What is the sublime?

“For a piece is truly great only if it can stand up to repeated examination, and if it is difficult, or, rather, impossible to resist its appeal, and it remains firmly and ineffaceably in the memory. As a generalization, you may take it that sublimity in all its truth and beauty exists in such works as please all men at all times. For when men who differ in their pursuits, their ways of life, their ambitions, their ages, and their manners all think in one and the same way about the same works, then the unanimously judgement, as it were, of discordant voices induces a strong and unshakeable faith in the object of admiration.” —Longinus

The spirit of our age seems to be about setting ourselves apart—who is the most creative, unique, talented, who is the smartest, who has the most followers, the most titles, the most degrees, the most power, the best look. Everything is framed as a competition that most of us must lose, since there can only be one “best.” We try to to get around it by creating roughly eight billion categories, so then everyone can win, at least once. Zero sum game, and all that.

It’s startling and powerful to read this 1,900ish-year-old expression of the sublime not as a moment of aesthetic or intellectual bestness but as a moment of consensus, a communal experience of being moved, together. This way of thinking of the sublime resonates with me, as for me the sublime lies in connection, the capacity to transcend the many opportunities for division that throw themselves across our paths and experience communion.

What is the sublime for you?

13 thoughts on “What is the sublime?

  1. So many lovely thouhts in your post. I agree with you that connection can be sublime – and I also think there is something amazing about a work of art of some kind that moves everyone, or at least just about everyone, when they experience it, rather than just being for a niche group.

    That said, I also think there are some things that certain people just can’t appreciate. For instance, someone who deeply understands music might find an exquisite pleasure in listening to a song that most of us would enjoy but not go into ecstasy over.

    And there are also some personal experiences that not everyone can have – for instance, the creation of a work of art, inspiration, romantic love, sensual pleasuere, etc. I wish I could say that all of us will experience these things, but sadly we won’t.

    So I guess for me the sublime could be both a collective, connected feeling of deep appreciation or even ecstasy, or an individual one.

    Thanks for making me think about something more than work and cat videos this morning (although some cats’ face are so adorable that there is a feeling of the sublime when I look at them…and I guess that’s the case for most people, judging by how popular cat videos are online! Whoa….).

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Alysa. It’s always fun to hear your perspective and think with you. I was definitely wanting to express, in this piece, that sublime isn’t necessarily always about aesthetics or smarts, beauty or genius, but something that taps into a collective consciousness of sorts. That cat video example at the end is just perfection. 🐱

  2. Some things that I think are sublime would be Japanese Woodworking Hand Tools, Spacecraft, Polynesian Outrigger Canoes, the UNIX Operating System, Constellations, Japanese Tea Kettles, and Satellites

    1. Thank you for sharing these! Such a lovely collection around a theme, I think—nature, movement, travel…lots of wonders to be found in one and all 🧡

  3. I was watching The Giver and The Giver had just said that to Jonas when I saw your comment lol

      1. I remember the book it had a seal on it saying it was Youth Book of the Century, but I never read it but I’ve watched the movie twice lol

      2. I liked it, the village they lived in reminded me of Tomorrowland so that alone was worth watching it to me, plus it was sweet 😊

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