-- On the Sublime and the Numinous --
et De Numinosô

In horrore visionis nocturnae, quando solet sopor occupare homines,
pavor tenuit me et tremor et omnia ossa mea perterrita sunt,
et cum spiritus me praesente transiret, inhorruerunt pili carnis meae.

Amid disquieting dreams in the night, when deep sleep falls on men,
fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face, and the hair on my body stood on end.

Amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on men,
dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up.

Job, 4:13-15

...the awesome [mysteries], which one can neither transgress nor inquire about nor broadcast; for great awe of the gods stops the voice.

Blessed is he of men on earth who has beheld them; but he that is uninitiated in the holies or has no part in them, never shares the same lot down in the musty dark when he is dead.

Hymn to Demeter, 478-482, The Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocrypha, Lives of Homer, translated by Martin L. West, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 2003, pp.68-71, translation modified, with some alterations based on The Homeric Hymns, translated by Jules Cashford, Penguin Books, 2003, pp.25-26.

We are often prone to resort to this familiar feeling-content to fill out the negative concept 'transcendent', explaining frankly God's 'transcendence' by His 'sublimity'. As a figurative analogical description this is perfectly allowable, but it would be an error if we meant it literally and in earnest. Religious feelings are not the same as aesthetic feelings, and 'the sublime' is as definitely an aesthetic term as 'the beautiful', however widely different may be the facts denoted by the words.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harvey, Oxford University Press, 1923, 1950, 1972, p.41, note

Everyone probably has a pretty good idea what is meant by "beautiful." And if not, at least they are sure that they know it when they see it, or its opposite. The companion term of the "beautiful" in aesthetics, the "sublime," however, is somewhat more obscure and resistant to definition, and even recognition. When we then ask how the "sublime" relates to Rudolf Otto's "numinous," which is perhaps even more obscure, and is sometimes identified with "sublime," the difficulties increase. But both "sublime" and "numinous" can be clarified at the same time in regard to each other, deepening the definition and our understanding of each.

The "sublime" begins with a Late Roman essay on rhetoric, in Greek, which by then was the language of higher culture, replacing Latin. As such, it was a product of the Second Sophistic, which revived literary Greek and initiated a surge in Greek literature. The author of the essay is unknown, and various speculations about his identity have come to nought. He has been called "Longinus," but this doesn't help very much, although it does give us a name to use. The title of the essay is , Perì Hýpsous, "On [the] Sublime," which is our first clue about what we are dealing with.

In Greek, , tò hýpsos, means "the height, top, summit, crown." This is a neuter noun (with the article ) whose third declension genitive is , as we see in the title (, "beauty," is also a neuter third declension noun with the same inflection). The noun is derived from an adverb, , "on high, aloft," and gives rise to another adverb, , "aloft, on high, highly." We also get a verb from the noun, , "to lift high, raise up, elevate, exalt." The adverb curiously looks like the genitive that would form from were it a second declension rather than a third declension noun. This may have given rise to some confusion, as the writer Jean-François Lyotard cites the title of the essay as Peri tou hypsou, which would be . This is not the actual title, and perhaps Lyotard has mistaken the part of speech of , but I think it does actually work in Greek, "Concerning the on high," with the adverb used as a noun -- a construction we see in the phrase , "even until now," examined in "The Grammar of Constantine VII's Statement."

From the Greek term we get a Latin translation, the adjective sublimis, meaning "high, raised, lifted up; sublime, elevated, lofty." We even get an adverb, sublime, "on high, aloft," as in Greek, and a noun sublimitas, "loftiness, height, sublimity." A curious thing here is that while sublimis is an adjective, in Greek, with our noun and adverbs, there is no obvious adjective at all. Instead, we get , hýpsistos, "highest, loftiest," which is glossed by Liddell and Scott as the "superlative without any positive," and , hypsíteros, which is the comparative, "loftier." Why we end up using for this a part of speech in Latin that doesn't even exist in Greek, I cannot explain. Nor can I say why Greek would be missing a positive adjective in the midst of all these forms. But, since there are lots of adverbs, more than I have detailed, perhaps the Greeks just preferred using the adverbs.

So from all of this we get the idea that we are dealing with something high, lofty, exalted, superior, etc. This adds a marked element to mere beauty, and it tends to do so in moral terms, of lofty persons, deeds, stations, etc., or in natural terms, of physical phenomena, whether static, like mountains or spaces, or dynamic, like storms or volcanoes. Our question must be whether it does so in supernatural terms, as with numinosity. Otto's word, of course, derives from Latin numen, "the divine will, divine command; the might of a deity, majesty, divinity." On analogy with omen, which we retain in English, Otto coined "numinous" (numinosus, like the existing ominosus, "ominous") and "numinosity" (numinositas). I have not found a corresponding term in Greek, and the original meaning of numen itself was "a nodding with the head, a nod," which seems to have indicated how the statue of a god, carried by attendants, might nod in oracular answer to a question. This is a common phenomenon, through which the will of the god, and then his power, came to be indicated. Although perhaps lacking in Greek, there are comparable terms in other languages.

The sublime seems to have entered modern discourse with a translation and discussion of by Nicolas Boileau in 1674. This led to the classics of Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful [1757] and then Immanuel Kant's Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime [Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, 1764 -- erhaben, "raised, projecting, prominent, elevated; exalted, noble, lofty, illustrious, sublime, stately"]. Other philosophers and literati followed, with interpretations usually dependent on their own interpretive systems, including Kant himself in the Critique of Judgment [1790], by which time some of his ideas had changed, not always for the better.

