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Sublime, The

  The term the Sublime (Latin, ‘what is under the threshold [of experience]’) was first named by the literary critic Longinus (?2nd century  CE), and received much currency in Europe when his treatise On the Sublime was translated by Boileau in 1674. The Sublime is a conglomerate name for anything for which human beings feel wonder: the divine, natural phenomena, outstanding or inspirational human qualities. Implicit in its recognition is a somewhat self-congratulatory feeling that humankind, alone of creation, is able to experience it, and to articulate that experience in words, writing or images.

The idea had enormous currency among 18th-century European thinkers, and influenced the arts, philosophy and politics. Edmund Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), said that the Sublime, in contrast to the ordered universe of the Enlightenment, contains the potential to fire the imagination. Immanuel Kant, in The Critique of Judgement (1790) described the feeling of humanity confronted with something of limitless power, and defined ‘sublime’ qualities as those which transcend understanding. Characteristic of such thinking is the way, in fine art, the painters of the time, and for generations later, showed the immensity of Nature: for example in Turner\'s Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour\'s Mouth (1842), humanity is not at one with Nature, as in a pastoral, but in danger of being overwhelmed by its limitless power. The impulse of such thinking was always towards a broad-brush emotional assertion, sometimes inarticulate but always grandiose.

The idea of the Sublime had a crucial effect on the rise of Romanticism in the arts and the notion of the ‘superman’ in 19th-century philosophy. Because such ideas were the antithesis of scientific rationalism, they helped to create the standoff between science and the arts which did not exist until the 18th century, but which has, some say, been prevalent ever since. MG KMcL

See also scientific method; two cultures.Further reading P. Crowther, The Kantian Sublime: from Morality to Art; , M.D. Paley, The Apocalyptic Sumblime.



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