Paul Kristeller, in an essay on the history of aesthetics, writes that philosophers and other thinkers did not problematize the sensuous reception of works of art before the 18th century. I think something similar can be said about men's reactions to works of nature, whether they were perceived as beautiful or as catastrophic.
In pre-modern times, the natural world was the place in which people lived and labored. If they "enjoyed" nature -- for instance, a sunny day in spring after a long, harsh winter -- it was as a respite from the challenge of living and working in a tough world. Life was more or less regulated by natural rhythms, except perhaps in the case of scholars like Faust, who inhabited dusky, damp chambers.
The discoveries of science in the 17th century led some men to reflect on the world around them in a new way, both the natural world and the larger cosmos. They speculated about "nature," which differed from the speculations of earlier thinkers, both ancient and of medieval thinkers, for whom the natural world was an imperfect realm under heaven. Their reflections were limited, for there was simply no way they could peer into nature's workings. No instruments, no telescopes, and all their experimentation seems to us today like nothing more than hocus pocus.
Medieval philosophy was much ridiculed, especially in the 18th century, for such lucubrations as the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. People were smart in earlier ages, but, outside of agriculture and weaponry, knowledge had little practical application. Goethe's Faust, though a "doctor," laments that his cures have caused as much harm as good. The scene of Faust in his study in the opening of Goethe's play highlights the seeming futility of the medieval scholar's desire for knowledge.
The scientific discoveries of the 17th century, however, had worldly relevance. If the discoverers themselves -- Galileo, Descartes -- limited their view to their scientific fields, other men were quick to see the possibility of application in the real world. The discovery of the circulation of the blood, for instance, promised the possibility of action and of change. If men had earlier endured the natural world, now they saw its imperfections and resolved no longer to suffer or endure them, but to change the world.
The notion of progress in human affairs seems to have taken hold by the end of the 17th century. The scientific discoveries of the 17th century led to what Alexander Koyré (From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe) has called a "radical spiritual revolution," including the jettisoning of the Christian concern with one's eternal life and its replacement by "the secularization of consciousness" and preoccupation with this life and the present world. Of course, Descartes and Galileo had no such purpose; they were both good Christian men, as were Copernicus and Kepler.
But the rejection of the scientific authority of the past was soon transformed by men of letters into a rejection of the cultural and artistic achievements of the past. A first phase in this was the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns on which I have been posting.
The sublime -- I am getting there! -- is part of this opening phase. And isn't the photo of the Andromeda Island Nebula sublime?
Picture credit: Astronomy Picture of the Day