The Power of Words


At the end of his essay on the sublime and the beautiful, Burke reflects on the power of words. Since Burke has followed Locke in basing our mental life in sense experience, language presents a challenge. How can insubstantial words create such powerful emotions in us? Is it because they remind us of the real world that they describe? Does a line of poetry conjure up a specific image in our mind? Let’s find out.

Types of Words

Burke argues that there are three types of words:

  1. Aggregate words. These are simple ideas such as horse, man, tree. They are aggregate because each one is really a constellation of many other ideas. For example, a tree includes branches, a trunk, the colour green, etc.
  2. Simple abstract words. These words stand for attributes of the aggregate words. Examples include red, blue, and round.
  3. Compound abstract words. These words are an arbitrary union of two or more basic ideas. Examples include virtue, honour, and magistrate.

With the third category we are starting to move further away from reality. Words like honour do not refer to a specific object (the referent).

Burke’s categories are a variation on the ideas of John Locke, who argues that words represent

  1. Simple Ideas (Burke’s simple abstract words)
  2. Mixed modes (part of Burke’s compound abstract words)
  3. Complex Substances (Burke’s aggregate words)

Ultimately, Burke is not a linguist, but, like Locke, he is interested in the degree to which words refer back to real things.


Burke also borrows from Locke to suggest that we often learn the meanings of abstract words before we have experienced what they refer to. A parent or teacher might explain that adultery is bad or that drugs are taboo–all before children have even had a chance to try them.

Because the instructor seems pleased or displeased with certain things, the child assumes that this relation between the word and pleasure/pain is natural. Later, the child may become confused when it turns out that things that are pleasant are called evil and things painful or unpleasant are viewed as good.

This is not surprising because, as mentioned, the abstract words for virtues have no referent in the real world, and tend to be defined by custom and usage. There is no object called valiant, but society teaches what behaviour fits this description. Burke concludes:

“These words, by having no application, ought to be unoperative; but when words commonly sacred to great occasions are used, we are affected by them even without the occasions.”

In this way, Burke is able to return us to an empiricist account of language: over time we become so trained to associate certain meanings with specific words that we falsely believe this connection to be natural. Even with aggregate words like horse or tree we don’t normally form a mental image: the word will automatically call up a meaning/feeling.

There is of course a danger to this view. It’s not much further to Nietzsche, who doubted that abstract concepts like good and evil have any real meaning at all.


Burke argues that language can affect us strongly even when we do not form a mental picture:

“Indeed, so little does poetry depend for its effect on the power of raising sensible images, that I am convinced it would lose a very considerable part of its energy, if this were the necessary result of all description.”

Burke provides an example of a description of Helen’s beauty (from Pope’s translation of Homer) that is sublime even though it lacks any precise detail of what she looked like. Burke adds that if the image was everything, then painting would be more affecting than poetry, but this is not necessarily the case.

Burke is thus far removed from T. S. Eliot, who would later lament the “dissociation of sensibility” that had divorced poetic description from reality. Eliot complained that poets no longer smelled actual roses; they only used them as stock images.

Burke concludes that poetry is not strictly about imitation (mimesis). Drama is quite imitative, but poetry is more descriptive, and it merely uses words to substitute for reality.

Nevertheless, words still influence the passions in several way:

  1. Through sympathy.
  2. By representing things that are unlikely to have occurred exactly so in the real world. Indeed, language allows us also to represent what is metaphysical (God, the angels, etc.) and not easily accessible to the senses.
  3. By allowing for combinations and unions of different ideas.

Words are therefore quite poor at representing the material world, and yet they can evoke great passions. In Burke’s words,

“If the affection be well conveyed, it will work its effect without any clear idea, often without any idea at all of the thing which has originally given rise to it.”

The Beautiful


For Edmund Burke, beauty has a social aspect: it not only compels us to marry another person, but it is also a shared value that draw us together as fellow creatures. Burke defines beauty as follows:

“By beauty I mean that quality or those qualities in bodies, by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it.”

