Saturday, November 28, 2009

Longinus, Burke, and Kant: Origins of the Sublime

While our discussion of the sublime in class was centered on Kant’s philosophy, the concept of the sublime has been continuously developed throughout the history of aesthetics. This paper will focus on three influential figures with regards to the defining of the sublime: the Greek philosophy and writer Dionysius Longinus, the 18th Century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, and Kant. Through examining each of their takes on what the sublime is, and where it springs from, the goal is to lay out a broader appreciation on what the sublime has been interpreted to be.

The concept of the sublime is first attributed to the Greek critic Dionysius Longinus. In his work Peri Hupsos or On Sublimity, written in the first century A.D., Longinus writes that “the sublime is a certain eminence or perfection of language, and that the greatest writers, both in verse and prose, have by this alone obtained their prize of glory, and filled all time with their renown” (23). Addressing the question of where the sublime exists that it can be brought out by language, Longinus gives five sources: 1) through boldness and grandeur of thoughts; 2) through the raising of passions to their highest degree; 3) through the skillful application of both feeling and language in writing; 4) through the use of graceful expression; and 5) through a dignified and grand composition of sentences (23). The common theme in each case is stretching and surpassing rationality through thoughts made grand in writing, thoughts that pull the audience out of their common ideas and into a larger arena, forcing the audience to think and perceive in a mode beyond normality.

In Phillip Shaw’s book The Sublime, he describes Longinus’ depiction of the sublime as ravishing, or even raping the audience. In Longinus’ words, the successful incorporation of the sublime in language, thought, and literature endues works “with a strength irresistible” that “strikes home, and triumphs over every hearer,” (23) transporting the audience members from their individual feelings into collective awe of the literary work. The sublime, then, is the masterfully crafted force of language so powerful that it overcomes rationality, causing the audience to submit to incomprehensible feelings, and leaving them overwhelmed and in awe of the experience that transported them into a realm of sentiment beyond description. It does not lay waiting in an object ready to leap out at those who happen upon it, or is feeling that can be recognized in nature at all, but rather is an overcoming of conventional thought that is created and brought out through powerful language.

Another important aspect of Longinus’ depiction of the sublime is its apparent compatibility with the concept of beauty. As only the greatest, most talented, and ingenious writers and thinkers could produce the sublime, these works were at the same time beautiful and well loved. The sublime and the beautiful, then, work hand in hand, with the sublime experience being at the same time an experience of beauty that surpasses normal limitations of thought and sentiment.

Although Longinus’ On the Sublime was written in the first century A.D., it was largely absent in aesthetic debate until the 17th Century, and only gained real prominence after its translation into French in 1674. Most 17th and 18th philosophers agreed with and developed upon Longinus’ account of the sublime as primarily drawn out of thought and language, and particularly in literature and poetry. The sublime remained attached to concepts of beauty as well, as neither were thought to be completely exclusive of the other in their traits and in their portrayal. However, in 1759 Irish philosopher Edmund Burke challenged these notions with his treatise “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” While Longinus argued that the sources of the sublime ultimately lay in the power of thought and literature, Burke refuted this account of the sublime’s origin when he wrote “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say whatever is conversant about terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime” (131).

Consequently, instead of citing language and thought as the sublime’s origin, Burke’s argument is that the sublime is essentially a reaction to an object of terror, a thing that produces a horror which is “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (131). As a result, although Longinus and Burke still agree that the sublime in effect wrenches the individual away from normality by an incomprehensible feeling, their ascription of the origin of the sublime is drastically different. According Longinus, the sublime is created by humans through an elevation of language and thought to their highest, most overpowering levels, pulling individuals out of their comfort zones into a feeling of incomprehension. Burke’s account, though, is that the sublime exists within objects that produce a feeling of potential pain. Although the sublime can never be pain itself, since “when danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible,” (131) it exists in the feeling of delight that occurs when recognizing the potential for pain without actually feeling it. Consequently, Burke argues that the sublime is not dependent on language for its evocation, but perhaps is best felt when encountering natural objects that produce a delightful fear.

Burke goes even further in accounting for the sublime’s origin with his descriptions of terror and power as the two primary sources. Describing fear as the mere thought of the actual pain, Burke argues that “whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not” (133). In other words, the sublime is not a reaction to the grand scope of a thought, as it is described by Longinus, but rather by the terror evoked by an object of thought, whether that object is big or small. Similarly, the sublime can be elicited both from objects of sight or of thought, as both have the power to invoke terror without actually causing pain, and as such are both potential sources for the sublime.

