4 Nov 2008

The Power of Kant’s Dynamical Sublime & the Primitive Warriors Who Brave It

Corry Shores
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Power is a capacity that is superior to great obstacles.” Dominion is the superiority to the resistance of something powerful. “Nature considered in aesthetic judgment as a power that has no dominion over us is dynamically sublime” (§28 143d).

Only when nature is represented as arousing fear may we judge it dynamically sublime (143-144). And we fear only those powers whose resistance we cannot overcome.

But while being in the state of fear, we cannot judge something as sublime, because there is no pleasure yet, which comes by means of the joyfulness resulting when we escape the danger (144bc).

Frightening things in nature, such as thunderclouds, steep cliffs, volcanoes, hurricanes, and immense waterfalls, “make our capacity to resist into an insignificant trifle in comparison with their power.” But when we joyously flee them to safety, we come to admire them more, and call them sublime, because “they elevate the strength of our soul above its usual level, and allow us to discover within ourselves a capacity for resistance of quite another kind, which gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent all-powerfulness of nature” (144c-145a).

So just as with the mathematical sublime in which our limitations were overcome and led us to respect humanity, so too when experiencing the dynamic sublime we face our physical powerlessness, while at the same time seeing our power to persevere despite the immense threat to our safety. “In this way, in our aesthetic judgment nature is judged as sublime not insofar as it arouses fear, but rather because it calls forth our power (which is not part of nature) to regard those things about which we are concerned (goods, health and life) as trivial, and hence to regard its power (to which we are, to be sure, subjected in regard to these things) as not the sort of dominion over ourselves and our authority to which we would have to bow if it came down to our highest principles and their affirmation or abandonment. Thus nature is here called sublime merely because it raises the imagination to the point of presenting those cases in which the mind can make palpable to itself the sublimity of its own vocation even over nature” (145c).

It is on account of their capacity to not shrink from danger that primitive warriors inspire in us the greatest admiration (146b). And hence the general should be revered more than the statesman, because war has something sublime about it, and those that fight have had more dynamically sublime experiences (146c).

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Transls. & Eds. Paul Guyer & Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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