Proclaiming his lifelong affinity for deserts, de Botton decides to visit the Sinai Desert from the Israeli resort town of Eilat. On the plane ride, he reads Pascal’s Pensées, including a passage where the philosopher writes: “When I consider … the small space I occupy, which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there.”
The passage from Pascal was published a half-century before the sublime became an important aesthetic concept, but still foreshadows it by describing a combination of fear, pleasure, and awe in humans’ smallness. The connection between this feeling and the previous chapter is already clear: the traveler immerses themselves in nature and adopts a perspective from which their ordinary concerns are meaningless.
De Botton goes to the desert “so as to be made to feel small.” While people do not usually want to feel small, de Botton thinks there is “another and more satisfying way” to do so in “barren, overwhelming” places like mountain ranges and deserts.
The kind of smallness that de Botton does not want to feel is likely a humiliation before other people, which is fundamentally different from feeling small before nature, because nature appears indifferent to human affairs.
After two days in the Sinai, de Botton’s group of travelers approach a barren valley with mountains “like naked Alps” and gashes that mark the Earth’s tectonic activity. These mountains seem infinite on the horizon, and beyond them lies a “featureless, baking gravel pan” that the area’s nomadic Bedouins call the “Desert of the Wandering.”
The Sinai’s endlessness, uniformity, and striking beauty seem to swallow up the human observer—it has no discernible center, exit, or response to the people who are there responding to it. In other words, the desert imposes itself aesthetically on the people who cannot impose their will on the landscape.
Usually, de Botton says, emotions that people feel in particular places require “awkward piles of words” rather than single labels, but in the early 18th century, people began describing their reactions to “precipices and glaciers, night skies and boulder-strewn deserts” as a sense of the sublime.
The sublime is that meaningful feeling of insignificance de Botton has focused on so far in this chapter. He continues to note how personal feelings and experiences in travel are nonetheless influenced by particular cultural histories that the traveler may not understand at the outset but can gain profoundly from learning about.
After an ancient Greek treatise on the sublime was retranslated into English in 1712, writers began taking an interest in it as “an identifiable feeling that was both pleasurable and morally good.” Suddenly, people began valuing landscapes based on their power to “arouse the mind to sublimity.” Writers noted their stunned reactions at encountering vast spaces of untamed nature, and one even called the Alps “pregnant with religion and poetry.”
During the 18th century, critics started to value places because of their psychological effects on people, rather than seeing aesthetic value as embedded in beautiful objects themselves. This parallels de Botton’s insistence that people must develop their personal, subjective aesthetic sense and curiosity through encounters with new sights and places.
In comparison to dawn in the Sinai desert, which is millions of years in the making, “man seems merely dust postponed,” weakened and rightly intoxicated by the power of natural forces. In his bag, De Botton has brought the work of Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, who argued that things were sublime (as opposed to merely beautiful) when they suggested human weakness by showing a power that exceeds and threatens people. Burke compared beautiful landscapes to an ox—they are powerful but “innocent and not at all dangerous”—but sublime landscapes to a bull—they are overwhelming, do not bend to the human will, and often seem infinite because of their repetitive elements.
De Botton’s description of people as “dust postponed” reminds the reader that they, too, are part of the natural world and will eventually recombine with it. Burke’s distinction between the sublime and the beautiful hinges on the difference between objects that a human being can construct or control with their own will (which are beautiful) and those that seem to affect human beings through their own sheer power (which are sublime). Sublime things seem to force humans into a state of receptivity to their environment precisely through this immense power.
Why, de Botton asks, do people seek out the sublime and derive pleasure from it? He first responds that “not everything that is more powerful than us must always be hateful to us.” The noble power of a sublime landscape does not humiliate the human observer, reminding them of their inadequacy, but rather leaves them in awe, resignifying their inadequacy “in a new and more helpful way” by presenting it “in grand terms” rather than in the vicious ones of everyday life. Sublime landscapes lead people to accept—and perhaps even to worship—forces that exceed them.
Again, the sublime’s power yields pleasure because nature is indifferent to humans rather than hateful or personal—like taking off in an airplane, visiting sublime places can help people come to terms with their problems by dislodging them from their confined perspectives. As with traveling places, sublime places are undefined, neither here nor there for humans, and provide a reflective solitude that can help people consider the deep sense of purpose that de Botton hopes travel can cultivate.
Accordingly, de Botton argues, “it does not seem unusual to start thinking of a deity in the Sinai,” whose monumental landscape suggests that something greater than humans built the Earth. According to the Abrahamic religions, God supposedly spent significant time there—and de Botton thinks that any traveler in the desert there would suspect that it was created by a force greater than “mere ‘nature,’” which he finds an unlikely explanation for landscape features like a “sandstone valley rising towards what appears to be a giant altar, above which hangs a slender crescent moon.”
Despite his invocation of God here, de Botton is a committed atheist. By gesturing to the Sinai’s role in the Abrahamic religions, de Botton suggests that the sublime plays a deep and important role in human cultural history, perhaps even accounting for early believers’ faith in God.
Indeed, many early theorists of the sublime saw it as proof of God’s existence, and de Botton sees a connection between the rise of the sublime as a cultural phenomenon and the 18th century’s decline in traditional religiosity. Sublime landscapes gave secular people “an emotional connection to a greater power” without trapping them in the particular dogmas of organized religion.
Both the sublime and religious faith bring humans to awe by demonstrating an immense power that people could never hope to match. De Botton sees the sublime as a possible basis for the sort of universal, atheist religion he defends in his other works; more broadly, he seems to think that travel and art can expand people’s minds in much the same way as organized religion, and perhaps without religion’s pitfalls.
One Biblical book particularly connects God to the sublime; in it, “a righteous but desperate man” asks God why he suffers, and God directs him to ponder sublime landscapes. This is the Book of Job, which Burke considered the Old Testament’s most sublime; Job is incredibly wealthy but suddenly loses nearly all his livestock and his oldest son in a series of natural disasters. He finds himself weeping at home, covered in sores that he scratches with a pottery shard.
Job’s fate demonstrates the indifference of nature to the human will: he suddenly falls from unrivaled success to complete destitution, just as a person illustrious at home (like bestselling author de Botton) might find themselves equal to others before nature’s immense power and sublimity.
Job’s friends tell him that his sin caused his misfortune, but Job denies that he has sinned. God replies, showing Job his ignorance and impotence through questions like “where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” and references to the enormity of nature. As de Botton puts it, God tells Job, “do not be surprised that things have not gone your way,” because “the universe is greater than you” and “you cannot fathom [its] logic.” Humans are not the center of the universe, but rather an insignificant and feeble component of it who can never fully grasp its logic. This limit to human understanding implies that people “must continue to trust in God’s plans for the universe.”
Job’s sin seems to be precisely his ignorance about the limits of his own power in comparison with God and nature; indeed, his demand that God explain himself suggests that he oversteps his place as a human being. Just as Wordsworth thought nature could remind humans of virtue, the sublime can remind people about the limits of their understanding and power, which promises to liberate them from many of their everyday concerns about status and success.
De Botton thinks that God’s answer to Job also holds value for secular people, for the sublime can still lead them to see that certain problems are insurmountable and certain events inexplicable for humans. Sublime places can lead people to acknowledge their limits and take their failures in stride by reminding people that the world “will inevitably return us to dust.”
Again, de Botton argues that the Book of Job’s logic applies more generally to everyone, regardless of whether they believe in God or not. He implies that learning to accept failure can be a valuable step along the path to happiness because it encourages people to relinquish control where they do not have it, stop expecting fortune to favor them, and refocus their energies on the future rather than dwell on the past.