Santayana on the Sublime: It’s Not About Aesthetically Appreciating Evil

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At the end of the Santayana episode, I brought up his condemnation of any theory that would call the non-beautiful an object of aesthetic appreciation. This topic is worthy of a whole episode, and I’ve been looking into readings for such an eventual discussion, but let me lay out a bit of it now and how Santayana fits in:

In parallel to philosophical considerations of the beautiful through history since the Greeks there has run talk of appreciation of the sublime. For someone like Longinus (3rd century AD), the sublime just meant “the lofty,” and of course whenever you have a religion that features some gods who are not always nice, you need a way to express your admiration for such fearsome fellows. By the 18th century with Edmund Burke, talk of the sublime was explicitly admitted to be about aesthetic appreciation of the vast and scary, and the Romantics ran with this: you wouldn’t get Beethoven or Wagner without the appreciation of great bombast, and really all of rock and roll is an extension of this, where form as Santayana would look for it is neglected, particularly by punk bands and the like, in favor of Dionysian expression.

It’s a short hop from that to bands that take on a Halloween aspect and/or sing like cookie monster, and one could put the enjoyment of horror movies into the same psychological class. It’s fundamentally the same phenomena that Aristotle was talking about in his discussions of Greek tragedy as providing catharsis back in the Poetics. Depict situations eliciting fear (or, for Aristotle, pity) and give the audience a little distance (they’re not really scared for themselves), and you get psychological relief.

Santayana dismisses all this as pretty unaesthetic. Expression, in his scheme, is best used as ornamentation on top of a solid form, so a Shakespearean tragedy with spooky ghosts in it is great in virtue of its formal elements (in the language, plot structure, characters), but Human Centipede is still a piece of crap even if it is more disturbing, i.e. more affecting, i.e. more effective in reaching us emotionally.

I wanted to point out the part of Santayana’s book where he nips this whole line that would lead to death metal/slasher pic appreciation:

The sublime independent of the expression of evil.

§ 60. So natural is the relation between the vivid conception of great evils, and that self-assertion of the soul which gives the emotion of the sublime, that the sublime is often thought to depend upon the terror which these conceived evils inspire. To be sure, that terror would have to be inhibited and subdued, otherwise we should have a passion too acute to be incorporated in any object; the sublime would not appear as an aesthetic quality in things, but remain merely an emotional state in the subject. But this subdued and objectified terror is what is commonly regarded as the essence of the sublime, and so great an authority as Aristotle would seem to countenance some such definition. The usual cause of the sublime is here confused, however, with the sublime itself. The suggestion of terror makes us withdraw into ourselves: there with the supervening consciousness of safety or indifference comes a rebound, and we have that emotion of detachment and liberation in which the sublime really consists.

Thoughts and actions are properly sublime, and visible things only by analogy and suggestion when they induce a certain moral emotion; whereas beauty belongs properly to sensible things, and can be predicated of moral facts only by a figure of rhetoric. What we objectify in beauty is a sensation. What we objectify in the sublime is an act. This act is necessarily pleasant, for if it were not the sublime would be a bad quality and one we should rather never encounter in the world. The glorious joy of self-assertion in the face of an uncontrollable world is indeed so deep and entire, that it furnishes just that transcendent element of worth for which we were looking when we tried to understand how the expression of pain could sometimes please. It can please, not in itself, but because it is balanced and annulled by positive pleasures, especially by this final and victorious one of detachment. If the expression of evil seems necessary to the sublime, it is so only as a condition of this moral reaction.

So what the sublime really is is a feeling of freedom, of detachment, that we can be driven to by contemplating the scary. So it’s no the scary that we’re appreciating but our own escape from it. He goes on with some details of this feeling:

We are commonly too much engrossed in objects and too little centred in ourselves and our inalienable will, to see the sublimity of a pleasing prospect. We are then enticed and flattered, and won over to a commerce with these external goods, and the consummation of our happiness would lie in the perfect comprehension and enjoyment of their nature. This is the office of art and of love; and its partial fulfilment is seen in every perception of beauty. But when we are checked in this sympathetic endeavour after unity and comprehension; when we come upon a great evil or an irreconcilable power, we are driven to seek our happiness by the shorter and heroic road; then we recognize the hopeless foreignness of what lies before us, and stiffen ourselves against it. We thus for the first time reach the sense of our possible separation from our world, and of our abstract stability; and with this comes the sublime.

