The Sublime

The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, thought there were two things that were sublime: the starry sky at night and the moral law within. Increasingly, it seems to me, we are losing sight of both. Our collective attention is drawn away from the starry sky toward the electronic toys in our hands and the TV sets in our living rooms; and our introspection, such as it is, is directed toward getting in touch with our feelings. Kant thought we might capture the sublimity of nature by looking outward; we have decided it is more interesting to look at ourselves.

But, more to the point, the moral law that Kant speaks of is the single point of differentiation between animals and humans. We know a great deal more about animals than Kant did but none of our knowledge suggests that they have a sense of duty, a moral imperative to do the right thing. Oddly, some do it instinctively — like the macaque monkeys who refuse to subject their kind to pain even when promised a tasty reward, whereas humans most often do not refuse if an authority figure prompts them. But no animal other than humans, so far as we now know, can reason about right and wrong and determine which is which (whether or not we do so is another matter entirely). Kant only says that we have this capacity. It is a capacity, it seems to me, that we are increasingly unwilling or unable to exercise.

Morality for Kant consists in making choices, doing our duty, what we are called to do as rational beings. We have the capacity to determine what we want to do and distinguish between that and what we ought to do. The two are often in opposition to one another, most often. And there’s the rub! Most of us tend to focus on what we want to do and seldom ask ourselves what it is we ought to do — or so it seems. We are, as Martin Luther King might have it, losing sight of the moral high ground. This is true of us as individuals and as a nation. This is what Colin Kaepernick’s protest is all about, though few seem to realize it and see only a desecration of the American flag.

According to Kant the determination of what in a particular case is our duty is determined by the “categorical imperative,” which sounds a good deal like the Golden Rule when you come right down to it. It requires that we adopt rules that would apply to anyone anywhere. John Rawls, the Harvard philosopher, referred to “the original position.” What would we do if we were not privileged white folks with silver spoons in our mouths? What would we do in the original position when we have no idea what is to become of us, whether we will turn out black, white, red, as wealthy or as homeless people on the streets? If we adopted the perspective of the original position when faced with choices we would most often do the right thing: the thing we would have others do as well.

As it happens, of course, in this sophisticated age of ours we have reduced the starry sky to a puzzle to be solved and tend to ignore the moral law within just as we seem to have lost sight of the moral high ground — preoccupied as we are with the here and now of immediate gratification. In any event, all of this philosophical palaver is far too complicated for people who increasingly eschew reason altogether and prefer to simply go with the flow, do what feels right. Who’s to say? we ask.

My answer to this question has always been: anyone with a brain and the willingness to use it to ask the pivotal moral question, what should I do? Animals, it appears, cannot ask themselves that question. Growing numbers of humans refuse to do so. But in that refusal and our insistence on grasping the mysteries of the universe in a mathematical formula we lose our grasp on the two things that make our world sublime. And in doing so we reduce the glorious world and the better part of ourselves to dull, flat surfaces.


15 thoughts on “The Sublime

  1. Well said, Hugh. We’re clearly losing the ability to understand and respect nuance, and that it’s OK to disagree sometimes. One of the biggest culprits, at least in the modern U.S., is the rise of the sound bite and rush of 24-hour news cycle coupled with the ever-deepening partisan ideological divisions. They leave no room for reflection, for time to explore or think about another point of view, to consider why art (in any kind — music, literature, visual arts) may work for some, but not for others, etc. It all blurs and grinds us into those dull, flat surfaces, as you say, rather than the wonderful tapestry of colors and sounds we should be.

    In research for the book I’m writing, I’ve been consistently struck by the way many residents recall Saturday nights in their small town in the 1930s and 1940s — when all the farmers came to town. It was still heavily influenced by European immigrant culture and language. A person could stand on the small-town downtown sidewalks and hear six or seven languages spoken at the same time. By many accounts, it was pretty wonderful. A choir of voices, one person told me. Now, to even bring up the idea of multiculturalism or bilingualism is an immediately polarizing act. Ugh.