At right is the confusing diagram by which I have illustrated the tangle of value terms involving the good, the beautiful, the sublime, the erotic, the glamorous, and the holy. This can be untangled a bit, with its background explained, by consulting "The New Kant-Friesian System of Metaphysics," where this is a fragment of a larger diagram of modes of necessity and value. Here we can note the categorization by Kant of the sublime as the "terrifying" (das Schreckhafterhabene), the "noble" (das Edle), and the "splendid" (das Prächtige). Some of this even goes back to "Longinus," who uses the terms , "bewilderment, consternation," , "wondrous, wonderful, marvellous; admirable, excellent," and , "fear."

The emphasis in Edmund Burke was on the overwhelming power of nature. We also see this in Kant, who says, "The sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peak rises above the clouds, the description of a raging storm, or Milton's portrayal of the infernal kingdom, arouse enjoyment but with horror." These examples are of the sublime, but I am not sure that "horror" is always appropriate for everything. The "sight of a mountain," of course, was something that Immanuel Kant, who never left Königsberg, never saw his entire life. The closest mountains are hundreds of miles away. On the other hand, he certainly saw storms and need not have relied on a "description" of the same. Having witnessed myself a Spring squall line of thunderstorms approach central Texas, there are probably few things, short of tornadoes, hurricanes, or volcanoes, to so display the power of nature. A wall of gray clouds towering as high as one can imagine, with the air filled with spray and wind. It was not like thunderstorms I have seen in New Mexico, California, or elsewhere. It is a matter of awe, and a bit of fear as the storms arrive, and rain and perhaps hail begin to fall -- or tornadoes spin off. One heads for cover. The power and majesty of nature, with the potential for real terror, is always there. But not quite horror, unless catastrophic damage or loss of life occur.

Mountains are a little different. They are usually not actively coming after the viewer, and may be at some considerable distance. Unlike Kant, I have seen snow-covered peaks, at various places in the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, the Transverse Ranges of Southern California (the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto Mountains), the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico, Mt. Lebanon, Mt. Fuji, and parts of the Swiss Alps. I've even climbed one of the peaks above Honolulu, Pu'u Lanipô, which at only 2621 ft. wasn't all that high, but it did have a panoramic view of most of Honolulu and the Windward side of Oahu -- at a greater altitude than elevations around where I have lived in Texas and New Jersey.

All these sights may fill one with wonder, awe, and exaltation, as a mountain or a vista has in itself a power and domination, even if it is not doing anything. Kant's "starry heavens above me," der bestirnte Himmel über mir, with its sense of the immensity of space, accomplishes much the same thing. And we also wonder what we are looking at, even when we have a better idea than the ancients, who had to look at the sky without a clue what they were really seeing.

Much of the thought about the sublime in nature sees it after the manner of greater than the self, i.e. the spaces or the vistas are literally enormous, which belittle the self, or the witness is in some danger of literally being destroyed by the phenomena. The thunderstorm or the tornado are fascinating objects, but they have a deadly potential. Similarly, volcanoes can put on a spectacular show, with fountains of lava, pillars and avalanches of ash, and explosions raining debris, "bombs," all around. This is all as dangerous as hell. Volcanologists have died (and the still living, I think, Guy de Saint Cyr sometimes has his name prefaced with "the amazingly still alive"). The "bombs" can be as big as Volkswagens. So there is both nothing quite like the sight, and nothing quite like the danger. On the other hand, I wonder about earthquakes. As an aesthetic experience, there is something lacking. The power and the effects can be dramatic indeed, but it's usually just the ground shaking, and this doesn't really give us that much to look at. There are things falling down, but, except for the scale, this is often not unlike the experience of opening a packed closet. So I am not clear there is anything particularly sublime about an earthquake, and I've been in a few (California, Hawaii, and Japan), except for the power and perhaps the fear alone. As an aesthetic experience, it disappoints.

Henri-Paul Motte (1846-1922),
Napoléon au trône de Charlemagne,
"Napoleon at Charlemagne's Throne,"
1898, detail
The morally sublime involves the phenomena of character, action, and station. Heroism and majesty involve extraordinary feats, as in the Iliad, or extraordinary achievements, as with Charlemagne -- at right we see Napoleon contemplating the Throne of Charlemagne at Aachen and the Crown of the Holy Roman Empire (which was actually in the keeping of the Hapsburgs). Kings like the idea of being sublime in their own station, a conceit shared by all aristocrats -- all of which relates to Kant's idea of the "noble" sublime. Not all deserve their status, which is why they make lèse majesté (laisa majestas) a crime. Generally, establishing a monarchy involves heroic or at least grandiose deeds, from whose moral capital later generations can derive legitimacy and borrowed glory (as with Napoleon associating himself with Charlemagne). "Majesty" itself is a term of sublimity, as we also see when it is applied to "majestic" nature, in precisely the sublime cases just discussed.

A derived function of the morally sublime is where it turns up as art and artifact. Thus, Kant identifies St. Peter's cathedral in Rome, which he had never seen, as an example of the "splendid" sublime, and it is hard to disagree. He also cites the pyramids, which he had not seen either. In either case, we have artifacts that are impressively large, are the result of mighty, if not to say heroic, works, and also strike the eye with great beauty and majesty. Perhaps they are also a little frightening, like the Arab saying that man fears time, but time fears the pyramids, or Napoleon exhorting his troops with the reflection that 40 centuries looked down on them from the pyramids. There is also the question of whether the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican is itself sublime. Kenneth Clark didn't like it, but I find it impressive, for its size, splendor, and majesty, all characteristics of the sublime. Clark himself inadvertently added the music, Monteverdi, that completed the effect.

