When I was introduced to the word sublime in a philosophy class, what I heard, which now I am realizing may not be the case, was that sublime meant so beautiful that it crossed the line of pleasure into pain, ache, and incomprehension.

What I see from online dictionaries is that it is more of an elevated beauty, possibly transcending, but no mention of pain.

So my question is, all those years ago, did I have a filter on that day in class? In other words, can sublime include pain or ache, beauty that is beyond pleasing (e.g., sublimely beautiful)?

If not, is there such a word?

  • 'Exquisite' collocates with 'pain'. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 6 '14 at 16:52
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    @EdwinAshworth I would have said that 'it can collocate with pain'. – WS2 Nov 6 '14 at 17:20
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    collocate: VERB 1 [NO OBJECT] Linguistics (Of a word) be habitually juxtaposed with another with a frequency greater than chance: ‘maiden’ collocates with ‘voyage’ ODO Though your sense is also used. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 6 '14 at 17:43
  • I am guessing that Edmund Burke was being discussed that day. – TRomano Nov 6 '14 at 20:01
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    Something could be "achingly beautiful", but by itself "aching" doesn't really fit the bill. – Joel Anair Nov 6 '14 at 20:11

You may have confounded or conflated some other words' meanings with that of sublime, that day in class. From en.wiktionary, sublime in its usual sense means “Impressive and awe-inspiring”, and none of its other senses suggest (to me) crossing the line of pleasure into pain, ache, and incomprehension (although sublimity can cause yearning, which may lead to melancholy).

As a word-candidate for the purpose, consider excruciating. With senses “Causing great pain or anguish, agonizing” and “Exceedingly intense; extreme”, it can be used with two layers of meaning. Google ngrams for sublimely beautiful,excruciatingly beautiful shows the former phrase occurs rather more often than the latter, but both are used often enough to be termed collocations. Edit: Google ngrams for sublimely beautiful,excruciatingly beautiful,achingly beautiful shows the latter term most popular since 1990.

The etymonline entry for excruciate is:

excruciate (v.)
1560s, from Latin excruciatus, past participle of excruciare "to torture, torment, rack, plague;" figuratively "to afflict, harass, vex, torment," from ex- "out, thoroughly" (see ex-) + cruciare "cause pain or anguish to," literally "crucify," from crux (genitive crucis) "a cross" (see cross (n.)).


You are correct. Philosophical ideas of the sublime do in fact include the idea of "pain, ache, and incomprehension". The first philosopher to distinguish between the beautiful as a source of pleasure and the sublime as a source of pain was Edmund Burke. Burke's aesthetics are a little complicated, but a quick and dirty summary is as follows.

Burke distinguished between two kinds of "passions" (emotions): those connected with the goals of society, and those connected with the goals of self-preservation. The emotions connected with the goals of society "turn" (are dependent) on the presence or absence of pleasure. For example, love is a societal passion that turns on the presence of pleasure; grief is a societal passion that turns on the absence of pleasure. Our experience of the beautiful is based on love: we find beautiful things attractive because they elicit our love.

Conversely, the emotions connected with the goals of self-preservation "turn" on the presence or absence of pain. For example, terror is a self-preservative passion that turns on the the presence of pain; astonishment is a self-preservative passion that turns on the absence of pain. (I.e., we feel astonished when something that is terrifying happens at a safe distance away, such that we are personally unaffected by it.)

According to Burke, our experience of the sublime is based on astonishment. The sublime elicits feelings of sobriety, awe, and “tranquility shadowed with horror”. In this way, Burke says that the beautiful and the sublime are radically different experiences, and the latter is based on astonishment, in which pain [or rather, the absence of pain in a painful situation] is a key component. The sublime is an uneasy, awe-ful experience. As James Shelley writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The objective foundations of beauty and sublimity turn out to be largely opposing: whereas the beautiful tends to the small, the smooth, the various, the delicate, the clear, and the bright, the sublime tends to the great, the uniform, the powerful, the obscure, and the somber. Hence Burke concludes that:

[t]he ideas of the sublime and the beautiful stand on foundations so different, that it is hard … to think of reconciling them in the same subject, without considerably lessening the effect of the one or the other upon the passions. (Burke 1990, 103)

The impact of Burke's aesthetic dualism was immediate. Before its appearance, the sublime could be ignored: there is almost no mention of it in Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, or Hume. Afterward it could not be: indeed the major theorists of the second half of the century—Reid, Alison, and Kant—all advance substantial theories of the sublime.

For example, Kant theorizes the sublime as "a feeling of the superiority of our own power of reason, as a supersensible faculty, over nature". Hannah Ginsborg says, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy again:

Kant says that we consider nature as “dynamically sublime” when we consider it as “a power that has no dominion over us” (§28, 260). We have the feeling of the dynamically sublime when we experience nature as fearful while knowing ourselves to be in a position of safety and hence without in fact being afraid.

The connection with Burke is obvious.

To conclude, then: while it is true that sublime is not used in this way in everyday discourse, in philosophy (specifically in aesthetic theory) the sublime has certainly been connected with discomfort and pain.

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