On the sublime

On the sublime

"Man is never obliged to say, I must—must," says the Jew Nathan [Lessing's play, "Nathan the Wise," act i. scene 3.] to the dervish; and this expression is true in a wider sense than man might be tempted to suppose. The will is the specific character of man, and reason itself is only the eternal rule of his will. All nature acts reasonably; all our prerogative is to act reasonably, with consciousness and with will. All other objects obey necessity; man is the being who wills.

It is exactly for this reason that there is nothing more inconsistent with the dignity of man than to suffer violence, for violence effaces him. He who does violence to us disputes nothing less than our humanity; he who submits in a cowardly spirit to the violence abdicates his quality of man. But this pretension to remain absolutely free from all that is violence seems to imply a being in possession of a force sufficiently great to keep off all other forces. But if this pretension is found in a being who, in the order of forces, cannot claim the first rank, the result is an unfortunate contradiction between his instinct and his power.

Man is precisely in this case. Surrounded by numberless forces, which are all superior to him and hold sway over him, he aspires by his nature not to have to suffer any injury at their hands. It is true that by his intelligence he adds artificially to his natural forces, and that up to a certain point he actually succeeds in reigning physically over everything that is physical. The proverb says, "there is a remedy for everything except death;" but this exception, if it is one in the strictest acceptation of the term, would suffice to entirely ruin the very idea of our nature. Never will man be the cause that wills, if there is a case, a single case, in which, with or without his consent, he is forced to what he does not wish. This single terrible exception, to be or to do what is necessary and not what he wishes, this idea will pursue him as a phantom; and as we see in fact among the greater part of men, it will give him up a prey to the blind terrors of imagination. His boasted liberty is nothing, if there is a single point where he is under constraint and bound. It is education that must give back liberty to man, and help him to complete the whole idea of his nature. It ought, therefore, to make him capable of making his will prevail, for, I repeat it, man is the being who wills.

It is possible to reach this end in two ways: either really, by opposing force to force, by commanding nature, as nature yourself; or by the idea, issuing from nature, and by thus destroying in relation to self the very idea of violence. All that helps man really to hold sway over nature is what is styled physical education. Man cultivates his understanding and develops his physical force, either to convert the forces of nature, according to their proper laws, into the instruments of his will, or to secure himself against their effects when he cannot direct them. But the forces of nature can only be directed or turned aside up to a certain point; beyond that point they withdraw from the influence of man and place him under theirs.

Thus beyond the point in question his freedom would be lost, were he only susceptible of physical education. But he must be man in the full sense of the term, and consequently he must have nothing to endure, in any case, contrary to his will. Accordingly, when he can no longer oppose to the physical forces any proportional physical force, only one resource remains to him to avoid suffering any violence: that is, to cause to cease entirely that relation which is so fatal to him. It is, in short, to annihilate as an idea the violence he is obliged to suffer in fact. The education that fits man for this is called moral education.

The man fashioned by moral education, and he only, is entirely free. He is either superior to nature as a power, or he is in harmony with her. None of the actions that she brings to bear upon him is violence, for before reaching him it has become an act of his own will, and dynamic nature could never touch him, because he spontaneously keeps away from all to which she can reach. But to attain to this state of mind, which morality designates as resignation to necessary things, and religion styles absolute submission to the counsels of Providence, to reach this by an effort of his free will and with reflection, a certain clearness is required in thought, and a certain energy in the will, superior to what man commonly possesses in active life. Happily for him, man finds here not only in his rational nature a moral aptitude that can be developed by the understanding, but also in his reasonable and sensible nature—that is, in his human nature—an aesthetic tendency which seems to have been placed there expressly: a faculty awakens of itself in the presence of certain sensuous objects, and which, after our feelings are purified, can be cultivated to such a point as to become a powerful ideal development. This aptitude, I grant, is idealistic in its principle and in its essence, but one which even the realist allows to be seen clearly enough in his conduct, though he does not acknowledge this in theory. I am now about to discuss this faculty.