And, of course, there is music, whose sublimity no one seems to have understood so well as Schopenhauer, or so poorly as Kant. To be sure, Kant had died before the majesty existed of Beethoven's 5th or 9th Symphonies, and it is not clear how he might have heard them in Königsberg anyway. But we don't hear any praise of Mozart, some of whose music must certainly have come to his attention. He seems to have more complaints about music than he does appreciation, relegating it to the "the lowest place" [den untersten Platz] among the "beautiful arts." Music as even possibly sublime seems off the radar. This is a strong clue that Kant will be an uneven guide to the nature of the sublime.

Art and artifact can exalt the human spirit, and this gives us examples of the sublime that go all the way back to the rhetoric of . We are less engaged and less respectful of political rhetoric these days, which is usually packaged for deceptive sound bites rather than soaring and inspiring visions -- subsequent politicians make Ronald Reagan sound like Demosthenes. But other forms can make up for it, including the theater and the movies. Thus, when Prospero forgives those who have wronged him, in The Tempest, it is definitely a sublime moment. Prospero commands the sublime power of nature, yet it is tamed by his own sublime virtue and wisdom. The action is not on the scale of other Shakespeare plays, but the meaning is as profound as any.

But it is hard for television, for example, to be sublime, since it is by nature and by habit small, mean, vulgar, ridiculous, and other qualities that are actually the opposite of the sublime. I have also commented on originally seeing the movie Alien in a movie theater, where the darkness and emptiness of space was palpable, while the cold January night outside (in Austin in 1981) seemed of a piece with that feature of the movie. Seeing the movie at home, in a warm and cozy room, with some lights on, where even the darkness of space shares in the ambient glow of the television screen, reduces the impression. As the terrified characters run around and die, you pause the DVD or the DVR to go get some food in the kitchen, or order a pizza.

In the Critique of Judgment, Kant sees the sublime as, after a fashion, the representation of something that cannot be represented, i.e. features of the transcendent that will not fit in the phenomenal world. So he says,

Sublimity, therefore, does not reside in anything of nature, but only in our mind, in so far as we can become conscious that we are superior to nature within, and therefore also to nature without us (as far as it influences us). Everything that excites this feeling in us, i.e. the might of nature which calls forth our forces, is called then (although improperly) sublime. Only by supposing this idea in ourselves and in reference to it are we capable of attaining to the idea of the sublimity of that Being which produces respect in us, not merely by the might that it displays in nature, but rather by means of the faculty which resides in us of judging it fearlessly and of regarding our destination as sublime in respect of it. [Critique of Judgment, translated by J.H. Bernard, Hafner, 1968, p.104]

By this, Kant displays his method of reducing everything to morality, for it is the only thing within us that "produces respect," and the only clue we have that there is such a "Being" that enforces it behind the scenes and also creates all the nature that embodies the aesthetic qualities that we "improperly" attribute to it. Thus, while der bestirnte Himmel über mir, "the starry heaven above me," stimulates feelings of awe and wonder, we realize that this is itself derivative of das moralische Gesetz in mir, "the Moral Law in me," which is our only real connection to the transcendent. The "inadequacy of imagination" to represent what is really sublime, leaves us with a derivative feeling that really bespeaks no more than our own limitations and insufficiency -- as it does that of nature itself.

This reference to God bears attention, especially given the failure of Kant's own philosophy of religion to pay much attention to the forms and features of actual religions. Do we really need God, morality, and the transcendent, with Kant's system of the "Ideas" of "God, freedom, and immortality," to explain the beautiful and the sublime? I seriously doubt it. But this does put us at a threshold, where we can ask what more we expect from religion and religious feelings. As I quote Rudolf Otto above, "Religious feelings are not the same as aesthetic feelings"; but this is something we would not know from Immanuel Kant, who tracks certain aesthetics feelings, about the sublime, back down to his comfort zone with morality and God, rather literally denaturing Nature -- which, pace Kant, is quite properly called "sublime."

Burke also puts us on a bit of a false trail in a striking passage, after he has argued that "obscurity" is a feature of the sublime:

But let it be considered that hardly any thing can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea. There is a passage in the book of Job amazingly sublime, and this sublimity is principally due to the terrible uncertainty of the thing described. In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, fear came upon me and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face. The hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof; an image was before mine eyes; there was silence; and I heard a voice, -- Shall mortal man be more just than God? [Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Oxford, 1990, p.58; Job, 4:13-17]

Most of this quotation from Job is given as an epigraph of this page [note]. The key things about this passage, which do not seem quite the things to associate with the merely sublime, are the "fear" and "trembling," and the extraordinary experience of "the hair of my flesh stood up." This is more than an aesthetic experience. Burke has wandered into different territory, with a principle of analysis, "obscurity," that doesn't quite fit the case. Infinity is really big, but it is not clear how obscure boundaries, that may suggest its presence, thereby produce fear, trembling, and one's hair standing on end. This is not from something just big, but from something uncanny, , and supernatural, which doesn't seem to quite register with Burke. Infinity is just a big empty space, but the obscure figure of the "spirit" brings a presence rather different with it.

Before Job has a clue whether he will see the "spirit" distinctly or not, he is "creeped out." It is something creepy, not just fearful, that makes our flesh crawl and the hair stand on end. There is even a widespread impression that dogs and cats can have the same reaction, often to things we cannot see, but they seem to. And the cat's hair stands on end also. This is what is "uncanny," which, according to the dictionary definition, will involve something, not just "eerie" or "mysterious," but supernatural, which means it threatens to violate the order and the laws of nature. It has broken through from "Outside."

This is something rather different from the exaltation involved in the sublime. The really big and powerful can be frightening. If we must run and hide from a tornado, this will be terrifying. But it will not be creepy or uncanny. What is described in Job is thus extraordinary, and it bespeaks an order of reality beyond the moral or the natural, or art and artifact. It is a power beyond ordinary moral or natural power, and its products are not the ordinary objects of aesthetics. We are beyond the sublime into the realm of the numinous, whose terms are the sacred and the holy [note].