Burke is quick to add that such love is not lust. A man might physically desire a fairly average woman, while great beauty (in men or other animals) excites no desire. This is of course also the logic men have used to justify beauty pageants, but that’s another matter.

Even though Burke has said that pleasurable emotions are not affected by power relationships, now he changes his mind. He posits an interesting difference between admiration of sublime objects and love for what is beautiful:

“[W]e submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us; in one case we are forced, in the other we are flattered, into compliance.”

It can’t be understated how controversial this is. For one thing, Burke believes that when men fall in love they are particularly attracted to weakness and fragility. They want to feel powerful in relation to a beautiful woman. This is also the argument some radical feminists make, though in much starker terms: for them, all men are rapists, whether in thought or in action.

Do we need to link the appreciation of beauty to power, or is it possible to be more dispassionate? When you admire a beautiful painting in a museum, does that make you feel powerful? Or how about this famous Gerrit Rietveld chair?

Photo of the Gerrit Rietveld Blue and Red Chair, to question Edmund Burke's argument that beautiful objects make us feel powerful

As you can see, there is plenty of room for debate, but instead of getting sidetracked, let’s take a closer look at how Burke defines beauty.

Beauty is Not …

Before Burke tells us what beauty is, he actually spends a great deal discussion what beauty is not! Specifically, Burke does not believe that beauty has all that much to do with proper proportions or usefulness. Nor does Burke require perfection. We’ll briefly review his reasons, but feel free to skip over this if you want to find out what Burke thinks are the real causes of beauty.


For Burke, beauty has little to do with exact measurement, with calculation or geometry. Nature is too varied to give us specific rules:

“the rose is a large flower, yet it grows upon a small shrub; the flower of the apple is very small, and grows upon a large tree; yet the rose and the apple blossom are both beautiful.”

Burke quite likes these clever contrasts: he also points out how the swan has a long neck and a short tail, yet the peacock has a short neck and a long tail. Despite these differences, both are beautiful.

While there are patterns in nature (e.g., the arrangement of petals in a flower), proportion is not an overriding factor. The same is true for human beings, and Burke points out that there is disagreement among artists whether the ideal body is seven heads or eight heads high. He also pokes fun at architects who suggest that their buildings imitate the proportions of the human body.

In other words, those who come up with “perfect proportions” have a tendency to read them into nature, rather than derive them from nature:

“For there is in mankind an unfortunate propensity to make themselves, their views, and their works, the measure of excellence in everything whatsoever.”

This is why Burke dislikes carefully sculpted gardens with geometric patterns: “they turned their trees into pillars, pyramids, and obelisks …” Burke definitely would have disapproved of the gardens at Versailles:

Photo of the Orangerie at Versailles, to demonstrate what Edmund Burke disapproved of in garden design

Fortunately, he says, gardening styles are becoming more organic again.

Finally, beauty is not the opposite of deformity. You can’t just remove a deformity and expect something to be beautiful. If someone has a hunchback, and you were able to fix this, that wouldn’t necessarily make the person beautiful. It would only restore them to their proper form. The opposite to beauty is ugliness, and in between is mediocrity.


If things adapted to usefulness were beautiful, then we would admire the “wedge-like snout of a swine,” which is very useful for digging! Likewise, a peacock’s feathers are beautiful, but not useful for flying (though one might object that they are useful for courtship …).

Burke even makes this argument about men and women:

“if beauty in our own species was annexed to use, men would be much more lovely than women; and strength and agility would be considered as the only beauties.”

He obviously never lived long enough to discover that “strong is the new beautiful”!

Despite Burke’s gender biases, he makes a good point that usefulness does not imply beauty:

“The stomach, the lungs, the liver, as well as other parts, are incomparably well adapted to their purposes; yet they are far from having any beauty.”

