The Beautiful and the Sublime

Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

Finer feeling, which we now wish to consider, is chiefly of two kinds: the feeling of the sublime and that of the beautiful. The stirring of each is pleasant, but in different ways. The sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peak rises above the clouds, the description of a raging storm, or Milton’s portrayal of the infernal kingdom, arouse enjoyment but with horror; on the other hand, the sight of flower-strewn meadows, valleys with winding brooks and covered with grazing flocks, the description of Elysium, or Homer’s portrayal of the girdle of Venus, also occasion a pleasant sensation but one that is joyous and smiling. In order that the former impression could occur to us in due strength, we must have a feeling of the sublime, and, in order to enjoy the latter well, a feeling of the beautiful. Tall oaks and lonely shadows in a sacred grove are sublime; flower beds, low hedges, and trees trimmed in figures are beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful. Temperaments that possess a feeling for the sublime are drawn gradually, by the quiet stillness of a summer evening as the shimmering light of the stars breaks through the brown shadows of night and the lonely moon rises into view, into high feelings of friendship, of disdain for the world, of eternity. The shining day stimulates busy fervor and a feeling of gaiety. The sublime moves, the beautiful charms. The mien of a man who is undergoing the full feeling of the sublime is earnest, sometimes rigid and astonished. On the other hand, the lively sensation of the beautiful proclaims itself through shining cheerfulness in the eyes, through smiling features, and often through audible mirth. The sublime is in turn of different kinds. Its feeling is sometimes accompanied with a certain dread, or melancholy; in some cases merely with quiet wonder; and in still others with a beauty completely pervading a sublime plan. The first I shall call the terrifying sublime, the second the noble, and the third the splendid.

Immanuel Kant
Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764)

Painting by Alfred Bierstadt: Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868)

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2 thoughts on “The Beautiful and the Sublime

  1. I don’t agree with the definition of the beautiful, find I find the discussion lovely. ‘Terrifying sublime’ feels like a doorway to my obsessions. Much love.

  2. Yes, those definitions are closer. Perhaps for me beauty is a sensation of abandonment, being rendered mute, the sensation of no thought, only… pleasure felt behind closed eyes (as they inevitably will close, momentarily, when beauty strikes me), and… it is my soul singing.
    And then, sometimes, my mouth waters.

    Obsessions would probably best be discussed in a non-public forum. 🙂

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