A philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful




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Edmund Burke 1729-1797
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful 1757 The entire book is available on-line at http://www.bartleby.com/24/2/


  1. [Section I] The passion caused by the sublime in nature [and in its highest degree] is Astonishment: when all the soul’s motions are suspended with some horror.

    1. The mind is completely filled with some object and cannot think about any other.

    2. Nor can it reason about its object.

    3. So the sublime is not produced by reasons but anticipates them.

    4. It hurries us by an irresistible force.

    5. The inferior effects of the sublime are admiration, reverence, and respect.

  2. [Section II] Terror

    1. Fear is the passion that robs the mind of its ability to act and reason the most.

    2. Since fear is the apprehension of pain and death it resembles pain.

    3. What is terrible [terrifying] in sight is sublime too.

    4. For dangerous things cannot be seen as unimportant or contemptible.

    5. Many animals are terrifying and hence sublime even if not large, e.g. snakes.

    6. If we add terror to large things they become more sublime.

    7. The view of a plain may be as extensive as that of the ocean but it is not as sublime, since it is less terrifying.

    8. Terror is the ruling principle of the sublime.

    9. Several languages use the same word to signify both astonishment [wonder] and terror, for example the Roman words stupeo [from which we get stupefying] and attonitus, and the English words astonishment and amazement.

  3. [Section III] Obscurity

    1. Obscurity [darkness and unclarity] is generally necessary to make something terrible [terrifying].

    2. If we fully understand the danger much of the fear goes away.

    3. For example night adds to our fear when danger is present.

    4. Also ghosts, of whom no one can form a clear idea, are scary.

    5. Dictatorships, which are based on fear, hide their leaders.

    6. In religion, many non-Christians, for example native Americans, keep their places of worship dark. [see additional material below about dark churches] The Celtic pagan priests carried out their rituals in dark woods.

    7. The English writer Milton best understood the secret of heightening terror using obscurity. He describes Death with gloomy pomp. [This is the only mention of art in this selection.]

    8. Burke then quotes from Milton’s poem on this topic and says that, here. all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the highest degree.

  4. Some other comments on the sublime by Burke not on our text:

    1. “I know of nothing sublime, which is not some modification of power.” Chapter “Power.”

    2. “The horse in the light of a useful beast, fit for the plough, the road, the draft; in every social, useful light, the horse has nothing sublime: but is it thus that we are affected with him, whose neck is clothed with thunder, the glory of whose nostrils is terrible, who swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage, neither believeth that it is the sound of the trumpet? In this description, the useful character of the horse entirely disappears, and the terrible and sublime blaze out together.” Chapter “Power.”

    3. “I think … that all edifices calculated to produce an idea of the sublime, ought rather to be dark and gloomy, and this for two reasons; the first is, that darkness itself on other occasions is known by experience to have a greater effect on the passions than light. The second is, that to make an object very striking, we should make it as different as possible from the objects with which we have been immediately conversant; when therefore you enter a building, you cannot pass into a greater light than you had in the open air; to go into one some few degrees less luminous, can make only a trifling change; but to make the transition thoroughly striking, you ought to pass from the greatest light, to as much darkness as is consistent with the uses of architecture. A night the contrary rule will hold, but for the very same reason; and the more highly a room is then illuminated, the grander will the passion be.” Chapter “Light in Building.”


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