Of the Sublime ~ Toward the further elaboration of some Kantian Ideas

This may be the first, and only, English translation of this essay by Friedrich Schiller, which provides valuable insights into the process by which he composed some of his most famous poems. Of the Sublime may perhaps have been eclipsed by the better known On the Sublime, by the same author. It is posted here by permission of the translator.

Sublime we name an object, at whose conceptualization our sensuous nature feels its limits, but our rational nature its superiority, its freedom from limits; in the face of this we thus derive physically our brevity, which we surmount but morally, i.e. through ideas.

Only as sensuous beings are we dependent, as rational beings we are free.

The sublime subject matter gives us firstly, as beings of Nature, to feel our dependence, while secondly acquainting us with the independence, that we as rational beings maintain over Nature, within ourselves as well as without ourselves.

We are dependent, in so far as something outside us contains the reason, why something inside us becomes possible.

So long as Nature outside us conforms to the conditions, under which something within us becomes possible, we cannot feel our independence. If we are to become conscious of same, then must Nature be conceived of as conflicting with that, which to us is a requirement, and only through her cooperation possible, or, to say just as much, she must be found in contradiction to our impulses.

Hence, all impulses, that are efficient in us as sensuous beings, can be attributed to two basic impulses. Firstly we possess an impulse to change our circumstances, to give expression to our existence, to be efficient, which all amounts to gaining conceptions, and can thus be called conception-drive, cognition-drive. Secondly we possess an impulse to maintain our circumstances, to continue our existence, which impulse is named self-preservation.

The conception-drive goes with cognition, the self-preservation-drive with feelings, hence with inner perceptions of existence. We stand thus through these two kinds of drives in double dependence on Nature. The first becomes palpable to us, when Nature is found wanting in the conditions under which we attain cognition; the second becomes palpable to us, when it contradicts the conditions, under which it is possible for us to continue our existence. Precisely thus do we maintain through our Reason a twofold independence from Nature, firstly in that we ( in the theoretical sense ) transcend natural conditions, and can conceive of more, than we perceive; secondly in that we ( in the practical sense ) brush aside natural conditions, and can contradict our desires through our will. A subject matter, at whose perception we experience the first is great in theory, a sublimity of cognition. A subject matter, that allows us to internalize the independence of our will, is great in practice, a sublimity of consciousness.

In the case of the theoretical-sublime, Nature stands as the object of cognition in contradiction to the conception-drive. In the practical- sublime, it stands as the object of perception, in contradiction to the preservation-drive. In the one it were considered mainly as a subject matter, that ought to extend our cognition; in the other it is conceived of as a power, that can determine our own circumstances. Accordingly Kant names the practical-sublime the sublime of power, or the dynamic-sublime as opposed to the mathematical-sublime. Because the concepts dynamic and mathematical can shed no light on whether the sphere of the sublime is exhausted through these classifications, I have given preference to the classification into theoretical- and practical-sublime.

In what way we are dependent on natural conditions in cognition, and this dependence becomes conscious for us, shall be sufficiently elaborated with the development of the theoretical-sublime. That our existence as sensuous beings is made dependent on natural conditions outside ourselves, will hardly require its own proof. As soon as Nature outside us changes the determinate relationship to us, upon which our physical well-being is founded, then immediately our existence in the sensuous world, which is tied to this physical well-being, is challenged and placed in danger. Nature thus has the conditions in her power, under which we exist; and so that we should pay heed to this relationship to nature, so indispensable to our being, a vigilant guardian has been given our physical life by way of the self-preservation drive, and by way of pain is a sentry given to this drive. Hence, as soon as our physical circumstances suffer a change, that threatens to ordain those circumstances to their opposite, then pain reminds of the danger, and the impulse of self-preservation is summoned to resistance.

If the danger is of the kind, to which resistance were futile, then must fear ensue. Thus an object, whose existence conflicts with the requirements for ours, is, if we do not feel that our power measures up to it, an object of fear, fearsome.

But it is only fearsome for us as sensuous beings, for only as such are we dependent on Nature. That in us, which is not subject to Nature, to Nature's law, has no commerce with Nature outside us, considered as a power. Nature, conceived of as a power, that admittedly can determine our state, but holds no sway over our will, is dynamically or practically sublime.

The practical-sublime differentiates itself thus from the theoretical-sublime, in that the one conflicts with the conditions for our existence, the other only with the conditions for cognition. The theoretical-sublime is a subject matter, in so far as it bears with itself the conception of infinity, whose representation the power of imagination feels itself unequal to. The practical-sublime is a subject matter, in so far as it bears with itself the conception of a danger, which our physical strength feels itself unable to overcome. We succumb to the temptation, to form for ourselves a conceptualization of the first. We succumb to the temptation, to oppose the power of the second. An example of the first is the ocean at rest, the ocean in storm an example of the second. A collossally tall tower or mountain can produce a sublimity of cognition. If it bends down to us, then it will be transformed into a sublimity of consciousness. Both have that again in common with one another, that directly through their contradiction to the conditions of our being and functioning do they expose that power in us, that feels bound to none of these conditions, hence a power that on the one hand can conceive of more than sense can grasp, and on the other fears no threat to its independence and in its manifestations suffers no violence, if its material carriage should fall victim to the frightful force of Nature.

