Κυριακή, 3 Μαΐου 2009

Project Romanticism

Friedrich von Schiller

(1759 1805)

On the Sublime


"Man is never obliged to say, I must--must," says the Jew Nathan to the dervish;

and this expression is true in a wider sense than man might be tempted to

suppose. The will is the specific character of man, and reason itself is

only the eternal rule of his will. All nature acts reasonably; all our

prerogative is to act reasonably, with consciousness and with will. All

other objects obey necessity; man is the being who wills.

It is exactly for this reason that there is nothing more inconsistent

with the dignity of man than to suffer violence, for violence effaces

him. He who does violence to us disputes nothing less than our humanity;

he who submits in a cowardly spirit to the violence abdicates his quality

of man. But this pretension to remain absolutely free from all that is

violence seems to imply a being in possession of a force sufficiently

great to keep off all other forces. But if this pretension is found in a

being who, in the order of forces, cannot claim the first rank, the

result is an unfortunate contradiction between his instinct and his


Man is precisely in this case. Surrounded by numberless forces, which

are all superior to him and hold sway over him, he aspires by his nature

not to have to suffer any injury at their hands. It is true that by his

intelligence he adds artificially to his natural forces, and that up to a

certain point he actually succeeds in reigning physically over everything

that is physical. The proverb says, "there is a remedy for everything

except death;" but this exception, if it is one in the strictest

acceptation of the term, would suffice to entirely ruin the very idea of

our nature. Never will man be the cause that wills, if there is a case,

a single case, in which, with or without his consent, he is forced to

what he does not wish. This single terrible exception, to be or to do

what is necessary and not what he wishes, this idea will pursue him as a

phantom; and as we see in fact among the greater part of men, it will

give him up a prey to the blind terrors of imagination. His boasted

liberty is nothing, if there is a single point where he is under

constraint and bound. It is education that must give back liberty to

man, and help him to complete the whole idea of his nature. It ought,

therefore, to make him capable of making his will prevail, for, I repeat

it, man is the being who wills.

It is possible to reach this end in two ways: either really, by opposing

force to force, by commanding nature, as nature yourself; or by the idea,

issuing from nature, and by thus destroying in relation to self the very

idea of violence. All that helps man really to hold sway over nature is

what is styled physical education. Man cultivates his understanding and

develops his physical force, either to convert the forces of nature,

according to their proper laws, into the instruments of his will, or to

secure himself against their effects when he cannot direct them. But the

forces of nature can only be directed or turned aside up to a certain

point; beyond that point they withdraw from the influence of man and

place him under theirs.

Thus beyond the point in question his freedom would be lost, were he only

susceptible of physical education. But he must be man in the full sense

of the term, and consequently he must have nothing to endure, in any

case, contrary to his will. Accordingly, when he can no longer oppose to

the physical forces any proportional physical force, only one resource

remains to him to avoid suffering any violence: that is, to cause to

cease entirely that relation which is so fatal to him. It is, in short,

to annihilate as an idea the violence he is obliged to suffer in fact.

The education that fits man for this is called moral education.

The man fashioned by moral education, and he only, is entirely free. He

is either superior to nature as a power, or he is in harmony with her.

None of the actions that she brings to bear upon him is violence, for

before reaching him it has become an act of his own will, and dynamic

nature could never touch him, because he spontaneously keeps away from

all to which she can reach. But to attain to this state of mind, which

morality designates as resignation to necessary things, and religion

styles absolute submission to the counsels of Providence, to reach this

by an effort of his free will and with reflection, a certain clearness is

required in thought, and a certain energy in the will, superior to what

man commonly possesses in active life. Happily for him, man finds here

not only in his rational nature a moral aptitude that can be developed by

the understanding, but also in his reasonable and sensible nature--that

is, in his human nature--an aesthetic tendency which seems to have been

placed there expressly: a faculty awakens of itself in the presence of

certain sensuous objects, and which, after our feelings are purified, can

be cultivated to such a point as to become a powerful ideal development.

