The Passion of the Christ

Gibson’s Sublime Passion

In Defense of the Violence

Why do we watch tragedies and horror movies? Philosopher Bill Irwin suggests that our answer can help explain why Gibson made The Passion of the Christ the way he did. It’s a matter of aesthetics, and there’s a distinction to be made between the beautiful and the sublime. A Metaphilm online exclusive.

William Irwin

The Passion has spurred much controversy and debate, but nearly all people agree that the film is difficult to watch. The violence, the blood, the gore for some people make it too painful to watch.

Mel Gibson's Passion and Philosophy

So why do we willingly watch works of art that bring pain with pleasure? Aesthetics, the branch of philosophy concerned with the study of art, helps us answer this question, which has concerned philosophers since Aristotle (384–322 B.C.). To address this question and justify Gibson’s depiction of violence let’s consider The Passion in terms of three important categories: beauty, tragedy, and the sublime.

The Beautiful and the Moral

Whatever beauty is, no one could rightfully call Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ beautiful. Nor could anyone deny that Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà is beautiful. Admittedly, the subject matters of the sculpture and film are different, but there is a Pietà allusion in The Passion, as we see the bloody Jesus in the arms of a weary Mary at the foot of the cross.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) aside, most philosophers recognize that beauty is contextual, that knowing about the artwork and its subject matter bears on how we evaluate it. Michelangelo’s Pietà is sad, delicate, and displays a cherry-blossom beauty, but it does not inspire thought and moral reflection. In fact the beauty of the Pietà distracts us from its subject matter. We do not feel moved to reflection on the suffering of Jesus and Mary. Rather we behold a sight unlike anything we have seen before, and we marvel at the artistic accomplishment.

When the beautiful connects us to the moral it tends to do so mistakenly, getting it wrong or getting it right only by accident. Still a common and psychologically persuasive notion, the ancient Greek kalos-kagathon, the beautiful-good, implies that the beautiful is morally good and the morally good is beautiful. But experience tells us that the beautiful is generally appreciated for itself, and when it begins to steer us towards moral judgment we need to be careful. As a beautiful face can distract us from a person’s moral substance or lack thereof, so can a beautiful artwork. Knowing the subject of the artwork may heighten our appreciation for the artwork’s beauty, but its beauty is unlikely to heighten our appreciation for its subject. Viewing the Pietà we are far less inspired to devotion than we are awed at the artistic achievement.

In fact, the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pietà is inappropriate for the sad scene it depicts. Better would have been to free a Madonna and child from the rock prison, using the same technique on the same piece of marble. But Michelangelo had his commission, had his subject matter, and had his marching orders from a paying patron. By contrast, Gibson had his own vision and put his own money behind The Passion. This is not to say he created a greater work of art than did Michelangelo, but that he was financially free to match subject and expression more appropriately.

The Choice of Violence

Could The Passion have been beautiful? Quentin Tarantino has been wrongly acclaimed for the “exquisite and elegant violence” in films such as Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction. While the choreographed, sword-wielding violence of Kill Bill is spectacular, it is not beautiful and it conveys no moral truth. The crass violence of Pulp Fiction conveys moral truth, that redemption is possible, but lacks beauty. Gibson’s choice to show the violence to tell the story of the passion precludes it being beautiful, especially if it is to succeed in directing us to moral truth. Contra Keats, truth is not beauty, nor beauty truth. Quid est veritas? It sometimes ain’t pretty.

“It’s too violent, too much blood and gore. I couldn’t stand to watch it.” So goes one common complaint about Gibson’s Passion. For many Christians, The Passion fails to highlight the parts of Jesus’ ministry that they believe are most important, his message of love and peace. The film could have been different. The violence and suffering was a choice of emphasis, not a necessity.

