Burke’s Sublime and the Beautiful

Edmund Burke’s contrast of the beautiful and the sublime had some political consequences. In the short article below, I make an argument for the particular political importance of the aesthetic quality called “beauty,” despite its devaluation in art criticism in the last several decades.

A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful.

The idea that the sublime moves us more profoundly than the beautiful is a key idea claimed by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And Beautiful. Burke assumes that both the beautiful and the sublime trigger passions in human beings but they are distinguished by their effects; beautiful objects elicit pleasure while sublime objects bring out pain. Between our experience of pain and pleasure lies the state of indifference.[1] In this contemplative state we do not experience strong emotions or feelings. Reading this might give one pause, did Burke mean apathy when he used the word indifference?

Burke writes that humans are guided by two basic drives: the drive of society—from today’s perspective, a kind of need for social connection—and the drive of self-preservation. The drive of society is fulfilled by the passions of love and affection, which are evoked by the beautiful. For Burke, the affection one feels for other people is pleasurable. This state of pleasure is free of any reflection. According to Burke, the beautiful is not a creation of our reason because it has no palpable utility other than luring us into a state of sentimentality. This idea is carried over in art criticism, which shuns the sentimental as something shallow and non-contemplative.[2]

Burke’s criteria for judging beautiful things are based on sensory qualities: small, smooth, delicate, curvy, light, etc. are “qualities of beauty,”[3] so the beautiful is a consequential property, i.e. a property that contains a presupposed complex of attractive properties.[4]  When we are put into a state of pleasure by the beautiful, our body slackens. Pleasure relaxes us. The sublime has the opposite physical effect: in the state of pain evoked by sublimity, our nerves cramp, they tremble, and our body is under great tension.[5]

Burke therefore regards the sublime as the opposite of the beautiful even though their qualities are sometimes homogenous.[6] The sensorial properties of sublime things are rough, angular, dark, large, etc.[7] In his definition of the sublime, Burke names four main sources: modifications of power; objects that directly affect the subject’s idea of ​​danger; objects that have the same effect for mechanical reasons and infinity.[8]

The initial cause of these sources of passion is astonishment, followed by a kind of emotional paralysis, that is terror, and with a number of associations, pain follows. This passion only satisfies the instinct for self-preservation as long as the subject—or his life—is not in direct danger. A certain distance from the reality of the sublime object is needed to be properly perceived. This is where art—especially literature and drama—are particularly well-suited to satisfy the instinct for self-preservation evoked by the sublime. Because it triggers fear, horror, and trembling without directly threatening the physical well-being of the beholder. In states that have been triggered by the sublime, people are reminded of mortality, followed by a heightened sense of being alive. 

According to Terry Eagleton the capacity to distinguish between the sublime and the beautiful “allow[s] human beings to exercise intersubjectivity” and “establish a community of feeling subjects, linked by a quick sense of our shared capacities.”[9] Burke’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime has political ramifications that are relevant to our times. Both concepts point to the role of political affect and emotion in contemporary politics; whether it is the socially-connective passion of the sentimental or the fear and loathing that comes with political demonology. Our recent past has taught us to reject political messaging that targets our worst fears and passions (the sublime). But what can be said about the value of the beautiful?

 The claim for a universal sensory experience of art, Burke’s assumption of the beautiful, was most palpable in the globalized post World War II period, championed by a number of modernist movements all attempting to create art that could be appreciated, at least formally and sensorially, in an international context. Perhaps ill-informed of the socially connective aspects of the beautiful, critics have emphasized the sublimity of the modernist project. However, the magnanimity of this period in art history fosters the assumption that aesthetic judgement, as well as political engagement should shun strong emotions, meaning the sublime not the beautiful. This makes Burke’s treatise on beauty especially resonant, as it appears to be the critical category that can hold together our current hyper-informed but politically polarized society. A critical invocation of beauty as an aesthetic quality could help steer a deeply divided society back into a more healthy political culture.

[1] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And The Beautiful, Oxford University Press (1990),  part I, Section V.

[2] Susan Sontag, for example, would make a case against this in Against Interpretation.

[3]  Edmund Burke, A philosophical enquiry on the origins of our ideas on the beautiful and sublime (1775), Part III, Section XVIII.

[4] Adam Phillips, “Introduction,” in Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime And The Beautiful, Oxford University Press (1990). Ibid, Part II, Section IV.

[5] Ibid, Part IV, Section III.

[6] Ibid, Part III, Section XXVII

[7] As with the beautiful, one has to add here that Burke does not say that all things that are smooth or rough, small or large, etc., must therefore necessarily be beautiful or sublime. His aim is to make it clear that big, rough, … things cannot be beautiful or smooth, small, … not sublime.

[8] Infinity does not necessarily have to actually be infinite here, however, the object can also just be so large that one cannot perceive the end, or a sound can repeat itself so often that the ear assumes it is endless.

[9] See Terry Eagleton, Ideology of the Aesthetic, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1990), 75. The paragraph was specifically referring to Kant but his comments can also be useful for the purpose of examining Burke.