There is a terrible beauty to a raging storm, a primal awe at the foot of a mountain and something deeply evocative about the immense and boundless ocean.
This, for Kant, was the "sublime". Kant believed that all aesthetic judgements, which he calls ‘inner feelings’, could be separated into what is beautiful and what is sublime. Humans are responsive to both, but in different measure.
Broadly, the beautiful is characterised as being pleasant, pretty and joyful. The sublime is deep, meaningful and profound. The fragrant rose, the frolicking lamb or a meadow is beautiful, but the thunderous storm, the crashing tide and huge ravines are sublime.
Kant goes further, though, in applying these our relationships. We perhaps know the beautiful person: quick witted, the centre piece of a good night out. They're silly and fun, but we suspect also at times shallow or facile. We know, too, the sublime person: they're dignified and honest, the ones we turn to for advice and reflection. They're reliable and supportive, but, at times we find them morose, stuffy, perhaps boring.
Kant applied his theory to sexes (women are beautiful, men are sublime) and also to nations...and is overtly racist by today’s standards. The French are the beautiful: dandies, fops, and of “enamoured dalliance”. The English come off well, as principled and sublime. The Spaniard’s ’adventurous...terrifying” conquests of the New World made them sublime. The Japanese were the ‘English of the Orient’ (quite a backhanded compliment), whilst, most damningly racist of all, ‘the Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous’ . All the nations are so divided (it’s interesting to read the entirety in Section 4). The Germans, of course, are the perfect embodiment of both…
Undoubtedly, many of Kant's examples today are odd indeed, but his distinction has an intuitive appeal and we can relate in our own way.
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