But Gibson did not choose to tell the story of Jesus’ entire ministry with special emphasis on his passion. He chose to tell the story of the passion. So how should he have told that story? It is, after all, a “cruci-fiction.” Aware that “cross” and “crucifixion” connote torture in Latin, what should we expect? Torture at the hands of Roman soldiers was far worse than what counts as torture at the hands of wayward American soldiers.So ecce homo, behold the man, through the sheer horror of his flogging, scourged as he is, bathed in a bouquet of blood, crowned with thorns, and made to carry his cross to the place of execution. This is the “bloody Christ” of The Passion, not the “buddy Christ” of Dogma.

Some complain and conjecture that the actual scourging and flogging could not have been as severe as Gibson portrays them. Perhaps. But Scripture says that Simon carried the cross, so we can safely assume the scourging was sufficient to leave Jesus unable to carry it. And undoubtedly the inner agony and humiliation of the actual crucifixion were far worse than anything that film images can convey.In any case, to witness in person the bloody scourging would have been far worse than merely watching it on screen, even if the screen version surpassed the reality.

A director’s choices of emphasis and perspective inevitably displease some. You can’t make everybody happy and you shouldn’t even try. For example, Holocaust films no matter how finely done find critics. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List portrays the utter inhumanity of the concentration camps, but some complain it makes a hero of Oscar Schindler. Perhaps he was a hero, but does his heroism deserve such attention? Shouldn’t Spielberg have focused attention elsewhere? Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful is a story of boundless hope, a triumph of the spirit, a testament to resilience, but it was criticized as “Holocaust lite.” Yes, Benigni and Spielberg could have made different choices, could have made different films. But the films they made are gifts to be appreciated for what they are, not to be rejected for what they could have been.

Viewers who reject The Passion for Gibson’s choice of emphasis include in large numbers those who imagine Jesus as much like Barney the Dinosaur singing, “I love you / you love me / let’s be friends / in Galilee.” They choose to focus on the message of love, passing the passion, going directly to the resurrection. Of course this is not a fair description of all people who reject The Passion, and that is one way to tell the story. But it is not the way Gibson chose. If Jesus did not suffer for our sins and rise from the dead, then he was simply a philosopher. But Christianity holds that he was much more.

Gibson’s choice to graphically portray the violence of The Passion makes the film difficult to watch, and this is just the point.

What? A Tragedy?

Plato (428–348 B.C.) spoke against Greek tragedies and Homeric epics, finding they gave false depictions of the gods and aroused fear and pity, emotions one should avoid. Plato was right: violence can inflame “the passions.” As a boy, I came out of Rocky III throwing punches in the air, looking to take on all comers in the parking lot. As a man, I came out of Troy feeling like Achilles, wanting to slay my enemies. Curiously, though, the violence of The Passion has no effect of that kind. It is not the “guns, lots of guns” and Kung Fu fighting of The Matrix. It does not incite one to violence. If anything, it leaves one numb. Plato was quick to banish the tragic poets from his ideal Republic. We should not be so quick to pan The Passion.

As Aristotle asked of the Greek tragedies of his day, so we may ask of The Passion: why would anyone want to watch such suffering anyway? Aristotle agreed with Plato that these works of art aroused fear and pity, but unlike Plato, Aristotle found this beneficial. Watching the tragedies produces a catharsis, a cleansing of these feelings and emotions. In fact, this cathartic effect is part of Aristotle’s classic definition of tragedy.

Tragedy, then, is a representation of an action which is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude—in language which is garnished in various forms in its different parts in the mode of dramatic enactment, not narrative—and through the arousal of pity and fear effecting the katharsis of such emotions (1449b 24–29).

