“A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” by Edmund Burke, pp. 7-140 in Edmund Burke (Harvard Classics Deluxe Edition) edited by Charles W. Eliot, New York, P. F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1909, 1937, 1969, 421 pages.
When you examine a well-illuminated, softly-coloured painting by an inspired master, walk through a well-tended flower garden in summer, admire a beautiful woman, take a drive in the country in the fall to look at the golden fields being harvested and the brightly coloured autumn leaves on the trees, or through a residential neighborhood in winter to see the Christmas lights on snow-covered houses, the sensation you get from all of these marvelous things is one of pleasure. This kind of beauty is easy on the eyes, it is comforting to look at, and it fills the heart with contentment and gladness.
Suppose however that you are standing at the bottom of Niagara Falls watching the water come rushing down, looking up at the highest peak in a range of mountains, exploring a vast cavern where the stalactites and stalagmites, barely visible in the thin ray of sunlight penetrating the cavern through a small opening in the ceiling of the cave, are larger than yourself, or just gazing up at the moon and stars on a clear night. These sights could hardly be described as “ugly” but they produce in you a very different sensation, one that has little to do with ease or comfort but is more akin to fright. It is a sensation of awe, of being overpowered by that which is vastly, perhaps infinitely, greater than oneself. That which produces sensations of this nature is beyond the beautiful – it is what is called the sublime.
The concept of the sublime is an old one, going back at least to the first century AD when the Greek writer Longinus wrote a short treatise about the sublime as a characteristic of certain kinds of language and literature. It was in the eighteenth century, however, that the sublime as we understand it today was placed in contrast with beauty in an essay seeking to explain the difference between the two and why each produces the effects that it does. This essay was A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and its author was Edmund Burke.
Burke is mostly remembered as a statesman today. The son of an Irish lawyer, he was born and educated in Dublin. He abandoned his legal training to pursue a literary career but in the 1760’s became a member of the House of Commons where he gained fame as an orator. As an MP he was a member of the classical liberal Whig party, although he was also a friend of such noted Tories as Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell, and part of Dr. Johnson’s circle of literary and intellectual heavyweights, which also included poet/novelist Oliver Goldsmith and painter Joshua Reynolds. He championed his party’s position, and that of the American colonies, in the American Revolution in the 1770’s, but following the 1789 revolution in France, wrote his most famous work Reflections on the Revolution in France. In this book, appalled by the brutality of the French Revolution, he upheld the principles of tradition and order and supported the institutions of the Crown and Church, defending the age of Christianity and chivalry against modern innovation. This espousal of what was essentially the Tory position created a distance between him and his own party but led to his reputation as the “Father of modern conservatism”.
The Sublime and the Beautiful, was written in the years prior to his political career when he sought to establish himself in the world of letters. 1756 was a big year for Burke. He was married that year, that spring saw him published for the first time with a satire entitled A Vindication of Natural Society was published. Later that year The Sublime and Beautiful, which he had written many years previously, also saw print for the first time . He would expand it slightly in the second edition, which included a new preface and an introductory discourse entitled “On Taste”. The second edition came out in either 1757 or 1759 (1). Burke’s essay became very influential in the field of aesthetics, its theme being picked up by a number of thinkers, including Immanuel Kant.
Burke opens his essay by discussing various human emotions and experiences and their external stimuli. He begins with curiosity, our “first and simplest emotion” which is “whatever desire we have for, or whatever pleasure we take in, novelty” and moves on to pleasure and pain, arguing against those like John Locke who understand these in relative terms as the absence of the other. Pleasure and pain are both positive experiences, he maintains, and the condition we are left in when each ceases, is different from the positive experience of the other. All of these passions, he observes, have one of two ends – self-preservation or society. The strongest are those which serve the purpose of self-preservation. The stimuli which work on these are those which threaten pain, danger or death. Up close they are terrifying, but from a distance they can produce a sense of delight. This is the cause of the sublime.
There are other occasions in which we deliberately enter into an experience which reason should tell us will be disagreeable in order to obtain a positive sensation. Take the person who puts extremely hot pepper sauce on his food or talks big in situations where it might provoke a fight. Why does he do so? One possible reason is that that these displays of toughness provide him with a boost to his ego, turning a negative experience into a positive experience of sorts. This is completely different from the experience Burke describes as the sublime. Then there are people who jump off bridges with bungee cords attached to their legs or who go on roller-coaster rides that include sudden steep drops. This is closer to what Burke is talking about because the pleasure one gets from such experiences is directly derived from the terror involved. It is still not quite the same though, for the one is terror experienced but controlled, whereas the other is the terrifying viewed and contemplated from a distance. The one experience is made possible by man’s power and control over that which terrifies him. The other arises out of a revelation of the powerlessness of man in the face of that which is truly great.
