120. Philosophy and the Sublime

Many of our efforts at self-examination presuppose at least a sense of things we don’t know. We sense our life is inadequate and take steps to acquire more knowledge to remove our ignorance. We widen our scope, gain new perspectives, and see ourselves in a new light. In many cases we find that self-knowledge comes by understanding our place in a larger whole. Indeed, according to A.W. Moore, “In making sense of my life I must be shown it as a whole” (see his book The Infinite, p. 233). But how inclusive does this whole have to be to really know ourselves?

Plato provides one startling answer in his dialogue Republic. He has Socrates tell us that philosophers who seek wisdom must eventually “lift up the eye of the soul to gaze on that which sheds light on all things; and when they have seen the Good itself, take it as a pattern for the right ordering of the state and of the individual, themselves included.” The Good, as Eva Brann notes, appears to be the whole which both comprises and unifies partial wholes: “[The Good] is the All as that Whole which comprises what each partial whole is as well as what it is not, that bonding container within which different things are at one” (The Music of the Republic, p. 204). So the success of self-examination is inseparable from a vision of the Good. Indeed, “without having had a vision of this Form [of the Good] no one can act with wisdom, either in their own life or in matters of state” (for my post on the Good, go here).

This, however, leads to a problem since any description or representation of the Good is bound to fall short of being the whole. Thus Socrates says he will offer only images of the Good, such as the sun, that give partial revelations of unity. Does this mean philosophers can never make progress? Not necessarily. After all, Socrates also notes that the Good is something which “every soul pursues as the end of her actions, dimly divining its existence, but perplexed and unable to grasp its nature with the same clearness and assurance as in dealing with other things, and so missing whatever value those other things might have…” Without this dim awareness philosophers wouldn’t know what they were missing and wouldn’t have an erotic need to achieve a vision of it in the first place. But is there a way to achieve a more vivid experience of the Good to aid our efforts at self-examination?

In teaching aesthetics this past semester, I was struck by the possibility that the sublime may offer a way. In the section “Analytic of the Sublime” in his Critique of Judgment (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1982), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) defines the mathematical sublime as “what is absolutely large.” By absolutely large, Kant means “large beyond all comparison.” Thus “that is sublime in comparison with which everything else is small.” Kant elaborates: “Here we readily see that nothing can be given in nature, no matter how great we may judge it to be, which, regarded in some other relation, may not be degraded to the level of the infinitely little, and nothing so small which in comparison with some still smaller standard may not for our imagination be enlarged to the greatness of a world. Telescopes have put within our reach an abundance of material to go upon in making the first observation, and microscopes the same in making the second.” We can look into a microscope and calculate or imagine a regress into the microscopic realm; we can look through a telescope and calculate or imagine a regress into the wondrous starry heavens. In the face of these potentially infinite sequences our imagination tries to do something impossible: make an image that would limit the unlimited. In the wake of its failure we realize, much to our dismay, that there are phenomena our imagination cannot imagine. But Kant also observed that we know such sequences are indeed falling short of actual infinity or something large beyond all comparison. If this is the case then apparently our reason has the idea of actual infinity as the condition for the possibility of grasping potential infinity. And this idea “expands the soul” and “awakens the feeling of a supersensible faculty in us” that can “surpass any standard of taste.” As a result we experience a feeling of pleasure when we realize that, despite the painful failure of our imagination to bound the boundless, we have an idea of the whole without images.

Now, it has also been suggested by many thinkers, including Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and Plotinus, that beauty occurs when the whole is partially perceived in and through a sensible part. But the sublime appears to supersede the beautiful in our search for the Good since the sublime, unlike the beautiful, is completely about our inner experience. When it comes to beauty, there is something beautiful in the object, a high degree of proportion for example, to which we relate. But in judgments of the sublime there is nothing sublime about the objects that trigger our sublime experiences. Kant explains:

“We hence see also that true sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the subject judging, not in the natural object the judgment upon which occasions this state. Who would call sublime, e.g., shapeless mountain masses piled in wild disorder upon one another with their pyramids of ice, or the gloomy, raging sea? But the mind feels itself raised in its own judgment if, while contemplating them without any reference to their form, and abandoning itself to the imagination and to the reason—which, although placed in combination with the imagination without any definite purpose, merely extends it—it yet finds the whole power of the imagination inadequate to its ideas.”

