Term Paper: Sublime From the Greeks to the Romantics

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Sublime From the Greeks to the Romantics

The sublime has been understood in various ways throughout history -- but most simply thus: as greatness beyond all measure. Longinus gave the Western world the first treatise on the sublime, which was essentially a kind of echo of Plato and Aristotle. Yet for the entirety of the middle ages, from Augustine to Aquinas to Dante, it stayed buried and did not really resurface until the late Renaissance. With the dawn of the age of Romantic/Enlightenment doctrine, the subject of Longinus' treatise became a staple of Western thought, influencing humanist artists, poets and philosophers from Burke to Hume to Kant to Shelley to Keats. The 20th century again saw the subject taken up by C.S. Lewis who expressed that to identify the sublime correctly required two points: 1) true greatness surpassing all measure on the part of the object, and 2) true humility of soul on the part of the admirer (1-6). Lewis, of course, was arguing for an objective standpoint in a highly subjective modern world -- but his point was at least in the same vein as the ancient Greek philosophers, including the observation in Longinus' On the Sublime that "Sublimity is the echo of a great soul" (9.2). This paper will analyze the history of the theory of the sublime from Longinus to modern times, showing how with the loss of medieval religion and the end of the age of faith, the sublime became the rule of faith -- and defining it became part of the modern world's attempt to assert a new doctrine in place of the old.

As Richard Weaver stated in Ideas Have Consequences, what modern man lacks is "piety toward nature, toward man, [and] toward the past" (Peppe). Socrates defines in his own fashion piety as a kind of moral duty to do what is right -- gently pointing out to Euthyphro that prosecuting his "aged father for murder for the sake of a servant" was not necessarily as virtuous an act as he made it out to be (Plato, Euthyph. 15d). Plato's dialogue surely touches on the sublime rhetorical skills of his teacher, but that sublimity, it should be noted, surely has something to do with the nature of Socrates' discourse -- which is to arrive at a definition of virtue that is true, while at the same time using wit, charm, elegance, and eloquence to keep false definitions and pretenses from usurping piety's place.

Thus, the nature of the sublime is related to the nature of transcendence: it elevates and instructs -- just as Longinus points out does Homer when he "magnifies the higher powers" (9.5). However, Longinus insists that there is an art to the sublime -- and, just as in art one call fall into the two traps of sentimentality and pornography (O'Connor 143), in the art of the sublime one can fall into either "tumidity" or "puerility": "While tumidity desires to transcend the limits of the sublime, the defect which is termed puerility is the direct antithesis of elevation, for it is utterly low and mean and in real truth the most ignoble vice of style…a pedant's thoughts, which begin in learned trifling and end in frigidity" (Longinus 3.4). Ironically, Longinus' definition of the puerile could extend to the modernist's definition of the sublime, existing as it does in an era of pedantry.

In fact, by the time we arrive at Edmund Burke's "On the Sublime and Beautiful," society, it can be observed, has already begun to suffer from the nominalism of William of Occam as sprung onto the philosophical stage in the 14th century and the succeeding field of inquiry known as empiricism. The former, as Richard Weaver points out, destroyed the idea of universal truth, and the latter destroyed the idea that man perceived reality through his intellect by reducing knowledge to sense data. Thus, as the scholasticism of the medieval world (founded largely upon the wisdom of Greek philosophy) vanished due to a new "scientific" renunciation of hierarchical nature, the ability to discuss the transcendent and the sublime suffered from a loss of the kind of objectivity with which Socrates could attack Euthyphro for prosecuting his father.

Transcendental values had been swept aside by Enlightenment thinkers, who were simply attempting to define the new world, which they were building on the rubble of the old. The Peace of Westphalia, however, was no good foundation to build upon: truth before unity had given way to unity before truth -- in which case any notion of the sublime would fall victim (as it does in Burke's treatise -- already showing modern man to be made in the image of Hamlet: a doubter, a skeptic, a questioner, a fatalist, a man apart): "When I say I intend to inquire into the efficient cause of Sublimity and Beauty, I would not be understood to say, that I can come to the ultimate cause" (Burke 4.1). Burke readily admits that first principles are beyond him -- thus, any discussion of what constitutes the sublime should be as well. Instead, he contents himself with a discussion of the effect of sublimity on the mind and body -- rather than the cause of sublimity. There is a difference. Longinus looks at causes. Burke and the modernists look at effects. Nonetheless, Burke attempts to define the sublime thus: "It anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment…is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect" (2.1).

With David Hume the sublime is even more difficult to define -- for subjectivity has completely overridden objectivity: the first principles that Aristotle endeavored to uncover, and with which Aquinas attempted to reconcile faith and reason, are nowhere to be found in Hume's philosophy. Therefore, it is no surprise to find him saying such things as, "Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others" (Hume 7). However, without the regulation of sentiment, there would have been no Socrates. There would have been no Plato, no Aristotle, no Augustine, no Aquinas -- essentially, no foundation for the Western world -- and certainly no treatise on the sublime. Ironically, that foundation is just what the modern world has wished to flee: as Hume points out, those principles which suggested to us the nature of the sublime are now repellent to the modern sensibility: distinguishing objectively between beauty and ugliness, nobility and ignobility, sublimity and the abject is part of the old world -- in the new, all is open to interpretation. The modern world resists definition even as it attempts to define (no greater proof is needed of modern man's Hamlet complex).

Kant, likewise, heaped scorn upon the old world's valuation of transcendentals by discouraging the idea that the mind can know reality at all -- a reaction against empiricism (but in the opposite direction). Kant follows the new emphasis on subjectivity -- for any emphasis on objectivity leads one right back into the old world, which means old religion, old beliefs, and old universals. Kant was for the new: "The judgment of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgment, and so not logical, but is aesthetic -- which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective" (Book 1. SS 1.). Thus Kant abandons the Aristotelian teaching that aesthetics should aim to please and that what pleases is in no way a matter of partiality but is common to all men. Kant insists that modern tastes are partial -- and the cause of this partiality is the loss of natural order. The Greeks understood human nature. The moderns attempt to convert human nature into something it is not -- a world in which passion and reason share equal footing -- a holdover, of course, from the French Revolution.

Shelley's wife famously exposed the modern ideology that had put passion in control with Frankenstein. As E. Michael Jones insists, the Marquis de Sade understood Augustine perfectly well when he said that a man has as many masters as he does vices. Yet, while Augustine argued to turn men toward God, Sade argued to turn men into animals who could be controlled as such (Jones 5-6). The French Revolution helped spring Sade from prison (before it was decided that prison was perhaps the better place for him). His works, however, were read by the Romantics, and his insistence upon passion over reason further highlighted the fact that the new world was diametrically opposed to the old: in the old, reason was expected to rule passion. The sublime, according to the new, was the same relationship inverted.

With the rise of the Romantic poets Worsdworth, Shelley, Byron, and Keats, the elevation of Self… [END OF PREVIEW]

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