“It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration and chiefly excites our passion.” [1]

– Edmund Burke


All the greatest natural wonders like the dizzying height of a mountain, the grueling cliffs, the starry sky and the boundless stretch of the ocean have always provoked an ambivalent feeling in human nature which has been depicted by many thinkers as a mixture of fear and rejection on the one hand and a cohesion of charm and attraction on the other.

The word Sublime comes from the Latin Sublimis which literally means “beneath the line” or “up to the limit”. In Aesthetics, the sublime – as well as beauty – refer to human feelings. The sublime in particular concerns the attribute of limitless or of a greatness that goes beyond the human possibility to grasp it. This concept was first introduced in ancient times, and then debated for a long time in the Modern Age during the Romantic period.

The first known treatise about this idea, “On the Sublime”, is dated to the 1st century AD and it is assigned to an unknown author, conventionally referred to as Longinus (even though the debate over its authorship is still alive). According to Longinus, the sublime is an adjective to describe in the rhetoric field a style of writing or of making a speech that exalts itself above mediocrity. He identified  five elements that allow this elevation and that were also acknowledged by him as sources of sublimity: great thoughts, extreme emotions, some figures of speech, lofty diction and dignified word arrangement. As a result, the sublime inspires awe and reverence, leading unconsciously to a loss of rationality and a feeling of alienation which pushes the listener or the reader to identify themselves with the creative construction of the orator or of the writer. For this reason, it was thought to be essential by him for everyone who wanted to succeed in the art of persuasion. This work is also remarkable, because along with the expected references to Greek culture, from Homer to Sophocles, it also refers to biblical sources, such as Genesis.

The following thinker who used Burke’s notion of the sublime as a starting point to further it was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In one of his key texts “The critique of judgment”, he identifies two different definitions of the sublime: the mathematical sublime and the dynamically sublime.In the Modern Age, the English thinker Edmund Burke was the first who tried to provide a sort of explanation for this extraordinary feeling starting from an empirical fact-finding approach by introducing the modern aesthetic concept of the sublime in philosophy. In his work “Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, he states that: “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.” [2] For him, the sublime had to be considered as an aesthetic experience different and independent from beauty. In fact, beauty is related to shape, harmony and structure, but the sublime is shapeless, chaotic and it is connected to an idea of infinity. Furthermore, in contrast to the sublime experience, experiencing beauty only produces a univocal feeling of attraction.

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The starry sky is an example of the mathematical sublime.

The former occurs when humans are in the presence of something which is extremely huge, like mountains, oceans, and galaxies. The sight or image conjured in our mind a feeling of powerlessness in our inability to grasp and measure the size of the object observed, but if we explore our perception in more detail through reason, we can also derive pleasure from it, because we come to the conclusion that these objects are not as infinite as they appear: we are merely deceived by our imagination. In fact, we know for sure that oceans must end somewhere, and so too mountains and galaxies. Moreover, we identify ourselves as the true creators of the concept of infinity which is related to the power of our imagination.

Violent storms are an example of the dynamically sublime. 

However, for Kant’s moral philosophical aim, it is the dynamically sublime that plays a higher role of importance compared to the mathematical sublime. According to his theory, it comes up when we have the possibility to contemplate from a safe position (otherwise we would be simply terrified) tremendous natural phenomena like volcano eruptions, hurricanes and tsunamis. At first, this view produces a feeling of physical littleness and fragility in ourselves. However, as an afterthought, we realize that despite our physical inferiority towards natural forces, we possess a moral supremacy. In fact, if it is true that we can’t overcome the natural strengths around us, it’s also true that through the power of our reason we can overwhelm the natural energies inside us, which are our feelings and impulses.

In conclusion to Kant’s theory of the sublime, we noticed as in both cases individuals have the possibility to shift from a depressive and frustrating experience to an exciting one. Nevertheless, the philosopher points out that only sensitive and intellectual people can carry out this emotional shift.

Following Kant, during the Romantic Era, the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller in his treatise “The Essays on the Sublime” argues that the modern human being is split by a desire for infinity and absolute freedom on the one hand, and an intolerance and suffering regarding their physical and biological limits on the other. He thought, very similarly to Kant, that this conflict provokes a sort of “moral pride” in ourselves, because we admit our physical dependence on nature for our corporeal existence, but we also recognize our limitless freedom concerning our spiritual identity. In conclusion, for Schiller, the best kind of art which is able to perform the sublime experience is tragedy. In fact, through tragedy, we are empowered to explore the ambivalent and contradictory feelings of this experience.

In addition to the list of thinkers who tried to tackle the idea of the sublime, there are two other noted philosophers who deserve to be mentioned, although they didn’t focus on it as much. Even so, they left some marginal remarks which enable us to dig deeper into this concept and to bring to conclusion this specific path of Modern Philosophy. They are Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Hegel.

The former in the first volume of his revolutionary work “The world as Will and Representation” makes an attempt to clarify the feeling of the sublime through some examples, showing the transition from the beautiful to the most sublime. For instance, he says that the view of light which is reflected off a flower is an example of beautiful, because it is the perception of an object that cannot hurt the observer and causes only a fascinating feeling of attraction and curiosity. Conversely, the sight of an endless desert is a weak source of the sublime because it is something that cannot potentially allow the observer to survive. Finally, the sight of an intense natural phenomena is a fullest example of the sublime because it might immediately destroy the observer.

The view of light reflected off a flower is an example of beautiful. 

Eventually, Hegel anthropologically interpreted the sublime as a break between western and oriental art. In fact, in his perspective, oriental cultures were more involved in a teleological view of the world and for this reason they were also more apprehensive of divine powers. Hence, he thought that Chinese, but also Islamic artists, were more inclined in the representation of the sublime through the shapelessness of their artistic expressions.


Burke, E. (1757). A philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime. [1-2]

Abbagnano, N., & Fornero, G. (2012). La ricerca del pensiero 3 A.

Bologna, C., & Rocchi, P. (2014) Fresca rosa novella 2 B.

      c9dcb7e5-c504-4551-be36-b14acb0fed46                                                                      (A famous example of the sublime in art)  (A famous example of the sublime in literature)

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