Opposites, the Sublime and the Beautiful
“The invention of beauty by the Greeks, that is, their postulate of beauty, as an ideal, has been the bugbear of European art and European aesthetic philosophies. Man’s natural desire in the arts to express his relation to the Absolute became identified and confused with the absolutisms of perfect creations… the European artist has continually involved in the moral struggle between the notions of beauty and the desire for sublimity”
Alexander Baumgarten coined the term ‘Aesthetics’ in his book Aesthetica (1750), according to Baumgarten Aesthetics is the science of sensory knowledge. An investigation into the senses and sensations that are at the cornerstone of our mundane lives. In this science of sensory knowledge, we come across two topics; one that is indeterminate, often elusive, and the other, which is determinate and inspires sentiments of affection, a social quality that distinguishes us from animals. These two topics are the Sublime and the Beautiful.
Edmund Burke stated that the sublime is “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” whereas beauty is when we gain a sense of joy from “beholding” (Burke, 1914). Frederich Schiller on the other hand, stated that a beautiful object is one that is “complete, finished, and limited with symmetrical parts” whereas a sublime object is one whose form “though not out of proportion, [is] less determined, [and] ever awakens in us the feeling of the infinite” (Schiller, 2006). By comparing both Schiller and Burke’s accounts of the beautiful and the sublime, we are left with one realisation. The Beautiful are a set of sensations that are close (tangible) to us where as the Sublime are a set of sensations that are beyond us (intangible). There is a separation between the two, which makes them opposites.
This realisation is enforced by Philosophers such as Longinus, in his account on the sublime he focuses on incorporeal matters such as that of the soul, even stating that “sublimity is the echo of a great soul” (Longinus, 1554). Barnett Newman also highlights this intangibility when he talks of the Sublime, mentioning how it is “unforgettable, irresistible, and thought provoking” and is situated in a moment of the “indeterminate” a ‘now’ that doesn’t relate to temporal matters such as time, but to the endless possibilities and contradictory feelings that occur in the ‘now’ (Lyotard, 1984).
Yet beauty is found in observable qualities, such as the shine of gold, proportions, or the features of a maiden (Plato, 2015) or otherwise in obvious passions and tastes. Looking at history, the sublime has always been related to spiritual matters that are far beyond our reach, such as the Gods, whereas beauty has been limited to corporeal and mortal topics. Even though various philosophers have differing accounts on what makes the sublime or the beautiful, there is a constant juxtaposition between the two that structure beauty as something which is within our grasp and the sublime as something that is just outside of it.
The Sublime and the Beautiful are on two opposite ends of the same spectrum; the corporeal and the incorporeal, the tangible and the intangible, the common and the extreme, the mortal and the immortal. Two topics that are always interlinked with each other and yet so vastly different. In this essay these two sensations will be discussed, their differences highlighted, and their effects noted.
Beauty is tangible
Tangible, according to Merriam Webster, is defined as something “capable of being perceived especially by the sense of touch” it is something that is “substantially real [and] material” (Merriam Webster, 1828). The idea of beauty is constantly changing, it is a very subjective, personal, and pluralistic sense. One that we find hard to define, but there is one constant in beauty, and that is that all its qualifications are tangible. Even if the qualifications and qualities may change with time, these qualities remain real, often material, and easy for us to perceive.
An example of this is in Hippias Major, Plato searches for the definition of beauty in his Socratic notion. When Socrates asks Hippias “what do you consider to be beautiful?” Hippias provides only tangible examples; from that of a maiden, to shiny gold, a horse, a lyre and a pot. In the end Hippias came to conclusion that ‘Life’ is beautiful- a life where one is good and wealthy so that they live beautifully and die beautifully. Life and a pot, what they both have in common is that they are relatable to humanity, they can be perceived and appreciated by us, we can behold them because they are tangible to us. When Plato speaks of absolute beauty he speaks of his own subjective perspective of beauty and the judgement of beauty. If beauty is always judged and viewed from a subjective lens than it will always be limited to the confines of humanity, and to topics which are tangible to us.
