I visited Sanibel Island recently; and as usual I was struck by just how beautiful the island is. I would even say that it is sublime; and that got me to thinking about just what the word sublime really means. It seems to be that it is one of those words that people may use without really understanding what it is supposed to mean.
The word sublime (as an adjective) has been in use since c.1567, although the concept is much older. It comes from the Latin sublimis—meaning “literally, high, elevated.” It is too complex to have one single definition. Rather, there are two competing schools of thought which have sought to pin down its meaning. These schools arose out of the study of aesthetics that consumed the thinkers of the 18th and 19th Centuries in Britain (Landow; “Sublime”).
According to John Ruskin, English poet and thinker, sublimity can be somewhat loosely described as “the effect of greatness upon the feelings” (Landow). That greatness takes the forms of power, beauty, or virtue. He further feels that the sublime is not separate from beauty and pleasure, but is instead another manifestation of the same concepts. This may stem from his desire to see the appreciation of art and beauty (including that of gardens) as a unified front/concept. Splitting beauty and the sublime into separate concepts would muddy the issue for Ruskin (Landow).
Ruskin’s ideas on the nature of sublimity disagree with those of his contemporary sources (although the idea he promotes has been in circulation since the first century): Joseph Addison, Edmund Burke, and William Wordsworth. In their collective opinions, the term refers to an aesthetic concept similar to, but separate from, beauty. This will become the most utilized of the two schools of thought. One of their main tenets is the idea that the perception of the sublime stems from the observer. This is a change from the older idea that an object’s aesthetics are inherent to that object and based on order (Landow; Burke). Edmund Burke has this further point to make on the nature of the sublime:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort of 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 (Burke).
Burke goes on to relate his belief that, because pain is stronger than pleasure, it is the emotion tied most strongly to the sublime. This more than anything else, separates it from beauty, which he associates with smoothness and delicacy. To put it more simply, beauty is pleasing to the senses. Sublimity inspires awe. Something beautiful can be sublime, but not all sublime things are beautiful (Burke; Smith).
Burke, Edmund. Philosophical Inquiry Into the Nature of the Sublime and Beautiful. Read How You Want, 2008. EBook.
Landow, George P. “The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin.” VictorianWeb.org. Web.
Smith, Laura. “beautiful, sublime.” The University of Chicago Theories of Media Keywords Glossary. Web.
“Sublime.” Merrian-Webster.com. Web. 3 September 2010.