It is noteworthy that with both Kant and Burke, the classic authorities on the sublime, we find them in important matters entirely out of their reckoning. They both fit the popular maxim that if all you have is a hammer, then everything is going to look like a nail. Kant's hammer is morality, and by the time he wrote the Critique of Judgment, he had already developed his idea that God is a "postulate of practical reason," which means that morality motivates a belief in God, as theoretical reason, with all its failed arguments, could not. So of course an aesthetic experience is not of what we are actually looking at, it is an echo of God by way of the Moral Law. Burke, with less monomania and so a larger toolbox, nevertheless takes up one tool, "obscurity," and uses it on something where it really does not fit the case. The problem is not that a clear idea is a little idea, but instead something that is quite clear, that Job is creeped out by presence of the "spirit" visiting him in the night. Something of obscure magnitude is not just in a different ballpark from the uncanny, it is not even the same sport.

The phenomenology of the sacred is very different than the beautiful or the sublime. All have their opposites. That of the beauty is the ugly. That of the sublime is the base or vulgar. But that of the sacred is the "unholy," the "unclean," and the "polluted." The ugly or the vulgar may displace the beautiful or the sublime; but the unholy, the unclean, or the profane desecrates the sacred. This is traditionally a crime. It involves damage and wrong beyond ordinary property damage. The holy is violated. Now, by analogy we may say that vandalism can "desecrate" something beautiful, like a work or art; but the sorrow and outrage at such an act does not involve fear that somehow the power of the sacred thing will strike back -- just as in Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981], the apparently inert artifact of the Ark of the Covenant eventually comes to life and wipes out all those who have insulted and polluted it. This is what we expect. The sense of the uncanny is precisely the sense of a power that can do that, beyond natural forces [note].

Where Burke looked at the Presence of God and saw something really big, and Kant looked at Nature and saw the "Moral Law within," Rudolf Otto looked at religious phenomena and saw something with its own law. At Exodus 3:5, God tells Moses, "Take off your sandals," for he is standing on "holy ground." This is a ritual obligation. The holy requires that it be treated in a certain way, often through a procedure whose steps are specified and listed, in a way that has been known and done for centuries. In the epigraph above, we see that the mysteries of Demeter involve , "awe." This is not the same awe associated with the sublime, for it "stops the voice," not just as an emotional reaction of overwhelming feeling, but as a duty, enforced by fear of the goddess. You speak of the mysteries in public, out of place, and riots and prosecutions will follow. Thus, Socrates says "what we are told," , but carefully does not say by whom.

We should attend carefully to what happens with the opposites of the sublime and the holy. As I have noted, since the sublime is the large, lofty, exalted, powerful, noble, etc., its opposite, for which we don't seem to have a single word (like "ugly" for the opposite of "beautiful"), will be small, mean, base, vulgar, weak, etc. This is clearly very different from the opposite of the holy, which, as the unholy, unclean, or polluted, can be large, powerful, and in its own way exalted indeed. Demons and Satan are unholy, and yet artists and writers can work up a lot more enthusiasm for them than for what otherwise might be mean, weak, or vulgar. This is because the unholy and the polluted share in numinosity, the opposite of the "mundane," the Chinese , and the Polynesian mana that deceived James Frazer into saying:

The uncleanness, as it is called, of girls at puberty and the sanctity of holy men do not, to the primitive mind, differ materially from each other. They are only different manifestations of the same mysterious energy which, like energy in general, is in itself neither good nor bad, but becomes beneficent or maleficent according to its application.

There is indeed, an "energy in general," just as there is "aesthetics in general," but we only find it instantiated in positive (holy, beautiful), negative (unclean, ugly), or neutral (mundane, plain) forms. This is not just a matter of the "application" of the energy, which in those terms could be indifferently used for any purpose, but of the intrinsic, embodied nature of the energy, i.e. the numinosity, as positive or negative, sacred or polluted.

Thus, we cannot entertain the thesis, in turn, that the sublime and the holy are somehow the same thing -- "do not... differ materially from each other" -- when their opposites are so radically and obviously different. This, in turn indicates features that uniquely distinguish the holy. Where the Najavo believe that "corpse powder," which is the essence of death pollution, is used by witches to harm people, we otherwise see the opposite of that effected through what is sacred, through which divine benefits flow and, in Navajo terms, allow one to "walk in beauty" [note]. But in both cases, supernatural harm and supernatural benefit, we are far beyond the nature of any harm or benefit from the sublime. In fact, we should note how that works.

The sublime power of nature can definitely harm, but through causes that are limited to the physical:  wind, hail, earthquake, landslide, avalanche, lava, etc. On the other hand, it is hard to see how the natural sublime involves benefits. The wind can generate power, but not if it is too much, which means the wind speeds probably will not approach those that would qualify for awe or fear. On the other hand, what we can expect from the morally sublime, the noble, the majestic, etc., ought to mainly be beneficial. This is because those with authority, whose charge is to promote justice and prosperity, cannot be seen as the embodiment of majesty or nobility if they fail to effect those things, but behave in the opposite manner, making them mean and base, the opposites of sublime -- thus, the sublime status of Napoleon is compromised by his tyrannies, while that of Adolph Hitler, a similarly impressive conqueror, is precluded by the character and scale of his. All such effects, positive and negative, in turn, are effected by natural means.

