A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Sublime
In his aesthetic treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke (1729-1797) proposes his concept of the sublime. Although several eighteenth-century commentators had attempted the same thing, Burke’s Enquiry far exceeds the others in both scope and intellectual acuity. The sublime has a long history, dating back to the first century C.E. when the Greek critic Longinus first presented his concept of the sublime in his aesthetic treatise On Sublime (Peri hypsous). The root word is the Latin sublimis, an amalgamation of “sub” (up to) and “limen” (literally, the top piece of a door). According to Tom Furniss, the central task of Burke’s Enquiry is to develop a set of theoretical principles to demonstrate that the sublime and the beautiful are extremely repugnant to each other. This idea leads to the conventional distinction between pleasure and pain. Burke also makes another significant and controversial distinction between pleasure and delight; he characterizes the former as the enjoyment of some “positive” stimulus of the senses, while the latter for him emerges from the diminution of pain or danger. According to Burke, it is the idea of self-preservation that gives rise to delight, on the condition that the pain and danger inexorably associated with the former “do not press too nearly” but engage us only through the effects of empathy, curiosity, or imitation. The second division of passions — those related to “the society of the sexes… and general society” — are accompanied by positive pleasure. This distinction between the passions of self-preservation and society is fundamental, for it leads him to define his principal aesthetic categories and the distinction between them:
Then passions which belong to self-preservation turn on pain and danger… they are delightful when we have an idea of pain and danger, without being actually in such circumstances… whatever excites this delight I call sublime.
Beauty…is a name I shall apply to all such qualities in things as induce in us a sense of affection and tenderness, or some other passions they most nearly resemble. The passion of love has its rise in positive pleasure.Moreover, for Burke the effect of the sublime in the highest degree is astonishment — “that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” Sublimity, then, can be said to refer to a state in which the capacity to comprehend, to discern, and to articulate a thought or feeling is defeated. Nevertheless, through this very defeat, the mind gets a sensation for that which lies beyond thought and language. Moreover, Burke’s emphasis on the negative aspects of the sublime marks a significant departure from earlier commentators on the sublime. While for Addison the sublime is “liberating and exhilarating, a kind of happy aggrandizement,” Burke sees it as “alienating and diminishing.” For Burke, the source of the sublime is “whatever is in any sort terrible or conversant about terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror… that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” The consideration of terror as the chief cause of the sublime reflects a move away from “literal” causes of heightened responses, such as qualities inherent in natural objects, toward the possibility that sublime effect may be produced through figuration. Moreover, as Philip Shaw suggests, the sentence itself becomes vague and unfathomable, which conveys the sense of sublimity through “a formal demonstration of the expressive uncertainty,” which in turn seems to suggest that the origins of the sublime lie in words rather than ideas. Although Burke does not admit this radical possibility of sublimity being merely an effect of language, he seems repeatedly on the verge it.As an empiricist, Burke asserts that our knowledge of the world is obtained exclusively from the evidence of the senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. While in this the influence of Baillie is palpable, the latter limited the importance of the senses to sight and hearing. According to Boulton, “despite the resulting absurdities, Burke at least tries to produce an aesthetic theory which accounts for the whole range of human responses.” Moreover, Burke’s argument makes it entirely secular, in contrast to his predecessors, as God is no longer needed to guarantee the genuineness of our experience. For instance, Burke sees the ocean as a source of terror not because it is an expression of God’s magnanimity, but because in contemplating a large body “the eye is struck by a vast number of distinct points.” With its capability stretched to the limit, the eye “vibrating in all its parts must approach to the nature of what causes pain and consequently must produce an idea of the sublime.” Moreover, throughout the Enquiry, Burke’s distinction between the sublime and the beautiful is a gendered one; he associates the former with a vigorous masculine power and the latter as its inert feminine foil. This distinction, however, is not new to Burke, for in Longinus as well the sublime speech “ravishes” the listener. Whereas the sublime dwells on “large objects and terrible” and is related to the intense sensations of awe, pain, and terror, the beautiful focuses on “small ones and pleasing” and appeals mainly to the domestic affections of love, compassion, and pity. With the sublime “we submit to what we admire,” whereas in case of the beautiful “we love what submits to us.” Moreover, for Burke beauty is of a lower ethical order. Burke’s Freudian biographer Isaac Kramnick observes:
