Review- Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful”

Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful” (1757) – This is an interesting text that Burke wrote in his twenties, before he became one of the fathers of modern conservatism in the wake of the French Revolution. It sits astride the Enlightenment and Romanticism, with a foot in both. In classic Enlightenment fashion, Burke goes systematically through the questions of beauty and sublimity, including discussions of 18th century ideas of how the eye and brain functioned. But he rejects such Enlightenment notions of the origins of beauty, such as proportionality and utility. Moreover, he placed an ineffable, terrifying sublime over beauty. Included in the sublime are mountains, storms, abandoned ruins, and other things that would take a prominent role in romantic (to say nothing of gothic) imagery. The beautiful, in Burke’s scheme, is small, bright, pleasant, relaxed- we’d probably say “cute.” The sublime is big, gloomy, scary, charged with energy. It’s clear Burke thinks the latter is higher than the former. I read this because I’m co-leading a reading group in reactionary thought for socialists, and we’re doing Burke (and de Maistre) next. You can definitely see the point Corey Robin makes about Burke seeing the Old Regime that fell to the sans-culottes as beautiful — ornamental, pleasing — whereas what he thought was needed wasa regime that inspired the sublime. Part of his distinction between the two, after all, is that the sublime is imbued with power where the beautiful is not. Interesting stuff, though hard to rate given the usual anachronisms. ***’

Review- Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful”

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