The majesty of a ruler becomes numinous only when it is believed that supernatural powers
the Shôwa Emperor,
Coronation Robes
are involved in the pursuit of ordinary political, military, juridical, and economic ends. That is the point of having a "god king," like the King of Egypt, the "good god," , or the Emperor of Japan, who was a , a god, until 1945. Special powers are expected from such rulers. At the same time, more ordinary kings may have religious duties and powers, like the Kings of Sumer, or the Athenian "king archon," . It is not clear to what extent the king archon was still thought to have any divine powers, although it was certainly his duty to protect the City by punishing impiety and removing pollution. But the former real kings, for their religious duties and powers, might even be called "priest" kings. And a monarchy established by sublime and heroic deeds may then acquire divine sanction also, as when a vial of oil is supposed to have descended from heaven to anoint Clovis, the first Christian King of the Franks. Yet Frankish kings were never portrayed with halos, like the Christian Roman Emperors.

This is an entirely different universe from the terms of aesthetics that go with the categories of the beautiful and the sublime. The power of the sublime may involve physical threats that occasion fear, but vandalism or insult to the beautiful and the sublime do not entail retribution effected by them. But numinous powers can do that, and the specific fear of their supernatural agency occasions a specific and characteristic response. Dealing with these kinds of things generates rules, which are just the sort of "empty" ritual that is despised and dismissed by the enlightened. Aesthetics makes no such demands, certainly not with the power of enforcement in the background. So when Rudolf Otto says, "Religious feelings are not the same as aesthetic feelings," this is the key point. And the phenomena of religion are not the phenomena of aesthetics.

The difference may actually be obscured when we only talk about "feelings," but it emerges with clarity when we move on to actions, about which religion usually has a lot to say, while aesthetics doesn't. Indeed, as I have often had occasion to note in these pages, religio is first of all the "strict observance of religious ceremonial." You look at art, or nature, and get a "feeling," but traditional religion requires, not that you look at things, but that you do things. Modern "progressive" religion likes the idea that what you do is primarily moral and political, but ancient religion had no particular concern for such things. Instead, it required ritual, worship, and other overt displays of piety. Unlike many modern churches, Greek temples were not places for feeding the poor, hosting AA meetings, or rallying political movements. Temples existed to serve the gods, and this would mean offerings, literally feeding and clothing the gods, and sometimes taking them on little ritual expeditions, as when the god Amon visited Luxor from Karnak every year, carried in his own boat. This may strike most people now as ridiculous; but some of the same ceremonies and processions are still conducted with statues of the Saints in Europe, who often nod in answer to questions.

Which gives us a criterion. The very things that strike the secular or progressive mind as ridiculous are precisely the difference between religion and either aesthetics or ethics. There is nothing in the "sublime" that would occasion worries about salvation or motivate monasticism, let alone undertake ritual purifications or austerities. Much of what we see in Kant, for instance, is simply a characteristic Enlightenment contempt for the forms of traditional religion. Reason doesn't need those things, and Kant is more comfortable with a Nature whose aesthetic forms dissolve into a moral connection to God -- not, as it happens, the God of any actual religion, but of a philosophical theory.

The Kant-Friesian Theory of Religion and Religious Value

The New Friesian Theory of Religious Value

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De Sublimî et Numinosô
On the Sublime and the Numinous; Note 1

The end of the quote from Job here is not in the epigraph. After the spirit passed by, and his hair has stood on end, Job 4:16 begins with, , "It stopped," , "but I could not discern its appearance," , "A form stood before me eyes."

The Greek of the Septuagint begins with . This does not mean the same thing as Hebrew . It is not even in the same person. Thus, is the first person second aorist of , whose basic meaning is "to make to stand up, raise up," and "to raise from sleep, wake up." So it could mean, "I stood up" or "I woke up." However, the "wake up" part of the meaning seems to go with the first aorist, which is rather than . The latter is with intransitive meanings, among the list of which Liddell & Scott do not include the "wake up" meanings. So I see translated as "I rose up." As it happens, the Hebrew verb can also mean "stand," if not "stand up." Perhaps this is what suggested the Greek verb to the translators.

However, can also mean "stand still, stop," which the Greek verb does not. And is the third person imperfect, so it is either going to be "it stands" or "it stops." Putting it in the first person aorist in Greek gravely alters the meaning -- where it is no longer even about the spirit passing by. But in the context, "I woke" makes a bit more sense than "I stood up." Since it is used intranstitively, perhaps the translators thought that the second aorist was the appropriate form for that meaning. Where we often see St. Jerome correcting the Greek translation against the Hebrew (as below) and the Vulgate gives stetit for , putting the form into the proper third person, the verb used is nevertheless sto (stetit is the third person singular perfect), which means "to stand, stand up, stand still, remain standing" (in fact this is the Indo-European root in English "stand," as is Greek ). There is nothing there, apparently, about waking up or stopping; and Jerome has kept the past tense from the Greek. So the whole business here seems seriously confused; but the King James translation, "stood still," used by Burke looks like a reasonable compromise between Hebrew and Latin.

The Greek continues with, "and I could not discern," "I saw," "not the form it was," , "before my eyes." The Latin of the Vulgate is, Stetit quidam cuius non agnoscebam vultum, imago coram oculis meis, which I won't parse at this point. This passage best represents the "obscurity" that is the focus of Burke's account.

Job 4:16 continues with what Burke quotes as "there was silence; and I heard a voice." But this passage has been subject to different translations.

The Hebrew is only three (or four) words: . This is , "I heard," , "a whisper," , "and a voice." The conjunction in "and a voice" is written as a prefix, as is the convention -- hence the ambiguity about the number of words, which would delight David Bellos.

Now, can mean "silence" as well as "whisper," coming from the verb , meaning "to be or grow dumb, silent, still," which is why we get translations with "silence." It is not clear how the ambiguity in Hebrew could be resolved by the context. Either the voice of God comes out of the silence, or the voice of God is heard like a whisper. Both of these make sense.