So is The Passion a tragedy? Not in any sense that Aristotle would recognize, not in the way Antigone and Oedipus Rex are tragedies, not in the way Hamlet and King Lear are tragedies, not at all. Consider more of what Aristotle has to say. On the proper subject matter for tragedy, he says “the poet’s task is to speak not of events which have occurred, but of the kind of events which could occur, and are possible by the standards of probability or necessity” (1451a 38–40). The Passion purports to tell the story of events that no matter how wildly improbable did occur. Aristotle argues that certain plot types are inappropriate for tragedy. Most importantly for our purposes, “good men should not be shown passing from prosperity to affliction, for this is neither fearful nor pitiful but repulsive” (1452b 34–35). And “repulsive” is precisely how some viewers find The Passion. Certainly it is not cleansing, cathartic. Describing the proper type of main character for tragedy Aristotle says, “such a man is one who is not preeminent in virtue and justice, and one who falls into affliction not because of evil and wickedness, but because of a certain fallibility (hamartia)” (1453a 7–9). Tragedies end in death due to the fallibility of the main character. Certainly a flawless Christ cannot take such a fall.

Sublimity in the Divine

So if we don’t benefit from a tragic catharsis, why do we watch The Passion? Why do some of us actually enjoy it? Simply watching it is easy enough to explain. The film is a pop cultural phenomenon, a “must see.” Explaining why some of us actually enjoyed the film is tougher. Perhaps the experience is sublime? But what is “the sublime”? Peter Schjedahl claims that the sublime is a “hopelessly jumbled philosophical notion that has had more than two centuries to start meaning something cogent and hasn’t succeeded yet” (in Danto 2003, p. 148). Although he overstates the case, Schjedahl appropriately highlights the confusion and chaos surrounding the idea of the sublime. Nonetheless I’d like to suggest that we can use the sublime and The Passion to make sense of one another.

In discussing the sublime Edmund Burke (1729–1797) points us to accounts of divine encounter in Scripture.

But the scripture alone can supply ideas answerable to the majesty of this subject. In the scripture, wherever God is represented as appearing or speaking, everything terrible in nature is called up to heighten the awe and solemnity of the divine presence. The psalms, and the prophetical books, are crowded with instances of this kind. The earth shook, (says the psalmist), the heavens also dropped at the presence of the Lord (112).

The sublime, like God, is fearful, but we are not afraid of it. So what is the sublime? While early modern views on the sublime associated it with awe-inspiring, terrifying natural objects such as jagged cliffs shrouded in mist, more recent views have applied the sublime to art, helping to answer Aristotle’s perennial question: why would we voluntarily look at art that produces unpleasant emotions? Well, why would an eighty-year old man jump out of an airplane? Why would a fourteen-year old girl ride the roller coaster repeatedly? Because a thrill, a heightened sense of life, is concomitant with the fear.

Musing on movies, and revising the theories of Kant and Burke, Cynthia Freeland finds four features in the sublime. First, it involves conflict between feelings of pain and pleasure, what Burke called “rapturous terror.” Second,something about the sublime object is “great” and astonishing, what Longinus (c. 213–272 AD) called the “bold and grand”—the sublime object is vast, powerful, and overwhelming. Third,the sublime “evokes ineffable and painful feelings through which a transformation occurs into pleasure and cognition.” And fourth, the sublime prompts moral reflection (Freeland 1999, pp. 66–69).

While all four of Freeland’s features are presented as necessary for an experience of the sublime, not every example of the cinematic sublime is an entire film. Scenes and parts of movies can be sublime. And commonly one or more of the features can be found without the others, in which case the film or scene does not produce an experience of the sublime.

The first feature, the conflict or commingling of pain and pleasure, distinguishes the sublime from the beautiful. According to Kant, there is restful contemplation in the beautiful whereas there is “mental movement” or even a “vibration” in the sublime (Freeland 1999, 70). The experience of beauty is an escape from reality, whereas the experience of the sublime is a heightened, if contrived, confrontation with reality. The Silence of the Lambs, like most horror movies, elicits a conflict of pain and pleasure, though not an experience of the sublime. The Passion produces emotional conflict throughout. As Jesus is brutally beaten we want to cover our eyes, to be shielded from the pain, yet we take pleasure in knowing that the final victory will be his. Nonbelievers can also have this experience as long as they know the story from Scripture.

