Boldly investigates the relationship between the sublime as an aesthetic category and the emergence of skepticism as a philosophical problem

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Copyright © 2005, University of Michigan. All rights reserved. Posted October 2005.

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Traditional approaches to understanding sublimity and skepticism have often asserted the primacy and importance of one concept over the other. However, in Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne and Milton, David L. Sedley argues that literary and philosophical notions of skepticism and sublimity simultaneously developed and influenced one another. By exposing the twin origins of skepticism and sublimity, Sedley contributes to ongoing discussions of the origins of modernity and genealogies of modern habits of criticism.

Sedley uses the juxtaposition of Montaigne and Milton to argue that two seminal early modern phenomena, the rise of the sublime as an aesthetic category and the emergence of skepticism as a philosophical problem, are interrelated. The comparison of these two Renaissance writers highlights the traditions that have canonized them and also complicates the canonical views: Sedley's perspective reveals how Montaigne cultivated his famous skepticism in order to produce sublimity, while Milton forged his renowned sublimity through his encounter with skepticism. Sedley's first argument is that sublimity motivated skepticism: the sense that a force existed outside the aesthetic categories conventional in the Renaissance drove authors into a skeptical frame of mind. His second argument is that skepticism created sublimity: the skeptical mind-set offered alternative resources of aesthetic power and enabled authors to fashion a sublime style. These claims revise standard views of skepticism and sublimity, suggesting a mandate for an enriched aesthetics behind late-Renaissance loss of belief and exposing the Renaissance impulse behind modern notions of sublimity.

"Sedley's work takes seriously our ongoing engagement with doubt. It is a brisk and brilliant guide to the disparate pathways through which early modern skepticism made its way to the sublime."
-Eileen Reeves, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Princeton University

"Sublimity and Skepticism in Montaigne and Milton is a powerful piece of revisionist intellectual history. By demonstrating the close links between the rise of skepticism and the power of the sublime, Sedley offers a welcome antidote to the heavily ideological tenor of much recent cultural studies. With clarity and elegance Sedley shows that two of the greatest writers of the late Renaissance, Montaigne and Milton, are haunted by a crisis of authority, which is accompanied by the irruption of the sublime, by an inchoate sense of being overwhelmed by the phenomenal world. Through deft and intelligent readings Sedley shows how key moments in the works of these two great authors are structured by the intersection of the sublime and the skeptical. This book should be of great interest to literary scholars, aestheticians, and intellectual historians working in several languages. It is a very fine piece of work."
-Tim Hampton, Professor of French, UC Berkeley

"A refreshingly modern and elegant understanding of Montaigne and Milton as inaugurating the sublime possibilities of the fragmentary and incomprehensible. Sedley reinserts these writers into a history of the transformation of admiration into awe, and makes us revisit the beginnings and the justifications of our own esthetics of the sublime."
-Ullrich Langer, Professor of French and Italian, University of Wisconsin