The best evidence for the ancient meaning here, however, may be the ancient translations into Greek and Latin. The passage in the Septuagint is, . Here there is no word that means "silence," and instead we get , "air in motion, a breeze." Then, "and a voice," , is otherwise what we expect -- reminding us of the "voice" (same word) heard by Socrates.

The Greek sentence begins with an idiom, , that combines the words , "but," and , "or." This combination is cited by Liddell and Scott as meaning, "other than, except, but," with however, the qualification, "only after negative words," which, unfortunately, we don't have here. "Either....or" would be ... , but of course what we have is ... .

St. Jerome may be able to help us out. The Vulgate says, Et vocem quasi aurae lenis audivi. Here, instead of we get the oddly familiar quasi, which means "as if, as it were, sort of" -- the way we actually still use the word in English. Jerome uses the same word, aura, as in Greek, which in Latin is "air breathed or blowing, breath, wind," which is a little different than the Greek meaning. Still no silence here. So we can parse the translation like this:  "I heard [audivi] as if [quasi] a soft [lenis] breath/breeze [aura] and [et] a voice [vox]."

So we don't get anything like "silence" in either Greek or Latin. We don't exactly get "whisper" either; but if we read Jerome as "soft breath," this comes close. The simple Greek "breeze" seems the furthest from the Hebrew, even though this is the translation by Hellenistic Jews themselves. The variation in all this is suggestive. Job is not sure what he is seeing, so perhaps he is also not sure what he is hearing. It may be a breeze, but then it is a voice. We don't get this kind of detail from Socrates. But a breeze or wind that turns into a voice, or seems to have a voice in it, is something we often get in movies, usually scary movies. And Job is obviously scared.

A linguistic point of note involves the Greek verb, . This is from the verb , "hear." The form is the first person imperfect indicative of . The Greek imperfect expresses both past tense and imperfect aspect, which means we should properly translate it "I was hearing," which does the same job in English. Apparently, translators generally don't worry about this subtlety of the meaning, which isn't expressed in Hebrew or Latin.

For the continuation of this passage in Job 4:17, see the third epigraph here.

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De Sublimî et Numinosô
On the Sublime and the Numinous; Note 2

Before moving on, we might note some other uses of the terms "sublime" and "sublimation." One is the phenomenon of "sublimation" in science where a solid substance passes directly into a gas, without passing through the intermediate state of being a liquid. This can be the equivalent of "boiling" where the substance is below the pressure, at the Triple Point, where a liquid can exist. Or the solid can sublime, the way a liquid can evaporate, below the "boiling" point.

Another, curious use of "sublimation" is from Freudian psychology. The idea there is that desire, especially infantile desire, can become fixed on an inappropriate or impossible object, as in the "Oedipus Complex," where the infant boy becomes sexually fixated on his mother. This relationship is not going to be consummated, certainly not by the infant. So Freud thinks that the sexual desire is denatured and transferred to a different object. That is "sublimation," by which, apparently, the base sexual attachment becomes the sublime interest in something else. Thus, C.G. Jung summed up Freudian psychology by saying that, "All of civilization is a substitute for incest." In those terms, incest is "sublimated." But Freud also thinks that the transferred object will never be as satisfying as the original would have been, which leaves us with the "discontents" of civilizaton.

Another use of "subliminal" is for an influence that is effected unconsciously. This is usually suggested as the way a lot of advertising operates, that covert messages are included, which may actually influence the unconscious more effectively than the overt messages of the advertising. This usage may derive from Freudian ideas about the unconscious, or it may derive from an analysis of the Latin term as meaning sub, "under," the limen, the "threshold." This could be literally applicable to something that passes beneath conscious recognition.

The analysis of the sublime above, the cases of the natural sublime, the moral sublime, and the sublime in art and artifact, passed over most of the uses now for the "sublime" in ordinary art works. These would be works of art that would not qualify, because of size, splendor, or majesty, to be sublime in the senses mostly considered here. Instead, there is now a body of deconstructionist "Theory" that, with massive amounts of jargon, construes a lot of modern art as "sublime," because of the loss of coherence, limits, and Saussurean "signifiers," with a toe in the view of Kant, as we have seen, in the representation of the unrepresentable transcendent. Thus, we have a statement like this from Doreet LeVitte Harten, an art historian and art "exhibition organizer":

The art of the sublime in this century has been articulated by a clear grammar. The founding fathers, Kasimir Malevich, Wassily Kadinsky, and Piet Mondrian, and later, those on the far shores of America, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, laid down the etiquette and court manners by which the sublime in art should be revered and canonized. The sublime was to be abstract, devoid of all signifiers, so that which is signified will appear in all its decorum: that is, by stating its not being there it will have the appropriate Parousia, the manifestation of the hidden essence. ["Creating Heaven," 1999, The Sublime, Documents of Contemporary Art, edited by Simon Morley, Whitechapel Gallery & The MIT Press, 2010, p.73]

Thus, the interfaith "Rothko Chapel" by Mark Rothko (1903-1970) in Houston, completed shortly before the artist's suicide but not opened until afterwards, consists of large paintings that, to initial and casual examination, appear to be entirely black, and thus devoid of anything, let alone "signifiers." The meaning this is supposed to have is at an extreme of emptiness; and the tendencies of modern art, as considered elsewhere, could hardly have seemed to go further. Calling it "sublime" is a stretch, and little related to the examples considered above.

In his video series on the history of modern art, The Shock of the New ["The View From the Edge," 1980], Robert Hughes (1938-2012) discusses the paintings of the Rothko Chapel, saying that they were intended to possess "the full patriarchal grandure of the Old Testament," but that they couldn't. This is a sobering reflection at odds with the narrative of art historians and critics construing abstractionism like Rothko's as an embodiment of the "Abstract Sublime," reaching even into "supernatural experiences," in the very words of art historian and curator Robert Rosenblum ["The Abstract Sublime," 1961, op.cit, pp.108-112].