    On the animals, I think we are learning that some species of whale and primates can discern and practice morality. I don’t know too much about it, but I’ve read a few things. Also, I’ve read that some animals can express emotions — humor, anger, joy, envy — based on learned experience and observation not just instinct. A couple years ago, the Smithsonian magazine published a story about recordings made of a captive beluga whale that apparently had learned to speak English using its blowhole (a whale’s mouth doesn’t allow it to talk like humans, it has to force air through the blowhole and squeeze, purse the opening much like we do our mouths). It was more than mimicry of its handlers, apparently. The whale crafted full sentences based on situations, and its own intent — including, much to my delight at least, a moment when it pranked its handlers and then laughed knowingly that it had done so. There was a 90-some second recording of the whale pulling the prank and laughing afterward. I sometimes play it when I need a smile. Maybe belugas like this one should have their own talk shows! After all, we seem to give less-intelligent and less-sophisticated folks big platforms all the time — Fox News, the GOP presidential nomination.

    But, that’s circling back to my main point, and yours. We’re failing ourselves and our democracy with this system that reduces the opportunity for thought, for consideration of things different than what we typically surround ourselves with, for appreciation of, in your word, the sublime. We reward the loud, the brash, the cruel (Roger Ailes, Donald Trump) and attack or insult folks trying to show us that there’s more than one way to look at the world.

    • Very well said. I would say, however, that while we have learned much about animals and that they are considerably more intelligent than we had thought even a few years back (more intelligent than some humans I can think of!), so far as we know they cannot ask the question: what ought I to do? Humans can but, it would appear, they seldom do.

    • I wonder if the soundbite isn’t a natural byproduct of the transactional analysis era of philosophy associated with Thomas Harris’s “I’m Okay – You’re Okay” (1969), exacerbated by the IGM 1980s, Wayne Dyer, and the push toward building self-esteem through participation trophies and empty attaboys. Acceptance of all things without questioning value, while we spend our time pursuing instant gratification. Of course, visual squeeze and electronic toys supported self-absorbed tiny glimpses at the world. Unfortunately, fast-paced, effective, educational television programs like Sesame Street catered to the naturally short attention span of toddlers and pre-schoolers without trying to counter that with slower-paced segments to help extend the attention span. Maybe CTW felt that was Mr. Rogers’s arena. Sigh.

      The philosophical trends that carried us to this point began longer ago than we may care to acknowledge because they were insidious, and we didn’t recognize them.

      • Very well said. I do believe the roots got back at least as far as the Reformation and the industrial revolution which gave capitalism a huge boost and made it possible for the “average” man or woman (much later) to live like a king or queen. God died and the self became god. I have written a book about this, as it happens! It fascinates me. Many thanks for the comment.

    • Thank you for this, Hugh. The fact that there are people who will write about philosophical questions and other people will read, think, and respond gives me hope.

      For the future, I would have clicked on a link to the macaque monkey study if you’d included it. 🙂

  2. Hugh, well done. There is a great example that is related to Colin Kaerpernick’s protest. Back in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were vilified for holding their gloved hands aloft on the Olympic stand during the playing of our national anthem. But, you have to look deeper for the story. Many Black athletes boycotted the 1968 Olympics, so Smith and Carlos were there. They represented their country, but wanted to show their disappointment in race matters, including the murders of MLK and RFK.

    And, keeping with Olympics theme, Jesse Owens had to ride the service elevator in 1936 to a dinner in his honor for his Olympic gold medal success. He of course attended the Olympics and ran for a country that considered him a second class citizen. Context is always important.


  3. Hugh Curtler … two thumbs up on this one! For the record, you are the first person I have spoken to in at least two decades who has read Kant. If I mention Kant, Nietzsche, or any other of the old philosophers, people look at me as if I just started speaking in tongues! As to the point of your post … I agree … too many people seem to be concerned first with their happiness, then, if there is time left, with the rest of the world. Rarely, it seems, is there time left. As I have said before, we are losing our humanity, so engrossed are we with our own self-focused world. I love this post!

    • Thanks, my friend. It’s a theme I have developed at some length in prior posts and in my book “The Inversion of Consciousness From Dante to Derrida.” (I didn’t pick the title, the publisher did!!)

  4. MY Peanut Gallery consists of far less favorable company, as may be imagined for a once Spartan youth. I haven’t a clue how you compose yourself in the midst of so much praise. Unimaginable.

  5. However..if you want to talk Kant…I might Imagine how this kind of comfy social agreement is Likely, preferable to Contest, and Good for all them whose shared Interests collide. Just half joking.

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