Edmund Burke

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Please explain this passage from "The Effects of Tragedy" (section 15) in Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful:

I believe that this notion of our having a simple pain in the reality, yet a delight in the representation, arises from hence, that we do not sufficiently distinguish what we would by no means chuse to do, from what we should be eager enough to see if it was once done. We delight in seeing things, which so far from doing, our heartiest wishes would be to see redressed. This noble capital, the pride of England and of Europe, I believe no man is so strangely wicked as to desire to see destroyed by a conflagration or an earthquake, though he should be removed himself to the greatest distance from the danger. But suppose such a fatal accident to have happened, what numbers from all parts would croud to behold the ruins, and amongst them many who would have been content never to have seen London in its glory? Nor is it either in real or fictitious distresses, our immunity from them which produces our delight; in my own mind I can discover nothing like it. I apprehend that this mistake is owing to a sort of sophism, by which we are frequently imposed upon; it arises from our not distinguishing between what is indeed a necessary condition to our doing or suffering any thing in general, and what is the cause of some particular act. If a man kills me with a sword, it is a necessary condition to this that we should have been both of us alive before the fact; and yet it would be absurd to say, that our being both living creatures was the cause of his crime and of my death.

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This is an extended passage is from Edmund Burke's 1757 treatise entitled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke (who is famous for his essay that criticized the French Revolution, which displayed his intellectual conservatism) is in this work contemplating aesthetics and contemplating the psychology of the "sublime"—or, the intensity of emotion that one experiences in response to some works of art or literature. In this passage, Burke challenges the notion that we are spellbound by tragedies (like those of Shakespeare, for example), because we know that they are artificial. He argues instead that the more authentic tragedies are the more we are affected by them:

The nearer it approaches the reality, and the further it removes us from all idea of fiction, the more perfect is its power. But be its power of what kind it will, it never approaches to what it represents.

He points out that people are captivated by real-life tragedies and horror, which explains why people used to turn out in droves to witness public executions and why people are still fascinated by catastrophes like deadly fires and earthquakes. Burke attributes this to our sympathy for the victims, which he argues is rooted in the understanding that these horrible things could happen to us. We are moved by tragedies—Burke even says we "delight" in them—at a safe distance.

In the chapter preceding the quote in this question, Burke posits that this is an instinct; it is something that is innate and fundamental to the human condition—and thus prior to reason. He claims that this instinct has the same origins as sympathy. By "sympathy," he refers to what many eighteenth-century writers called "fellow-feeling," or the idea that one could identify with the suffering (and the pleasures) of others.

It is important to remember that Burke's purpose in all of this is to explain why we are drawn to certain works of art and literature. He is often considered a Romantic writer in this sense, because he focuses on the ability of art to bring out innate (even instinctual) responses in readers and viewers. He describes this as the "sublime," which encompasses feelings of horror, revulsion, and even sympathy.

Therefore, this passage is attempting to explain why it is that we are so drawn to tragedy, and Burke's answer is that tragedy (the more authentic, the more powerful) evokes sublime emotions.

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