Rosenblum presents "four masters of the Abstract Sublime," Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, as continuing the portrayal of the sublime begun by Romantic landscape painters like James Ward (1769-1855) and Joseph Turner (1775-1851). Like the "full patriarchal grandure" of the Rothko Chapel, Rosenblum sees the abstract artists expressing the same "boundless web of inexhaustible energy" that Ward and Turner saw in Nature. Similarly, with Rothko, "these infinite, glowing voids carry us beyond reason to the Sublime; we can only submit to them in an act of faith and let ourselves be absorbed into their radiant depths" [p.110]. It is very hard to see how anyone, looking at the dark walls of the Rothko Chapel, could come up with such transports independent of prompting by someone like Rosenblum.

Pollock invariably evokes the sublime mysteries of nature's untamable forces. Like the awesome vistas of telescope and microscope, his pictures leave us dazzled before the imponderables of galaxy and atom. [p.111]

It is difficult indeed for me to see how Pollock's formless drip paintings could be anything of the sort, unless one has already adopted a narrative about them and brought it to the viewing. Otherwise, it may look like someone has just spilled a lot of paint, or taken up and framed a drop-cloth from housepainting (work that I think Pollock actually had resorted to) -- "such a rudimentary vocabulary creates bafflingly complex results" [ibid.]. "Complex" as the results may be, the absence of "signifiers" means that any genuine meaning or reference will be opaque.

How this is so may be revealed by the comparison. The sublimity of the paintings of Ward or Turner are the result of what is portrayed, namely, Nature. The paintings themselves may be well done, but their virtue and accomlishment consists entirely of their representation of the objects to which they refer. Abstract expressionism attempts no such representation and overtly refers to no such objects. The paintings are self-contained and self-referential. To say that they continue to convey the same impression of sublimity or "awesome vistas," once they are cut off from any sublime object, is a confusion. Rosenblum even tries to transfer the boundlessness of Nature to the paintings by stressing their physical size -- a painting by Still is 113 by 159 inches, and one by Pollock is 68 by 104 inches. This is underwhelming, and the paintings only suffer, even comically, by comparison to the genuine vistas of Nature.

Loss of reference is a feature of Nihilism. And while Rosenblum and others like the idea of the profound meaning that abstract art embodies, to the extent of duplicating or replacing the phenomena of religion, the result is actually more of a piece with the Nihilism of a self-referential philosophy, like Wittgenstein, or of the modern music that lacks the harmony, melody, and every other feature that people generally enjoy about music. Thus, the project of placing modern art in the aesthetic tradition represented by Burke and Kant, using their definitions of the sublime, fails just because the art has abandoned the means and purposes presupposed by Burke and Kant. Without "signifiers" and without objects, the paintings become dumb and inert, with all the rhetoric of the art world falling on deaf ears with the public, which sees products that could as well have been made by children. On the other hand, the paintings may still have an aesthetic appeal, but it will in the less ambitious terms of beauty, rather than sublimity. This may strike both artists and critics as too trivial, despite Oscar Wilde affirming that the whole purpose of art is beauty.

Not all commentators accept the recent narrative about the sublime in art. Independent scholar and art critic Thomas McEvilley says:

In many ways the so-called postmodern sublime is really an oxymoron or contradiction in terms. The sublime was a basic concept of the modernist era. Burke's terror-sublime anticipated the period of the Terror during the French Revolution, and meant the destruction of social traditions. Not long after, in the work of Hegel, the terror-sublime referred hiddenly to the end of history, or the end of the world. As the visionary of the ultimate, the Romantic artist or poet hero was a visionary of the sublime, an eavesdropper on the approach of the end of the world....

Postmodernism really does not deal in such concepts as the grandeur that bursts through the surface in a gust of frenzy. It is no worshipper of the end of the world. It does not fall on its knees before the final conflagration. It does not see the 'negative pleasure' of violence as a consummation. Really, taking the sublime in the old sense, there is no postmodern sublime. [ibid., "Turned Upside Down and Torn Apart," p.168]

The idea that Burke's conception of the sublime, or even Hegel's, has some connection to political events, with Burke able to "anticipate" the Terror of the French Revolution some forty years before the event, is an artifact of McEvilley's own preferences, with the genuine "terror-sublime" now finding a worthy object in the evils of globalized capitalism. However, this does mean that McEvilley will view most "postmodern sublime" art as out of its depth. Thus:

One must wonder whether this author's [i.e. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe's] assignment of high fashion as the sublime of our time might not be another confusion of sublimity and beauty. And when he says, 'the beautiful is... an image that always exceeds the adequacy of its ideation by suggesting an idea incompatible with reason', he is clearly, in terms of the tradition, talking about the sublime and calling it by the name of its more mannered sibling.

The confusion between beauty and the sublime which dominates the discourse today may be viewed appreciatively as a part of postmodernism's policy of reversing or collapsing the hierarchies of modernism. For example, Arthur Danto... writes in the catalogue of the exhibition Regarding Beauty: 'Does one feel pleasure in looking at Mark Rothko's paintings from his great period? Well, maybe some do, but most of us feel something deeper than pleasure, which holds us in front of the paintings as if waiting for the disclosure of a possibly shattering truth.' This 'something deeper than pleasure' is the 'negative pleasure' proposed by Kant; this 'shattering truth' is the sublime bursting apart the bonds of the cosmos. [p.169]

We may end up with the impression that mere beauty in art just perhaps isn't serious enough. It must be inflated into something more portentious. So McEvilley quotes critic Peter Schjeldahl saying, "The merely attractive (pretty, glamorous) and merely pleasing (lovely, delectable) are not beautiful. They lack the element of belief and the feeling of awe that announces it." McEvilley says, "The experience of awe is characteristic of encounters with the sublime, and is tradtionally the opposite of the satisfying delectation provided by beauty... The term beauty is taken so reverentially today... because it has absorbed the qualities of the sublime, in order both to deepen itself and to deflect or defuse the sublime's essential danger" [ibid.].

