Edmund Burke argued that the sublime is the most powerful aesthetic experience. It is a mixture of fear and excitement, terror and awe. It’s that spine-tingling feeling you get when you stand at the edge of a cliff. It’s a feeling of transport and transcendence, as you forget about your surroundings and are caught up in the moment.
For Burke, the best word to describe the sublime is astonishment:
The sublime causes the passion known as astonishment. This is “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”
At such times our mind is so filled with the object that we can’t think of anything else. We cannot reason properly.
Burke adds that the minor subcategories of astonishment are admiration, reverence, and respect.
In this lesson we’ll review the main causes of the sublime and show how Burke might analyze a specific work of art.
Burke describes many causes of the sublime. Rather than just list them all, we’ve provided some explanatory notes, especially for the most important ones.
As long as we’re not in immediate danger of death or injury, we can find frightening experiences sublime. Some animals (e.g., tigers and lions) are naturally sublime. The ocean’s hidden depths are also sublime, or at least more impressive than an open plain.
Burke notes that the word astonishment is derived from the Latin attonitus, which originally meant thunder-struck. Clearly, astonishment and fear are connected.
Things that are dark and mysterious are naturally sublime. This is why ancient religions kept their temples dark. It is also why despotic government try keep their ruler away from the public view.
Night and darkness are also sublime. Burke is particularly impressed by Milton’s description of Death, who is formless, obscure, and terrifying. Burke writes, “In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree.”
Words are more likely to be obscure than paintings, which provide more clarity.
Concepts like eternity and infinity are likewise obscure to us, and are hard to fathom. Burke quotes from Milton’s portrait of Satan, who is described with a “crowd of great and confused images.” In addition, Satan’s original glory is now obscured (“th’ excess / Of glory obscured”) so that he looks like the sun shining through misty air.
Although Burke is greatly influenced by John Locke, sometimes you wonder whether he has also read Thomas Hobbes. For Burke, power is sublime, especially when it is unpredictable and dangerous.
Burke suggests that whereas pleasure has little to do with power, “pain is always inflicted by a power in some way superior” (55). We are therefore in awe of dangerous and powerful things that can cause us pain. Strong kings are terrifying. Similarly, some animals are more sublime than others. The perfect combination consists of untamed strength and liberty. Even the wild ass, in the book of Job, is sublime due to its freedom and defiance.
God is also sublime, at least when we just stand in awe of His power, and we don’t create an abstract rational picture of His various attributes. Burke writes, “In the Scripture, wherever God is represented as appearing or speaking, everything terrible in nature is called up to heighten the awe and solemnity of the Divine presence.”
It might be pointed out that here Burke completely ignores God’s goodness and love. Burke’s God comes across as distant, arbitrary, and tyrannous. It’s not surprising that the Romantics after him would think Milton’s Satan the real hero of Paradise Lost. Increasingly, God had been turned into an abstraction–usually Reason during the Enlightenment–and so God might be sublime and terrifying, but not particularly worthy of adoration and worship.
Emptiness and absence are sublime concepts, and Burke praises an artist’s judicious use of “Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, and Silence.”
Usually the larger the object, the more impressive. However, just as magnitude impresses, so does something minute and infinitely divisible. In other words, it is also possible to discover vastness through the lens of a microscope.
The mind boggles at the idea of infinity. Burke also notes that a lot of sounds and experiences leave echoes or repetitions in the mind, even after the event. Such echoes are perhaps intimations of infinity.
Things that continue unchanged or predictably are sublime. A circle is an image of the infinite. Burke also likes the uninterrupted, uniform pillars along the side of an ancient temple:
The same goes for the aisles in old cathedrals, although Burke is not that impressed by many churches’ cross-like shape, as the sudden angle interrupts the flow.
Indeed, when it comes to architecture, Burke hates angles: “Indeed there is nothing more prejudicial to the grandeur of buildings, than to abound in angles.”
Speaking of architecture, buildings require proper dimensions. Just because size is impressive doesn’t always mean that bigger is better. If a building has too much length, then the perspective will make its side look like a triangle. You only want to give the impression of something going on indefinitely. Deception is therefore critical to art: “No work of art can be great, but as it deceives.”
The potential of growth is often sublime. Spring time promises us summer. The young of most animals suggest to us the promise of great things to come (growth, maturation). In art, unfinished sketches can be pleasing.
Stonehenge is sublime, just for the difficulty of construction alone.
A great profusion of things is magnificent. Just think of the stars in the night sky. The more confusing the image, the better.
While darkness is usually more sublime, light can be impressive too. Think of the power of the sun, or the sudden flash of lightning.
Some writers have even managed to describe the intensity of light in relation to darkness. Milton describes God’s throne as being surrounded with darkness. He also writes that the light that comes from God’s majestic presence is so thick that it is “dark with excessive light.”
While Burke prefers that grand buildings are dark and gloomy on the inside, he admits that sublime effects are all about upsetting expectations, which is why at night it might be more impressive if we come out of the evening’s darkness into a brightly illuminated room.
Colours that are “soft or cheerful” are not usually sublime. Burke prefers “sad and fuscous colours, as black, or brown, or deep purple, and the like” (69). Such colours produce a “melancholy kind of greatness” (69).
For Burke, the sublime affects us through all our senses, including our hearing. Burke notes that sublime sounds often involve one of the following elements:
Burke spends little time on smells and taste, but observes in passing that “intolerable stenches” might in some cases be sublime, but are also likely to be merely odious.
Burke’s description of the sublime works particularly well for Romantic art, as many of Burke’s ideas influenced or foreshadowed later artistic theories.
To give an example, here is how Burke might have analyzed the painting “The Sea of Ice,” by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich:
For Burke, this work has many of the features of the sublime. It is terrifying and gives us a sense of astonishment.
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
Friedrich, Caspar David. “The Sea of Ice.” Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=151054
Swayne, Steve. [Photo of the Parthenon]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17065839