The second feature—greatness, power, vastness, and an overwhelming quality—is familiar in film. Think of The Matrix and Neo’s awakening in a gooey pink pod to see himself one among countless others in the field of human batteries. The truth is almost too much to take. Think of Troy and the “thousand ships” gradually revealed as the camera pans to wider and wider shots. While The Matrix and Troy have sublime scenes, The Passion is powerful and overwhelming practically throughout. The mistreatment of the God-man is too much to take, with the indignities of being slapped, shackled, and spit upon. But even those who do not believe Jesus is God find the flogging, scourging, and fall-ridden way of the cross too much to bear. In a surreal scene one Roman soldier gives a lesson to another in “how it’s done,” oblivious to the suffering of the man whose flesh he impales with nine-inch nails. We just cringe.

Consider too the grotesque in The Passion: powerful, overwhelming, tough to stomach. Taking license with scriptural narrative, Gibson shows us the devil incarnate as an androgynous hooded figure and slithering serpent. We have no sympathy for this devil. Rather, the figure’s sinister voice and appearance arouse disgust and fear, so close to Christ as it comes. As if the gore of the flogging were not enough, we see Satan as spectator, hideous child in his arms, wicked words from his forked tongue. Judas, too, is treated to the grotesque as madness descends on him. Children lose their innocence for virulence and chase him like the Furies to his suicidal end. Too much, it is all too much to bear.

The third feature, that the sublime “evokes ineffable and painful feelings through which a transformation occurs into pleasure and cognition,” links us to the suffering of Jesus. The sublime is related to the mystical via the ineffable, that to which we cannot give words. As Eric Bronson notes, mystics often journey through great pain to reach a higher truth that the rational mind cannot comprehend and language cannot express. The experience of the mystic is ineffable, and likewise the portrayal of the suffering of Jesus engenders an ineffable response in the viewer. Sharing vicariously in the pain of Jesus, the viewer is led to the pleasure of realizing that all is not lost. Quite the contrary, everything is gained.

Thought itself is pleasurable. “All people by nature desire to know,” is the first line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. We seek through thought the satisfaction of knowledge, true-justified-belief. Exercise of the mind, no less than the body, though sometimes painful in the process, is pleasurable in its product. There are films that are not sublime, though they keep us wondering and reward us with knowledge in the end, such as The Usual Suspects and Snatch. Not all knowledge is of the kind that comes at the cost of transformative suffering.

The fourth feature—the prompting of moral reflection—is the most important of all. According to Freeland, a gap or disruption in the very medium of representation evokes a deep moral response from the viewer (2004, p. 27). Whereas we rest contentedly in contemplating beauty in art, the disquiet characteristic of contemplating the cinematic sublime makes us aware it is a movie we’re watching. We are pushed from sympathetic emotional reactions to deep reflective cognitions, from feelings to thoughts. Our very will to shatter the illusion of the fiction of the film becomes Gibson’s tool for directing our thought. According to Kant, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in the object, not in our subjective belief that the Pietà is beautiful but in the Pietà itself. By contrast, according to Kant, the sublime is in us—it is our experience. For Kant this makes the sublime no less objective. What we judge as sublime we implicitly believe others too should judge as sublime. Lots of movies, even cartoons like The Lion King, prompt moral reflections, sometimes even by disrupting the medium. But the disruption in The Passion purposefully engenders the sublime.

Consider the use of Aramaic and Latin. Whatever else may be said, these languages heighten our sense of the sublime by adding to the strange and foreign quality of our experience, making us intellectually aware that this is not the familiar version of the story from memory or imagination. The subtitles engage us cognitively in a way we would not otherwise be engaged. All viewers, aside from the scarce few who know both Latin and Aramaic, get the film with subtitles and need them to follow the dialogue. The subtitles rupture the film and lead us from the emotional to the cognitive, from feeling to thought.

The visceral emotional reaction to the violence, pain, suffering, gore, and grotesque overwhelms us in such a way as to compel moral reflection. And although the film may guide us towards certain moral conclusions, we need not accept them.

