According to Sir Edmund Burke, “the sublime is the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” John Horvat II, author of Return to Order, defines the sublime with the following words: “The sublime consists of those things of transcendent excellence that cause souls to be overawed by their magnificence.”
Put succinctly, the sublime is the “wow” factor, the take-one’s-breath-away experience. When one beholds something of great beauty, majesty or grandeur, the soul is overwhelmed. Only the most deadened soul could approach the Grand Canyon for the first time with a yawn.
America has numerous natural examples of the sublime: oceans, mountains, rivers, canyons, lakes, forests, deserts and plains. Besides these natural examples created by God to nurture the sublime in souls, there are also man’s sublime creations inspired by God.
It is marvelous to behold the beautiful things created by God in the blinking of an eye. It is also marvelous to see the sublime creations of man as a result of grace, intellect and manual labor which reflect the majesty of God. These earthly creations raise the mind to God, whether they be medieval cathedrals, castles, mansions, education establishments or other such buildings.
Everything in God’s created universe has the capacity to draw men closer to God, remind him of His omnipotence and create a yearning in our souls for perfection. The same can be said about those things created by man that reflect the good, the true and the beautiful.
An example of something sublime is the take-your-breath-away building shown in the photo below.
It looks like an abbey from Tudor England. Its size dwarfs its surroundings; its order immediately encourages orderliness; its height points to heaven; and a momentary view raises the mind and soul of man.
It is surprising to know that this building exists, not in England, but in the United States. It is actually found in the heart of the Midwest in Topeka, Kansas. What an unlikely location for such a majestic edifice! However, it is not as unlikely as it may first seem.
This is a public high school that opened its doors in 1931.
At that time, Americans still had an understanding of and admiration for the sublime. They understood the importance of a genuine education and desired to create an environment to foster the very important formation of youth to properly prepare them for adult life. High schools built in this Tudor gothic style were built all across America during this same time period.
Even in today’s decaying cultural climate, this building still dominates the contemporary student body. The students who attend this high school are no different from student bodies anywhere else in America, yet their relationship to this building is out of the ordinary.
Some years ago, I attended a chamber music concert in this school’s library.
The library has stained glass windows, an elegant fireplace and massive oak shelves,and tables. One does not find the typical graffiti and carvings that “decorate” many schools of today. After the concert, I spoke to the librarian and asked if the students were allowed to use the library. The librarian assured me that students use the library every day. I told the librarian of my observations and she responded that the students respect the building because the building demands respect.
Besides the library there are many other marks of beauty and the sublime present in this building. The ensemble of all of these marvels at least temporarily and partially neutralizes the baseness of contemporary life.
This institution with its elements of the sublime has had such an influence that a number of its faculty members are alumni. This building marked them for life, so much so that they wanted to return to bask in the warmth of its ambience. There are also well-attended high school reunions and a vigorous historical society for the school. Three governor inaugurations have been held at this school.
Compare Topeka High School with the average high school building of today. There is little difference between a contemporary high school and a correctional facility. Both ambiences instill a purely utilitarian, cold, drab and mediocre state of soul. There is nothing in such buildings that inspires, elevates or reflects the life-preparing gravity of that for which the institution should stand.
The Topeka High School building, on the other hand, can inspire, if even a little, the most ill-mannered person of today. Because society has strayed so far off course, even this building with all of its sublimity may not be able to change the life course of the youth of today. However it still influences; it still commands respect; it still elevates.
If we seek an authentic return to order, it is essential that we expose our families and ourselves to what remains of these marvels. In order to return America to order, which necessarily involves a love of the sublime, we must first restore order and a love for the sublime in our own souls.
Order and a sense of the sublime did not disappear overnight. Their restoration also will not happen overnight. No doubt a downhill slide is easier than climbing to the heights. Restoring order will be an arduous task, but, if we really desire that America once again becomes the shining city on a hill, we have no other alternative.
Topeka High School is a small, simple example of the sublime in America. If one searches one can find incredible churches, mansions and institutions that dwarf this high school. However, even this high school in a mid-sized Midwestern city has the capacity to radiate the sublime into those souls willing to embrace it.