If both kinds of sublime have an equal relationship to our power of reason, they stand none the less in a completely distinct relationship to our sensuousness, which establishes an important difference between them, of intensity as well as interest.

The theoretical- sublime contradicts the conception-drive, the practical-sublime the preservation-drive. With the first is but a single manifestation of the sensuous conceptual power challenged, but with the second is challenged the final basis of all possible manifestations of same, namely the existence.

Now, admittedly each abortive endeavor toward cognition is linked to aversion, since an active impulse is thereby contradicted. But this aversion can never intensify to the point of pain, so long as we know our existence to be independent of the success or failure of such a cognition, and our self-esteem does not thereby suffer.

A subject matter however, that conflicts with the requirements for our being, that through its immediate perception would give rise to pain, gives rise to terrors in the imagination; for nature had to make entirely different arrangements for the preservation of her strength, than she found necessary for the maintainence of her functioning. Our sensuousness is thus quite differently interested in the frightful subject matter as in the infinite; for the drive for self-preservation raises a much louder voice than the conception-drive. It is something entirely different, if we are concerned over the possession of a single conception, or over the basis for all possible conceptions, our existence in the sensuous world - if we have Being itself to fear for, or a single expression of same.

But precisely on this account, because the frightful subject matter acts upon our sensuous nature more forcefully than the infinite one, so the gap between the sensuous and the transcendental capability is also felt all the more ardently, so the superiority of Reason and the inner freedom of the heart become all the more prominent. That the entire essence of the sublime is founded upon the consciousness of this, our rational freedom, and all delight in the sublime is grounded directly on this consciousness alone, so it follows ( as experience also teaches ), that the frightful must needs touch the aesthetic imagination more ardently and pleasantly than the infinite, and that therefore the practical-sublime takes a very great priority over the theoretical in strength of feeling.

The theoretically-great expands in essence only our sphere, the practically-great, the dynamically-great our strength -- we experience our true and perfect independence from Nature only through the latter; for it is something entirely different, to feel oneself independent from natural conditions in the mere scenarios of the imagination and in one's entire inner being, than to feel oneself oblivious and elevated above fate, above all coincidence. Nothing is closer to home to man as sensuous being than the concern for his existence, and no dependency is more oppressive to him as this, to consider Nature as that power, that has command over his being. And he feels himself free of this dependency through contemplation of the practical-sublime. "The irresistible power of Nature," says Kant, "gives us, as sensuous beings, admittedly to recognize our impotence, but reveals in us simultaneously a capability to pass judgment as independent from her, and a superiority over Nature, upon which is based a self-preservation of an entirely different kind as that, which can be challenged and placed in danger by Nature outside us, whereby humanity in our person remains unbowed, although the man must needs be overcome by that force. In such ways," he continues, "is the frightful power of Nature judged aesthetically by us as sublime, because it arouses in us our strength, that is not Nature, in order to view all that concerns us as sensuous beings, goods, health, and life, as small, and thereby to consider that power of Nature - to which we are surely subject to in view of these goods - as no force for ourselves and our personality, under which we should have bowed, were it a matter of our highest principles and their upholding or abandonment. Thus," he concludes, "is Nature called sublime, because it elevates the power of imagination to the depiction of those cases, in which the heart can make palpable its own sublimity of disposition." - This sublimity of our rational disposition - this our practical independence from Nature must well be differentiated from that superiority, that we know can hold its own in particular instances against Nature as a power either through our bodily strength or our understanding, and which admittedly has to it something of the Great, but in no way the Sublime. A man, for example, who struggles with a wild animal and overcomes it through the strength of his arm or also through cunning; a torrential stream like the Nile, whose power is broken by dams, and that human intellect transforms from a harmful thing into a useful one, in that its overflow is collected in canals and arid fields are irrigated therewith; a ship upon the sea, that through its man-made rigging is in shape to defy all the violence of the wild elements: in short, all of those instances, where man, through his ingenious intellect, has compelled Nature, where she is superior to him as a power and is armed to his demise, to obey him and serve his purposes - all of these instances, I say, arouse no feeling of the sublime, even if they do have something analogous and are pleasing to the aesthetic judgment. But why are they not sublime, when they none the less make the superiority of Man over Nature conceivable?

