On the Sublime

Über das Erhabene; On the Sublime (1801)

This short essay begins with a quotation from Lessing’s Nathan der Weise; Nathan the Wise: ‘Kein Mensch muß müssen’; ‘No person must ever have to do anything’. Schiller claims that free will is the essence of what it means to be human. Therefore, any use of force or coercion against human beings is an attack on their very essence. However, only people who have achieved full moral development are entirely free, because they are morally superior to anything that nature can throw at them.

This essay seems to mark a retreat from Schiller’s earlier promotion of beauty as a liberating potential. Now Schiller says that beauty is an expression of freedom, but it is one which keeps us tied to the sensual world. Only when we sense the sublime is reason entirely freed from sensual drives. The sublime rips the independent mind from out the net of sensuality in which the person is entangled.

Schiller would like us to develop our sense of both beauty and the sublime in order to be at home in nature but without becoming enslaved to it.

English Translation

Friedrich von Schiller, Naive and Sentimental Poetry, and On the Sublime: Two Essays, trans. by Julius A. Elias (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1967)

Further Reading

David Pugh, Dialectic of Love: Platonism in Schiller’s Aesthetics (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996)

Ritchie Robertson, ‘On the Sublime and Schiller’s Theory of Tragedy’, Philosophical Readings: Online Yearbook of Philosophy 5 (2013), 194-212

Lesley Sharpe, Schiller’s Aesthetic Essays: Two Centuries of Criticism (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1995)