Lonely Planet Writer

The sublime of travel

Sublime is a superlative that gets used quite often, but its meaning is mostly confused with beautiful. Here's our guide to the the sublime, the beautiful and the merely agreeable.

On beauty:

Everyone is familiar with the beauty of travel. Whether it is in nature or culture, we seek out the beautiful in our daily lives and even more so when we travel. A beautiful beach or a beautiful building can draw us halfway across the world just to experience it in person.

Image by SF Brit

Upon arrival, beautiful beaches are well known for incapacitating travellers with lethargy, although too much beautiful culture can overwhelm visitors - especially in Florence, with Stendhalism. But on the whole, beauty induces restfulness.

During his life Immanuel Kant never strayed more than 15km from his birth place of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). But his theory of beauty has travelled well. He distinguishes the beautiful from the agreeable. If I judge the statue of David by Michelangelo to be agreeable then I am not saying you will also like it, but when I say it is beautiful I believe that everyone should also feel the same way. Consequently when someone regards something as beautiful we feel the need to confirm or deny this judgement ourselves, preferably in person.

The sublime:

The sublime also compels us to visit destinations, but not in the same way as beauty. The sublime and travel were recognised as partners at least 300 years ago. Several British travellers at the turn of the 17th century were independently moved to write of the sublime after experiencing the Alps. While beauty was 'delight that is consistent with reason', wrote English critic John Dennis, the pleasure derived from the sublime was darker and more awesome, 'mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair.'

Image by Ai@ce

Kant distinguishes two forms of the sublime, the mathematical and the dynamic.

Kant gives St Peter's Basilica in Rome as an example of a human-made structure inducing the mathematical sublime: while visitors' imaginations fail to comprehend the size of St Peter's, their reason is able to see it as a mere small part of a larger whole. The sublime, then, gives us a sense of our place in the universe, however minuscule that may be. And at least our power to recognise our meagreness with our reason gives us pleasure.

Image by Mark Broadhead
While the mathematical sublime is about quantity, the dynamic sublime is about force. Take for instance the pull many people feel to visit waterfalls, a compulsion that is part wonder, part fear. Whole tourism industries have been based around water falling in a sublime way: Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls, Iguazú, Gullfoss, Angel Falls...the list goes on.
Image by markg6
Of course most sublime destinations are also beautiful. What is your most sublime or beautiful travel experience?
Further reading: also read our article on the freedom of travel.