In the Enquiry sublime virtues are embodied in the authority of the father, venerable and distant… mothers and women in general are creatures of “compassion and amiable social virtues”… the masculine realm is associated with pain and terror; the feminine is affect — friendship and love associated with pleasure and compassion.Another critic, Ronald Paulson, goes to the extent of employing Freud’s formulation of the Oedipal Complex to Burke by citing a number of passages from the Enquiry, where the father and the son compete for the person of the mother. (Paulson uses Burke’s allusion to Milton’s portrayal of Satan in Book II of Paradise Lost, the description of Death in Book II itself, and so on, to prove his point). In this view, while the father (Satan) and the son (death) contend for power, the role of Sin — “the mother-lover of Death” and the “daughter-lover of Satan” — is limited to that of a mediator and a peacemaker, one who intervenes to pacify the sublime rage of the masculine principles. However, a closer investigation reveals that the role of the mother in Burke is more ambivalent and complex than Paulson concedes; the feminine in Burke is “defined not so much by her passivity as by her capacity for material excess.” Recognizing that the “cause of beauty is some quality in bodies… acting mechanically upon the human mind by then intervention of the sense,” Burke sustains a conventional difference between feminine matter and masculine intellect. While the latter’s dark and mysterious power instigates awe and wonder, the former merely entertains. Yet, as Shaw suggests, in practice the relation between beauty and convention is not as benign as it might at first appear, for there is a sense in which the repeated exposure to the sublime runs the risk of draining its intensity. Thus, the sublime’s capacity to provoke awe and fright is reduced by being subjected to convention. In that sense, the sublime always seems to be under threat, on the threshold of conversion into customary beauty.At times, however, such is the indefinite nature of Burke’s distinction that beauty “all too often presents a puzzling even excessive, face to the eye of the beholder.” Burke writes:
Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breasts; the smoothness; the softness… the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye slides giddily.Moreover, for Burke, beauty almost carries with it an idea of feebleness and imperfection and women, as agents of it, learn “to counterfeit weakness and even sickness.” It is apparent that, like the sublime, the beautiful is also endowed with a power, but it is of a devious, uncertain nature. While in the case of the former “we are forced to submit to what we admire,” in the latter case, “we are flattered into compliance.” Hence, although the sublime may induce fear and terror in its subjects, it at least has the virtue of not being deceptive. However, despite all of Burke’s negation of beauty, there becomes visible a constant threat from it to his privileged category of the sublime. As Shaw mentions, “the phallocentricism of his treatise is under constant threat from the excluded feminine other.” This becomes very evident in the attention Burke gives to the vitiating effects of beauty. Writing on “love,” Burke notes how the “body falls into a kind of stupor which is accompanied with an inward sense of melting and languor.” In opposition to the tension and the toil of the sublime is the unperturbed mediocrity of love, “a mode of the beautiful in which the rigours of the identity become softened, relaxed, enervated, dissolved, melted away by pleasure.” Thus, feminine stupefaction again gains an upper hand over the masculine authority of the sublime. Yet, Burke’s example from Homer’s Iliad shows his non-acceptance of the former assertion. According to him, because Homer wants to excite our compassion for the Trojans, he gives more amiable and social virtues to them than he does to the Greeks, thereby attempting to raise pity for the former. On the other hand, the Greeks are made superior in the military and political virtues, which make them admired and revered but not loveable. So, although pity might be extended to the vanquished, it is the victors who are venerated. For Burke, therefore, the problem with love is that it encourages identification with the weak, whereas sublime admiration maintains the noble virtues of valor and honor. The sublime, moreover, “acts as the antidote to the dissolution produced by beautiful. All its straining follows the dictates of the work ethic. The best remedy for these evils (produced by the beautiful) is exercise or labour.” His text seems to be at an interminable war with female indolence. That society should be allied with domestic or feminine qualities and self-preservation with masculine values of heroic exemption presents Burke with a fundamental problem, for it implies that everyday life is based on deception. As Fergusson comments:
