What is a summary of The Sublime and the Beautiful by Edmund Burke?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In 1757, Edmund Burke set out in his treatise, fully titled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, to catalog the different notions that can be considered either beautiful or sublime. The purpose of his task is stated in his preface. He asserts that by looking at the corporeal causes of our emotions and our thoughts, we are better prepared to analyze those same corporeal causes through objective science.

He defines the sublime as a characteristic that stems from the feeling of either fear or terror, which are both divisions of pain. Earlier, he defines both pain and pleasure as positive states of being. He particularly defines pain as a positive state because it leads us to want to preserve ourselves. The difference between sublimity and pain is that seeing something as sublime does not drive us to respond in self-preservation. We might see any object as sublime, meaning divine or transcendental, if the object makes us feel powerless or small.

He defines beauty as an attribute that stimulates the feeling of love. He rejects Aristotle's stance in his Poetics that things proportional are beautiful and instead defines beauty as things that are small, smooth, change gradually, are delicate, and are made of bright colors.

Burke next defines the physical causes of our emotions. He sees our responses to both the beautiful and the sublime as being physical. For example, seeing something beautiful, which can evoke the feeling of love, makes the body relax, whereas seeing something sublime, which can evoke the feeling of terror, makes the body tense up. Therefore, the physical objects that evoke emotions also produce physical responses to those emotions.

He ends his treatise by speaking of words. He admits that words evoke emotional responses but only because they create ideas within the receiver's mind. Not all words represent physical objects; most words instead only represent abstract ideas.

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