The sublime and the beautiful are alike in that they are the subjects of contemplation. The beautiful, however, reaches us through the other set of passions, those which facilitate social intercourse. Of these, Burke sets the passion called love aside for special comment. There is a love which, serves the society of the sexes, which itself serves the end of the reproduction of the species. This love has beauty as its object, for men are attracted to women in general “by the common law of nature; but they are attached to particulars by personal beauty.” There is also a love which operates in human society in general, although this love is unmixed with sexual desire. It too has beauty as its object.
So far we have only considered what Burke wrote in the first part of his essay. There are five parts in total, the second and third of which are a more extensive look at the sublime and the beautiful respectively, in particular the traits in external stimuli which produce these effects in us. The fourth part tries to explain the mechanics of how these effects are produced within us. A major weakness of this part of the essay is that it is written as if the internal way in which we experience the sublime and beautiful in feelings of love, fear, and awe can be explained as an automatic physical response to such stimuli. The fifth and final part looks at how ideas of the beautiful and the sublime can be generated by words rather than images.
In the second part we are given a more extensive look at the sublime, at the effects it produces in us, and its causes. The chief of these effects, Burke says, is astonishment and he defines astonishment as “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” This definition might strike many of us as being odd. We are used to thinking of astonishment as a sudden arrest of our mental activities but not necessarily because of fear. A synonym for astonish is “startle” however and this still carries the overtones of fear Burke utilizes in his definition. He points out that in many languages the same word is used to mean both “fear” and “wonder” indicating the close relationship between these two senses or feelings.
What sort of things cause the sublime? Burke identifies a number of characteristics which tend to produce the sublime. There is the simple fact of being dangerous, like a poisonous snake, but there is also greatness of strength and power, and vastness of size. Obscurity, such as that caused by the darkness of night, produces fear and therefore the sublime. So, however, do certain kinds of light, such as the light of the sun. Emptiness of various sorts – such as silence and solitude – which Burke calls privations are causes of the sublime, and so is magnificence, such as that of a star-filled sky. Certain colours contribute to the effect of the sublime but others do not so that “in buildings, when the highest degree of the sublime is intended, the materials and ornaments ought neither to be white, nor green, nor yellow, nor blue, nor a pale red, nor violet, nor spotted, but of sad and fuscous colours, as black, or brown or deep purple, and the like”.
When he turns his attention to beauty in the next section, Burke has a much longer tradition of interpretation behind him than existed for the sublime. Longinus’s essay had only recently been rediscovered and published and Burke’s immediate antecedent was a series of articles for The Spectator by Joseph Addison (in good classical tradition, Burke only seems to acknowledge Addison when he is disagreeing with him). Beauty, on the other hand, had been a topic of constant discussion and writing for over a millennium. Therefore, much of his discussion of beauty in part three is written negatively, as a refutation of concepts put forward by other people.
It had been suggested, for example, that proportion was a feature which contributes to beauty, and Burke argues that this is not the case for things vegetable, animal, or human. He points out, for example, that the most beautiful things in the vegetable kingdom are flowers, and that proportion can hardly be said to apply to the relationship between their various parts. The swan and the peacock are both considered beautiful birds, but their proportions are both quite unusual for birds and radically different from each other. Burke also challenges the ideas that utilitarian fitness and perfection can be regarded as causes of beauty.
If proportion, fitness, and perfection are not causes of beauty, what does Burke say are?
Things which are beautiful, he says, tend to be small in size – he notes that most languages use the diminutive to express affection. The property of smoothness is “so essential to beauty, that I do not now recollect anything beautiful that is not smooth”. Gradual variation in line, he says, is a sign of beauty as opposed to continuous straight lines or sharp angular variation. Mild, clear, colours, such as “light greens; soft blues; weak whites; pink reds; and violets” contribute to beauty, as does clearness and fragility.