I admit that the sense of the beautiful, when it is developed by culture, suffices of itself even to make us, in a certain sense, independent of nature as far as it is a force. A mind that has ennobled itself sufficiently to be more sensible of the form than of the matter of things, contains in itself a plenitude of existence that nothing could make it lose, especially as it does not trouble itself about the possession of the things in question, and finds a very liberal pleasure in the mere contemplation of the phenomenon. As this mind has no want to appropriate the objects in the midst of which it lives, it has no fear of being deprived of them. But it is nevertheless necessary that these phenomena should have a body, through which they manifest themselves; and, consequently, as long as we feel the want even only of finding a beautiful appearance or a beautiful phenomenon, this want implies that of the existence of certain objects; and it follows that our satisfaction still depends on nature, considered as a force, because it is nature who disposes of all existence in a sovereign manner. It is a different thing, in fact, to feel in yourself the want of objects endowed with beauty and goodness, or simply to require that the objects which surround us are good and beautiful. This last desire is compatible with the most perfect freedom of the soul; but it is not so with the other. We are entitled to require that the object before us should be beautiful and good, but we can only wish that the beautiful and the good should be realized objectively before us. Now the disposition of mind is, par excellence, called grand and sublime, in which no attention is given to the question of knowing if the beautiful, the good, and the perfect exist; but when it is rigorously required that that which exists should be good, beautiful and perfect, this character of mind is called sublime, because it contains in it positively all the characteristics of a fine mind without sharing its negative features. A sign by which beautiful and good minds, but having weaknesses, are recognized, is the aspiring always to find their moral ideal realized in the world of facts, and their being painfully affected by all that places an obstacle to it. A mind thus constituted is reduced to a sad state of dependence in relation to chance, and it may always be predicted of it, without fear of deception, that it will give too large a share to the matter in moral and aesthetical things, and that it will not sustain the more critical trials of character and taste. Moral imperfections ought not to be to us a cause of suffering and of pain: suffering and pain bespeak rather an ungratified wish than an unsatisfied moral want. An unsatisfied moral want ought to be accompanied by a more manly feeling, and fortify our mind and confirm it in its energy rather than make us unhappy and pusillanimous.

Nature has given to us two genii as companions in our life in this lower world. The one, amiable and of good companionship, shortens the troubles of the journey by the gayety of its plays. It makes the chains of necessity light to us, and leads us amidst joy and laughter, to the most perilous spots, where we must act as pure spirits and strip ourselves of all that is body, on the knowledge of the true and the practice of duty. Once when we are there, it abandons us, for its realm is limited to the world of sense; its earthly wings could not carry it beyond. But at this moment the other companion steps upon the stage, silent and grave, and with his powerful arm carries us beyond the precipice that made us giddy.

In the former of these genii we recognize the feeling of the beautiful, in the other the feeling of the sublime. No doubt the beautiful itself is already an expression of liberty. This liberty is not the kind that raises us above the power of nature, and that sets us free from all bodily influence, but it is only the liberty which we enjoy as men, without issuing from the limits of nature. In the presence of beauty we feel ourselves free, because the sensuous instincts are in harmony with the laws of reason. In presence of the sublime we feel ourselves sublime, because the sensuous instincts have no influence over the jurisdiction of reason, because it is then the pure spirit that acts in us as if it were not absolutely subject to any other laws than its own.

The feeling of the sublime is a mixed feeling. It is at once a painful state, which in its paroxysm is manifested by a kind of shudder, and a joyous state, that may rise to rapture, and which, without being properly a pleasure, is greatly preferred to every kind of pleasure by delicate souls. This union of two contrary sensations in one and the same feeling proves in a peremptory manner our moral independence. For as it is absolutely impossible that the same object should be with us in two opposite relations, it follows that it is we ourselves who sustain two different relations with the object. It follows that these two opposed natures should be united in us, which, on the idea of this object, are brought into play in two perfectly opposite ways. Thus we experience by the feeling of the beautiful that the state of our spiritual nature is not necessarily determined by the state of our sensuous nature; that the laws of nature are not necessarily our laws; and that there is in us an autonomous principle independent of all sensuous impressions.

