Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Edmund Burke on the Sublime (handout from Tuesday's class)

From Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1754)

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer, are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy…”

“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the interior effects are admiration, reverence and respect…”

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings…In nature, dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form grander passions, than those have which are more clear and determinate…”

“Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime…I am apt to imagine that height is less grand than depth; and that we are more struck at looking down from a precipice than at looking up at an object of equal height; but of that I am not very positive. A perpendicular has more force in forming the sublime, than an inclined plane; and the effects of a rugged and broken surface seem stronger than when it is smooth and polished…Another source of the sublime is Infinity; if it does not rather belong to the last. Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime…”


  1. When talking about the sublime, I always think of standing in an open field just before a storm with the massive clouds rolling in and the distant shoots of lightning flashing inside the mass which spans the entire visible horizen. That feeling. And that's something we can all connect with - at some point or another we've felt that feeling (or in the least, we should have).

    Just the other night, actually, I was walking outside and noticed a large halo-like configuration in the sky lining up just perfectly with the full moon that was at its highest point. The first thing I felt was this sublime feeling. Here was something massive that I didn't understand but that I was a part of. (And then, like myself, I stood there staring up forming different theories of what could have caused this to happen. Maybe the moon's reflected sunlight was more concentrated tonight and the light burst through the thin layer of wispy coulds forming this massive perfect circle in the sky? No, that would evaporate all the floating water up there, not just this one circle. Maybe something out of a sci-fi movie happened - a ship moving fast enough to go through matter whipped right through or out of Ada, Ok. I kept going).

    I say all of this to ask a question though. While most of us can identify with the FEELING of the sublime from personal experience - can we get that same feeling from a book? I'm under the impression that the feeling of the sublime is not a feeling easily imitated by words on a page. It isn't easily imitated by words at all. It is something that needs to be experienced first hand. In support of that idea, I say this: I've not once felt that feeling while reading anything. In my experience, it only comes from personal thought (pondering death and infinitely not existing for example - or infinitely continuing to exist ). Personal thought, as well as personal experience as with watching a storm come in or looking down into the Grand Canyon or seeing a moon-halo for the first time or nearly being ran over or looking at the nights sky and actually acknowledging that each blip of light in the sky 1. Could be looking back at you as well 2. Will probably never be reachable and 3. Is made up of the same stuff we are made up of.

  2. Great reflections and points here, Brandon. I'm glad you're using the blog to explore this. You're ideas on the sublime are spot on, particularly the idea that what you gaze up on is also gazing back at you--or through you. To paraphrase Nietzsche, "when you gaze into the abyss it also gazes back at you." The idea being that you have to identify with something you study, and that becomes part of you; or, as the Romantics would say, you "recognize" yourself in it, which is the source of the initial terror (I'm not "me"--I'm "it"!). In the Hindu creation legend, the divine force first felt fear when He realized that he was an identity. To be someone is terrifying, since that is initially an isolating process. And yet, we are also terrified to disassociate oruselves from it...the sublime reminds us that who we think we are, and the identity we cling to, is just a small part of the totality of existence (or, some would say, an outright illusion).

    More below...

  3. Can literature be sublime? Absolutely. However, it's harder for our era to see and experience this, since we live in such a visual/computer age and literature doesn't always seem to provide that tactile sesnation. And yet, some of my most sublime experiences have come through books--especially the ideas that books have given me. I mean, this very discussion we're having today is via literature. The Romantics more or less codified this concept (Burke helped, obviously), so that when you look at the stars, you see them through Wordsworth or Coleridge's "eyes." But when you read deeply and really understand a text, the sublime can happen; even the experience of losing yourself in a text is sublime (which is why the Gothics wanted it to be such an emotional/sentimental experience). An easy way to see how literature can do this is to read an account of something vast, such as the Holocaust, slavery, etc. Literature can make these terrible facts, which have retreated into the margins of history, vividly alive and terrifying. Whenever I read Spiegelman's Maus I and II, I get this feeling...the awful sense of the human potential for torture and evil. Keeping reading and you'll find it...

  4. In response to your question, Bungalow, I think the sublime can definitely be found in literature, when the writing encourages the kinds of thoughts or questions you mentioned, like the concepts of death and infinity. Hasn't there been a time when you were reading a book or poem and it brought to your mind some deep philosophical questions? I think literature can provide a gateway to the sublime, because as you read you are able to experience the author's experiences and emotions. In Romantic and Gothic lit, authors would seek out the sublime and replicate it in their writing, and I've definitely been able to feel it through their descriptions.

  5. would you be siting in the sublime, when you are trying to Meditate. I am not trained, nor practice meditation on a regular basis. I do belive that I have don’t it before. To the point on which I could feel the wind on my face, well running thru a beautiful valley deep with the Applichian Mountains. Even the smell of the flowers I can bring back. . So, if you could fouces your thoughts and energy to reach for is that possible., …. Or … Is something that can only happen in that moment of being there. It can only happen by the form of the shock, the astonishment. .. Just a thought I don’t know