Kant reinforces this theme of tangibility when he speaks about taste, to Kant taste is the faculty for judging the beautiful. Kant explains that to judge whether something is beautiful or not, we don’t use cognition, but imagination combined with an understanding of the subject. Taste isn’t a cognitive judgement but a subjective one. Once we have an interest in something- defining interest as “the satisfaction that we combine with the representation of the existence of an object” (Kant, 2009) – we contemplate its beauty through our taste. We do this by judging the impression that the object has on us, individually, rather than judging by the utility of the object. This is because “the beautiful is that which, without concepts, is represented as the object of a universal satisfaction” (Kant, 2009), and something that is good depends on its usefulness or utility, but something that is beautiful doesn’t need to be useful, it depends on our reflection on the object. Overall, judging the beautiful via taste is very subjective and personal matter. Both Kant and Plato agree that it is a subjectivity, and as long as the beautiful is subjective than it is within humanity’s grasp and is a tangible concept.
Additionally, this tangibility is enforced by the belief that proportion and form are a criterion of beauty. To Baumgarten, perfection is beauty and deformity is ugly. The belief is that with deformity gone than beauty should follow, and what categorises as deformity is a lack of proportion. Plato spoke of a mathematical criterion of beauty, one that emphasises symmetry, order, and control. To Plato, deformity is that which lacks control and is disordered, therefore beauty can only be found in proportion.
On the other hand, Edmund Burke disagrees with the idea that beauty only appears when deformity is gone. To Burke deformity is not opposed to beauty, it is opposed to common form. Burke than goes on to give the example of a man who has one leg which is longer than the other. This man would be called deformed because there is something “wanting to complete the whole idea we form of a man.” The idea we have of a man is that he should have two legs of equal length, his deformity goes against our conception of that form. This leads us to believe that another criterion of beauty is not just proportion but form, for something to be beautiful it must live up to our ideal form of the object in question. For example, when someone speaks of a beautiful man they bring up the image of someone that has an ideal male form; likely broad shoulders, long legs of equal length, and muscles-although certain aspects of this ideal male form are changing as tastes change and people begin to favour more androgynous types of men (as seen by the change in the appearance of male Hollywood celebrities in recent years)- the point remains that one criterion of beauty is form. Friedrich Schiller also relates form to beauty, he states how the most “plausible theory of beauty is that which makes it consist in two contrary and equally necessary elements – unity and variety” (Schiller, 2006) he gives the example of a beautiful flower that has unity, symmetry and variety of colour in its form, and claims that there is no beauty without life, as life is movement and life is diversity.
Going back to proportions, according to Burke proportion can cause beauty, but beauty can be found without proportion, beauty and proportion are not interlinked. Burke goes on to say that “the beautiful strike us as much for its novelty as the deformed” (Burke, 1914) and that the true opposite of beauty is not deformity, but ugliness. To Burke it is between beauty and ugliness, a plane of mediocrity, where proportion is commonly found. However, regardless of whether it is form or proportion which is a prerequisite to beauty, they are both tangible points.
Alternatively, beauty is tangible because of what Burke calls Beauty of the sex, Beauty is a sense which distinguishes us from animals, it is a tool of lust. In the animal kingdom, mates are only distinguished by sex and societal laws, but humanity doesn’t simply make distinctions based on gender, they make it based on beauty. We admire tangible features, we are “attached to the particulars”. This makes Beauty a social quality where we gain a sensation of joy from “beholding”, a joy which inspires “sentiments of tenderness and affection within us.” (Burke, 1914) This tenderness and affection can cause love or a similar passion to it. Schiller agrees with this and mentions in his Aesthetical essays that “beauty appears to us as an object of general enjoyment, that isn’t guided by an abstract idea or reason” (Schiller, 2006).