This aptitude, I grant, is idealistic in its principle and in its

essence, but one which even the realist allows to be seen clearly enough

in his conduct, though he does not acknowledge this in theory. I am now

about to discuss this faculty.

I admit that the sense of the beautiful, when it is developed by culture,

suffices of itself even to make us, in a certain sense, independent of

nature as far as it is a force. A mind that has ennobled itself

sufficiently to be more sensible of the form than of the matter of

things, contains in itself a plenitude of existence that nothing could

make it lose, especially as it does not trouble itself about the

possession of the things in question, and finds a very liberal pleasure

in the mere contemplation of the phenomenon. As this mind has no want to

appropriate the objects in the midst of which it lives, it has no fear of

being deprived of them. But it is nevertheless necessary that these

phenomena should have a body, through which they manifest themselves;

and, consequently, as long as we feel the want even only of finding a

beautiful appearance or a beautiful phenomenon, this want implies that of

the existence of certain objects; and it follows that our satisfaction

still depends on nature, considered as a force, because it is nature who

disposes of all existence in a sovereign manner. It is a different

thing, in fact, to feel in yourself the want of objects endowed with

beauty and goodness, or simply to require that the objects which surround

us are good and beautiful. This last desire is compatible with the most

perfect freedom of the soul; but it is not so with the other. We are

entitled to require that the object before us should be beautiful and

good, but we can only wish that the beautiful and the good should be

realized objectively before us. Now the disposition of mind is, par

excellence, called grand and sublime, in which no attention is given to

the question of knowing if the beautiful, the good, and the perfect

exist; but when it is rigorously required that that which exists should

be good, beautiful and perfect, this character of mind is called sublime,

because it contains in it positively all the characteristics of a fine

mind without sharing its negative features. A sign by which beautiful

and good minds, but having weaknesses, are recognized, is the aspiring

always to find their moral ideal realized in the world of facts, and

their being painfully affected by all that places an obstacle to it. A

mind thus constituted is reduced to a sad state of dependence in relation

to chance, and it may always be predicted of it, without fear of

deception, that it will give too large a share to the matter in moral and

aesthetical things, and that it will not sustain the more critical trials

of character and taste. Moral imperfections ought not to be to us a

cause of suffering and of pain: suffering and pain bespeak rather an

ungratified wish than an unsatisfied moral want. An unsatisfied moral

want ought to be accompanied by a more manly feeling, and fortify our

mind and confirm it in its energy rather than make us unhappy and


Nature has given to us two genii as companions in our life in this lower

world. The one, amiable and of good companionship, shortens the troubles

of the journey by the gayety of its plays. It makes the chains of

necessity light to us, and leads us amidst joy and laughter, to the most

perilous spots, where we must act as pure spirits and strip ourselves of

all that is body, on the knowledge of the true and the practice of duty.

Once when we are there, it abandons us, for its realm is limited to the

world of sense; its earthly wings could not carry it beyond. But at this

moment the other companion steps upon the stage, silent and grave, and

with his powerful arm carries us beyond the precipice that made us giddy.

In the former of these genii we recognize the feeling of the beautiful,

in the other the feeling of the sublime. No doubt the beautiful itself

is already an expression of liberty. This liberty is not the kind that

raises us above the power of nature, and that sets us free from all

bodily influence, but it is only the liberty which we enjoy as men,

without issuing from the limits of nature. In the presence of beauty we

feel ourselves free, because the sensuous instincts are in harmony with

the laws of reason. In presence of the sublime we feel ourselves

sublime, because the sensuous instincts have no influence over the

jurisdiction of reason, because it is then the pure spirit that acts in

us as if it were not absolutely subject to any other laws than its own.

The feeling of the sublime is a mixed feeling. It is at once a painful

state, which in its paroxysm is manifested by a kind of shudder, and a

joyous state, that may rise to rapture, and which, without being properly

a pleasure, is greatly preferred to every kind of pleasure by delicate

souls. This union of two contrary sensations in one and the same feeling

proves in a peremptory manner our moral independence. For as it is

absolutely impossible that the same object should be with us in two

opposite relations, it follows that it is we ourselves who sustain two

different relations with the object. It follows that these two opposed

natures should be united in us, which, on the idea of this object, are

brought into play in two perfectly opposite ways. Thus we experience by

the feeling of the beautiful that the state of our spiritual nature is

not necessarily determined by the state of our sensuous nature; that the

laws of nature are not necessarily our laws; and that there is in us an

autonomous principle independent of all sensuous impressions.