Burke admits that proportion and utility are not entirely irrelevant, yet he is keen to avoid an overly rationalistic explanation of the effects of beauty. He suggests that God did not design things solely to appeal to our reason, “but he endued it with powers and properties that prevent the understanding, and even the will; which, seizing upon the senses and imagination, captivate the soul before the understanding is ready either to join with them, or to oppose them.”

The judgment or intellect might value the usefulness of something, but beauty hits us instantaneously. For instance, we might be entranced by a beautiful arm, whereas an anatomist would have a much less passionate response.


Perfection is not a main cause of beauty either. This is where Burke shares his view that female beauty always has an aspect of weakness:

“[I]n the female sex, [beauty] almost always carries with it an idea of weakness and imperfection. Women are very sensible of this; for which reason, they learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, to counterfeit weakness and imperfection, and even sickness. In all they are guided by nature. Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty.”

Burke likes women to be modest, blushing, and fragile.

Beauty is also associated with the softer virtues. Some virtues are sublime (e.g., fortitude, justice, wisdom—things that cause admiration rather than love), whereas others are beautiful (compassion, kindness, liberality). These lesser virtues are not so much about living perfect lives: they’re more about showing kindness and love.

At this point Burke goes on a digression about how for companionship we typically turn to kindly souls, not to paragons or people with strong virtues. We’re more likely to love our mother than our father, whose authority causes us to show reverence (Apparently fathers are more sublime than mothers!).

However, having made the case that perfection is not essential for beauty, let’s find out what the key features actually are!

What Beauty Is …

So what is beauty? Beauty has the following features:

Small Size

Many languages use the diminutive to talk in “terms of affection and tenderness” (92). For instance, in English ling is added to form darling (little dear). We love things that are small.


Yes, roughness is not attractive.

Gradual variation

Burke likes curves! He also likes variety.

That’s why he finds the neck and breasts of a woman particularly beautiful. He loves “the smoothness; the softness; the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye slides giddily, without knowing where to fix or whither it is carried.” Calling a woman’s beauty a “deceitful maze” is obviously problematic, and Burke clearly sees desire as a giddy, slippery thing.

What Burke does not like is angles: “I do not find any natural object which is angular, and at the same time beautiful”!


The oak tree is robust and sublime. Myrtles and orange trees are beautiful.

Here too Burke can’t resist making a comment about the delicacy of women, though he does add that he does not want women to be physically ill:

“The beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness or delicacy, and is even enhanced by their timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it. I would not here be understood to say, that weakness betraying very bad health has any share in beauty.”


Burke appreciates any colours that are clear and bright, but not strong and glaring.


Speaking about people’s facial features, Burke writes, “the face must be expressive of such gentle and amiable qualities as correspond with the softness, smoothness, and delicacy of the outward form.”

The beautiful eye

Burke prefers a clear eye, not clouded, not darting here and there, but slow and languid.


When it comes to posture and motion, beautiful people have a je ne sais quoi quality that the term gracefulness strives to capture.


Beautiful things are marked by regularity and simplicity of form. When a large object has these qualities, it is said to be fine or specious (false).


Again, beautiful things are not rough, but soft, smooth, gradual, and varied. Don’t forget that Burke hates angles!

Pleasant sounds, tastes, smells

All the senses can make us appreciate beauty. For example, Burke likes his music mellow. He loves “that sinking, that melting, that languor.”


Burke’s major contribution to aesthetics is to clearly separate the beautiful from the sublime and to elevate the latter in importance. Burke underscores the difference between them:

“In short, 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.”

Of course sometimes the beautiful and the sublime may be combined in one object. The beautiful does not detract much from the sublime (which is the more powerful emotion), but the reverse is not always true.

Works Cited

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,

Sailko. [Photo of Gerrit Rietveld Chair].

Urban, at French Wikipedia. [Photo of the Orangerie].

The Sublime


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.

The Causes of the Sublime

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.

Terror and Fear

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.

Succession and Uniformity

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:

Photo of the Parthenon to illustrate how Edmund Burke admired the rows of pillars

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.”

