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Western aesthetics has made a lot of a supposed distinction between “the beautiful” and “the sublime”: “sublime” referring to things like high mountains and the starry night that make us feel awe, make us feel small in a good way. Indian rasa theory would likely refer to this feeling as adbhūta rasa, the taste of wonder. I love awe-inspiring natural phenomena – Bryce Canyon, Todra Gorge – and I find the term “sublime” helpful to describe them. But I’ve long found myself mildly puzzled by the distinction. It seems obvious to me that mountains and gorges are beautiful – their sublimity is one variety, one kind, one species, of beauty. Yet writers on “the sublime” tend to treat it as something different from beauty. Why?

I’ve found a good answer to this question in a marvelous old book by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, entitled Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory. I turned to this book out of curiosity about a related but slightly different phenomenon: the many generations of people who thought mountains were not beautiful. In premodern England at least, it turns out that it was commonplace to view mountains as ugly, as “warts” or “tumours”, deformities of nature. In a world where the goodness of God’s creation was assumed, writers often did not view mountains’ majesty as evidence of God’s own majesty, but rather felt the need to justify why a good and loving God would deign to create such excrescences. Why was that?

Nicolson’s book walks us through a wide range of English writers on mountains. The one she rightly spends the most time on is Thomas Burnet’s 1684 The Sacred Theory of the Earth, mostly forgotten now but highly influential in its own time. Burnet’s own primary interest was not in aesthetics but in harmonizing theology and geology; for us today, though, The Sacred Theory is most interesting because of the light it sheds on the history of aesthetics. It is in this work, Nicolson says, that “for the first time in England we find a sharp distinction between the emotional effects of the sublime and the beautiful in external Nature…” (222, her emphasis) The distinction is particularly fascinating to observe because it reflects a conflict within Burnet himself.

Burnet visited the Alps and Apennines and reacted to them as we moderns likely would: he found himself “rapt” and “ravished”, and noted of the sea and the mountains that “whatsoever hath but the Shadow and Appearance of INFINITE, as all Things have that are too big for our Comprehension, they fill and overbear the Mind with their Excess, and cast it into a pleasing kind of Stupor and Admiration.” (quoted in Nicolson 214; all further page references are to her book) This much seems natural to us.

Yet it’s in the same chapter of his book, the first chapter, that Burnet views mountains with the older kind of horror and alarm:

These Mountains are plac’d in no Order one with another, that can either respect Use or Beauty; and if you consider them singly, they do not consist of any Proportion of Parts that is referable to any Design, or that hath the least Footsteps of Art and Counsel. There is nothing in Nature more shapeless and ill-figur’d than an old Rock or Mountain… if you look upon an Heap of them together, or a mountainous Country, they are the greatest Examples of Confusion that we know in Nature; no Tempest or Earthquake puts Things into more Disorder. (210)

The sea is even worse. If we could view its bottom, “how horribly and barbarously would it look? And with what Amazement should we see it lie under us like an open Hell, or a wide bottomless Pit? So deep and hollow and vast, so broken and confus’d, so every where deform’d and monstrous…. it appears to me the most ghastly thing in Nature.” (173-5)

So what’s going on here? How can the same author, in the same chapter, find himself “rapt” and “ravished” with a “pleasing kind of Stupor and Admiration” by something that cannot “either respect Use or Beauty”, or might even be “the most ghastly thing in Nature”?

Mont Blanc: is it beautiful? Photo by Ximonic, Simo Räsänen, CC BY-SA 3.0

The answer, I think, lies in the specific view of beauty that Burnet inherited. Burnet was a disciple of Henry More, a leading figure among the 17th-century Cambridge Platonists. More didn’t feel Burnet’s rapture at mountains. To More it was natural to refer to “those rudely-scattered Mountains, that seem but so many Wens and unnatural Protuberances upon the Face of the Earth…” (116) Why would an omnipotent omnibenevolent God create such rude protuberances? Because they are useful: they condense salt water into fresh. What they are not, according to More, is beautiful.

It matters a lot here that the Cambridge Platonists were Platonists – and Christian Platonists at that, bringing medieval Platonic Christianity into a post-Renaissance and post-Reformation age. In his work on the topic, Umberto Eco reminds us that medieval Europeans took from Plato a sense of rational order. Beauty was a matter of symmetry and proportion, everything in the right place. And mountains are – not that. They are craggy, irregular. Nicolson thinks that Burnet spent his English youth happily looking at the beauty of churches and trees, and reading books to theorize them – but in the Alps found something very other. Things on heaven and earth that are not dreamed of in Horatio’s philosophy. So whatever Burnet might have seen in the mountains with pleasing admiration, it wasn’t beauty. That word was reserved for things that made rational sense in their symmetry and proportion, which mountains were not.

Here, I think, was born the modern idea of the sublime. Westerners needed a way to talk about adbhūta rasa, the pleasurable experience of wonder and awe, even when it was directed not to something as rationally ordered as a saksit cathedral, but to something as unruly and irregular as a mountain. But that way could not be through beauty, since the Platonist and Christian Middle Ages had reserved that term for what appeared in rational order. Mountains and oceans had to be something else, and that something was sublime.

I get the appeal of an aesthetic of rational order. There is great beauty in symmetry and proportion – or for that matter in Euler’s equation. But, it seems to me, there is also great beauty in the majesty of a craggy and irregular mountain. When one’s metaphysics allowed one to believe that the whole universe was a work of rational order, it made sense to reserve “beauty” for those phenomena that expressed that order in their outward appearance (and not just in their function). But I don’t see why there’s any need to do that any longer. Perhaps some of us still hold a Platonist Christianity, but most do not. For the rest of us, is there anything now that should hold us back from saying simply: the sublime is one kind of beauty?