This freedom from external constraints uniquely qualifies the sublime to be the means of contacting the Good without misrepresenting it. And this contact, as is evidenced by people’s sublime experiences, would be vivid rather than dim. After all, as Kant points out, when experiencing the starry heavens “I have not to search for them and conjecture them as though they were veiled in darkness or were in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them directly with the consciousness of my existence.”

Now Kant’s analysis, influential and romantic as it is, can certainly be questioned. Perhaps the experience of the sublime is an illusion with no reference outside our minds. Perhaps the experience has a far less dramatic explanation in terms of brain chemistry. Or perhaps the unrepresentable nature of the sublime leaves us too much in the dark of feeling. But if his analysis is correct then we can make the following connections with Plato’s vision of philosophy:

1) The sublime, in making us vividly aware of our kinship to the Good, can play a role in awakening the love of wisdom in the first place. In sublime experiences we become aware of what we lack – a full understanding of the Good to which we are somehow akin – and eros, which seeks what it doesn’t possess, is born out of this lack. Perhaps this is why Plato’s character Timaeus, in discussing the benefits of sight in Timaeus, makes a connection between seeing the heavens and starting philosophy: “The sight in my opinion is the source of the greatest benefit to us, for had we never seen the stars, and the sun, and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever have been uttered. But now the sight of day and night, and the months and the revolutions of the years, have created number, and have given us a conception of time, and the power of enquiring about the nature of the universe; and from this source we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man.”

2) The sublime, in making us vividly aware of the Good, can play a role in dramatically enhancing the process of self-examination which, as we have seen, requires such an awareness. One example comes from Kant who claims that the sublime can cultivate an awareness of ourselves as free beings since it reveals a “life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world” and suggests “a destination not restricted to conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.” And this awareness can, in turn, help us become more sensitive to the sublime.

3) The sublime can satiate the philosopher’s erotic need to unify with the Good. To be sure, sublime experiences, insofar as they are aesthetic, are primarily about feeling and lack the ideal cognitive apprehension of the Good that Plato’s metaphors of vision seem to suggest. Nonetheless, such a felt communion might provide a welcome respite on the philosopher’s dialectical journey which proceeds, as Plato’s dialogues so often proceed with their interplay of myth and reason, by projecting limited wholes within which analysis can occur and then critiquing those wholes to expand into new territory.

4) Lastly, experiences of the sublime might offer some hope for immortality. Alcmaeon once said: “This is why humans perish, because they cannot join the beginning to the end.” This haunting statement is open to many interpretations. But one way to think about it is this: if we could join the beginning to the end then we would be infinite thus avoiding those limitations that lead to death. Mythological wholes, to be sure, show us what it is like to join the beginning to the end. As Stanley Rosen once put it, “Myth re-collects the fragments of man’s intermediate existence into the unity of the beginning and the end” (see his Plato’s Symposium, p. 1). But the sublime may enable us to truly join the beginning to the end since, as we have seen, it reveals to us a “life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world” and suggests “a destination not restricted to conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.” For Plato this life was the life of the soul which, as Socrates says in Plato’s Phaedo, “is most similar to what’s divine and deathless and intelligible and single-formed and indissoluble and always keeps to the self-same condition with itself.” The soul’s immortality is important because, according to Plato’s analysis of the soul in Book X of Republic, the value of the good life would be radically diminished without it. After all, if the lives of the good and evil alike end in nothingness – if there are no good or bad consequences for anyone – why take the pursuit of justice and wisdom so seriously? (for more on this topic see my series of posts beginning here). But there is another reason for its importance: a rational understanding of the Good only seems attainable after our souls are no longer embodied. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato offers us a mythological projection of this understanding which, like all myth, helps us see where we came from and where we are going:

“For, as has been already said, every soul of man has in the way of nature beheld true being; this was the condition of her passing into the form of man. But all souls do not easily recall the things of the other world; they may have seen them for a short time only, or they may have been unfortunate in their earthly lot, and, having had their hearts turned to unrighteousness through some corrupting influence, they may have lost the memory of the holy things which once they saw. Few only retain an adequate remembrance of them; and they, when they behold here any image of that other world, are rapt in amazement; but they are ignorant of what this rapture means, because they do not clearly perceive. For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are few who, going to the images, behold in them the realities, and these only with difficulty. There was a time when with the rest of the happy band they saw beauty shining in brightness-we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining impure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell.”

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