Science Confirms: The Aesthetic Sublime is Pretty Right On


Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (1818) is one of the most famous paintings of the 19th century, and is often used to describe the era’s cultural concerns, as well as to highlight how damn well they dressed.

The painting is often used to illustrate 18th and early 19th century notions of the sublime. While definitions differ according to definer, the sublime is a concept dating at least to ancient Rome that was reintroduced as an aesthetic category in the 18th century, and helps explain why Romanticism was obsessed with weird stuff like ghosts and gothic ruin.

One of Friedrich‘s main goal as a painter was “to examine an instant of sublimity, a reunion with the spiritual self through the contemplation of nature” (Wikipedia)(I’m lazy). This explains in part why he was forgotten after his own lifetime – until being resurrected by Expressionists in the early 20th century.

While the sublime has made a comeback in contemporary philosophy, it is primarily an 18th century concern. To sum up a host of arguments up in a simple formula, as Wikipedia does, the sublime is “the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.”

Wikipedia’s sublime mirrors Anselm’s medieval conception of God as being “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” A version of this was popular in the 17th century philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz (this is what Voltaire is making fun of in Candide), and from there mixed with Spinoza’s 17th-century pantheism, which believed that everything was of one substance, hence God and nature were one.

To brass-tack it, this notion of God was transferred to nature in the 18th century – it was the era where people started learning a lot about the Earth — and the sublime became a major topic in philosophy. It was first used to describe crossing the Alps by participants in the 18th century Grand Tour – the forerunner of modern mass tourism and college years abroad.

In most accounts, the sublime leads human to a sense of awe. Basically, looking at anything giant, or monstrous, or gloomy (I feel like I am describing myself) leads people to a sense of the sublime, and the awe that accompanies it.

And that’s where 21st century psychology comes in: this sense of awe helps you live better.

Researchers at Stanford and the University of Minnesota say that experiencing awe makes people feel they have more time available, be less impatient, and are more willing to volunteer.  As well, awe helps people refer experiences over material things and have greater life satisfaction.

Echoing Kant and Burke, the researchers define awe as “the emotion that arises when one encounters something so strikingly vast that it provokes a need to update one’s mental schemas.”

The most interesting takeaway from the study is that experiencing awe can expand people’s perception of time.

“Experiences of awe help to brings us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise,” according to the researchers.

So the Romantics were right: experiencing the sublime, experiencing awe, makes your life richer.