The sublime object may be considered in two lights. We either represent

it to our comprehension, and we try in vain to make an image or idea of

it, or we refer it to our vital force, and we consider it as a power

before which ours is nothing. But though in both cases we experience in

connection with this object the painful feeling of our limits, yet we do

not seek to avoid it; on the contrary we are attracted to it by an

irresistible force. Could this be the case if the limits of our

imagination were at the same time those of our comprehension? Should we

be willingly called back to the feeling of the omnipotence of the forces

of nature if we had not in us something that cannot be a prey of these

forces. We are pleased with the spectacle of the sensuous infinite,

because we are able to attain by thought what the senses can no longer

embrace and what the understanding cannot grasp. The sight of a terrible

object transports us with enthusiasm, because we are capable of willing

what the instincts reject with horror, and of rejecting what they desire.

We willingly allow our imagination to find something in the world of

phenomena that passes beyond it; because, after all, it is only one

sensuous force that triumphs over another sensuous force, but nature,

notwithstanding all her infinity, cannot attain to the absolute grandeur

which is in ourselves. We submit willingly to physical necessity both

our well-being and our existence. This is because the very power reminds

us that there are in us principles that escape its empire. Man is in the

hands of nature, but the will of man is in his own hands.

Nature herself has actually used a sensuous means to teach us that we are

something more than mere sensuous natures. She has even known how to

make use of our sensations to put us on the track of this discovery--that

we are by no means subject as slaves to the violence of the sensations.

And this is quite a different effect from that which can be produced by

the beautiful; I mean the beautiful of the real world, for the sublime

itself is surpassed by the ideal. In the presence of beauty, reason and

sense are in harmony, and it is only on account of this harmony that the

beautiful has attraction for us. Consequently, beauty alone could never

teach us that our destination is to act as pure intelligences, and that

we are capable of showing ourselves such. In the presence of the

sublime, on the contrary, reason and the sensuous are not in harmony, and

it is precisely this contradiction between the two which makes the charm

of the sublime--its irresistible action on our minds. Here the physical

man and the moral man separate in the most marked manner; for it is

exactly in the presence of objects that make us feel at once how limited

the former is that the other makes the experience of its force. The very

thing that lowers one to the earth is precisely that which raises the

other to the infinite.

Let us imagine a man endowed with all the virtues of which the union

constitutes a fine character. Let us suppose a man who finds his delight

in practising justice, beneficence, moderation, constancy, and good

faith. All the duties whose accomplishment is prescribed to him by

circumstances are only a play to him, and I admit that fortune favors him

in such wise that none of the actions which his good heart may demand of

him will be hard to him. Who would not be charmed with such a delightful

harmony between the instincts of nature and the prescriptions of reason?

and who could help admiring such a man? Nevertheless, though he may

inspire us with affection, are we quite sure that he is really virtuous?

Or in general that he has anything that corresponds to the idea of

virtue? If this man had only in view to obtain agreeable sensations,

unless he were mad he could not act in any other possible way; and he

would have to be his own enemy to wish to be vicious. Perhaps the

principle of his actions is pure, but this is a question to be discussed

between himself and his conscience. For our part, we see nothing of it;

we do not see him do anything more than a simply clever man would do who

had no other god than pleasure. Thus all his virtue is a phenomenon that

is explained by reasons derived from the sensuous order, and we are by no

means driven to seek for reasons beyond the world of sense.

Let us suppose that this same man falls suddenly under misfortune. He is

deprived of his possessions; his reputation is destroyed; he is chained

to his bed by sickness and suffering; he is robbed by death of all those

he loves; he is forsaken in his distress by all in whom he had trusted.