It is here that Burke’s analysis of beauty is at its best. His argument against proportion as a cause of beauty is subject to a number of objections. It could be argued that he has only demonstrated that proportion is not essential to beauty, which is not quite the same thing as demonstrating that it does not significantly contribute to it. Then there is the question of the distinction between natural and man-made beauty. Burke rejects the idea, proposed by Vitruvius in the first century BC, and latter held by Leonardo Da Vinci, and, in Burke’s own day by Joseph Addison, that buildings are beautiful because architects have borrowed their proportions from those of human beings. It may be true, as Burke maintains, that this relationship is a myth. It does not follow from that that proportion does not contribute to the beauty of buildings. Proportion is a key element in architecture, not only for the utilitarian reason of structural stability, but for aesthetic purposes as well. A building that reflects well the classical ideals of proportion, harmony, and balance is almost always more pleasing to the eye than a building that does not.
When it comes to the things which Burke asserts are causes of beauty it is harder to object. What emerges, from Burke’s analysis of the causes of the beautiful and the sublime, is that the contrast between these are greater than those between the beautiful and the ugly. While the experience of the beautiful and the sublime are both positive experiences, they are positive experiences of very different kinds. The experience of the beautiful and ugly are the same experience in its positive and negative forms. Burke stresses the difference between our responses to the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful invites us to respond to it with love. The sublime invites the response of being overwhelmed with awe. The sense of danger or threat in the causes of the sublime is what makes the difference, and Burke says that we can never love the sublime.
Is he right in that assertion though?
Consider an interesting question which the strict dichotomy that Burke has drawn raises. Can something be both beautiful and sublime at the same time?
Burke’s description and analysis of the two would seem to suggest the answer “no”.
But what about God?
In the section of Part Two where Burke explains that power is a cause of the sublime there are several paragraphs in which he talks about God’s power as a source of fear:
But whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him. And though a consideration of his other attributes may relieve, in some measure, our apprehensions; yet no conviction of the justice with which it is exercised, nor the mercy with which it is tempered, can wholly remove the terror that naturally arises from a force which nothing can withstand…When the prophet David contemplated the wonders of wisdom and power which are displayed in the economy of man, he seems to be struck with a sort of divine horror, and cries out, Fearfully and wonderfully am I made. (bold here within italics represents italics in original)
Burke, however, was an orthodox Christian. Christ taught that the first and great commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”. If God is a cause of the sublime – indeed the ultimate cause of the sublime – and the sublime cannot be loved, only revered, how does Burke deal with the Lord’s commandment which he, as a practicing Anglican, would have heard recited at every Holy Communion service as prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer?
Burke does not seem to be bothered by this apparent conflict between his theory and his faith. Perhaps it did not occur to him. He does write “Before the Christian religion had, as it were, humanized the idea of the Divinity, and brought it somewhat nearer to us, there was very little said of the love of God”. In context, by “love of God” he means love human beings possess for God rather than God’s love for human beings, but the context also indicates that the purpose of saying this is to further support his argument that God is a cause of fear and the sublime. There is a hint of a partial answer to the dilemma in the sentence, however. If the Christian religion “humanized the idea of the Divinity” it was because the Incarnation is central to Christian revelation – God became man in Jesus Christ. If the great commandment is to love God, it is the Incarnation which makes love for God possible.
That can only be a partial answer, however, for if it were the whole answer it would suggest that God is not beautiful in His divine essence but only as He took human nature upon Himself, a suggestion which would seem to be blasphemous, particularly if we hold with Plato that there is an intimate connection, approaching an identification – between the good and the beautiful. Either Burke has drawn too strict a dichotomy between the sublime and beautiful and has too narrow a concept of love and its causes or God, as the Creator and therefore the ultimate source of both the beautiful and the sublime, must therefore contain both qualities within Himself.
Whichever is the case, the concept of the sublime has become an important part of aesthetic theory, although few today would understand it in quite the same way as Burke did. Burke’s essay is important because it drew our attention to some different facets of the world we live in and the way we experience it, laying a foundation upon which others have built. It displays classical learning and is an excellent example of writing within the British empiricist tradition.
(1) According to the Harvard Classics edition of Burke’s writings in which I read the essay the first edition of The Sublime and Beautiful came out in 1756, the same year as A Vindication of Natural Society. The biographies of Burke that I have consulted, such as John Morley’s (London: Macmillan and Co., 1918) agree with this, although some internet sources date the first edition to 1757. There is more disagreement over the second revised edition. The Harvard Classics edition and many other sources date in to 1757, but others date it to 1759. There is widespread agreement however that Burke had begun writing the essay when a student at Trinity College in Dublin years earlier.