the Sublime

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Sublime, the


an aesthetic category characterizing the inner significance of objects and phenomena and revealing a discrepancy between their high ideal content and the real forms of their expression.

The concept of the sublime arose at the dawn of antiquity. The sublime characterized a special style of oratorical speech, as shown, for example, in the treatise by Pseudo-Longinus On the Sublime, dating from the first century A.D. (Russian translation, 1826). This meaning of the term was retained until the Renaissance. In classicism N. Boileau, C. Batteux, and others developed a doctrine of “high” and “low” styles of literature. As an independent aesthetic concept the sublime was first worked out in E. Burke’s treatise A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Burke links the sublime to man’s innate feeling of self-preservation and sees the source of the sublime in all that “in one way or another is capable of evoking the idea of suffering or danger, that is, all that which, in one way or another, is full of dread” (Istoriia estetiki, vol. 2, Moscow, 1964, p. 103).

I. Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790) provided a systematic analysis of the dichotomy between the beautiful and the sublime (Soch., vol. 5, Moscow, 1966, pp. 249-88). If the beautiful is characterized by a definite form and limited nature, then the essence of the sublime lies in its limitless, infinite grandeur and its incommensurability with the human capacity for contemplation and imagination. The sublime reveals the dual nature of man: it overwhelms him as a physical being and compels him to acknowledge his own finite and limited nature; at the same time, however, it exalts him as a spiritual being and awakens in him the ideas of reason and the awareness of his moral superiority even over nature, which is physically incommensurate and overpowering. Because of its moral character and its connections with the idea of freedom, Kant places the sublime above the beautiful. J. F. Schiller, developing these Kantian ideas in On the Sublime (1792), speaks of the sublime not only in nature but also in history. Subsequently, Schiller overcomes the Kantian dichotomy of the beautiful and the sublime by introducing the unifying concept of the ideally beautiful.

In the further development of German aesthetics the emphasis in the interpretation of the sublime was shifted from the perception of it to the correlation between idea and form, or between what is expressed and its means of expression. J. P. Richter defined the sublime as infinity conceived in relation to a sense object (Vorschule der Asthetik, Hamburg, 1804), and F. W. Schelling defined it as the embodiment of the infinite in the finite. For K. Solger the sublime is an idea that is not yet fully manifest and that is still “to be disclosed” (Vorlesungen uber Aesthetik, Leipzig, 1829, pp. 242-43). For Hegel it is the disparity between an individual phenomenon and the infinite idea expressed by it.

Marxist aesthetics does not set up a dichotomy between the sublime and the beautiful, and it considers the sublime in close connection with heroism, with the ardor of struggle and of the creative activity of the masses. The sublime is inseparable from the ideas of man’s greatness and dignity. In this it is akin to the tragic, which is a special form of sublime ardor.


Chernyshevskii, N. G. “Vozvyshennoe i komicheskoe.” In Izbr. filosofskie sochineniia, vol. 1. Moscow, 1950. Pages 252-99.
Borev, lu. B. Kategorii estetiki. Moscow, 1959. Chapter 2.
Kagan, M. S.Lektsiipo marksistko-leninskoi estetike, part 1. Lenin-grad, 1963. Pages 69-88.
Seidl, A. Zur Geschichte des Erhabenheitsbegriffes seit Kant. Leipzig, 1889.
Hippie, W. J. The Beautiful, the Sublime, the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory. Carbondale, Ill., 1957.
Monk, S. H. The Sublime . . . [2nd ed.]. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1960.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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