Let us under these circumstances again seek him, and demand the practice

of the same virtues under trial as he formerly had practised during the

period of his prosperity. If he is found to be absolutely the same as

before, if his poverty has not deteriorated his benevolence, or

ingratitude his kindly offices of good-will, or bodily suffering his

equanimity, or adversity his joy in the happiness of others; if his

change of fortune is perceptible in externals, but not in his habits, in

the matter, but not in the form of his conduct; then, doubtless, his

virtue could not be explained by any reason drawn from the physical

order; the idea of nature--which always necessarily supposes that actual

phenomena rest upon some anterior phenomenon, as effects upon cause--this

idea no longer suffices to enable us to comprehend this man; because

there is nothing more contradictory than to admit that effect can remain

the same when the cause has changed to its contrary. We must then give

up all natural explanation or thought of finding the reason of his acts

in his condition; we must of necessity go beyond the physical order, and

seek the principle of his conduct in quite another world, to which the

reason can indeed raise itself with its ideas, but which the

understanding cannot grasp by its conceptions. It is this revelation of

the absolute moral power which is subjected to no condition of nature, it

is this which gives to the melancholy feeling that seizes our heart at

the sight of such a man that peculiar, inexpressible charm, which no

delight of the senses, however refined, could arouse in us to the same

extent as the sublime.

Thus the sublime opens to us a road to overstep the limits of the world

of sense, in which the feeling of the beautiful would forever imprison

us. It is not little by little (for between absolute dependence and

absolute liberty there is no possible transition), it is suddenly and by

a shock that the sublime wrenches our spiritual and independent nature

away from the net which feeling has spun round us, and which enchains the

soul the more tightly because of its subtle texture. Whatever may be the

extent to which feeling has gained a mastery over men by the latent

influence of a softening taste, when even it should have succeeded in

penetrating into the most secret recesses of moral jurisdiction under the

deceptive envelope of spiritual beauty, and there poisoning the holiness

of principle at its source--one single sublime emotion often suffices to

break all this tissue of imposture, at one blow to give freedom to the

fettered elasticity of spiritual nature, to reveal its true destination,

and to oblige it to conceive, for one instant at least, the feeling of

its liberty. Beauty, under the shape of the divine Calypso, bewitched

the virtuous son of Ulysses, and the power of her charms held him long a

prisoner in her island. For long he believed he was obeying an immortal

divinity, whilst he was only the slave of sense; but suddenly an

impression of the sublime in the form of Mentor seizes him; he remembers

that he is called to a higher destiny--he throws himself into the waves,

and is free.

The sublime, like the beautiful, is spread profusely throughout nature,

and the faculty to feel both one and the other has been given to all men;

but the germ does not develop equally; it is necessary that art should

lend its aid. The aim of nature supposes already that we ought

spontaneously to advance towards the beautiful, although we still avoid

the sublime: for the beautiful is like the nurse of our childhood, and it

is for her to refine our soul in withdrawing it from the rude state of

nature. But though she is our first affection, and our faculty of

feeling is first developed for her, nature has so provided, nevertheless,

that this faculty ripens slowly and awaits its full development until the

understanding and the heart are formed. If taste attains its full

maturity before truth and morality have been established in our heart by

a better road than that which taste would take, the sensuous world would

remain the limit of our aspirations. We should not know, either in our

ideas or in our feelings, how to pass beyond the world of sense, and all

that imagination failed to represent would be without reality to us. But

happily it enters into the plan of nature, that taste, although it first

comes into bloom, is the last to ripen of all the faculties of the mind.