The sublime object may be considered in two lights. We either represent it to our comprehension, and we try in vain to make an image or idea of it, or we refer it to our vital force, and we consider it as a power before which ours is nothing. But though in both cases we experience in connection with this object the painful feeling of our limits, yet we do not seek to avoid it; on the contrary we are attracted to it by an irresistible force. Could this be the case if the limits of our imagination were at the same time those of our comprehension? Should we be willingly called back to the feeling of the omnipotence of the forces of nature if we had not in us something that cannot be a prey of these forces. We are pleased with the spectacle of the sensuous infinite, because we are able to attain by thought what the senses can no longer embrace and what the understanding cannot grasp. The sight of a terrible object transports us with enthusiasm, because we are capable of willing what the instincts reject with horror, and of rejecting what they desire. We willingly allow our imagination to find something in the world of phenomena that passes beyond it; because, after all, it is only one sensuous force that triumphs over another sensuous force, but nature, notwithstanding all her infinity, cannot attain to the absolute grandeur which is in ourselves. We submit willingly to physical necessity both our well-being and our existence. This is because the very power reminds us that there are in us principles that escape its empire. Man is in the hands of nature, but the will of man is in his own hands.

Nature herself has actually used a sensuous means to teach us that we are something more than mere sensuous natures. She has even known how to make use of our sensations to put us on the track of this discovery—that we are by no means subject as slaves to the violence of the sensations. And this is quite a different effect from that which can be produced by the beautiful; I mean the beautiful of the real world, for the sublime itself is surpassed by the ideal. In the presence of beauty, reason and sense are in harmony, and it is only on account of this harmony that the beautiful has attraction for us. Consequently, beauty alone could never teach us that our destination is to act as pure intelligences, and that we are capable of showing ourselves such. In the presence of the sublime, on the contrary, reason and the sensuous are not in harmony, and it is precisely this contradiction between the two which makes the charm of the sublime—its irresistible action on our minds. Here the physical man and the moral man separate in the most marked manner; for it is exactly in the presence of objects that make us feel at once how limited the former is that the other makes the experience of its force. The very thing that lowers one to the earth is precisely that which raises the other to the infinite.

Let us imagine a man endowed with all the virtues of which the union constitutes a fine character. Let us suppose a man who finds his delight in practising justice, beneficence, moderation, constancy, and good faith. All the duties whose accomplishment is prescribed to him by circumstances are only a play to him, and I admit that fortune favors him in such wise that none of the actions which his good heart may demand of him will be hard to him. Who would not be charmed with such a delightful harmony between the instincts of nature and the prescriptions of reason? and who could help admiring such a man? Nevertheless, though he may inspire us with affection, are we quite sure that he is really virtuous? Or in general that he has anything that corresponds to the idea of virtue? If this man had only in view to obtain agreeable sensations, unless he were mad he could not act in any other possible way; and he would have to be his own enemy to wish to be vicious. Perhaps the principle of his actions is pure, but this is a question to be discussed between himself and his conscience. For our part, we see nothing of it; we do not see him do anything more than a simply clever man would do who had no other god than pleasure. Thus all his virtue is a phenomenon that is explained by reasons derived from the sensuous order, and we are by no means driven to seek for reasons beyond the world of sense.