With regards to thoughts or objects that do not immediately inspire fear or terror, Burke says that there is “nothing sublime which is not some modification of power” (137). Again, this fear of power can come from a big or small object, as well as simply from a thought. Burke connected power to a fear of pain when he wrote that “pain is always inflicted by a power in some way superior, because we never submit to pain willingly…strength, violence, pain and terror, are ideas that rush in upon the mind together” (137). Witnessing an animal or an object with immense power creates the sublime by recognition of the potential pain that could be caused by such force, even if the threat never materializes. An example of this fear of power may be witnessing an avalanche, as the sheer, destructive force of the landslide creates in the observer a feeling of the sublime due to recognizing the potential for pain even when fear itself is not present.

With his assertion that the origin of the sublime lies in objects of pain instead of in the grand working of thought, language, and literature, Burke provides a new perspective against Longinus that he further drives home with his portrayal of the sublime and the beautiful as antithetical forces. Longinus maintains that beauty and the sublime coincide, a claim supported by works of great literature in which the genius writer is able to lift the audience with the grand language of the sublime, which is also regarded as a beautiful writing. Burke argues, though, that beauty and the sublime are as opposed as night and day and can never coincide. This is because for Burke, unlike Longinus, one can never find the sublime beautiful, as the sublime is ultimately founded on an object that causes fear, while a beautiful object can never be sublime since the origin of beauty is in perceiving a pleasurable object (140).

Burke’s appreciation of the origin of the sublime sets the stage for Kant’s ideas that we discussed in class. Similar to Burke, Kant argues that sublime exists only in separation from the object being perceived; there is no sublimity in directly fearing for one’s life, but there is a sense of the sublime in recognizing that one’s life could be in danger. For example, Kant would agree that the avalanche elicits a feeling of the sublime to the extent the observer is removed from the actual path of destruction, and is therefore able to reflect upon the power of the landslide.

This reflection though, points to a likely split between Longinus, Burke, and Kant. Unlike the others, Kant posits that the origin of the sublime is in instances where the imagination, the sentiments, of the mind cannot grasp an object’s might, resulting in the transcendence of reason. An example of this is reflecting upon the infinite. Kant argues that when the mind tries to imagine such scope it ultimately fails due to imagination’s inability to picture what it has as its aim. Reason, on the other hand, tells the person that the infinite makes sense even though it is incomprehensible, and so triumphs over the failure of the imagination. The resulting sensation, of sentimental incomprehension that still makes rational sense, is the sublime.

As a result, Kant would reject Burke’s claim that the origin of the sublime is terror or the potential for pain. Instead, he would argue that the sublime comes from the failure of imagination to fully comprehend an object of immense terror or pain, which results in a feeling of delight brought on by the transcendence of reason. While both assert that this delight is a characteristic of the sublime then, each have different conclusions. Burke wants to stop at the sensation, saying that the sublime is simply the detachment from the potentially pain inducing object of perceived terror. Kant agrees that the sublime could not exist without the detachment, but argues that the delight of the sublime arises due to the superiority of reason over the failure of imagination to sensibly comprehend an object.

Consequently, as Burke went in a different direction than Longinus in searching for the sources of the sublime beyond the feelings elicited in language, thought, and writing, Kant went away Burke in looking beyond sentiments and feelings to the relation of these feelings to reason and to their inability to comprehend the objects they address. Kant’s conception has since drawn considerable debate, though, as separating the sublime and the beautiful too much from the actual objects that are directed towards. As a result, the divergent interpretations that Longinus, Burke, and Kant have of the sublime show that as a concept it is has undergone continuous changes and is still not well agreed upon. Noting these different opinions and theories, though, prompts questions such as whose understanding is actually right, whether the three philosophers discussed are each talking about different types of the sublime (or whether they are talking about the same thing at all), and what the underlying characteristics of the sublime actually are.

Works Cited

Shaw, Philip. The Sublime. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.


  1. This is brilliant! You've taken some really dense philosophical discussions and distilled them down to their essential ideas! Your writing is so logical, clear, and coherent! I'm a college soph, taking a class in English Romantic Lit. This is my first time to get into the philosophy of aesthetics as it relates to Gothic classics. Thank you so much for helping me to get a better understanding of Longinus, Burke, and Kant