During this interval, man has time to store up in his mind a provision of

ideas, a treasure of principles in his heart, and then to develop

especially, in drawing from reason, his feeling for the great and the


As long as man was only the slave of physical necessity, while he had

found no issue to escape from the narrow circle of his appetites, and

while he as yet felt none of that superior liberty which connects him

with the angels, nature, so far as she is incomprehensible, could not

fail to impress him with the insufficiency of his imagination, and again,

as far as she is a destructive force, to recall his physical

powerlessness. He is forced then to pass timidly towards one, and to

turn away with affright from the other. But scarcely has free

contemplation assured him against the blind oppression of the forces of

nature--scarcely has he recognized amidst the tide of phenomena something

permanent in his own being--than at once the coarse agglomeration of

nature that surrounds him begins to speak in another language to his

heart, and the relative grandeur which is without becomes for him a

mirror in which he contemplates the absolute greatness which is within

himself. He approaches without fear, and with a thrill of pleasure,

those pictures which terrified his imagination, and intentionally makes

an appeal to the whole strength of that faculty by which we represent the

infinite perceived by the senses, in order if she fails in this attempt,

to feel all the more vividly how much these ideas are superior to all

that the highest sensuous faculty can give. The sight of a distant

infinity--of heights beyond vision, this vast ocean which is at his feet,

that other ocean still more vast which stretches above his head,

transport and ravish his mind beyond the narrow circle of the real,

beyond this narrow and oppressive prison of physical life. The simple

majesty of nature offers him a less circumscribed measure for estimating

its grandeur, and, surrounded by the grand outlines which it presents to

him, he can no longer bear anything mean in his way of thinking. Who can

tell how many luminous ideas, how many heroic resolutions, which would

never have been conceived in the dark study of the imprisoned man of

science, nor in the saloons where the people of society elbow each other,

have been inspired on a sudden during a walk, only by the contact and the

generous struggle of the soul with the great spirit of nature? Who knows

if it is not owing to a less frequent intercourse with this sublime

spirit that we must partially attribute the narrowness of mind so common

to the dwellers in towns, always bent under the minutiae which dwarf and

wither their soul, whilst the soul of the nomad remains open and free as

the firmament beneath which he pitches his tent?

But it is not only the unimaginable or the sublime in quantity, it is

also the incomprehensible, that which escapes the understanding and

that which troubles it, which can serve to give us an idea of the

super-sensuous infinity. As soon as this element attains the grandiose

and announces itself to us as the work of nature (for otherwise it is

only despicable), it then aids the soul to represent to itself the ideal,

and imprints upon it a noble development. Who does not love the eloquent

disorder of natural scenery to the insipid regularity of a French garden?

Who does not admire in the plains of Sicily the marvellous combat of

nature with herself--of her creative force and her destructive power?

Who does not prefer to feast his eyes upon the wild streams and

waterfalls of Scotland, upon its misty mountains, upon that romantic

nature from which Ossian drew his inspiration--rather than to grow

enthusiastic in this stiff Holland, before the laborious triumph of

patience over the most stubborn of elements? No one will deny that in

the rich grazing-grounds of Holland, things are not better ordered

for the wants of physical man than upon the perfid crater of Vesuvius,

and that the understanding which likes to comprehend and arrange all

things, does not find its requirements rather in the regularly planted

farm-garden than in the uncultivated beauty of natural scenery. But

man has requirements which go beyond those of natural life and comfort

or well-being; he has another destiny than merely to comprehend the

phenomena which surround him.

In the same manner as for the observant traveller, the strange wildness

of nature is so attractive in physical nature--thus, and for the same

reason, every soul capable of enthusiasm finds even in the regrettable

anarchy found in the moral world a source of singular pleasure. Without

doubt he who sees the grand economy of nature only from the impoverished

light of the understanding; he who has never any other thought than to

reform its defiant disorder and to substitute harmony, such a one could

not find pleasure in a world which seems given up to the caprice of

chance rather than governed according to a wise ordination, and where

merit and fortune are for the most part in opposition. He desires that

the whole world throughout its vast space should be ruled like a house

well regulated; and when this much-desired regularity is not found, he

has no other resource than to defer to a future life, and to another and

better nature, the satisfaction which is his due, but which neither the

present nor the past afford him. On the contrary, he renounces willingly

the pretension of restoring this chaos of phenomena to one single notion;

he regains on another side, and with interest, what he loses on this

side. Just this want of connection, this anarchy, in the phenomena,

making them useless to the understanding, is what makes them valuable to

reason. The more they are disorderly the more they represent the freedom

of nature. In a sense, if you suppress all connection, you have

independence. Thus, under the idea of liberty, reason brings back to

unity of thought that which the understanding could not bring to unity of

notion. It thus shows its superiority over the understanding, as a

faculty subject to the conditions of a sensuous order. When we consider

of what value it is to a rational being to be independent of natural

laws, we see how much man finds in the liberty of sublime objects as a

set-off against the checks of his cognitive faculty. Liberty, with all

its drawbacks, is everywhere vastly more attractive to a noble soul than

good social order without it--than society like a flock of sheep, or a

machine working like a watch. This mechanism makes of man only a

product; liberty makes him the citizen of a better world.