Let us suppose that this same man falls suddenly under misfortune. He is deprived of his possessions; his reputation is destroyed; he is chained to his bed by sickness and suffering; he is robbed by death of all those he loves; he is forsaken in his distress by all in whom he had trusted. Let us under these circumstances again seek him, and demand the practice of the same virtues under trial as he formerly had practised during the period of his prosperity. If he is found to be absolutely the same as before, if his poverty has not deteriorated his benevolence, or ingratitude his kindly offices of good-will, or bodily suffering his equanimity, or adversity his joy in the happiness of others; if his change of fortune is perceptible in externals, but not in his habits, in the matter, but not in the form of his conduct; then, doubtless, his virtue could not be explained by any reason drawn from the physical order; the idea of nature—which always necessarily supposes that actual phenomena rest upon some anterior phenomenon, as effects upon cause—this idea no longer suffices to enable us to comprehend this man; because there is nothing more contradictory than to admit that effect can remain the same when the cause has changed to its contrary. We must then give up all natural explanation or thought of finding the reason of his acts in his condition; we must of necessity go beyond the physical order, and seek the principle of his conduct in quite another world, to which the reason can indeed raise itself with its ideas, but which the understanding cannot grasp by its conceptions. It is this revelation of the absolute moral power which is subjected to no condition of nature, it is this which gives to the melancholy feeling that seizes our heart at the sight of such a man that peculiar, inexpressible charm, which no delight of the senses, however refined, could arouse in us to the same extent as the sublime.

Thus the sublime opens to us a road to overstep the limits of the world of sense, in which the feeling of the beautiful would forever imprison us. It is not little by little (for between absolute dependence and absolute liberty there is no possible transition), it is suddenly and by a shock that the sublime wrenches our spiritual and independent nature away from the net which feeling has spun round us, and which enchains the soul the more tightly because of its subtle texture. Whatever may be the extent to which feeling has gained a mastery over men by the latent influence of a softening taste, when even it should have succeeded in penetrating into the most secret recesses of moral jurisdiction under the deceptive envelope of spiritual beauty, and there poisoning the holiness of principle at its source—one single sublime emotion often suffices to break all this tissue of imposture, at one blow to give freedom to the fettered elasticity of spiritual nature, to reveal its true destination, and to oblige it to conceive, for one instant at least, the feeling of its liberty. Beauty, under the shape of the divine Calypso, bewitched the virtuous son of Ulysses, and the power of her charms held him long a prisoner in her island. For long he believed he was obeying an immortal divinity, whilst he was only the slave of sense; but suddenly an impression of the sublime in the form of Mentor seizes him; he remembers that he is called to a higher destiny—he throws himself into the waves, and is free.

The sublime, like the beautiful, is spread profusely throughout nature, and the faculty to feel both one and the other has been given to all men; but the germ does not develop equally; it is necessary that art should lend its aid. The aim of nature supposes already that we ought spontaneously to advance towards the beautiful, although we still avoid the sublime: for the beautiful is like the nurse of our childhood, and it is for her to refine our soul in withdrawing it from the rude state of nature. But though she is our first affection, and our faculty of feeling is first developed for her, nature has so provided, nevertheless, that this faculty ripens slowly and awaits its full development until the understanding and the heart are formed. If taste attains its full maturity before truth and morality have been established in our heart by a better road than that which taste would take, the sensuous world would remain the limit of our aspirations. We should not know, either in our ideas or in our feelings, how to pass beyond the world of sense, and all that imagination failed to represent would be without reality to us. But happily it enters into the plan of nature, that taste, although it first comes into bloom, is the last to ripen of all the faculties of the mind. During this interval, man has time to store up in his mind a provision of ideas, a treasure of principles in his heart, and then to develop especially, in drawing from reason, his feeling for the great and the sublime.