Here we must return to the concept of the sublime, wherein the reason may easily be discovered. In view of this concept only that subject matter is sublime, against which we succumb as beings of Nature, but from which we as beings of Reason, as beings not belonging to Nature, feel absolutely independent. Thus all natural materials, that man employs, in order to withstand Nature's might, are excluded from this concept of the sublime; for this concept demands by all means, that we ought not to be a match for the subject matter as natural beings, but that through that, which in us is not Nature ( and this is nothing other than pure Reason ), we should feel independent from it. But now all those aforementioned means, through which man becomes superior to Nature ( skill, cunning, and physical strength ), are taken out of Nature, and befit him therefore as a natural being; he withstands these things not as intelligence, but rather as a sensuous being, not morally through his inner freedom, but rather physically through the employment of natural strength. Therefore he is also not overcome by these things, but rather he is already superior to them as a sensuous being. But where he suffices with his physical powers, there is nothing there, which could oblige him to take refuge in his intelligent self, in the inner self-reliance of his power of Reason.

To experience the sublime it is thus absolutely required, that we see ourselves fully isolated from every physical means of resistance, and seek succor in our non-physical self. Such a subject matter must therefore be frightful to our sensuousness, and it is that no more, as soon as we feel we are a match for it through natural strengths.

This is also confirmed by experience. The mighty power of Nature is less sublime just to that degree, that it appears tamed by men, and it becomes quickly sublime again, as soon as it shames the artifice of men. A horse, that still runs about free and untamed in the woods, is frightful to us as a natural power superior to us, and can provide subject matter for a sublime portrayal. Yet this horse, tamed, at the yoke or teamed before a wagon, loses his frightfulness, and with it also everything sublime. But tear the bridle from this tamed horse, it rears furiously under its rider, it gives itself violently its freedom once more, thus is its frightfulness there again, and it becomes sublime anew.

The physical superiority of men over the power of Nature is thus so little ground for the sublime, that almost everywhere it is encountered, it weakens or entirely destroys the sublimity of the subject matter. We can admittedly dwell with considerable pleasure upon the contemplation of human adroitness, that has known how to overcome the wildest powers of Nature, but the source of this pleasure is logical and not aesthetic; it is a result of reflection and is not infused through the immediate imagination.

Nature is thus nowhere sublime, but where she is frightful. But now the question arises: is this also so in reverse? Is it everywhere, where it is frightful, also practically sublime?

Here we must return again to the concept of the sublime. To this end it is such an essential requirement, that we feel ourselves dependent upon the subject matter as sensuous beings, while on the other hand it is essential, that as rational beings we feel independent of same. Where the first is not present, where the subject matter has nothing whatsoever frightful for our sensuousness, there no sublimity is possible. Where the second is lacking, where it is merely frightful, where we do not feel superior to it as rational beings, there is sublimity just as little possible.

Inner freedom of the heart belongs by all means thereto, in order to find the frightful sublime and take delight in it; for it can indeed be sublime, merely by giving us to experience our independence, our freedom of the heart. But at this point real and serious fear nullifies all freedom of the heart.

The sublime object must therefore indeed be frightful, but it may not arouse genuine fear. Fear is a circumstance of suffering and force; the sublime can please in free contemplation and through the feeling of inner activity alone. Either the frightful object may not therefore direct its might against us at all, or if this comes to pass, then our spirit must remain free, while our sensuousness is overwhelmed. But this latter case occurs exceedingly seldom and requires an elevation of human nature, that can hardly be thought possible in a subject. For there, where we find ourselves really in danger, where we ourselves are the object of a hostile power of Nature, then it is all over for the aesthetic judgment. As sublime as a tempest may be, considered from the shore, those who find themselves upon the ship, that is demolished by same, may be to the same degree little disposed to pronounce this aesthetic judgment over it.

We have thus to do merely with the first case, where the frightful object lets us indeed see its might, but it is not directed against us, where we know ourselves to be secure from same. We put ourselves therefore merely in our imagination in the case, where this might could strike ourselves and all resistance were futile. The terrifying is thus merely in the imagining, but already the mere imagining of danger, when it is in some measure fervent, brings the preservation-drive as well into action, and there ensues something analogous to what the real experience would generate. A shudder grips us, a feeling of uneasiness is aroused, our sensuousness is jolted. And without this beginning of real suffering, without this serious attack upon our existence we would merely play with the subject matter; and it must be serious, at least in the perception, if Reason is to take refuge in the idea of its freedom. The consciousness of our inner freedom can also only be valid and have some worth, in so far as it is therewith serious; but it cannot therewith be serious, if we merely play with imagining of danger.

I have said, that we must find ourselves in security, if the frightful is to please us. But now there are accidents and dangers, from which one can never know oneself to be safe, and that can yet be sublime in the imagination and are also actually so. The concept of security can thus not be restricted to that, whereby one knows oneself to be physically removed from the danger, like for example when one looks down from a high a well-fastened balustrade into a great depth, or from a height upon the stormy sea. Here to be sure the fearlessness is based upon the conviction of the impossibility that one can be affected. But upon what would one base his security from fate, from the omnipresent might of the Divinity, from painful illnesses, from acute bereavements, from death? Here there is no physical basis whatsoever for reassurance at hand; and when we contemplate fate in its frightfulness, then we must at the same time say to ourselves, that from this we are anything but removed.

