Let us transport ourselves to a very solitary region with a boundless horizon under a completely cloudless sky, with trees and plants in completely still air, no animals, no people, no moving water, the deepest calm; — surroundings like these are like a summons to seriousness, to contemplation, to tear oneself free from all willing with its pressing needs: but this is precisely what gives such a lonely and deeply tranquil environment a tinge of the sublime. The will needs to keep striving and attaining, and since this environment does not offer it any objects either favourable or unfavourable, then only the state of pure contemplation remains, and anyone incapable of this is abandoned with shameful degredation to the emptiness of the idle will, the misery of boredom.
Accordingly, such surroundings provide a standard for measuring our own intellectual value, which can be gauged by our ability to tolerate or even love solitude. Thus, the environment described above offers an example of the sublime at a low degree, since the state of pure cognition, in its peacefulness and total sufficiency, is blended with a contrasting memory of the dependence and poverty of a will in need of constant activity. — The view out over endless prairies in the North American interior is renowned for this species of the sublime.
Now if we allow this sort of environment to be devoid of plant life and to exhibit only barren rocks, then the will becomes quickly alarmed by the complete absence of organic material necessary for our subsistence. The desert assumes a terrible aspect: our mood becomes more tragic: the elevation to pure cognition takes place with a decided tearing away from the interests of the will, and as long as we persist in the state of pure cognition, the feeling of the sublime comes clearly to the fore.
The feeling of the sublime can be occasioned at still higher gradations by the following environment. Nature in stormy motion; the gloaming through threatening black storm clouds; enormous, barren, hanging rocks that interlock so as to cut off our view; rushing, foaming masses of water; complete desolation; the howling of the wind as it cuts through a ravine. Our dependency, our struggle with hostile nature, our will which is broken in this struggle, these now come vividly before our eyes: but as long as our personal troubles do not gain the upper hand and we remain in a state of aesthetic contemplation, the pure subject of cognition peers through that struggle of nature, through that image of the broken will, and calmly, in a manner both unperturbed and unconcerned grasps the Ideas in those very objects that are threatening and terrible to the will. The feeling of the sublime lies in precisely this contrast. …
Indeed, our explanation of the sublime can even be applied to the ethical, namely to what has been called the sublime character. This too arises from the fact that the will is not aroused by objects that are clearly well suited to arouse it, but instead cognition retains the upper hand even here. Consequently, such a character will regard human beings purely objectively, and not in terms of whatever relations they might have to his will: for instance, he will observe their failings, even their hatred and injustice towards him, but without himself being moved to hatred; he will look upon their happiness without feeling envy; he will recognize their good qualities without wanting to be more closely associated with them; he will perceive the beauty of women without desiring them. His personal happiness and unhappiness will not affect him strongly, rather he will be such as Hamlet described Horatio:
for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing;
A man, that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks, etc. (act 3, scene 2)
This is because when he looks over the course of his own life with all its misfortunes he will not see his own individual fate so much as the fate of humanity in general, and thus he will conduct himself more as a knower than as a sufferer.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation: Volume I.
Translated and edited by Judith Norman, Alistair Welchman and Christopher Janaway.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 228-229; 231.