As long as man was only the slave of physical necessity, while he had found no issue to escape from the narrow circle of his appetites, and while he as yet felt none of that superior liberty which connects him with the angels, nature, so far as she is incomprehensible, could not fail to impress him with the insufficiency of his imagination, and again, as far as she is a destructive force, to recall his physical powerlessness. He is forced then to pass timidly towards one, and to turn away with affright from the other. But scarcely has free contemplation assured him against the blind oppression of the forces of nature—scarcely has he recognized amidst the tide of phenomena something permanent in his own being—than at once the coarse agglomeration of nature that surrounds him begins to speak in another language to his heart, and the relative grandeur which is without becomes for him a mirror in which he contemplates the absolute greatness which is within himself. He approaches without fear, and with a thrill of pleasure, those pictures which terrified his imagination, and intentionally makes an appeal to the whole strength of that faculty by which we represent the infinite perceived by the senses, in order if she fails in this attempt, to feel all the more vividly how much these ideas are superior to all that the highest sensuous faculty can give. The sight of a distant infinity—of heights beyond vision, this vast ocean which is at his feet, that other ocean still more vast which stretches above his head, transport and ravish his mind beyond the narrow circle of the real, beyond this narrow and oppressive prison of physical life. The simple majesty of nature offers him a less circumscribed measure for estimating its grandeur, and, surrounded by the grand outlines which it presents to him, he can no longer bear anything mean in his way of thinking. Who can tell how many luminous ideas, how many heroic resolutions, which would never have been conceived in the dark study of the imprisoned man of science, nor in the saloons where the people of society elbow each other, have been inspired on a sudden during a walk, only by the contact and the generous struggle of the soul with the great spirit of nature? Who knows if it is not owing to a less frequent intercourse with this sublime spirit that we must partially attribute the narrowness of mind so common to the dwellers in towns, always bent under the minutiae which dwarf and wither their soul, whilst the soul of the nomad remains open and free as the firmament beneath which he pitches his tent?

But it is not only the unimaginable or the sublime in quantity, it is also the incomprehensible, that which escapes the understanding and that which troubles it, which can serve to give us an idea of the super-sensuous infinity. As soon as this element attains the grandiose and announces itself to us as the work of nature (for otherwise it is only despicable), it then aids the soul to represent to itself the ideal, and imprints upon it a noble development. Who does not love the eloquent disorder of natural scenery to the insipid regularity of a French garden? Who does not admire in the plains of Sicily the marvellous combat of nature with herself—of her creative force and her destructive power? Who does not prefer to feast his eyes upon the wild streams and waterfalls of Scotland, upon its misty mountains, upon that romantic nature from which Ossian drew his inspiration—rather than to grow enthusiastic in this stiff Holland, before the laborious triumph of patience over the most stubborn of elements? No one will deny that in the rich grazing-grounds of Holland, things are not better ordered for the wants of physical man than upon the perfid crater of Vesuvius, and that the understanding which likes to comprehend and arrange all things, does not find its requirements rather in the regularly planted farm-garden than in the uncultivated beauty of natural scenery. But man has requirements which go beyond those of natural life and comfort or well-being; he has another destiny than merely to comprehend the phenomena which surround him.

In the same manner as for the observant traveller, the strange wildness of nature is so attractive in physical nature—thus, and for the same reason, every soul capable of enthusiasm finds even in the regrettable anarchy found in the moral world a source of singular pleasure. Without doubt he who sees the grand economy of nature only from the impoverished light of the understanding; he who has never any other thought than to reform its defiant disorder and to substitute harmony, such a one could not find pleasure in a world which seems given up to the caprice of chance rather than governed according to a wise ordination, and where merit and fortune are for the most part in opposition. He desires that the whole world throughout its vast space should be ruled like a house well regulated; and when this much-desired regularity is not found, he has no other resource than to defer to a future life, and to another and better nature, the satisfaction which is his due, but which neither the present nor the past afford him. On the contrary, he renounces willingly the pretension of restoring this chaos of phenomena to one single notion; he regains on another side, and with interest, what he loses on this side. Just this want of connection, this anarchy, in the phenomena, making them useless to the understanding, is what makes them valuable to reason. The more they are disorderly the more they represent the freedom of nature. In a sense, if you suppress all connection, you have independence. Thus, under the idea of liberty, reason brings back to unity of thought that which the understanding could not bring to unity of notion. It thus shows its superiority over the understanding, as a faculty subject to the conditions of a sensuous order. When we consider of what value it is to a rational being to be independent of natural laws, we see how much man finds in the liberty of sublime objects as a set-off against the checks of his cognitive faculty. Liberty, with all its drawbacks, is everywhere vastly more attractive to a noble soul than good social order without it—than society like a flock of sheep, or a machine working like a watch. This mechanism makes of man only a product; liberty makes him the citizen of a better world.