There is thus a twofold basis for security. From such evils, from which it stands within our physical capability to flee, we can have outer physical security; but from such evils, that we are not in shape to withstand in a natural way, nor evade, we can have merely inner or moral security. This difference is especially important in relation to the sublime.

Physical security is an immediate basis for reassurance to our sensuousness, without any relation to our inner or moral circumstances. There is hence absolutely nothing required thereto, to contemplate without fear an object, before which one finds oneself in this physical security. Hence one observes among men a far greater unanimity of judgment on the sublimity of such objects, whose viewing is linked to this physical security, than on those, from which one has only moral security. The cause is before our eyes. Physical security does well for each of us in the same way; moral security, on the other hand, presupposes a disposition, that is not found in all subjects. But because this physical security applies only to sensuousness, it possesses nothing that could please Reason, and its influence is merely negative, in that it merely prevents, that the self-preservation-drive be startled and the freedom of the heart nullified.

It is entirely different with the inner or moral security. This is admittedly also a basis for reassurance to sensuousness (otherwise it were itself sublime), but is can only be mediated through ideas of Reason. We view the frightful without fear, because we feel ourselves beyond its power over us, either through the consciousness of our innocence, or through the thought of the indestructibility of our essence. This moral security thus postulates, as we see, ideas of religion, for only religion, but not morality, lays a basis for the reassurance of our sensuousness. Morality follows the presciption of Reason inexorably and without any regard for the interests of our sensuousness; but it is religion, that seeks to establish a reconciliation, a compromise between the demands of Reason and the concerns of sensuousness. Thus for moral security it in no way suffices, that we possess a moral consciousness, but rather it is still required that we conceptualize Nature as in accord with moral law, or what is here one and the same, that we conceptualize her as under the influence of a being of pure Reason. Death, for example, is one such subject matter, before which we have only moral security. The lively imagining of all the terrors of death, combined with the certainty that we cannot flee it, would make for most men, since the majority are far more sensuous- than rational-beings, thoroughly impossible to combine with this imagining as much calm as is required for an aesthetic judgment -- were the faith of Reason in immortality, even for sensuousness itself as well, not adequately informed otherwise.

But one must not so understand this, as if the imagining of death, when it is linked to sublimity, had secured this sublimity through the idea of immortality. -- Nothing could be farther from the truth. -- The idea of immortality, as I take it here, is a basis for reassurance for our impulse toward continuance, hence for our sensuousness, and I must observe once and for all, that for everything, that should make a sublime impression, sensuousness with its demands would have to have been absolutely dismissed, and all grounds for reassurance sought only in Reason. Hence this idea of immortality, with which security still finds accommodation to a certain extent ( as it is established in all positive religions ), can in no way contribute toward making the imagining of death into a sublime subject matter. More so must this idea only stand, so to speak, in the background, in order to merely come to the aid of sensuousness, whenever this should feel disconsolately and defenselessly placed before all terrors of annihilation, and should threaten to succumb to this furious attack. If this idea of immortality becomes the dominant one in the heart, then death loses its frightfulness, and the sublime vanishes.

Divinity, conceptualized in its omniscience, that illuminates every nook and cranny of the human heart, in its holiness, that tolerates no impure emotion, and in its might, that has our physical fate in its power, is a frightful conception, and can thereby become a sublime conception. We can have no physical security from the effects of this might, since it is equally impossible for us to evade it or resist it. Thus there remains to us only moral security, that we base upon the righteousness of this being and on our innocence. We view the terrible visions, through which it gives us to recognize its might, without terror, because the consciousness of our guiltlessness keeps us safe from them. This moral security makes it possible for us, at the imagining of this boundless, irresistible and omnipresent power, not to fully lose our freedom of heart, for when this is lost, then the heart is disposed to no aesthetic judgment. But it cannot be the cause of the sublime, because this feeling of security, if it does rest similarly upon moral bases, ultimately provides none the less only a basis of reassurance for sensuousness and gratifies the impulse of self-preservation; but the sublime never bases itself on the gratification of our impulses. If the conceptualization of divinity is to become practically ( dynamically ) sublime, then we may relate the feeling of our security not to our being, but rather to our principles. It must be indifferent to us, how we fare as beings of Nature, if we feel ourselves independent of the effects of its power only as intelligences. But we feel ourselves as beings of Reason independent of the Almighty itself, in so far as the Almighty itself cannot nullify our autonomy, cannot direct our will against our principles. Hence only in so far as we deny the Deity all natural influence over the disposition of our will, is the conceptualization of its power dynamically sublime. To feel oneself independent from the Deity in one's disposition of will, means nothing other than to be self-conscious, that the Deity could never work upon our will as one power. But because the pure will must at all times coincide with the will of the Deity, the case can thus never arise, that we direct ourselves out of pure Reason against the will of the Deity. We deny it therefore merely the influence over our will, in so far as we are self-conscious, that through nothing other than its unanimity with the pure law of Reason within us, hence not through authority, not through reward or punishment, not through regard for its might could it bear upon the disposition of our will. Our Reason venerates nothing in the Deity but its holiness, and fears also nothing from it but its disapproval - and this too only in so far as it recognizes in godly Reason its own laws. But it does not lie within the divine discretion, to approve or disapprove of our persuasions, but rather that is determined by our own reckoning. Hence in that sole case, where the Deity could become frightful for us, namely in its disapproval, we do not depend upon it. Thus the Deity, conceived of as a power, that can admittedly cancel our existence, but as long as we still have this existence, can have no influence over the actions of our Reason, is dynamically sublime - and also only that religion, which gives us this conception of the Deity, bears in itself the seal of sublimity.*

