future when the potential and the sources of man's strength will be developed more fully. The infinity and eternity of the world, the enormous inner power of nature and man, unlimited prospects for the exploration of nature and its humanisation-all this is a manifestation of the sublime as a category of aesthetics.
Perceiving sublime phenomena in nature and society, man experiences delight which may be mixed with an aesthetically negative emotion and even fear. Depending on the relative prominence of delight or fear, two types of the sublime can be singled out: that which enhances the power of man and that which reduces it. What is then the value of the mountains, oceans or cosmos if they have not yet been explored? Human activity involves these objects into social relations. They play the part of the natural environment, an inexhaustible treasurehouse of nature which will forever be a source of man's power and greatness. Even when destroying and bringing misery to people, natural forces are not devoid of potential positive value for the human race. As society advances and man gets nearer to mastering them, they lose their fearsome characteristics, and it becomes clear that despite their immensity they are really friendly towards man. As soon as a powerful and grand natural phenomenon becomes involved, even indirectly, into the system of social relations, it becomes sublime. When a phenomenon is fully understood and mastered, its aesthetic qualities undergo a change.
In the course of the social development, the realm of the beautiful is expanded through addition of sublime phenomena. And since the increase in the store of knowledge opens up fresh prospects for exploration and at the same time shows how insufficient the already accumulated knowledge is, transformation of the sublime into the beautiful enhances the range of sublime phenomena, paradoxical though this may seem.
The sublime is colossal, enormous, powerful and is beyond the potential of modern man. Facing and resisting those formidable forces, gradually bending them to his will, man becomes related with eternity acquiring immortality on this earth, which rests on action and creation.
The sublime in the life of society is represented by man's big technical projects, powerful social movements, or creative work which involves a great number of people and yields great results. The full significance of such phenomena can be revealed only in the course of life of several generations. In other words, the great scale and power of these products of man's creation make it possible to master them only as a result of a whole historical process.
The sublime is an objective aesthetic property of objects and phenomena which have considerable positive social significance affecting the life of nations or mankind as a whole. Owing to their colossal power and enormous scope, it is often impossible to get to understand them completely and promptly; therefore, in relation to them man is not free. The beautiful is the realm of man's freedom, and the sublime – the realm in which man does not feel free.