Magnitude in building

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:

  • Loudness
  • Suddenness
  • Surprise
  • Intermittent sounds
  • Scary sounds

Smells and Taste

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.

Sample Analysis

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:

The Painting "The Sea of Ice" by David Caspar Friedrich, used to illustrate how Edmund Burke might analyze the sublime in art

For Burke, this work has many of the features of the sublime. It is terrifying and gives us a sense of astonishment.

Works Cited

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,

Friedrich, Caspar David. “The Sea of Ice.” Public Domain,

Swayne, Steve. [Photo of the Parthenon].

On Taste


In 1759, when Edmund Burke published the second edition of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, he added a preface “On Taste.” He aimed to show that aesthetic judgments are not entirely arbitrary and subjective. It is precisely because all humans have similar sensory experiences of the world that we can come up with sophisticated theories about why certain things are beautiful or sublime.

Burke’s optimism is immediately apparent: “[I]t is probable that the standard both of reason and taste is the same in all human creatures.” What differentiates people is the degree to which we are trained to recognize this standard. As we’ll see, knowledge and education improve one’s taste, though often at the expense of being able to fully enjoy art that we have come to view as lacking in taste.

Burke provides the following definition of taste: “I mean by the word Taste, no more than that faculty or those faculties of the mind, which are affected with, or which form a judgment of, the works of imagination and the elegant arts.”

Burke seems to suggest that taste is a separate faculty of the mind (in addition to reason or the imagination), but in actual fact, Burke will go on to show that taste is more the effect of the workings of the senses, the imagination, and the judgment (reason).

How It Works

Burke is an empiricist in the tradition of John Locke. For Burke, all our ideas and passions originate in sense experience. Our taste is therefore dependent on the following faculties:

  1. Senses
  2. Imagination
  3. Judgment

Burke describes their interaction later in the essay:

“On the whole it appears to me, that what is called taste, in its most general acceptation, is not a simple idea, but is partly made up of a perception of the primary pleasures of sense, of the secondary pleasures of the imagination, and of the conclusions of the reasoning faculty, concerning the various relations of these, and concerning the human passions, manners, and actions.”

Let’s look at these three faculties in more detail.


First, Burke points out that we all have the same senses, and even though through custom we might become used to different foods and substances, nevertheless no one could reasonably declare that vinegar is sweet or that sugar is sour.

The same is true for aesthetic judgments, which are largely instinctual. As Burke writes, “I believe no man thinks a goose to be more beautiful than a swan.”

Of course, over time our sense experience might become distorted. People come to enjoy opium or tobacco even though initially they found the taste disagreeable. Often we can get used to something if we see a benefit. That is how products like opium “have passed from the apothecary’s shop to our tables.” However, when we ignore such changes due to habit, the natural tastes are common to everyone.


Next, our taste is influenced by our imagination, which for Burke is limited by the information it receives from the senses.

The products of the imagination please us in the way that they imitate and resemble objects in reality. The imagination creates new images by finding similarities and correspondences between things. For example, we might compare our beloved to a rose. Burke agrees with John Locke that the imagination is more concerned with finding resemblances, whereas the judgment is more about finding differences.

As an aside, this difference allows Burke to be rather condescending about uncivilized peoples. The “most ignorant and barbaric nations” have often displayed a rich imagination (their art uses many “similitudes, comparisons, metaphors, and allegories”), but their writings show little intellectual rigour in analyzing reality based on difference. In other words, some people have a rich imagination, but lack understanding or philosophy. It seems that for Burke the imagination and judgment are often at odds.

The imagination is greatly affected by two things: knowledge and sensibility (feeling).

First of all, we can have knowledge about both art (e.g., an understanding of the artist’s techniques, forms, genres, etc.) and nature (what reality is like).

