January 16, 2012

Edmund Burke's 'A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful'

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Edmund Burke's 'Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful' (1757), suggests that 'terror is in all cases [...] the ruling principle of the sublime', an emotional and violent sensation. 'The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature', he argues, '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.' His philosophy developed, but differed, from John Dennis (1657-1734) and Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), who had employed the sublime to express an appreciation of the awe of nature;a contrast of horror and harmony.

Professor George P. Landlow goes on to explain that: 'In addition to the emphasis which he places on terror, Burke is important because he explained the opposition of beauty and sublimity by a physiological theory. He made the opposition of pleasure and pain the source of the two aesthetic categories, deriving beauty from pleasure and sublimity from pain. According to Burke, the pleasure of beauty has a relaxing effect on the fibers of the body, whereas sublimity, in contrast, tightens these fibers. Thus, by using the authority of his ingenious theory, he could oppose the beautiful and sublime: "The ideas of the sublime and the beautiful stand on foundations so different, that it is hard, I had almost said impossible, to think of reconciling them in the same subject, without considerably lessening the effect of the one or the other upon the passions'' [113-114]. Burke's use of this physiological theory of beauty and sublimity makes him the first English writer to offer a purely aesthetic explanation of these effects; that is, Burke was the first to explain beauty and sublimity purely in terms of the process of perception and its effect upon the perceiver.'

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