Congratulations to all who survived the solar eclipse with eyesight intact! It is interesting that a conjunction of heavenly bodies has produced such busy news comment and mass travel. To be sure, it is rare to have a solar eclipse visible in the continental United States, but it seems odd that a brief occlusion of the sun should interest people from Seattle, who are used to occlusions of the sun for weeks at at time.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished between our sense of the beautiful and our sense of the sublime. Beauty arises (normally) from an artist’s intention to communicate by the use of form and color. The sublime arises (normally) from things in nature that create in us a sense of awe, wonder, and even terror. A statue may be beautiful; a volcano or hurricane is sublime. The statue may communicate to us the artist’s ideas about admirable form. The volcano and hurricane do not communicate, but they make us feel small and vulnerable.
Perhaps the eclipse has generated such interest because it triggers our sense of the sublime. When one unimaginably large object floats exactly in front of an even more unimaginably large object, we feel a thrill in recognizing gigantic things that we cannot control. We can get similar feelings of the sublime by climbing high mountains, diving deep into the ocean, or visiting the barren ice plains of Antarctica. These remote locations are hostile to human life. We can survive, but only temporarily and after careful preparation. The movements of sun and moon, particularly in the rare conjunction of an eclipse, may remind us that the universe, except for our small blue-green Earth, is a gigantic deadly void.
What should we make of this? Some have concluded that, because the universe is so big and our Earth is so small by comparison, it is futile to suppose that we are important in any way and it is particularly futile to suppose that a God who made the universe would pay any attention to us. One response is that of Yoda in Star Wars, “Judge me by my size, do you?” But the question persists. Readers of the “Who is God” series on this blog will discover that the ancient Hebrews were aware of this question and tried to address it.
If nothing else, a lively sense of the sublime can correct our natural inclination to make more of ourselves than we ought. Many things can be understood better if approached with humility. Perhaps the eclipse will remind us to maintain this attitude.