Overall, from looking at statements from the likes of Plato, Burke, Kant, Schiller and Baumgarten; we see a noticeable trend in beauty being tangible. Beauty is judged by our taste, it has features of form or proportion, and is steeped in subjectivity. All these features make it tangible as it requires the beautiful to be something we can easily perceive through the senses; something we can touch, see, and perhaps hear, smell and taste. It is often material, real and hence tangible.
The Sublime is intangible
Intangible, according to Merriam Webster is something that is “impalpable […] an asset that is not corporeal […] an abstract quality or attribute.” (Merriam Webster, 1828). The word Sublime is a common colloquialism in France to suggest surprise or admiration, but there are also philosophical takes on the word. The sublime is on the opposite end to the beautiful, it is elusive, it cannot easily be perceived and is not something material or capable of being judged by reality.
When Longinus speaks of the sublime, he often brings up spiritual topics such as the soul and the Gods. He claims that “Sublimity is the echo of a great soul” (Longinus, 1554) and that we can see evidence of the sublime in a person that has the “proudest of spirits”. Someone who doesn’t have a proud spirit and cannot give us a sense of the sublime can’t move us. According to Longinus, words said by a common person does not give our souls “high thoughts” and does not convey greater meaning with their words other than what is shown on the surface. These words are neither memorable or worth another listen or read. People who give us a sense of sublimity have “elevated speech”, they form “great conceptions” and their words are vehement and inspire passion. Longinus points out that passion is not a criterion of the sublime, some passions are “far removed from sublimity” such as pity, grief and fear. There are many examples of sublime speech that are void of passion. For example, eulogies and ceremonial speeches, they give off a sense of elevation and dignity, yet lack passion. Longinus reinforces this point by humorously pointing out that a passionate eulogist would be very bad at their job.
Speech or words are one way in which sublimity is conveyed, but Longinus also points out that Sublimity can be felt even in silence. “There is no better figure of speech than the altogether hidden, that which we do not even recognise as a figure of speech” (Longinus, 1554). Without a word, admiration can be sparked, and the greatness of the soul can be felt. The true sublime is free of ignoble thoughts, and these thoughts are only gifted to those who are worthy of immortality. Hence the sublime is out of reach for those who are mortal. Overall, Longinus shows us that the sublime is related to things as incorporeal as the soul and the spirit, these things are not easily perceived, and they are not material. Hence, the sublime is intangible.
To elaborate on this idea of intangibility, we now look at Edmund Burkes account of the sublime. Anything that excites pain and danger, that is terrible or “operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime.” (Burke, 1914). To Edmund Burke the sublime is the strongest emotion that we can produce. Burke believes that pain is stronger than pleasure, that suffering has a bigger effect on the mind and body, and this is because pain is a precursor to death. Pain is more powerful because it is considered an “emissary of this king of terrors [death]”. When faced with death we are reminded of our own insignificance and it reverts our minds to nothingness which causes a great exultation, hence death is a source of the sublime. According to Burke, sublimity can be found in a painful and terrorising experience that can bring us close to death. In this way Burke is saying that the true sublime can only be found in a place as close to death, as elusive, intangible and terrifying as the afterlife or perhaps a place close to it. Burke also notes that these terrors and pains can be delightful when viewed at a distance, hence when watching someone else going through tragic events we can find it delightful and even glimpse into the sublime by witnessing this pain. When staring at art which portrays pain and death such as Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring his son, we gain a sense of sublimity. However, Barnett Newman criticises Burke’s description of the sublime for being too “surrealistic” and claims that surrealism relies too much on a romantic way of dealing with the indeterminate nature of the sublime, nonetheless Newman agrees that Burke’s account portrays the fundamental task of the sublime, which is bearing “pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible” (Newman, 1990).