To illustrate how knowledge affects our taste, Burke describes how a shoemaker, an anatomist, and a Turkish emperor might find mistakes in various paintings. The shoemaker notes that a shoe is painted incorrectly. The anatomist points out that a muscle is not represented properly. The emperor, who has ordered many an execution, observes that the decapitated head of John the Baptist does not show the skin shrinking from the bloody neck! An increase in knowledge thus helps to tell whether the objects of the imagination accurately resemble and imitate reality.

Nevertheless, Burke seems a bit undecided about the importance of such knowledge. He adds that despite our different levels of expertise, each person can have the following aesthetic experiences:

  1. Pleasure in seeing a natural object imitated
  2. Pleasure in seeing something beautiful, agreeable, or sublime
  3. A feeling of sympathy.

Clearly, these three reactions have much more to do with feeling or sensibility. As so often for Burke, it seems that our different experiences are often at odds with each other. Just as Burke contrasted the imagination and judgment of barbaric nations, so now he does little to explain how our knowledge and feeling relate to each other, or which is more important.

Thus, for Burke the imagination creates resemblances to reality and we find them tasteful or not based on our knowledge and our sensibility. If we lack taste it is because we don’t know much or because our natural feelings are dulled.


Our judgment is concerned not only with art, but also with manners and proper behaviour. Burke doesn’t quite say that ethics is simply a matter of taste, but he does suggest that our social interactions can be described in such terms. The faculty of judgment therefore encompasses a great variety of reasoned judgments about what is beautiful and virtuous.

Whereas our sensibility (our feeling through the senses/imagination) might be either strong or lacking, our judgment is either right or wrong. When the judgment makes a mistake in taste it is generally due to “ignorance, inattention, prejudice, rashness, levity, obstinacy, in short, all those passions, and all those vices, which pervert the judgment in other matters.”

To improve our taste, we must educate ourselves (perhaps by reading John Locke!) so that we can know the limits of our understanding.

Unfortunately, an increase in knowledge often has a negative impact on our enjoyment of a work of art. An unsophisticated person might find great pleasure in a crummy painting, whereas a snooty critic would turn away in disgust. It seems that knowledge and sensibility stand in an inverse relationship to each other. A person with poor judgment may have a stronger emotional reaction to a work of art. They may not know why it is great or beautiful, but they have a strong sensibility.

While Burke discusses the importance of knowledge in relation to both the imagination and the judgment, he associates knowledge especially with the latter. Burke notes that the judgment often gets in the way of our imagination, as our reason will object to things and destroy “the scenes of its [the imagination’s] enchantment.” Our judgments have much more to do with knowledge than feeling. In fact, when we do experience pleasure in understanding, it is often because we are feeling proud of our discernment.


Burke is confident that the taste can be trained by “extending our knowledge, by a steady attention to our object, and by frequent exercise.” Nevertheless, his arguments raise as many questions as answers. As you reflect on his perspective, here are some tensions that Burke struggles to resolve:

  1. It seems that as we move from the senses to judgment we experience an increase in knowledge, but at the risk of losing our natural sensibility. The Romantic poets struggled with this loss of spontaneous delight and innocent pleasure. Is there any way to resolve this problem?
  2. It’s one thing to increase your knowledge, but can you exercise or train feelings?
  3. Is the only feeling related to our judgment one of vanity and pride in understanding correctly? Is it not possible that with more knowledge we might actually be capable of having more refined feelings?
  4. To what extent is virtue a matter of taste? Are good and evil aesthetic categories?
  5. Is Burke’s theory democratic or elitist? Everyone is capable of making correct aesthetic judgments, but if this requires knowledge and training, how common is good taste?
  6. Burke will often claim that our experiences of the sublime and the beautiful are intuitive and unreasoned. In this view he anticipates the Romantic emphasis on immediate aesthetic experiences. If this is the direction he’s heading in, why does he talk so much about knowledge and judgment? Does taste always require thoughtful consideration and reasoned reflection?
  7. If knowledge of reality is important for assessing the quality of an artist’s imitation, does this privilege realism in art? What if the painter did not want to paint a shoe accurately?