* [ "With this analysis of the concept of dynamic sublime," says Kant, "it appears to conflict, that we tend to conceive of God in thunderstorms, earthquakes, etc. as a raging power and none the less sublime, at which it would be from our side folly as well as blasphemy, to imagine a superiority of the heart over the effects of such a power. Here there appears to be no feeling of the sublimity of our own nature, but rather much more despondency and subjugation of our spirits, that is fitting frame of mind for the appearance of such a subject matter. In religion overall it appears to be prostration, adoration with contrite, fearful gestures that are the only proper conduct in the presence of the Deity, which consequently most peoples have adopted. But," he continues, "this frame of mind is by far not so necessarily linked to the idea of the sublimity of a religion. A man, who is conscious of his guilt and thus has cause to fear, is in no way in the frame of mind for marvelling at the divine greatness - only then, when his conscience is pure, do those effects of godly power serve to give him a sublime idea of the Deity, while on the other hand superstition feels mere fear and dread of the Deity, without esteeming it highly, out of which only propitiation and fawning can arise, never a religion of good transformation. KANT'S CRITIQUE OF THE AESTHETIC POWER OF JUDGEMENT. ANALYSIS OF THE SUBLIME. ]

The subject matter of the practical-sublime must be frightful for sensuousness; an evil must threaten our physical circumstances, and the conceptualization of the danger must set our self-preservation-drive in motion.

Our intelligible self, that in us, which is not Nature, must at that affection of the preservation-drive differentiate itself from the sensuous part of our being, and its autonomy, its independence from all, that physical Nature can affect, in short, its freedom, must become self-conscious.

But this freedom is absolutely only moral, not physical. Not through our natural strengths, not through our understanding, not as sensuous beings, may we feel ourselves superior to the frightful subject matter; for then our security would be determined always only through physical causes, hence empirical, and thus remain always still a dependency on Nature. Rather it must be entirely indifferent to us, how we fare as sensuous beings, and our freedom must consist merely in that we reckon our physical circumstances, that can be determined through Nature, in no way as our selves, but rather consider them as something external and foreign, that has no influence upon our moral person.

Great is he, who conquers the frightful. Sublime is he, who, while succumbing to it, fears it not.

Hannibal was theoretically great, for he pioneered a passage to Italy over the impassable Alps; practically great or sublime was he only in misfortune.

Great was Hercules, for he undertook and completed his twelve tasks. Sublime was Prometheus, for he, chained to Caucausus, did not rue his deed, and did not admit his wrong.

One can appear great in fortune, but sublime only in misfortune.

Practically sublime is thus every subject matter, that gives us admittedly to mark our impotence as beings of Nature -- but at the same time reveals in us a capability for resistance of an entirely different kind, which admittedly does not remove the danger from our physical existence, but ( which is infinitely more ) detaches our physical existence itself from our personality. It is thus no material security concerning merely one single case, but rather an ideal one encompassing all possible cases, of which we become conscious at the conception of the sublime. This is grounded hence in no way whatsoever in the conquest or cancellation of a danger threatening us, but rather upon the clearing away of the last conditions, under which alone there can be a danger for us, in that it teaches us to consider the sensuous part of our being, that alone is subject to the danger, as an external thing of Nature, that has nothing to do with our true person, our moral self.

The incoronation scene from "The Virgin of Orleans"

After establishing the concept of the practical-sublime we are in position, after the diversity of subjects, through which it is called forth, and after the diversity of relationships, in which we stand to these subjects, to categorize it.

In the conceptualization of the sublime we differentiate three ways. Firstly a subject matter of Nature as power. Secondly a bearing of this power on our physical capacity for resistance. Thirdly a bearing of same on our moral person. The sublime is thus the effect of three consecutive conceptualizations: 1) an objective physical power, 2) our subjective physical impotence, 3) our subjective moral predominance. But if immediately at each conceptualization of the sublime these three components must essentially and necessarily unite, then it is nonetheless coincidental, how we arrive at the conception of same, and thereupon a twofold major distinction of the sublime of power is now founded.

I. Either a subject matter as power, the objective cause of suffering, but not suffering itself, is given as an illustration, and it is the judging subject, who produces the conception of suffering in himself, and transforms the given subject matter through reference to the preservation-drive into an object of fear, and through reference to his moral person into a sublime one.