The Sublime in Art

The grand and the magnificent are best adapted to convey the sublime in art.
The Greeks considered Zeus the king of gods. In the temples dedicated to him and in his sculptural portraits this principle has found the most complete and striking expression. The Temple of Zeus in Olympia was destroyed by an earthquake. Centuries flew over its ruins, but the remains of the magnificent columns never fail to excite admiration even now. However, the secret of the temple's impact on man does not lie solely in its size. In antiquity, its interior was adorned by a colossal statue of enthroned Zeus. The height of the statue was such that if Zeus could have risen to his full height, his powerful head would have gone through the temple's roof. The correlation between the sizes of the statue and the temple was one of the reasons for the general impression the whole structure produced. It seemed to say: the man who has built this splendid temple is indeed great, but Zeus is incomparably more so: he needs only to stand up, and the building will tumble down. Awareness of having mastered certain forces of nature and dependence on others is clearly perceptible in the very idea of this ensemble which gave the impression of beauty and sublimity.
The beauty of Greek architecture is very humane. It has what Aristotle called measure: the buildings are neither too large nor too small and are calculated to put man at his ease. Parthenon, for instance, is grand enough to assert man's greatness but not so grand as to belittle him. The pyramids of Egypt are on the contrary truly grandiose. Asserting the greatness of the pharaoh, they overwhelmed the individual who, seen against the background of that colossal edifice, seemed a total nonentity in comparison with eternity, the idea of which was conveyed through the size of the pyramid. The functionality of the pyramids was negligible, which also emphasised the inhuman character of their grandeur.
The Middle Ages evolved a religious and mystical idea of the sublime identifying it with god. This doctrine found material expression in Gothic architecture. Soaring upwards, Gothic cathedrals personified the link between man's hopes and god. They convey a desire to attain the ideal, that almost unattainable perfection which nevertheless lies within man's reach if only he tries hard enough. Enormously tall, Gothic cathedrals have the narrow deep wells of naves lit with the mysteriously glimmering light coming through stained-glass windows. The subdued light, the aura of mystery and the rush heavenwards combined to produce the effect of unreality far removed from the humdrum existence.
A typical Renaissance image of the sublime is Michelangelo's David. The young man is portrayed in the last minutes before his fight with Goliath, before the final straining of every nerve and sinew. He is absolutely still. His muscles are relaxed under the youthfully soft skin. But behind this purely physiological state is a suggestion of man's potential power, which has yet to reveal itself.4 It is on the verge of bursting forth, the very image of the sublime-the beauty which is right here but does not yet quite obey man.
In King Lew, Shakespeare developed the theme of true and sham grandeur. King Lear had power, but its might was ephemeral; guided by whim alone, he was neither kind nor just but capricious and vain. His soul was blind: he mistook the meaningless hyperboles of his eldest daughters for love, while Cordelia's silent adoration he considered coldness and callousness. Betrayed by those who professed to love him so much, he finds himself lost in the wilderness. A storm is raging. Blinded by lightning, mad with grief, clad in tatters, deprived of the ephemeral grandeur of despotic power, the old man acquires a humane view of things and with it, true power. The persecuted king demonstrates the force of human spirit. He faces misfortune with dignity and, alongside with the understanding of genuine human values, gains something more than power over people – the ability to control his own passions, moral insight.
More recent art has given a striking portrayal of the sublime in Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Soft and muted in the beginning, the sound grows gradually stronger, reaches a crescendo and suddenly explodes. Then all is quiet again, but enormous energy is being accumulated whose sparks flash out, go out again, and all of a sudden a powerful wave bursts forth sweeping everything away as it advances. The symphony reflects the latent force of historical events which involve enormous numbers of people.
In contrast to Beethoven, Mozart's music is homely and comfortable, it radiates light and is warmed by tremulous human breath. His world is a harmoniously rounded whole. It resembles that crystal tinkling sphere which, as Greek natural philosophers believed, surrounded each planet. It is a thoroughly familiar and friendly world which contains nothing frightening, nothing supernatural. Mozart can be graceful, refined and gay, or sad and even mournful, but invariably beautiful. The world of Beethoven is grandiose and infinite. His music is sudden, unexpected: the soft murmuring and cooing sounds, tempestuous explosions, the whispers of love, and the roar of global cataclysms. The epoch of revolutionary upheavals has stormed its way into music and changed it. Beethoven's approach to both human life and nature is cosmic and sublime.
To convey the sublime in art, the artist has to find particularly vivid means of expression resorting to the elevated style. Preparatory materials for Pushkin's poem Poltava contain his description of the battle written with calm detachment of a historian: "Peter and his generals went round the troops, encouraging soldiers and officers, and led them against the enemy. Charles set out to meet them; at a little after 8 o'clock, the troops engaged in combat. The whole thing lasted less than two hours – the Swedes fled.
"On the site of the battle, 9,234 dead were counted. Golikov thinks the number of those killed reached 20,000, the field was littered with corpses for three miles around. Lowenhaupt and the rest fled, leaving their effects behind and stabbing the wounded. The number of those who fled was up to 16,000, and including the people of different stations-24,000". The facts and figures here give an idea of the scope of the battle, but the description does not give any impression of sublimity.
Here is the description of the same battle in the poem itself. Selecting exulting terms belonging to the elevated style, Pushkin portrays Peter and creates an impressive picture of the battle:

"Inspired by Heaven, now there sounded
The voice of Peter, rich and loud:
'Begin with God's help! 'By a crowd
Of favourites and friends surrounded,
He steps forth from his tent. His eyes
Blaze, and his stem face lighting, lend it
An awesomeness. He's swift, he's splendid!
God's storm is he in human guise."
"And the Poltava fray began!
A terse command. Fierce fire! Shelling!
All stand together to a man.
A living wall a hail repelling
Of searing lead! Fresh ranks link steel
Above the fallen. Horsemen winging
Like dark clouds o 'er the plain. Their singing
Swords clash... Swedes, Russians heel to heel;
They cut and smite and slash. The beating
Of drums, a call to arms repeating.
Guns roar. Steeds neigh. Men moan. Hoofs pound.
A hell on earth, death all around. "

The sublime events of our epoch require particularly vivid artistic devices.

1 Giving his magnum opus the name The Divine Comedy, Dante also proceeded from the tradition established by Pseudo-Longinus of dividing creative art into stylistically sublime and base.
2 Epistles, Odes, op. cit., p.153.
3 Ibid., p.231.
4 Another version exists which, however, does not make the present interpretation impossible: David is shown immediately after the fight. Goliath is dead, but David is not triumphant. He has only done his duty and is looking sadly at the defeated enemy.
5 "Poltava", excerpts. Translated by Irina Zheleznova – Ed.