Work Cited

Burke, Edmund. “On Taste.” The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 12 volumes,

Intro to Edmund Burke

Portrait of the writer Edmund Burke

In 1757, Edmund Burke published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The essay had a profound impact on the history of aesthetics. Burke’s contribution was to create a clear distinction between beauty and the sublime, qualities that had long been seen as inseparable.

This guide to Burke’s essay will take you through the entire essay, but if you’re pressed for time and just want to focus on the essentials, then the most important lessons are those on the passions, on beauty, and on the sublime.

Work Cited

[Painting of Edmund Burke]. By Studio of Joshua Reynolds – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain,

Introduction to Longinus

Little is known about Longinus (pronounced “londjainus”), the author of the treatise On the Sublime. For a long time the text was attributed to Cassius Longinus (3rd century). However, most critics now accept that Longinus wrote his work in the first century AD.

The text itself provides few clues about its author’s life. The text is addressed to Postumius Terentianus, about whom all we know is that he was some Roman public figure. Longinus himself was Greek (he’ll sometimes talk about “our author”), and his reference to the Book of Genesis suggests that he was at least familiar with Judaism, if he was not a Hellenized Jew. Longinus concludes the treatise with some reflections on the merits of tyranny and democracy, though it is difficult to glean his exact political views.

Longinus’ On the Sublime attracted little attention during Roman times. However, it was rediscovered in the Renaissance, with printings in the 16th century. It achieved widespread notice after Nicolas Boileau translated it into French in 1674. Later writers, like Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, developed their theories of the sublime in response to Longinus, and the sublime became perhaps the most important aesthetic concept of the Romantic period.

Defining the Sublime


Longinus is very different from classical writers like Aristotle and Plato. Longinus doesn’t ask whether literature is good for society, nor does he worry too much about how genres are different from each other, or how a proper plot should be constructed. He is much more interested in the question of why we read in the first place. What do we get out it?

Longinus’ essay on elevated or great writing (“Peri Hypsous”) argues that sublimity has a powerful psychological effect on the reader. We are captivated and transported to a different realm. We experience a kind of transcendence or ecstasy (the Greek word ekstasis literally means to stand outside of oneself).

But how can we describe something so subjective and emotional in a way that is rigorous and systematic? This is one of the main challenges Longinus faces, so let’s find out if he manages to give a proper definition.

Defining the Sublime

The Danger of Tautology

A tautology is a circular definition. If you say that the sublime is something grand or elevated, you’ve used a tautology. It doesn’t help to just provide synonyms. We need more specific criteria.

Here is how Longinus first defines the sublime:

“[T]he Sublime, wherever it occurs, consists in a certain loftiness and excellence of language.” (1.3)

Longinus of course adds that this kind of language has a powerful effect (it hits us like a lightning bolt), but this doesn’t help us to know what gives a particular passage its lofty character in the first place. What makes it sublime?

In the second section, Longinus frames the question in relation to the classic Art vs. Nature debate. Are there rules for the sublime (Art), or is it a natural phenomenon (Nature)? Is a writer like Shakespeare a natural genius, or could he have learned great writing from a book?

Longinus argues that Nature is not entirely lawless and that we only learn what is truly natural from Art. This sounds rather clever, but it is the oldest trick in the book. Later Alexander Pope will push this line of reasoning to its extreme, arguing that the rules of art are natural (a view the Romantics will turn on its head).

In any case, we’re not any closer to a detailed definition.

Cause and Effect

We’ve already noted that Longinus describes the sublime as much in relation to its effects as its causes. Longinus mentions that the sublime makes us feel exalted. It gives us “joy and pride, as though we had ourselves originated the ideas which we read” (7.2). The sublime is also different from rhetoric in that it does not persuade us of a particular view, but rather lifts us up so that we feel ennobled (1.4). In addition, a sublime passage is extremely memorable (7.3).

