Burke, Edmund

Assigned: Burke, Edmund. From A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, from Part I, Sections I-VIII, from Part III, Section XXVII (467-73). Also read the editors’ introduction (464-66).

From A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757/1759)

From Part I

Section I. Novelty

1. On 467 (“The first and the simplest emotion…”), how does Edmund Burke analyze “curiosity,” which he calls “the most superficial of all the affections”? How is it subject to what today we might call “the law of diminishing returns”? Yet, why is it also a very important emotion in spite of its tenuous and superficial nature?

2. On 467 (“The first and the simplest emotion…”), Burke says with regard to the mind’s powers aside from curiosity, “it is absolutely necessary that they should not be exerted in those things which a daily and vulgar use have brought into a stale unaffecting familiarity.” How do you interpret this assertion? Is Burke suggesting that ordinary objects of the sort we have learned to overlook cannot be the stuff of excellent art? What about postmodern art in later times—works like Andy Warhol’s 1962 “Green Coca Cola Bottles” painting, with its 112 nearly identical bottles?  What about some of the English Romantics (Wordsworth in particular) who insisted that ordinary people and their lives, not just exalted lords and high subjects, were worthy of a poet’s attention? If Burke would exclude such art from consideration, what function of art might he be thereby ignoring, or rather (given the time frame), simply unacquainted with? Explain.

Section II. Pain and Pleasure

3. On 467-68 (“It seems then necessary towards…”), how does Burke argue against the notion that feelings of pain and pleasure are necessarily connected? What is meant by the terms “positive pleasures” and “positive pains” (468)? How does the “state of indifference” that Burke identifies figure into his argument, and why do you suppose he is so concerned to keep pain and pleasure distinct in terms of their origins?

Section III. The Difference between the Removal of Pain and Positive Pleasure

4. On 468-69 (“We shall carry this proposition…”), Burke writes that “pleasure, when it has run its career, sets us down very nearly where it found us” (468) which is in a state of indifference or mild “tranquility” (469 top). How, then, does he differentiate this process from what happens when pain is taken away? What is left immediately after the pain ceases? What does not happen?

Section IV. Of Delight and Pleasure, as Opposed to Each Other

5. On 469-70 (“But shall we therefore say…”), how does Burke attempt to supply what he considers a lack of proper vocabulary to deal with the issue raised in the preceding section; namely, the state that remains after one stops suffering from pain? Why does this state of emotion need its own term, when many people would just use the word “pleasure” to describe it?

Section V. Joy and Grief

6. On 470-71 (“It must be observed, that…”), in what three ways, according to Burke, can the stoppage of a pleasure affect a person’s mind? Why doesn’t even the third passion, which is rather violent in itself, resemble “positive pain” (470)? All in all, by this point in the argument, how are pleasure and pain, which Burke wrote earlier do not admit of definition, nonetheless becoming more clearly delineated and yet shown to be more complicated than we might have thought?

Section VI. Of the Passions Which Belong to Self-Preservation

7. On 471 (“Most of the ideas which are capable…”), Burke divides the passions into those that serve the cause of “self-preservation” and those that serve the cause of “society.” Which “ideas,” according to Burke, produce the strongest impression on the person who experiences them? In what sense is this very brief section a setup for what Burke will go on to write about the sublime?

Section VII. Of the Sublime

8. On 471-72 (“Whatever is fitted in any sort…”), what ideas does Burke say are conducive to an experience of the sublime? On 472, he writes that while danger and pain that are too close to us cannot provide any delight, “at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful….” The Norton editors point out (Note 7, page 472) that Burke is here touching upon the notion of “aesthetic distance.” How do you understand the meaning and implications of this key term? What does it suggest about Burke’s view of the psychological benefits that an experience of art or nature can confer?

Section VIII. Of the Passions Which Belong to Society

9. On 472 (“The other head under which…”), how does Burke, in discussing the passions that adhere to “society,” analyze the psychology of romantic love? When lovers lament, what exactly is it that they lament? How, too, does Burke consider the psychology of madness—what leads a person to such extreme states, and why?

From Part III.

Section XXVII. The Sublime and Beautiful Compared

10. On 472-73 (“On closing this general view…”), what different qualities does Burke ascribe to the beautiful and the sublime, respectively? How does he maintain a strong distinction between the beautiful and the sublime? Why, according to him, must their qualities not be mixed, at least to the extent that it is avoidable? What sense do you get of the quality and purity of experience Burke is ascribing to the sublime? Explain.

11. General question: More than two-and-a-half centuries ago, in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757/1759), Edmund Burke, like Immanuel Kant some three decades later, wrote with perspicacity about the experience of the sublime. It has been argued that our own age has a much stronger attraction to experiences of a sublime, unsettling cast than it does to the calming experience of the beautiful. The point is usually extended well beyond the realm of art. Do you find this view accurate—do you think that we postmoderns in places like the U.S.A. and Europe really value the sublime over the beautiful? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake