Review: The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant by Robert Doran

sublimeAny scholar in any discipline with even a passing familiarity with the Romantic era knows how central the idea of the sublime is to Romantic thought. But exactly what is the sublime? The sense of awe and terror that overwhelmed Percy Shelley’s mind and spirit upon first looking at Mont Blanc? Wordsworth’s epiphany of cosmic truth upon his return to Tintern Abbey? Any number of wondrous and terrible events that befell Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner on his adventures? Well, yes and no. For these are merely descriptions of sublime events, and do not in themselves provide any sort of qualitative definition. Before reading Robert Doran’s sweeping and erudite study, I’m not sure I could have answered this question. To be honest, I still don’t know if I can answer it satisfactorily, since by its nature the sublime has a way of both transcending and subverting things. But Robert Doran’s The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant at least provides a rich and detailed map of the the subject, and even if the map isn’t exactly the territory it’s still invaluable to a scholar of Romantic ideology.

In purely chronological terms, Doran’s study of the sublime would seem to be of limited use to Romanticists, since, as its title implies, it ends with a discussion of the sublime in Immanuel Kant’s work, leaving us right on the doorstep of the Romantic era. But, of course, historical periods don’t exist in a vacuum, and a great many points discussed in this book are of central importance to the Romantic conception of the sublime. An entire chapter, for instance, is devoted to Edmund Burke’s conception of the sublime, and Burke had a profound impact on the currents of Romantic thought. Moreover, nearly half of the volume deals with Kant’s developing ideas of the sublime through his extensive œuvre, highlighting in particular its connection to morality. Kant’s philosophy, in turn, exerted a tremendous influence on the mind of the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge on his travels through Germany in 1798. Finally, Doran frequently makes reference to, comments on, and even contends with seminal works about the sublime in the Romantic era, such as M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp and Thomas Weiskel’s psychologically-grounded The Romantic Sublime.

Now that I have hopefully sold you on the importance of this book to the study of the Romantic sublime, I can proceed with a more substantive review. The book’s title is slightly misleading in the sense that it might seem at first glance to be a mere survey of the tradition of the sublime from antiquity to modernity. But while it actually serves that purpose quite admirably, Doran also has some more specific claims he is advancing, and these shape the book’s structure. For one thing, he attempts to emphasize the role that Longinus’s ancient treatise on the sublime plays in the modern conception of the sublime. While many scholars dismiss Longinus as a rhetorician, Doran argues that Longinus’s paradigm for the sublime is mirrored in the thought of Nicolas Boileau (Longinus’s first French translator) as well as Burke and Kant.

Of more interest to me, and potentially to other scholars of history and culture, is Doran’s observation, not wholly new but argued cogently and forcefully here, that the rediscovery of the sublime facilitated the gradual shift of power from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The sublime, with its prerequisite grandeur or nobility of mind established by Longinus, made religious and aristocratic virtues available to a wider demographic. As Doran puts it, “what thinkers such as Boileau, Burke, and Kant achieve through the sublime is a bourgeois appropriation of aristocratic subjectivity (the heroic cast of mind)” (Introduction). This connection of the sublime with emerging middle-class values, in my view, presents numerous opportunities for further exploration in many disciplines studying Romanticism, from history to literary theory.

Unfortunately, as is perhaps to be expected in a work of this length, Doran sometimes loses the threads of these arguments. Doran misses an opportunity in his discussion of magnitude in Kant’s “mathematical sublime,” for example, to tie this idea directly into Longinus’s sina qua non of the sublime: grandeur of thoughts and conception. Likewise the cultural significance of the sublime receives only scattered attention throughout the study, except for the closing chapter on Kant, the sublime, and culture. When these threads of argument are lost, the book does at times feel more like a survey. But Doran’s writing is so lucid, his research so meticulous, his readings of the texts so careful, that even these moments are rich with information and insight.

One final caveat: by dint of the philosophical nature of its subject matter, this book can sometimes be difficult to read, requiring close attention and frequent rereading of passages. Some familiarity with the idea of the sublime is advisable before diving in. At a minimum, I highly suggest reading Longinus’s treatise on the sublime, if you haven’t done so already. For an ancient text on philosophy and rhetoric, it is actually quite lively, a trait which even the driest of translations cannot wholly obscure. One such translation is Longinus at Project Gutenberg. Armed with a little foreknowledge, however, almost any scholar of Romantic thought will find much in Robert Doran’s study that, somewhat like the sublime itself, enlightens even as it intimidates.