On “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man”

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

So Edmund Burke begins his examination of the natural sublime in his A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), often seen as one of the central works in outlining the concept of the sublime and its role in the cultural transition from the classicist to the romantic period. Arguably, it is written somewhat too early to fulfil that role; but in its descriptions of the central concepts of the natural sublime – the effects of fear, of vastness, of infinity, of darkness, of magnificence and of great light – it is beyond doubt a powerful foreshadowing of the central themes of romantic figurative art and of the notion of the thrill of the sublime, especially the sublime of nature, that has moved us ever since. The stereotypical depiction of this sensation is of course the pictures of Caspar David Friedrich or John Constable, the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, and the like.

But I believe the contemporary world has a powerful place for the natural sublime, whatever may have been the progress of technology since those days. Indeed, one may argue that this process, together with the attendant secularization and disenchantment of the world, has in fact strengthened the desire for the experience of the natural sublime, by making it harder to find in the immediate effects of the everyday natural world, and by making that natural world a more threatened and remote thing for the city-dwellers that make up the majority of the population of the world today. Indeed, perhaps the ever increasing familiarity with the scope and interconnectedness of our own globe in the here and now, provided by the hitherto unimaginable progress of communication and computing technologies, airplanes and cargo ships, makes the modern natural sublime require an altogether greater tableau to effect that great thrill and terror that causes the suspension of the reasoning mind and the carrying away of the emotions that Burke describes. Continue reading “On “Cosmos” and “The Ascent of Man””