It is only thus viewed that history is sublime to me. The world, as a

historic object, is only the strife of natural forces; with one another

and with man's freedom. History registers more actions referable to

nature than to free will; it is only in a few cases, like Cato and

Phocion, that reason has made its power felt. If we expect a treasury of

knowledge in history how we are deceived! All attempts of philosophy to

reconcile what the moral world demands with what the real world gives is

belied by experience, and nature seems as illogical in history as she is

logical in the organic kingdoms.

But if we give up explanation it is different. Nature, in being

capricious and defying logic, in pulling down great and little, in

crushing the noblest works of man, taking centuries to form--nature, by

deviating from intellectual laws, proves that you cannot explain nature

by nature's laws themselves, and this sight drives the mind to the world

of ideas, to the absolute.

But though nature as a sensuous activity drives us to the ideal, it

throws us still more into the world of ideas by the terrible. Our

highest aspiration is to be in good relations with physical nature,

without violating morality. But it is not always convenient to serve two

masters; and though duty and the appetites should never be at strife,

physical necessity is peremptory, and nothing can save men from evil

destiny. Happy is he who learns to bear what he cannot change! There

are cases where fate overpowers all ramparts, and where the only

resistance is, like a pure spirit, to throw freely off all interest of

sense, and strip yourself of your body. Now this force comes from

sublime emotions, and a frequent commerce with destructive nature.

Pathos is a sort of artificial misfortune, and brings us to the spiritual

law that commands our soul. Real misfortune does not always choose its

time opportunely, while pathos finds us armed at all points. By

frequently renewing this exercise of its own activity the mind controls

the sensuous, so that when real misfortune comes, it can treat it as an

artificial suffering, and make it a sublime emotion. Thus pathos takes

away some of the malignity of destiny, and wards off its blows.

Away then with that false theory which supposes falsely a harmony binding

well being and well doing. Let evil destiny show its face. Our safety

is not in blindness, but in facing our dangers. What can do so better

than familiarity with the splendid and terrible evolution of events, or

than pictures showing man in conflict with chance; evil triumphant,

security deceived--pictures shown us throughout history, and placed

before us by tragedy? Whoever passes in review the terrible fate of

Mithridates, of Syracuse, and Carthage, cannot help keeping his appetite

in check, at least for a time, and, seeing the vanity of things, strive

after that which is permanent. The capacity of the sublime is one of the

noblest aptitudes of man. Beauty is useful, but does not go beyond man.

The sublime applies to the pure spirit. The sublime must be joined to

the beautiful to complete the aesthetic education, and to enlarge man's

heart beyond the sensuous world.

Without the beautiful there would be an eternal strife between our

natural and rational destiny. If we only thought of our vocation as

spirits we should be strangers to this sphere of life. Without the

sublime, beauty would make us forget our dignity. Enervated--wedded to

this transient state, we should lose sight of our true country. We are

only perfect citizens of nature when the sublime is wedded to the


Many things in nature offer man the beautiful and sublime. But here

again he is better served at second-hand. He prefers to have them

ready-made in art rather than seek them painfully in nature. This

instinct for imitation in art has the advantage of being able to make

those points essential that nature has made secondary. While nature

suffers violence in the organic world, or exercises violence, working

with power upon man, though she can only be aesthetical as an object of

pure contemplation, art, plastic art, is fully free, because it throws

off all accidental restrictions and leaves the mind free, because it

imitates the appearance, not the reality of objects. As all sublimity

and beauty consists in the appearance, and not in the value of the object,

it follows that art has all the advantages of nature without her shackles.

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