Ever since the days of ancient Greece, philosophers have distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime.
Beauty is what you experience when you look at a flower or a lovely face. It is contained, pleasurable, intimate and romantic. Sublime is what you feel when you look at a mountain range or a tornado. It involves awe, veneration, maybe even a touch of fear. A sublime thing, like space or mathematics, over-awes the natural human dimensions and reminds you that you are a small thing in a vast cosmos.
Recently neuroscientists have shown that the experiences of beauty and awe activate different parts of the brain.
The distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is the distinction between the intimate and the transcendent. This sort of distinction doesn’t just happen in aesthetics but in life in general. We have big and little loves.
The soldiers we honored on Memorial Day were animated by a big love — serving their country — and by a little one — protecting their buddies. Religious people experience a love of God that is both big and little.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that God is in one guise majestic and infinite, the author of the universe. But when Soloveitchik’s wife lay on her deathbed, God did not appear that way. Instead, he appeared as a “close friend, brother, father. … I felt His warm hand, as it were, on my shoulder, I hugged His knees, as it were. He was with me in the narrow confines of a small room, taking up no space at all.”
In daily life we have big and little loves, too. The little loves, like for one’s children, one’s neighborhood or one’s garden, animate nurture, compassion and care. The big loves, like for America or the cause of global human rights, inspire courage and greatness. A little love is a shepherd protecting his flock. A great love is Martin Luther King Jr. leading his people.
The small attachments serve as the foundation of our emotional lives, but when you have a big love for your country or a cause, you are loving something that transcends a lifetime. You are pursuing some universal ideal and seeking excellence. A big love involves using power well, seeking honor and glory and being worthy of them.
The amount of big love in a society can rise and fall. Alexis de Tocqueville wondered if democracy would dampen Americans’ big love.
“What worries me most,” he wrote, “is the danger that, amid all the constant trivial preoccupations of private life, ambition may lose both its force and its greatness, that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time baser, with the result that the progress of the body social may become daily quieter and less aspiring.”
I’d say that in America today some of the little loves are fraying, and big love is almost a foreign language. Almost nobody speaks about the American project in the same ardent tones that were once routine.
Big love is hopeful, but today pessimism is in vogue. Big love involves a confidence that one can use power well, but today Americans are suspicious of power, have lost faith in leaders and big institutions and feel a sense of impotence in the face of big problems.
Big love involves thinking in sweeping historical terms. But today the sense that America is pursuing a noble mission in the world has been humbled by failures and passivity. The country feels more divided than unified around common purpose.
Big love involves politics, and thus compromise, competition and messiness. Americans today are less likely to discern the noble within the grittiness of reality. The very words that the founders used to describe their big love for their country sound archaic: glory, magnanimity, sacred honor and greatness.
There is, in sum, less animating desire in the country at the moment, and therefore less energy and daring. The share of Americans moving across state lines in search of opportunity has fallen by more than half since the 1970s. The rate of new business creation is down. Productivity is falling for the first time in three decades. Economic growth is anemic. There’s a spiritual and cultural element behind these trends.
So I write today in defense of big love, the love not only of your little platoon but of the grand historical project this country represents. Young people now want to join startups or NGOs, or eat locally grown foods, but I’m writing in defense of the big love that once inspired big projects, like NASA, the national railroads and the creation and maintenance of the postwar, U.S.-led world order, with the free movement of people, goods and ideas.
Before the country can achieve great things it has to relearn the ability to desire big things. It has to be willing to love again, even amid disappointments — to love things that are awesome, heroic and sublime.