II. Or outside of the subject matter as power, suffering itself is objectively conceptualized at the same time as its frightfulness for humans, and nothing remains to the critical subject, but to make application thereof on his moral circumstances, and to produce the sublime out of the frightful. An object of the first class is contemplative-, of the second class pathetic-sublime.


Subject matters, which show us nothing further than a power of Nature, that is far superior to ours, but otherwise leave it to our discretion, whether we want to make application thereof on our physical circumstances or on our moral person, are merely contemplatively sublime. I name them thusly on this account, because they do not grip the heart so forcefully, that it could not persist in a condition of peaceful contemplation thereby. For the contemplative-sublime the greater part depends on the self-activation of the heart, because only one requirement is fulfilled from the outside, but the two others must be fulfilled by the subject himself. For this reason the contemplative-sublime is neither of such intensively strong effect, nor of such extensive effect as the pathetic-sublime. Not so extensive, because not all humans have sufficient power of imagination, to generate a lively conceptualization of the danger, not all have sufficient autonomous moral strength, not to prefer to avoid such a conceptualization. Not of such strong effect, because the conceptualization of the danger, as well when it is just as livelily aroused, is in this case none the less free-willed, and the heart remains master more easily over a conception, that it compelled through its own activity. The contemplative-sublime consequently provides an inferior, but also less mixed pleasure.

Nature yields nothing to the contemplative-sublime, but a subject matter as power, out of which it remains to the power of imagination to make something frightful for mankind. To the degree that the portion is large or small, that Fantasy has in the generation of this frightfulness, to the degree that she conducts her business more candidly or guardedly, so must the sublime also variously turn out.

An abyss, that yawns beneath our feet, a thunderstorm, a burning volcano, a mass of rocks, that looms over us, as if it would just want to tumble down, a storm upon the sea, a harsh winter of the polar region, a summer of the hot zone, rapacious or poisonous beasts, a flood and the like are such powers of Nature, against which our capacity for resistance is reckoned for nothing, and which stand indeed in opposition to our physical existence. Certain ideal subject matters themselves, as for example time, considered as a power, that works silently, but inexorably, necessity, whose stern law no being of Nature can evade, the moral idea of duty itself, that not seldom conducts itself as a hostile power against our physical existence, are frightful subject matters, as soon as the power of imagination applies them to the preservation-drive; and they become sublime, as soon as reason applies them to its highest laws. But because in all of these instances Fantasy first introduces the frightful into the combination, and it is entirely within our power, to suppress an idea, that is our own work, thus these subject matters belong to the classification contemplative-sublime.

But the conceptualization of danger has nonetheless here a real basis, and it requires merely the simple operation connecting the existence of these things with our physical existence in one conception, then there is the frightful. Fantasy needs to contribute nothing from her own material, but rather holds only to that, which is given her.

But not seldom are subject matters of Nature, indifferent in and of themselves, transformed through the intervention of Fantasy subjectively into frightful powers, and it is Fantasy herself, that not merely discovers the frightful through comparison, but rather, without having a sufficient basis thereto, independently creates it. This is the case with things extraordinary and indeterminate.

To man in the circumstances of childhood, where the power of imagination works in the most unrestrained way, everything is frightening, that is unusual. In every unexpected vision of Nature he believes he glimpses an enemy, that is armed against his being, and the preservation-drive is busy at once, to counter the attack. The preservation-drive is in this period his unlimited ruler, and because this drive is anxious and timid, the reign of same is a regime of terror and fear. The superstition, that forms in this epoch, is consequently black and terrible, and the customs also bear this hostile, dark character. One finds man sooner armed than clothed, and the first thing he reaches for is the sword, when he encounters a foreigner. The practice of the ancient Taurians, of sacrificing to Diana every newcomer, that misfortune led to their coast, had scarcely any other origin but fear, for only the badly developed man, not the undeveloped one, is so uncultivated, that he rages against that, which cannot harm him.

The fear of all, that is out of the ordinary, is now admittedly lost in the circumstances of culture, but not so entirely, that in the aesthetic contemplation of Nature, where man devotes himself willingly to the play of Fantasy, no trace should remain. The poets know that very well, and consequently do not neglect to employ the extraordinary at least as an ingredient of the frightful. A deep stillness, a great void, a sudden illumination of darkness are in and of themselves very indifferent things, that distinguish themselves through nothing but the extraordinary and unusual. Nevertheless they excite a feeling of terror, or at least intensify an impression of same, and are consequently suitable for the sublime.

When Virgil wants to fill us with dread over the realm of Hell, he makes us exquisitely aware of the emptiness and stillness of same. He calls it LOCA NOCTE LATE TACENTIA, far-silent fields of the night, DOMOS VACUAS DITIS ET INANIA REGNA, empty habitations and hollow realms of Pluto.

