C.S. Lewis’ Account of the Sublime

In my Philosophy of C. S. Lewis class, we read The Abolition of Man, which begins with a critique of a children’s story book regarding the use of the word sublime. The second chapter of the children’s story book, which Lewis refers to as The Green Book by Gaius and Titius, quotes the story of Coleridge at the waterfall. There are two tourists in the story, one which calls the waterfall ‘sublime’ and the other ‘pretty.’ Coleridge endorses the first judgment and rejects the second with disgust. Gaius and Titus comment that,

“When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… actually… he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word ‘Sublime’, or shortly, I have sublime feelings. This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.”1

From this passage, Lewis contends that this book wrongly impresses on young readers that “all sentences containing a predicate of values are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.”2 Although Gaius and Titus’ understanding of the definition of sublime as a feeling associated in the mind is correct (according to Kant’s definition), what Lewis criticizes is Gaius and Titus’ reaction to the use of the word sublime. Gaius and Titus condemn using the word sublime because they believe making remakes about one’s own feelings towards an object is inferior to making a remark about the physicality of the object. Rather than saying something about how we feel, Gaius and Titus think we should talk about the structure and aesthetics of the waterfall. Lewis disagrees, arguing for the importance of emotions and feelings in youth.

I agree, as would Kant, with Lewis that expressing emotions and feelings is important and should not be condemned. Kant says, sublimity “is not contained in anything in nature, but only in our mind.”3 How else could we express the tension without our faculties than by using the word sublime? Teaching young readers to express their emotions, especially male readers, is integral to their development. Hence, understanding and using terms like sublime should be encouraged, not condemned in modern education.

1. Lewis, C. S. (2013). The Abolition of Man. Place of publication not identified: Exciting Classics. page 2-3.

2. Lewis, C. S. (2013). The Abolition of Man. Place of publication not identified: Exciting Classics. page 4.

3. Kant, Critique of Judgment, Guyer translation, section 28. page 264.

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