It Wasn’t Sublime for Me

Surely not everyone who has seen The Passion has found it sublime. Some will even agree that the film has all four of Freeland’s features and yet insist that they did not experience The Passion as sublime. Fair enough. Does that mean that Freeland’s account is mistaken? Not necessarily. Does that mean that sublimity is relative, that The Passion can be sublime for you but not for me? Not necessarily.

Watching a film safely in the theater, like watching a stormy sea safely on land, allows for an experience of the sublime. The awful and terrible sight we would run from hiding our eyes becomes the object of fascination, as pain mysteriously mingles with pleasure. Kant believed the sublime puts us in touch with a truth about ourselves, that our rational nature and free will make us superior to the sublime objects of nature, like tornadoes and tidal waves, which have the power to crush us. As Kant says, “And we like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite different kind, and which gives us the courage [to believe] that we could be a match for nature’s seeming omnipotence” (120).

Still, not everyone likes to watch tornadoes and tidal waves, feeling fearful even at an objectively safe distance. Such a person misses out on the experience of the sublime. The tornado is perfectly capable of affording the experience of the sublime, but fear stands in the way. As Kant notes, “Just as we cannot pass judgment on the beautiful if we are seized by inclination and appetite, so we cannot pass judgment at all on the sublime in nature if we are afraid” (120). I suspect something similar occurs in the case of some devout Christians viewing The Passion. Despite the objective safety, despite knowing “it’s just a movie,” fear stands in the way of experiencing the sublime of The Passion. We can no more insist that such people watch the film again to experience the sublime than we can insist that someone watch the thunderstorm approaching. But in both cases the experience of the sublime awaits those who leave fear at the gates.

The Violence Defended

To conclude, the expectations and desires we bring to a work of art shape our reactions to it. A movie director must make choices concerning how to film and tell a story, and when the story is already well known the director’s choices will inevitably disappoint some. A beautiful movie would have been an ill-suited form of expression for the passion of Jesus. To be true to the subject matter Gibson was forced to make a movie that would be difficult to watch. Thus we considered the perennial philosophical question: Why do we willingly watch works of art that bring pain with pleasure? In the case of tragedies it may be that Aristotle is right, that we experience a cleansing, a catharsis. But as we saw, the story of the passion cannot be told as a tragedy. So are the controversial blood and violence of The Passion simply gratuitous? No, they are justified by Gibson’s attempt to deliver an experience of the sublime. :::

This essay is taken from Mel Gibson's Passion and Philosophy, edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia with William Irwin (Open Court, 2004), copyright © 2004 Open Court Publishing Company. Reprinted by permission of the author, editor, and publisher. The book is part of the publisher’s series on Popular Culture and Philosophy, which also includes Woody Allen and Philosophy and the best-selling The Simpsons and Philosophy, also edited by William Irwin with others.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Do you agree with Freeland’s list of key features of the sublime?
  2. What other films or scenes from films might be considered sublime according to Freeland’s features?
  3. Are religious subjects particularly suited to sublime treatment?
  4. Why would we willingly watch horror movies? What pleasure justifies the pain?
  5. Consider disgust. Why are we sometimes attracted to sights that disgust us?


Aristotle, Poetics (Stephen Halliwell trans.) London: Duckworth, 1986.

Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and Other Pre-Revolutionary Writings, ed. David Womersley London: Penguin Books, 1998

Peg Zeglin Brand, ed., Beauty Matters. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago: Open Court, 2003.

Cynthia Freeland, “The Sublime in Cinema,” in Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith, eds., Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, pp. 65-83.

Cynthia Freeland, “Piercing Our Inaccessible, Inmost Parts,” in Chris Townsend, ed., The Art of Bill Viola. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004, pp. 24-45.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (Werner S. Pluhar trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987.

Longinus, On the Sublime, James A. Arieti and Crossett trans. New York: Mellen Press, 1985.

Plato, Republic (G.M.S. Grube trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992, especially books II, III, and X.

William Irwin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (Pennsylvania) and is the editor of The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real.
posted by editor ::: September 16, 2004 ::: pheatures :::