But although experience of evil is the commonest approach to this attitude of mind, and we commonly become philosophers only after despairing of instinctive happiness, yet there is nothing impossible in the attainment of detachment by other channels. The immense is sublime as well as the terrible; and mere infinity of the object, like its hostile nature, can have the effect of making the mind recoil upon itself. Infinity, like hostility, removes us from things, and makes us conscious of our independence. The simultaneous view of many things, innumerable attractions felt together, produce equilibrium and indifference, as effectually as the exclusion of all. If we may call the liberation of the self by the consciousness of evil in the world, the Stoic sublime, we may assert that there is also an Epicurean sublime, which consists in liberation by equipoise. Any wide survey is sublime in that fashion. Each detail may be beautiful. We may even be ready with a passionate response to its appeal. We may think we covet every sort of pleasure, and lean to every kind of vigorous, impulsive life. But let an infinite panorama be suddenly unfolded; the will is instantly paralyzed, and the heart choked. It is impossible to desire everything at once, and when all is offered and approved, it is impossible to choose everything. In this suspense, the mind soars into a kind of heaven, benevolent but unmoved.

This conclusion supports that part of our definition of beauty which declares that the values beauty contains are all positive; a definition which we should have had to change if we had found that the sublime depended upon the suggestion of evil for its effect. But the sublime is not the ugly, as some descriptions of it might lead us to suppose; it is the supremely, the intoxicatingly beautiful. It is the pleasure of contemplation reaching such an intensity that it begins to lose its objectivity, and to declare itself, what it always fundamentally was, an inward passion of the soul. For while in the beautiful we find the perfection of life by sinking into the object, in the sublime we find a purer and more inalienable perfection by defying the object altogether. The surprised enlargement of vision, the sudden escape from our ordinary interests and the identification of ourselves with something permanent and superhuman, something much more abstract and inalienable than our changing personality, all this carries us away from the blurred objects before us, and raises us into a sort of ecstasy.

In the trite examples of the sublime, where we speak of the vast mass, strength, and durability of objects, or of their sinister aspect, as if we were moved by them on account of our own danger, we seem to miss the point. For the suggestion of our own danger would produce a touch of fear; it would be a practical passion, or if it could by chance be objectified enough to become aesthetic, it would merely make the object hateful and repulsive, like a mangled corpse. The object is sublime when we forget our danger, when we escape from ourselves altogether, and live as it were in the object itself, energizing in imitation of its movement, and saying, “Be thou me, impetuous one!” This passage into the object, to live its life, is indeed a characteristic of all perfect contemplation. But when in thus translating ourselves we rise and play a higher personage, feeling the exhilaration of a life freer and wilder than our own, then the experience is one of sublimity. The emotion comes not from the situation we observe, but from the powers we conceive; we fail to sympathize with the struggling sailors because we sympathize too much with the wind and waves. And this mystical cruelty can extend even to ourselves; we can so feel the fascination of the cosmic forces that engulf us as to take a fierce joy in the thought of our own destruction. We can identify ourselves with the abstractest essence of reality, and, raised to that height, despise the human accidents of our own nature. Lord, we say, though thou slay me, yet will I trust in thee. The sense of suffering disappears in the sense of life and the imagination overwhelms the understanding.

This account allows Santayana to acknowledge appreciation of the sublime without allowing the move from that to horror movies. There’s still room in here to make a case for punk rock or heavy metal, but not much.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Image note: the death metal image is from here, drawn by Scott Stearns.


  1. Avatar of Philip C.

    Philip C.

    June 29, 2013

    I took a graduate course on the sublime at U of C a few years back, so perhaps I could chime in.

    Of course there’s some obvious overlap, but be careful not to facilely group all negative emotions together (the scary, the tragic, expressions of aggression, the ugly, the perplexing, the disgusting, depictions of depravity, etc.) under the same blanket-category of the “sublime.” This is one of my primary beefs with the Umberto Eco lecture (which on the whole, I still found very fascinating and worth listening to) that dmf sent in response to my blog entry, “Why Can’t Life Always be Beautiful?”

    It’s not a clear delineation but a blurry spectrum between the ecstasy that might be stimulated from what has facetiously been labeled “cookie monster” death metal and that of staring out in the night sky, and feeling infinitesimal/insignificant in comparison to vast overwhelming cosmos. Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone would confuse the two completely different ecstatic feelings.

    I think Santayana draws the line where the Romantics traditionally would:

    “But the sublime is not the ugly, as some descriptions of it might lead us to suppose; it is the supremely, the intoxicatingly beautiful. It is the pleasure of contemplation reaching such an intensity that it begins to lose its objectivity, and to declare itself, what it always fundamentally was, an inward passion of the soul.”

    The Romantics depict the sublime not just as a feeling of terror, but also as wonder. It’s the ecstatic feeling, the shattering of one’s sense of self, and it’s unifying in that it revokes self-other distinctions. The sublime has all but lost this meaning today, and no word has really come to replace it, but the closest modern-day equivalent might be “awe.”