Postmodern "beauty," however, although wishing to absorb "the qualities of the sublime," may simply be unsuitable to this aspiration. No Mark Rothko painting is actually going to be "bursting apart the bonds of the cosmos," and Schjeldahl may give away the game by speaking of the "element of belief," which brings in the feature of "awe" that otherwise the work of art would never suggest on its own. McEvilley himself may share the sentiment that beauty is not serious enough, but what he does regard as serious may just be along the lines of the political connection he imputes to the sublime in Burke and Hegel. A more obviously politicized art, which we are now not at all lacking, targeting capitalism, might be more satisfying, and more properly sublime, to him.

There is nothing theoretically wrong with McEvilley's preference, since the morally sublime can indeed absorb a great deal of political representation. In the specifics, however, McEvilley seems to subscribe to the debased English Department Marxism of someone like literature professor Fredric Jameson (cf. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991). What we can expect from that kind of art is already evident in the sublime, if not numinous, portrayals of Stalin and Mao from their eras, or the "Hope and Change" artwork of the transfigured Barack Obama in ours. What some may there see as sublime is compromised, as with Napoleon and others, by the crimes and/or folly that actually lie behind their appeal. On the other hand, the mere artwork of people like Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko should be allowed settle out of cosmic pretense and into the calmer aesthetics of beauty.

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De Sublimî et Numinosô
On the Sublime and the Numinous; Note 3

The "noble" sublime can, of course, also "strike back" with the defense of its status against lèse majesté; but this will be by the natural means of legal and political power wielded by the offended authority. The beautiful and the sublime do not strike back of themselves but must await to be defended by the agents of secular justice.

Desecrations of the holy may escape secular justice, but the perpetators must fear, not just that inanimate things will awaken, but that supernatural enforcers will arrive. To the Greeks, these were the or , the Furies, such as pursued Orestes for killing his mother and that plagued Thebes because Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother. Indeed, even in the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the awakening of the Ark is manifest by the arrival of what must be angels, , whose beauty turns terrible once they perceive the character of those they encounter.

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De Sublimî et Numinosô
On the Sublime and the Numinous; Note 4

Recognition of death pollution plays a striking part in Navajo religion. If someone dies indoors, especially in the traditional Navajo hogan, the building must be abandoned, because the spirit of all that was bad about the person, perhaps the Jungian "shadow," is trapped within. The wall on the north side of the hogan is broken out as a warning that it is a "death hogan," and that the casual passerby should not enter.

This custom has a striking parallel in Japan, where for a long time, because of fear of death pollution in Shintô, not just the palace of the Emperor, but the entire Capital, would be abandoned on the Emperor's death. The first attempt to overcome this scrupple and establish a permanent capital was at Nara in 712 AD.

Afterwards, it was still regarded as inauspicious if the Emperor died in the permanent Imperial Palace, which became an elaborate construction in Kyôto, beginning in 794; and this seems to have helped promote the institution of Retired Emperors, who would then die in their own establishment, after which they would usually be named (i.e. the Nijô, i.e. "Second Street," Emperor), and the institution of removing a dying person to a separate "Hall of Impermanence," where death pollution would not affect any otherwise permanent structures. This fit in nicely with Buddhist deathbed practices, where, with no concern about pollution, the dying person was supposed to be removed from familiar surroundings, so as not to maintain attachments to this life, which could result in an unfavorable rebirth.

Navajo concern with death pollution and the ways it could be used by witchcraft also governed the manner of the traditional disposal of the dead. Where the body was put remained a secret to all but close family members. Burial as such was not even necessary; and concealng the body in a mountain cleft or under a rockfall might actually provide for greater secrecy and security, while burial might involve more accessible and conspicuous locations, and the obvious disturbance of the ground, which might not easily be erased. The similar concealment of late Egyptian tombs, as during the XXI Dynasty, has resulted, despite decades and even centuries of searching, with the tombs of some actual rulers, like Hrihor, never being discovered.

With modern Navajo deaths often in hospitals, as in Gallup, New Mexico, and elsewhere, we have the irony that every death renders the hospital ritually more polluted and dangerous. Of course, modern hospitals have become more dangerous, as patients often contract diseases there that are not otherwise easily spread. Hospitals have learned that disinfecting equipment and spaces involves procedures that cannot be taken lightly or casually implemented. New virulent and antibiotic resistant diseases call for rigorous sterilization. Ritual and shamanic purification and exorcism may also be called for, although I have not heard that these services ever developed in Navajo religion. It may have been easier just to abandon the hogan. Abandoning a hospital is not the same kind of option.

The idea that death pollution is trapped in an enclosed space is not unique to Navajo or Japanese religion. It is also in the Bible, where we find:

[Numbers 19:14] This is the law when a man dies in a tent: every one who comes into the tent, and every one who is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days.

Since we hear of no special provision for the disposition of the tent, we may conclude that this is a less severe matter than it would be in Navajo or Japanese practice. Similarly, we can draw the same conclusion from the requirement in the Japanese context of purification for thirty days, not just seven. This imposed such a hardship on Court officials, whose functions required ritual purity, that they sometimes avoided contamination even from the deaths of close relatives, resulting in some poignant scenes, e.g. standing outside the window from the deathbed or a parent, spouse, or child.

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