This node is an attempt to relay the most important ideas in "On the Sublime," a philosophical essay by famed German dramatist and thinker Friedrich Schiller

Friedrich Schiller's essay "On the Sublime" is a postulation for the freedom of man and his independence from nature at all times. Schiller recognizes that the usual way men postulate their independence from nature is by controlling it. However, because controlling nature is not possible all the time and also since at given times nature overpowers the reason of man and drags him into undesirable and painful circumstances, Schiller establishes a new ground for man's freedom and independence from nature in the aesthetic contemplation faculty he refers to as the sense of the sublime. Schiller also shows how the other inferior aesthetic contemplation faculty, the sense of the beautiful, is mostly inadequate for establishing man's independence from nature in times when its forces overpower him.

At the outset of the essay, Schiller explains the overly confident expectations of life that human beings have and why they are inadequate. He writes that we expect to be able to have freedom from nature's forces and violence because we believe ourselves of capable of acting with a free will that is unimpeded by nature. On what basis do we posit such expectations of nature's non interference? On the basis our reason, whose capable work will hopefully repel the forces of nature and counteract them. Therefore, if nature's forces could potentially wreak some physical violence on man, he could anticipate them with his reason and plan a course of action to put into motion forces that would counteract those of nature and thus divert her from harming him.

At the core of Schiller's philosophy is the problem of human freedom. To be able to assert his independence as a being who is not under the control of nature, man must be able to dispel the forces of nature. Reason often enables him to do just that. However, Schiller says, the freedom that reason provides is not absolute. There will arise a set of circumstances, at a certain point in time, in which nature's physical forces will wreak violence by acting in such a way that reason will be unable to suggest a successful way man's own forces can counteract that of nature's. It is at that point of failure to counteract nature that the concept of freedom comes into danger. If man is unable to resist nature's will, and propel his own will contrary to hers, then perhaps he is not ultimately free and his fate is sealed in the hands of nature. So what is man to do about his idea of his own freedom in view of such cases? Schiller says that in such cases religion does advocate the replacement of the concept of freedom by that of resignation to Divine Providence. In such a view, man's fate is in the hands of God and his freedom is an illusion that is revealed by non-combattable events of nature.

Schiller, however, does not counsel resignation but merely wants to find a more secure ground of man's freedom from nature, one that is not thrown into doubt by the uncombattable forces of nature. He initially suggests that such a secure ground is to be found in an aesthetic faculty inherent in man. However, he distinguishes between two different aesthetic faculties, one of which fails to provide this ground and the other succeeds at it. The faculty of the sense of the beautiful that entails enjoying the contemplation of beautiful things seems to be promising as a ground of man's independence from nature but is inadequate. Schiller says that the sense of the beautiful and the pleasure one has in enjoying contemplation of beautiful forms and sensations does enable man to establish freedom from nature, but only in a rather limited way. The mental capacity to contemplate beauty in nature creates a mental realm within the man that is independent from the exigences that nature places upon him. Therefore while certain physical actions are directed by nature, drinking, eating, sleeping, the contemplation of the beautiful is not an exigency that nature places upon us but a faculty that we have personally developed through an education that has cultivated our taste.

It is imperative to mention that Schiller's enjoyment of the beautiful encompasses the moral and the ideal as well as the sensual. The common unifying thread of beauty is a perception of harmonious fuctionality in objects; whether these objects are nature's own, like rain impressing us with beauty of functionality when it nourishes flowers with water and helps them grow, or human-created functionality like irrigation systems that pump water into dry land to help it produce crops. Of course, sometimes the functionality of beauty could be contained in something more mundane, like the outfit of a woman, where everything she wears conforms to a color pattern.

Schiller says that this aesthetic faculty, the sense of the beautiful, is not adequate for establishing a ground of freedom against nature's uncombattable forces, because a mind that is used to deriving pleasure from contemplating the functional, reasonable aspects of beauty will certainly disappointed when the violent forces of nature render functionality and order inoperable thus causing man to be incapable of drawing on these two resources to combat nature's chaos and destruction. At this point, it is quite to see how the faculty of the sense of the beautiful is linked conceptually to the free will. Free will can maintain itself despite the threat of nature either by using reason to counteract the physical forces of nature by man's own forces, or merely by perceiving some sense of order and functionality within nature's forces without taking the action to counteract them.

The faculty of the sense of the beautiful can only help man restore his freedom in face of nature's forces that he cannot counteract, if in the process he figures out a pattern or an order in nature's actions that he has not realized before. If a parent explains to a child that some of his teeth are falling out to allow new ones to grow later and tells him or her about the way this has also happened to him in his youth, then the youngster will perceive a sense of meaning and purpose in an otherwise unpleasant event that nature imposes upon him. Therefore, in some cases contemplation of the purposiveness of dental development helps the child to replace his feeling of dental pain with a contemplation of functional beauty. And in using his contemplation to divert his fear and pain of toothache, the child has regained freedom because he has produced a mental sensation that is separate from the physical pain that nature has imposed him. Thus insofar the faculty of the sense of the beautiful allows the contemplation of functional beauty to produce mental processes to counteract physical violence of nature, it provides man with a ground of freedom that forces of nature otherwise deny.