    I guess in that regard you might link it with the tradition of deinos (δεινός) in Greek tragedy. Edmund Burke did, and also traced it to thambos (Θάμβος), aideo (αὶδέω), Vereor, stupeo, and attonitus. (Burke 102) But truly, tragedy has its own separate historical tradition, dealing with irony, contradiction, the tension between irreconcilable forces. Nietzche and Schopenhauer the philosophers of tragedy par excellence. Interesting to note how modern artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol have dealt with tragic irony with a cool distance rather than an emotional investment, perhaps symptomatic of a loss of authenticity. It’s a shame that vernacular speech has demoted the tragic to mean merely “sad” or pathetic, an altogether separate aesthetic pleasure arises from depressing films and “sadcore” music. And I think there are a number of complex reasons we find pleasure (whether truly “aesthetic” or not) in sad things: truth value as opposed to artifice, cathartic release, technical appreciation in the artful depiction or capturing of a real emotion, the expressiveness, relaxation from somber or mellow mood, etc.

    What I find distinct about the sublime from a psychological perspective, is that it always entails a sense of power relations made manifest before a superior or supreme power: the mortal’s relation to God, slave’s submissive relation to an authority figure, child’s relation to a father, mankind’s relation with consuming nature, the prole’s relation to industrial technology, the Enlightenment intellectual’s relation to infinity, etc.

    In some respects I have to disagree with Santayana (if I read him correctly), in his quotes below:

    “For while in the beautiful we find the perfection of life by sinking into the object, in the sublime we find a purer and more inalienable perfection by defying the object altogether.”

    “The suggestion of terror makes us withdraw into ourselves: there with the supervening consciousness of safety or indifference comes a rebound, and we have that emotion of detachment and liberation in which the sublime really consists.”

    Santayana suggest detachment and indifference, withdrawing into oneself, when I think the sublime often entails subsumption or absorption into a higher power, be it God or nature, or death. In an ecstatic release, there’s no self to withdraw into. My two cents.

    For further reading on the sublime, I HIGHLY recommend Thomas Weiskel, Suzanne Guerlac, and Neil Hertz, who I think have probably devised the most compelling analyses of the sublime in recent scholarship.

      • Avatar of Philip C.

        Philip C.

        June 30, 2013

        Interesting lecture. I have a few vague ideas, but I’m not sure I follow the relationship you’re drawing between Santayana’s conception of the sublime as beyond our immediate grasp and his possible pragmatist stance towards moral holidays. Could you elaborate a bit? Are you referring to the frivolity of the sublime from the pragmatists’ perspective, in that it has no clear use value (thus “beyond our use/grasp”)? On that note it’s interesting to point out that in one of the more cryptic sections of the Third Critique, Kant describes beauty as the “symbol” of morality (and Santayana’s aesthetics look similar to Kant’s in many respects.) Earlier I hinted at the religious origins of sublimity by referring to the mortal’s relation to God as one of its manifestations. Kant also draws the parallel in the sublime in that it elicits a feeling of respect [Achtung], the same sort of metaphysical feeling (of knowing our limitations) we have towards the Other, towards noumena, and towards God, the transcendent, etc..

        The sublime puts the individual in his/her mortal place, so to speak, of where we fit in in the cosmic perspective. It says, “You are nothing. You will return to dust and become one with the cosmos [i.e. Anaximander's Dikē].” So I guess you could tie this into the beginning of the Lachs lecture, where we talk about the moral holiday as acceptance of divine provenance. Respecting that universe’s/God’s/physis‘s ways are beyond those of mortal man, and so on and so forth…

        Also you could tie it into the mortal’s acceptance of death, Freud’s death drive presented in his infamous essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” Acceptance that we will die, and that something greater exceeds our lives, is both a sublimity and a sublimation of base sexual desire from the pleasure principle. There’s something freeing in that sense of release, that we’re not merely governed by the chain of desire (or so the Buddhist says.) And the Latin root of sublime (which means to raise up, or elevate, but at an oblique angle) does suggest a connection with sublimity.

        Overpowering? Definitely! It’s difficult to talk about sublimity without talking about power relations, and it’s difficult to think of examples of the sublime that do not involve a higher power in one sense or another. Overwhelming?…well depends on what you mean. Kant distinguishes between two different types of sublime: the positive sublime, in which we are overwhelmed by too much presence (you might call this immanent), in the face of the infinite; and the negative sublime in which we are confronted with not enough presence, absence (the transcendent), staring into the abyss, the aporetic. Thus Kant considers the Jewish law that prohibits images or representations of God the most sublime text of the Old Testament. And there’s your ultimate Achtung!

        • dmf

          June 30, 2013

          it’s been many years since I read Santayana but my sense (pls let me know if my memory is has made this up) is that he had a kind of fatalistic/anti-progressive/tragic take (in some ways like Benjamin but without the messianic silver-lining) such that the sublime (like Kant) was beyond our all-too-human manipulations but unlike Kant these were not sorts of Imperatives to be re-formed after but more like momentary reprieves from this fallen world.

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