We’ve seen how Burke creates a clear separation between the sublime and the beautiful. Each has its unique features and causes. Later in his essay, Burke reflects on how exactly physical sensations affect the mind (and vice versa). Using Aristotelian language, he calls this the efficient cause. Burke wants to figure out how our nerves and muscles react to things like fear or pleasure. Just as Newton discovered the laws of attraction, so Burke wants to write a science of aesthetics.
Even though Burke’s essay gets quite choppy as he goes on, the basic idea is that when we are tense our muscles contract, whereas when we experience pleasure we relax. The same effect can be experienced with all our senses. The result is that beautiful objects don’t cause much stress or anxiety, whereas sublime experiences overwhelm our nervous system, though with a kind of delightful horror.
Burke is convinced that if we train the mind to recognize how our mental experiences are often simply physical reflexes, then we can also reverse the process. Burke tells the story of the physiognomist Campanella, who could control avoid tensing his nerves and so could “endure the rack itself without much pain”! If this sounds a bit fanciful, it’s nevertheless a sublime thought.
Indeed, for Burke sublime experiences are crucial for teaching us how to control our emotions. Whereas too much rest and pleasure make us weak, the sublime is a kind of labour and exercise: “a mode of terror is the exercise of the finer parts of the system.” This is a version of Aristotle’s catharsis theory, the notion that art purifies and purges, making us stronger, more sensitive, and more fully in control of our feelings.
According to Burke, external stimuli cause our bodies to either relax or become tense. Here, for instance, is how Burke describes what happens when you fall in love:
“[T]he head reclines something on one side; the eyelids are more closed than usual, and the eyes roll gently with an inclination to the object; the mouth is a little opened, and the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh; the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to the sides.”
It’s quite a comical picture, though it might be objected that most lovers also experience a certain amount of tenseness and anxiety.
Burke spends most time discussing how our eyes take in the external world. Burke suggests that when the eye has to work extra hard, it experiences a kind of muscle tension akin to pain. Let’s look at three examples of when this is likely to occur.
First, when we see a large object, the eye has a hard time taking it all in. Either the eye sees it all at once or can only focus on one part first. Whereas big objects are difficult to process, a great variety of things is not hard, as none of the objects compel the eye to focus. In fact, the mind can rarely focus closely on more than one thing at a time, so variety is more likely to make us relax and not strain ourselves. You can try it yourself by comparing these photographs of an elephant eye and a field of flowers:
Did you find that taking in the first photo required more effort?
Our eyes are also strained when we look in the dark. Blackness is at first relaxing (as an absence of colour), but then we find it jarring. Burke compares this experience to sitting down on a chair and then realizing that it was lower than expected. This jarring effect may potentially also explain how dreams operate. As we fall asleep and relax it’s as if our body is falling and then we suddenly become started (the effect of which is a dream).
Finally, a succession of similar objects provides a pleasant kind of strain. Burke gives the example of a “colonnade of uniform pillars planted in a right line.” If you varied the pattern (e.g., making every other column square) this continual variation would actually relax the sight, and so the mind can never get worked up to a sublime emotion.
Our bodies experience tension when sounds are either unpredictable or occur intermittently. If you were to hear a foghorn in the night, you would anticipate each blast, and yet each every time there would be an element of surprise.
Burke observes that rough textures “vellicate” (twitch, tickle) the senses, and so are likely to cause pain. By contrast, smooth textures relax us. When we grow up, our first food and drink (milk, fruit, etc.) is usually sweet and soft. Burke therefore defines sweetness as “the beautiful of the taste.”
There is of course much we cannot cover here. At one point, for example, Burke provides a fascinating reading of Homer’s Iliad. He suggests that we find Achilles sublime, but we can never love him. We love the Trojans, like Hector, because we pity them. They are less heroic, but more amiable.
While it’s difficult to capture all of Burke’s individual points, it’s his general approach to aesthetics that is most important. Burke believes that our reactions to art and nature are conditioned by our bodies. Our senses determine our taste. Thus, even though Burke can sometimes seem simplistic (we either relax or tense up), Burke nevertheless anticipates much of modern psychology.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful with Several Other Additions. The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 12 volumes, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm