On the Sublime
The Sublime refers to an experience of vastness (of space, age, time) beyond calculation or comprehension – a sense of awe we might feel before an ocean, a glacier, the earth from a plane or a starry sky.
In the presence of the sublime, we are made to feel desperately small. In most of life, a sense of our smallness is experienced as a humiliation (when it happens, for example, at the hands of a professional enemy or a concierge). But the impression of smallness that unfolds in the presence of the Sublime has an oddly uplifting and profoundly redemptive effect. We are granted an impression of our complete nullity and insignificance in the grander scheme which relieves us from an often oppressive sense of the seriousness of our ambitions and desires. We welcome being put back in our place and not having to take ourselves quite so seriously, not least because the agent doing so is as noble and awe-inspiring as a ten-thousand-year-old ice sheet or a volcano on the surface of Mars.
Things that have up until now been looming so large in our minds (what’s gone wrong with the Singapore office, a colleague’s cold behaviour, the disagreement about patio furniture) is cut perfectly down in size. Local, immediate sorrows are reduced; none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have very much significance for a time. Everything that happens to us, or that we do, is of no consequence whatever from the point of view of the universe. We are granted a perspective within which our own concerns are mercifully irrelevant.
Bits of our egoism and pride seem less impressive. We may be moved to be more tolerant, less wrapped up in our own concerns. We’re reminded of our fragility and transient occupation of the world – which can move us to focus on what’s genuinely important, while there is still time. The Sublime foregrounds a sense of equality, which we can otherwise find it hard to hold onto. In the face of vast things, the grades of human status lose meaning. The CEO and the intern are an equally transient arrangements of atoms.
Our reversals matter less as well. We become more alive to the impersonal, implacable forces that erode all aspects of nature and, hence, all our lives. Our plans will, like the cliffs under the pressure of the raging oceans, collapse and fail. Our griefs are universal and unavoidable. The intense burden of the unfairness of existence is reduced.
Crucially, the Sublime isn’t just an idea. It’s a piece of applied philosophy experienced via the senses. The mere idea of our own littleness won’t impact upon us just as an abstract proposition. We have to feel it; we have to stand at the edge of the ocean with the wind raging about us or see the Singapore Straits from 30,000 feet at dawn. The importance of a sensory impression reveals a general truth about how our minds work: pure ideas are feeble tools for affecting human conduct; we can too easily shrug off words. This is why art and travel are ideal resources of culture. At their best, they integrate thought and feeling: the good idea they are seeking to teach us is delivered in the way we need – wrapped up in powerful sensory emotions.
We need not just the idea of cliffs; for philosophy to work its proper effect, we need regularly to take the whole of ourselves out to them.