Jean-Franςois Lyotard, in his essay on the sublime and the avant-garde, suggests that the sublime is an experience that is both here and now, it is something that “cannot be demonstrated or as Kant said, presented” (Lyotard J. F., 1984). To reinforce his claim, Lyotard uses Barnett Newman’s essay The Sublime is now (1948) or more specifically the idea of time that Newman shares in this essay. Newman’s account on the sublime is removed from romanticism, to Newman the Sublime can be found in the sense of time- not the obvious time which is laden with drama; nostalgia, and history, but an entirely different view of time. Thomas Heiss, Newman’s friend commented that Newman’s time referred to the Hebrew phrase “Makom, Hamakom” which translates to “the there, the site, the place.” (Lyotard J. F., 1984). The sublime is the ‘now’ but the ‘now’ is not a temporal instance but a temporal ecstasy, this isn’t rooted in a sense of reality but in the sense that nothing might happen. This sublimity is found in the contradictory feelings of pleasure and pain; joy and anxiety, exaltation and depression that occur in the ‘now’. To elaborate, Lyotard explains that rules are not entirely established, and that intellectuals take advantage of the fact that not everything has been said, that there is always an after or a next. After a sentence there is another sentence and after a colour there are more colours, but this brings about the possibility that nothing could happen, there is no next sentence or after, it is possible that this moment could be the last. This idea that nothing could happen makes every instant imminent, and this imminence causes the contradictory feelings of suspense and anticipation that lead to pleasure and pain, or joy and anxiety. And this is the ‘now’ where, according to both Newman and Lyotard, the sublime can be found. It is interesting to note that whilst Burke uses surrealism and Newman does not, they both emulate this fundamental task of the sublime, giving witness to the “inexpressible” which highlights the intangibility of the sublime.
Schiller, on the other hand, takes a different approach to the sublime (although his view of the sublime is more of an elaboration on some Kantian ideas). To Schiller the sublime is what we call an object whose limits we sense at a sensuous level yet superiority we sense at a rational level. The sublime allows us, as beings of nature, to simultaneously feel both dependence and independence that we maintain over nature within and without ourselves. Humans have two basic impulses, the impulse to change our circumstances which is the conception drive, and the impulse to maintain our circumstances known as self-preservation. When the sublime interacts with these impulses it creates two different effects; the theoretical sublime where “nature stands as the object of cognition in contradiction to our conception drive” and the practical sublime where “nature stands as the object of perception, in contradiction to our preservation drive” (Schiller, Translations of Friedrich Schiller’s Philosphical and Aesthetical Writings, 2019). Kant speaks of the sublime of power, it can extend our own cognition and is a power that can determine our own circumstances, this is the dynamic sublime. Therefore, this is a sublimity of cognition and consciousness, that supersedes our basic impulses and natural instincts.
Overall, looking at the varying descriptions of the sublime by Longinus, Burke, Lyotard, Newman and Schiller we are left with the belief that the sublime is above our nature, it is not something that we can perceive with our basic senses. It is found in incorporeal subjects such as the soul and the spirit; death, the ‘now’, and the inexpressible. From all these points there is the consensus that the sublime is intangible. It is an asset that is not corporeal to us, it is often abstract and elusive and not limited by form or proportion.
Now that we have established that the sublime is a concept that is intangible for us compared to that of the beautiful, it brings up the question, ‘why’. Why is the beautiful more tangible to us than the sublime?
So far in this essay the opposing nature of the sublime and the beautiful have been explored by looking at their qualities. The beautiful are considered proportioned, they maintain our ideal form, they uphold our subjective taste and hold some value to our human lives. These things can be the shine of gold that connotes to wealth and holds both value by feeding into our tastes and desires, or it can be a human being that lacks deformity and upholds our desire for form, or it can be life itself. Art that maintains these qualities tend to be beautiful because they fit this criterion and can cause us sensations of pleasure and other passions. On the other hand, the Sublime is the opposite. It is indeterminate and elusive. Something sublime must be beyond the realm of human instincts and impulses, it is not subjective or easily judged with taste, it is beyond our human lives as it can dwell within an immortal soul and spirit. It is found in profound emotions beyond that of terror, existing in the depths of uncertainty, and is filled with incomparable power. Sublimity is in the dismantling of our common assumptions, beliefs and understanding. It is on the opposing end of this spectrum of aesthetic sensations.
