Monday, May 10, 2010

Ancients and Moderns

I keep wanting to articulate my thoughts concerning the sublime, as I work on my paper for the German Studies Association conference, but "sublime" is a multivalent term to put it mildly. Benedetto Croce was being ironic when he wrote that "the sublime is anything that has been or shall be called sublime by those who have used or shall use this word." In order to talk about the pre-Kantian sublime (the subject of the GSA panel), I have had to excavate the term from the long history of its use since the late 17th century.

The term emerges in the context of the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, on which I recently posted. Here is some background on that "quarrel."

Back in 1649 Descartes wrote (in his treatise concerning "the passions of the soul") that "what the ancients have taught us is so scanty and for the most part so lacking in credibility that I may not hope for any kind of approach toward truth except by rejecting all the paths which they have followed." Talk about doubt! The ancient authorities he was speaking of included, e.g., Aristotle's physics. Already in the 16th century, Copernicus had overturned the most ancient conceptions about our privileged place in the universe.

(And it has gone downhill from there for us humans!)

The application of the discoveries of science and technological innovation in the course of the 18th century would confirm that the world of nature was an ordered one that could be rationally understood and manipulated in ways that would result in not just change but in the transformation of the earth. It was the birth era of the doctrine of progress in knowledge.

This emancipation from inherited knowledge would not stop with the natural sciences. In the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, at the end of the 17th century in France, the disdain for the past extended to the past itself. Expressing a triumphalism concerning the achievements of his own glorious age (that of Louis XIV), Charles Perrault wrote that "the princes of Homer's age resemble modern peasants." Moreover, he asserted, Homer would have been a better poet had he lived in the age of the Sun King.

Not everyone was sure that progress could be made in the arts as it could in the sciences. Another Modern, Fontenelle, the proselytizer of Newton in France, thought that only certain fields allowed of progress: "physics, medicine, mathematics, which are composed of numberless ideas and depend upon precision of thought which improves with extreme slowness, yet is always improving."

Throughout the 18th century, thinkers and artists struggled with the relevance of the past to the present. Indeed, what was at stake was the entire Western intellectual inheritance -- not only the legacy of the classical world but also, as would be apparent, the Christian heritage. Some writers, such as Winckelmann, praising the supposed "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" of the Greeks, sought to make antiquity relevant for the present. He in turn would have much influence on Goethe and on Weimar classicism. The Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns would be replayed in Germany in the last years of the 18th century in two important treatises: Schiller's On Naive and Sentimental Poetry and Friedrich Schlegel's On the Study of Greek Poetry.

And then there occurred a turn against the triumphalism of the school of progress, against the notion that the rationalism that powered scientific and technological advance could be applied to the workings of the human psyche. Among the German Romantic writers there was something like a wave of conversions to Roman Catholicism, for instance, Dorothea Schlegel, wife of Friedrich, née Brendel Mendelssohn, oldest daughter of the Jewish Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

Longinus's treatise on the sublime, beginning with Boileau's translation in 1674, had a powerful influence on the emergence of "aesthetics" in the 18th century, which finalized the separation of the arts from the sciences. With this "pre-history" I think I may be ready to start writing about the sublime.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These remarks are interesting in themselves and intensely so next to Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, which is blowing my mind, along with his Twilight of the Idols. The younger Nietzsche is much under the spell of Schopenhauer's "contemplative aesthetics." The older Nietzsche has changed his mind (about Schopenhauer and Wagner, among other things) and is now philosophizing "with a hammer"! Detachment is out; engagement is in. The early Nietzsche is Leo Strauss (objectivity, "strict constructionism"); the later Nietzsche is Gadamer (prejudices are on the table and the Constitution or "text" is a work-in-progress). Truth be told, these definitions are extremely problematic, like the definition of the Sublime (I loved Croce's).