It is only thus viewed that history is sublime to me. The world, as a historic object, is only the strife of natural forces; with one another and with man's freedom. History registers more actions referable to nature than to free will; it is only in a few cases, like Cato and Phocion, that reason has made its power felt. If we expect a treasury of knowledge in history how we are deceived! All attempts of philosophy to reconcile what the moral world demands with what the real world gives is belied by experience, and nature seems as illogical in history as she is logical in the organic kingdoms.

But if we give up explanation it is different. Nature, in being capricious and defying logic, in pulling down great and little, in crushing the noblest works of man, taking centuries to form—nature, by deviating from intellectual laws, proves that you cannot explain nature by nature's laws themselves, and this sight drives the mind to the world of ideas, to the absolute.

But though nature as a sensuous activity drives us to the ideal, it throws us still more into the world of ideas by the terrible. Our highest aspiration is to be in good relations with physical nature, without violating morality. But it is not always convenient to serve two masters; and though duty and the appetites should never be at strife, physical necessity is peremptory, and nothing can save men from evil destiny. Happy is he who learns to bear what he cannot change! There are cases where fate overpowers all ramparts, and where the only resistance is, like a pure spirit, to throw freely off all interest of sense, and strip yourself of your body. Now this force comes from sublime emotions, and a frequent commerce with destructive nature. Pathos is a sort of artificial misfortune, and brings us to the spiritual law that commands our soul. Real misfortune does not always choose its time opportunely, while pathos finds us armed at all points. By frequently renewing this exercise of its own activity the mind controls the sensuous, so that when real misfortune comes, it can treat it as an artificial suffering, and make it a sublime emotion. Thus pathos takes away some of the malignity of destiny, and wards off its blows.

Away then with that false theory which supposes falsely a harmony binding well being and well doing. Let evil destiny show its face. Our safety is not in blindness, but in facing our dangers. What can do so better than familiarity with the splendid and terrible evolution of events, or than pictures showing man in conflict with chance; evil triumphant, security deceived—pictures shown us throughout history, and placed before us by tragedy? Whoever passes in review the terrible fate of Mithridates, of Syracuse, and Carthage, cannot help keeping his appetite in check, at least for a time, and, seeing the vanity of things, strive after that which is permanent. The capacity of the sublime is one of the noblest aptitudes of man. Beauty is useful, but does not go beyond man. The sublime applies to the pure spirit. The sublime must be joined to the beautiful to complete the aesthetic education, and to enlarge man's heart beyond the sensuous world.

Without the beautiful there would be an eternal strife between our natural and rational destiny. If we only thought of our vocation as spirits we should be strangers to this sphere of life. Without the sublime, beauty would make us forget our dignity. Enervated—wedded to this transient state, we should lose sight of our true country. We are only perfect citizens of nature when the sublime is wedded to the beautiful.

Many things in nature offer man the beautiful and sublime. But here again he is better served at second-hand. He prefers to have them ready-made in art rather than seek them painfully in nature. This instinct for imitation in art has the advantage of being able to make those points essential that nature has made secondary. While nature suffers violence in the organic world, or exercises violence, working with power upon man, though she can only be aesthetical as an object of pure contemplation, art, plastic art, is fully free, because it throws off all accidental restrictions and leaves the mind free, because it imitates the appearance, not the reality of objects. As all sublimity and beauty consists in the appearance, and not in the value of the object, it follows that art has all the advantages of nature without her shackles.