The sublime is still an aesthetic sense, but it is so much harder for us to understand and sense compared to the beautiful, one of the scientific explanations for this is the theory of Gestalt psychology. Our brains are simply incapable of easily processing a sense of the sublime as we do the beautiful, we are not wired to comprehend the sublime.
To explain this, we must look at Robert Arnheim (1904-2007). Arnheim was a famous Psychologist who specialised in the psychology of art, and he applied the Gestalt theory to art and used it as the foundation to his approach. Arnheim also altered the basis of the theory when discussing issues such as perceptual abstraction and visual thinking, dynamics and expression, and perceptual goodness and beauty. Two of the founders of Gestalt psychology were Arnheim’s teachers: Wolfgang Kӧhler (1887–1967) and Max Wertheimer (1880–1943). “Arnheim’s classic, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1954/1974), became so identified as a “Gestalt” work that it was cited as a strictly orthodox statement of [the] theory” (Verstegen, 2007).
Gestalt psychology emphasises that the whole of everything is greater than its parts. Arnheim points out that our brains process information as wholes. The world around us is chaotic and turbulent. When we see around us there is a ton of information coming at once, to control the flow of all this chaotic information our brains developed a means to organise and categorise all this information. This makes information easier to process because we are simplifying and classifying these details. By putting objects together and grouping them we understand them better. For example, if we see a collection of tables, even if they all have different colours and shapes, we still group them all together as tables because it is easier for us to understand them this way than viewing them separately.
Arnheim points out that we use this process of simplifying information and grouping wholes in our everyday lives, that includes when we are looking at art. In our interaction with art and reality we use the same perceptual capacities and we apply the same Gestalt principles of simplicity, stability, and coherence. It is this process that makes us incapable of perceiving the sublime the same way we do the beautiful. The beautiful often contains a form, a structure and qualities that our brains can easily group together order and appreciate. Our tastes are suited to coherent objects and feelings. The Sublime is not coherent, it is not simple or ordered, and is often not an observable sensation and that makes it difficult for our brains to process.
However, that doesn’t mean we are entirely unable to sense the sublime. Arnheim points out that there is a one difference in the way we view reality compared to art. That difference is, that when we appreciate art, the aesthetic experience provides us with an intensity and clarity that reality cannot offer us. Arnheim states that in art the content and form sustain each other in a coherent and evocative way. These sensations of intensity and clarity that art can provide us allow us to appreciate gain passions from the beautiful and at higher levels it allows us to sense the sublime, but it is still easier for us to appreciate beautiful things than sublime things. It is probably due to this that sublimity is intangible to us compared to the beautiful.
To conclude, both beauty and sublimity are opposites, they have opposing effects on people and are attainable through opposing means. To Plato beauty needs a golden ratio, a divine proportion a limitation. The Greeks developed the idea of limitation, which discloses that for something to be beautiful and real it needs limits, it needs determinedness. This same idea of limitation can be found in Plato’s idea of proportion and in most conceptions of beauty that this essay has investigated. Beauty needs order and control to be beautiful, and humanity processes information via order and control. The Sublime is very different from this, it is the indeterminate, it is in the disordered and the extremes of emotion. Yet despite their juxtaposition, the beautiful and the sublime are both sensations that evoke intensity into our regular lives, they can cause passions.
Both beauty and the sublime are frequently discussed, analysed, and debated in the study of aesthetics. Through discussing both these sensations, highlighting their differences, and noting their effects through the various different views and accounts of what defines them, we see an unspoken consensus about their opposite nature, that beauty must be tangible, and sublimity must not be.
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