For while tyrants are sublime in the Enquiry, only the beautiful, with its commitment to companionable resemblance between humans, disguises the disequilibrium of power so effectively that we all, like Adam, become accomplices to our own deaths. Although the sublime masters us while we are superior to the power of the beautiful, the Enquiry suggests that we invariably misconstrue those power relationships by failing to recognize that what we term the weaker has greater sway over us than the sublime with its palpably awesome force.Burke’s aesthetic theories can be connected to his political doctrines. As Neal Wood suggests, “Burke’s two basic aesthetic categories, the Sublime and the Beautiful, inform and shape several of his fundamental political ideas.” That Burke’s most significant political treatise, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) was influenced by his earlier aesthetic treatise can be seen from his 1789 letter to Lord Charlemont. For him the revolution is an event of sublime theatricality — “a wonderful spectacle… an enigmatic thing” which leaves those who gaze at it paralyzed with “astonishment.” Burke also realizes the threat, however: “the old Parisian ferocity has broken out in a shocking manner,” not only to France, but to England as well. As Shaw mentions, “the possibility that such ferocity might exceed its national boundary, infecting our English home with the germ of insurrectionary violence, provides a disturbing counterpoint to the overarching attempt at contemplative detachment.” In the Enquiry too, the distinction between theatrical and actual display of violence was touched upon, and although Burke accords primacy to the latter, the response educed in the mind of the spectators is the same in both cases.In the Reflections, Burke still considers the Revolution to be “astonishing and wonderful,” but here it is shown to be brought about by “means,” “modes,” and “instruments that are the most contemptible,” thereby linking the sublime and the ridiculous. Tom Furniss and Terry Eagleton have argued that it is possible to see in both Enquiry and Reflections allegories for the emergence and persistence of modern bourgeois identity. As Shaw argues “the Reflections sets out to achieve a reclamation of the Sublime, based on a distinction between the pernicious inflation of revolutionary discourse and the ‘natural’ hierarchy embedded in the British constitution.” For Burke, “the spirit of freedom, leading in France to misrule and excesses, is tempered (in Britain) by an awful gravity.” In contrast to the French “citizen” who bases his enthusiasm on the false glower of revolutionary fervor, the British “subject” is bound by indestructible ties to ancient and noble traditions. In other words, the British constitution is sublime because it maintains “awe, reverence and respect” in its subjects, while the French system is insidious because it encourages a “multitude” to revolutionary intemperance.Burke raises important questions in his account of the sublime about the relationship between mind and matter, asking whether the sublime is a quality that exists in objects of natural magnificence, whether it has wholly subjective origins, or whether it is produced by the interaction of the two. Another radical possibility that he raises is whether it is merely an effect of language. As Peter De Bolla argues, while Burke makes no overt claims for the discursive origins of the sublime, both the Enquiry and the Reflections operate beyond the conscious control of the author to suggest this as a possibility. It is true that greatness of dimension had been regarded as a source of sublimity from Longinus onward; Addison, Hume, and others had attempted a psychological explanation, but it was only Burke who attempted a physiological one. According to Boulton, although the association of the sublime with terror had been found in Dennis and slightly in Smith’s comments on Longinus, as a whole his theory had no precedent. Despite the fact that Burke’s treatment of the sublime differs in some ways dramatically from his British contemporaries, it has come to represent eighteenth-century British thought and is often compared to the Kantian sublime. Yet, as Vanessa Ryan argues, “even at the point where the British tradition comes closest to the Kantian, namely, in the writings of Burke, it also most clearly marks its distance from it.” The essential difference between Burke and Kant is that while Kant’s transcendent sublime lets us “recognize our limitlessness; Burke’s physiological sublime presents us with our limitedness.”Works ConsultedArbor, Ann. The Philosophy of Edmund Burke. Michigan, 1960.Ashfield, A. and Peter de Bolla (Eds). The Sublime: A Reader in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Editor James T. Boulton. London: Routledge, 2008. Burke, Edmund. The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, Vol. I. (of 12). , Alfred. Edmund Burke and the Revolt Against the Eighteenth Century. George Allen and Unwin Limited, London, 1960-2nd edition.Eagleton, Terry. “Aesthetics and Politics in Edmund Burke” (Source: History Workshop, No. 28 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 53-62, Stable URL: , T. Edmund Burke’s Aesthetic Ideology: Language, Gender and Political Economy in Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.Kramnick, Isaac. The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative. New York: Basic Books, 1977.Milton, John. Paradise Lost, Editor Gordon Teskey. New York and London, W. W. Norton and Company, 2005.Monk, Ian H. (ed.) Edmund Burke. Ashgate, 2009.Monk, S. H. The Sublime: A Study in Critical Theories in 18th-Century England. 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