With the initiation into the mysteries of the ancients, especially great store was set by a frightful solemn impression, and to that end one also availed oneself especially of silence. A deep stillness gives the power of imagination free latitude, and raises the expectations of something frightful to come. With the practice of devotion the silence of an entire assemblage is a very effective means, to give vitality to fantasy and put the heart in solemn spirits. Folk-superstition itself makes use of the reveries thereof, for as everyone knows a deep stillness must be observed, when one has a treasure to exalt. In the enchanted palaces, that are found in fairytales, a deathly silence reigns, that arouses dread, and it belongs to the natural history of the enchanted woods, that nothing living stirs therein. Also solitude is something frightful, as soon as it is sustained and involuntary, like for example an exile to an uninhabited island. A vast expanse of desert, a lonely, many-miles-long forest, wandering astray on the boundless sea, are clear conceptions, which evoke dread, and may be employed in poetry toward the sublime. But here ( with solitude ) these is nonetheless already an objective basis for fear, because the idea of great solitude carries with it the idea of helplessness as well.

Fantasy proves herself far more industrious still, in making out of the mysterious, indeterminate and inscrutable, a subject matter of the terrifying. Here she is properly in her element, for reality sets her no limits here, and her operations are in no particular case constrained, for the wide realm of possibilities is open to her. But that she gravitates directly to the terrible and of the unfamiliar more fears than hopes, lies in the nature of the preservation-drive, that leads her. Loathing works far faster and more powerfully than desire, and consequently it happens, that we suspect more bad than good awaits behind the unfamiliar.

Darkness is terrible and precisely on that account suitable for the sublime. But it is not terrible in and of itself, but rather because it conceals from us the subject matters, and thus delivers us over to the entire sway of the power of imagination. As soon as the danger is distinct, a very great portion of the fear vanishes. The sense of sight, the first sentry of our being, denies us its services in darkness, and we feel ourselves placed before the concealed danger unarmed and naked. On that account superstition sets all ghostly visitations at the hour of midnight, and the realm of death is imagined as a realm of eternal night. In the poetic works of Homer, where humanity still speaks its most natural language, darkness is portrayed as one of the greatest evils.

Thereat lies the land and the town o'th' Cimmerian people.
These do grope without resting in night and fog, and not once doth
Gaze upon them beaming the God of radiant sunlight,
Rather terrible night doth veil the pitiful people.
(Odyssey, first canto)

"Jupiter," cries the valiant Ajax i'th' darkness of
Battle, "deliver the Greeks from this utter gloominess,
Let it be daylight, let these my eyes behold it, and then,
When thou willst, let me then fall in brightness."

Also the indeterminate is an ingredient of the terrible, and out of no other reason, than that it gives the power of imagination freedom, to embroider the image at its own discretion. The determinate on the contrary leads to more distinct cognition, and deprives the subject matter of the arbitrary play of fantasy, in that it subjects it to the understanding.

Homer's portrayal of the underworld becomes precisely through this, that it swims in a fog so to speak, the more frightful, and the ghostly forms in Ossian are naught but comical cloud-shapes, to which Fantasy gives contour at random.

Everything, that is veiled, everything mysterious, contributes to the terrible, and is therefore capable of sublimity. Of this variety is the legend, that one read at Sais in Egypt above the temple of Isis. "I am everything, that is, that has been, and that will be. No mortal man has lifted my veil." -- Precisely this uncertainty and mysteriousness gives man's conceptions of the future after death something of the dreadful; these feelings are very well expressed in the well-known soliloquy of Hamlet.

The description, that Tacitus makes for us of the solemn procession of the goddess Hertha, becomes through the darkness, that shrouds it, frightfully sublime. The vehicle of the goddess disappears in the innermost part of the forest, and none of those, that are needed for this mysterious service, return alive. One asks oneself with a shudder, what it might be, that costs him, who sees it, his life, QUOD TANTUM MORITURI VIDENT.

All religions have their mysteries, which maintain a holy dread, and so as the majesty of Deity dwells behind the curtain of the inner sanctum, so the majesty of kings tends to surround itself with mystery, in order to maintain the reverence of their subjects in continual tension through this artificial invisibility.

These are all superior subspecies of the contemplative-sublime of power, and since they are grounded in the moral disposition of man, which is common to all men, one is justified, in expecting a receptivity thereto with all human subjects, and the shortcomings of same cannot be excused as with merely sensuous emotions through a freak of Nature, but rather may be attributed to the subject as an imperfection. At times one finds the sublime of cognition linked to the sublime of power, and the effect is all the greater, when not merely the sensuous resistance-capability, but also the descriptive capability finds its limits at an object, and sensuousness with its double demands meets with refusal.


When a subject matter is given us not merely as a power in general, but rather at the same time objectively as a power fatal to man -- when it thus not merely shows its force, but actually hostilely makes it felt, then it is no longer up to the power of imagination, to refer to the preservation-drive, but rather it must, it is objectively compelled thereto. Genuine suffering permits no aesthetic judgment, because it nullifies the freedom of the spirit. Therefore it may not be the judging subject, upon which the frightful subject matter manifests its destructive power, i.e., we may not suffer ourselves, but rather sympathetically. But the sympathetic suffering is also already too taxing for sensuousness, when the suffering has existence outside us. The participatory pain outweighs all aesthetic pleasure. Only then, when the suffering is either mere illusion and fabrication, or ( in the case, that it would have taken place in reality ) when it is not presented immediately to the senses, but rather to the power of imagination, can it become aesthetic, and arouse a feeling of the sublime. The conceptualization of a foreign suffering, bound to an affective state and the consciousness of our inner moral freedom, is pathetically sublime.