However, not in all instances is it possible to know the purpose and functionality of the unresistable forces of violence that are wreaked by nature. In the cases that nature's violence is destructive and non referrable to a structure of purpose that offers itself up to the contemplation of the faculty of the sense of the beautiful, then the faculty of the sense of the beautiful does not produce mental processes that explain away and distract from nature's incombattable force of violence. In such a case, the sense of pleasure fails to generate a ground for man's freedom. Because without a process of contemplation of beauty provided by the faculty of the sense of the beautiful, man has no independent mental faculty to counteract the physical actions of nature. With no will to counteract, no beauty to contemplate, man is left completely helpless to nature's destruction and is not free to do anything physically or mentally to either combat or distract himself from the violence of nature that now has him completely under its control. He is no longer independent, because he is in the thrall of panic and fear, unable to do anything free, mentally or physically, to stop them.

To restore the ground of freedom in such a desperate cases, Schiller proposes an alternate aesthetic faculty - that of the sense of the sublime. The sense of the sublime holds the ideas of beauty of functionality within the mind even when such functional beauty is not to be confirmed by the external world in any way whatsoever. The difference between the sense of the sublime from the sense of the beautiful is predicated upon the following. The sense of the beautiful confronts threatening forces of nature by drawing contemplation of functional beauty from a factual or real basis. Thus the functionality and order that it mentally contemplates to deal with a threatening force are derived from the meaningfulness that it sees manifested in the objects that are present before it, or the meaningfulness that it invests in them based on previous knowledge. First, let me give an example of the case where contemplation of functionality in one's own presence would distract a person from the threat of being overpowered by a force of nature: For example, someone who is at the top of a dangerous decaying staircase will confront his fear of falling through a loose, barely hanging in place stair by watching a person in front of him cautiously and gingerly maneuvering his way on these same stairs. The observation of the pattern of walking and the contemplation of the way this pattern of walking from step to step safely conducts another person to the bottom may successfully serve to deflect the observer's thoughts from the danger of tipping a loose stair with the weight of their feet and falling through to the ground. In the second case, distraction from the threat of nature's forces is accomplished by drawing on someone's else experience of successfully negotiating a dangerous staircases to contemplate functional beauty in the stairs.

Where no method of seeing order and function, whether via observation of the immediate area or through knowledge and memory, is available during a threat of nature, the sense of the sublime is the only way to reassert the ground of freedom against non combattable forces of nature. Unable to muster any possible function or order for the threatening circumstances before it, the mind avoids complete surrender to the sensation of horror that nature biologically imposes it, (much like other sensations such a thirst and hunger are imposed by nature, but which of course are easier to mentally distract from) and re-establishes its ground of freedom by merely referring itself to images of function and beauty that have no relevance to this situation. This does not give the person any consolation or hope. Unlike with other threatening events, where previous knowledge can supply a vision of a good scenario to contemplate, the complete mental unfathomability of how a certain threat can be dealt with will not allow the mind to contemplate hopeful images that potentially relate to this situation. It only allows the mind to contemplate functional beauty that is irrelevant to the situation at hand but that does not come from any semblance of reason.

Schiller believes that this mental contemplation of order, functionality in the face of a reality that completely and absolutely defies all of these is a situation of conflict that separates the human being from nature and thus establishes his freedom and independence from nature. In the sense of the beautiful, man's contemplations were not completely independent - they were based on what nature had partially supplied. To elaborate, man's mental contemplation in those instances depended on the order that nature had shown him in its objects. Thus whether reflecting on functionality of the things present before him or of the things that he had learned before but were not in front of his eyes, man's mental contemplations were based on what nature was currently showing him or the knowledge that it had given him before. But now, in a situation of utter chaos, the resolution of which could not be imagined by contemplating previous knowledge or any current, visible indications of functionality, the person threatened by nature's forces would contemplate beauty, functionality, and order as pure idea without content. More specifically, he would be contemplating his own potential for functionality, order, purposiveness in order not to sustain his faith in rationality in the face of utter chaos that would want to cower him into complete fear, thus ensuring a surrender to the forces of nature. But the mental contemplation of the idea of order would re-establish his ground for freedom because he would still retain self composure and be independent from nature's complete chaos that would claim predominance, only if his own emotions lost composure and stability and became chaotic, panicked, utterly fear-stricken. In this way, if man faced the situation of utter chaos only by pure emotional reaction and not by independent thoughts, if he were so dumbstruck that his mental faculties would recede leaving him only to experience fearful emotions, then he would indeed be completely conquered by forces of nature and as a result would no longer retain his freedom. But otherwise, by choosing not to completely allow his mind to reflect on the complete chaos and disorder of a threatening situation and by dwelling on the idea of order while the its possiblity is completely absent within the situation, he retains his freedom.

Recommendations on Related Nodes:
A Nietzschean Critique of the Kantian Sublime
The Ethics of the Sublime: Part One
It is true that the nodes above are not directly related to mine since they address Kant's, Nietzche's, and Lyotard's views on the sublime and I treat the view espoused by Schiller. However, although Schiller's concept of the sublime is very distinctive from Kant's, Kant's influence is undeniable.