Sympathy or participatory ( imparted ) passion is no free manifestation of our temperament, that we would first have to spontaneously generate in ourselves, but rather an involuntary affection of the emotional faculty, determined through natural law. It depends in no way on our will, whether we want to sympathize with a creature's suffering. As soon as we have a conception thereof, we must. Nature, not our freedom proceeds, and the stirring of emotion presses on to the resolution.

Thus as soon as we objectively attain the conceptualization of some suffering, then by virtue of the invariant natural law of sympathy an after-feeling of the suffering must ensue in ourselves. Through this we make it our own, so to speak. We suffer along [ "Wir leiden mit." The German word "Mitleid," usually translated as "compassion," might be more literally rendered as "co-suffering." ] Not merely the sympathetic affliction, the state of being moved by another's suffering, is called co-suffering [ compassion ], but rather every sad emotion without distinction, that we have a feeling for in another; hence there are as many kinds of compassion, as there are various kinds of original suffering: empathetic [ co-suffering ] fear, empathetic terror, empathetic anxiety; empathetic indignation, empathetic despair.

But if the emotion-arousing ( or pathetic ) is to provide a basis for the sublime, then it may not be driven to the point of actual self-suffering. In the midst of fierce emotion we must also differentiate ourselves from the self-suffering subject, for it is all over for the freedom of the spirit, as soon as the illusion is transformed into total truth.

If the co-suffering is intensified to such animation, that we seriously mistake ourselves for the suffering ones, then we no longer command the affective state, rather it commands us. When on the other hand sympathy remains within its aesthetic bounds, then the two main conditions of the sublime unite: sensuously animated conceptualization of suffering bound to the feeling of one's own security.

But this feeling of security at the conceptualization of foreign suffering is in no way the basis for the sublime, and absolutely not the source of the pleasure, that we derive from this conceptualization. The pathetic becomes sublime merely through the consciousness of our moral freedom alone, not our physical freedom. Not because we see ourselves as having eluded this suffering through our good fortune ( for then we would always still have a very bad guarantor for our security, ) but rather because we feel we have shielded our moral self from the causality of the suffering, namely its influence over the disposition of our will, it lifts our spirits and becomes pathetically sublime.

It is not absolutely necessary, that one feel in oneself the strength of mind, to maintain one's moral freedom before seriously imminent danger. We speak here not of that, which occurs, but rather of that, which can and should occur, of our determination, not of our actual doings, of the strength, not the employment of same. While we watch a heavy-laden freighter go under in a storm, we can feel, in the place of the merchant, whose entire riches are swallowed here by the water, quite unhappy. But at the same time we never the less also feel, that this loss concerns only incidental things, and that it is a duty, to rise above it. But nothing can be duty, that is unrealizable, and what ought to occur, must be able to occur. That we can shrug off a loss, that to us as sensuous beings is so acute, demonstrates a capability in us, which operates under entirely different laws than the sensuous, and has nothing in common with the impulse of Nature. But sublime is all that, which brings this capability to consciousness in us.

One can thus right well say, that one would do nothing less than to calmly endure the loss of these goods. This in no way hinders the feeling of the sublime -- when one but feels, that one ought to shrug it off and that it is a duty, to allow it no influence on the self-determination of Reason. To be sure, he who has not also once had a taste for this, on him is lost all aesthetic power of the great and the sublime.

Thus is minimally yet required a capability of the heart, to become conscious of its rational disposition, and a receptivity to the idea of duty, when one also recognizes alike the limits, which weak humanity might set for its performance. It would be precarious on the whole for satisfaction in possessions as well as in the sublime, when one could only have a feeling for that, which he himself had attained, or believes himself capable of attaining. But it is a worthy characteristic of humanity, that it at least in aesthetic judgments professes a good cause, as well when it should have to speak against itself, and that it at least pays homage to the pure ideas of Reason in perception, even if it does not always have the strength to really act on them.

For the pathetic-sublime are thus two main conditions required. Firstly an animated conceptualization of suffering, in order to arouse the compassionate [ co-suffering ] affective state in the proper strength. Secondly a conceptualization of resistance to the suffering, in order to call the inner freedom of the heart to consciousness. Only through the first does the subject matter become pathetic, only through the second does the pathetic become at the same time sublime.

Out of this principle flow both the fundamental laws of all tragic art. These are firstly portrayal of the suffering nature; secondly portrayal of the moral independence in suffering.

By Friedrich Schiller. First published 1793. Posted by permission of the translator ~
© 1986

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