These are all effects rather than causes. However, in section 8, Longinus provides some more specific criteria:

  1. Sublime passages stimulate grand thoughts.
  2. Exalted language uses passionate and emotional language.
  3. Great writers are adept at using figures (poetic devices and the like).
  4. Sublime writing involves appropriate and noble diction.
  5. Such passages are also majestic in their structure (grammar and composition).

This is more promising, though even here it’s easy to feel like this list is a receding horizon. What makes a thought grand? How can we distinguish emotional language from mere sentimentality? When is a poetic figure used appropriately? And, finally, who is to decide that one writer’s words and syntax are nobler than another?

These five categories provide an excellent framework for the rest of Longinus’ essay, but the proof is often in the specific examples.


Another way to describe the sublime is through what it is not. In sections 3-5, Longinus suggests that when people try to be sublime, but fail, they produce a kind of foolish bombast. It’s like a high-school band trying to sound like a symphony orchestra. The result is bathos (from the Greek word for depth), where a passage aims for grandeur yet ends in anti-climax.

Longinus calls bombast a kind of “swelling,” and compares it to people who suffer from dropsy (an excess of liquid in the body).

He also mentions two other vices: puerility (or childishness), which ends in frigidity; and false sentiment. Puerility occurs when the writing is stiff and laboured, written by a boring, scholarly type who wants to add every last poetic device he can think of. Such writing is showy without being truly emotional. It leaves us cold (frigidity). The opposite extreme is a false sentimentality that is overly emotional and melodramatic.

This is useful terminology, though it might be pointed out that the sublime is a kind of swelling too. Similarly, Longinus criticizes an author for his use of confused imagery (3.1), yet this is also a hallmark of sublimity! So how do we distinguish between what is healthy and what looks like dropsy? What makes a poetic device absurd or a passage too emotional? Is this a matter of opinion, or can we all agree that something like a soap opera or a Thomas Kinkade painting is not truly sublime?

The Deliberate Mistake

If you read enough literary criticism you’ll come across many passages where a critic has turned an apparent defect into a virtue. Longinus has a habit of doing this too. As we’ve seen, a confusion of images is a sign of a poet’s enthusiasm and frenzied inspiration. In the same way, when Homer describes the terror of a storm, and combines two prepositions to form a new one (hupek = up out of), Longinus is all praise:

“Moreover, by his bold and forcible combination of prepositions of opposite meaning he tortures his language to imitate the agony of the scene, the constraint which is put on the words accurately reflecting the anxiety of the sailors’ minds, and the diction being stamped, as it were, with the peculiar terror of the situation.” (10.6)

Again, why is this sublime when a mediocre writer would be condemned for the same mistake?

Another example of what is sometimes called a “deliberate mistake” occurs in section 22. Here Longinus discusses the technique of “inversion,” where characters are so agitated that their grammar and imagery become confused:

“By hyperbaton we mean a transposition of words or thoughts from their usual order, bearing unmistakably the characteristic stamp of violent mental agitation. In real life we often see a man under the influence of rage, or fear, or indignation, or beside himself with jealousy, or with some other out of the interminable list of human passions, begin a sentence, and then swerve aside into some inconsequent parenthesis, and then again double back to his original statement, being borne with quick turns by his distress, as though by a shifting wind, now this way, now that, and playing a thousand capricious variations on his words, his thoughts, and the natural order of his discourse.”

Thus we are reminded once more that the same criteria that make for bad writing (e.g., confusion of imagery) are also praised as aspects of good writing. Early on, Longinus actually writes,

“those ornaments of style, those sublime and delightful images, which contribute to success, are the foundation and the origin, not only of excellence, but also of failure.” (5)


It is obviously very difficult to define the sublime. However, this overview of the challenges Longinus faced is not meant to disparage his achievement. Longinus gives us clear categories for analyzing the sublime. For instance, we can all agree that greatness of thought and passionate language are important hallmarks, even as we might quibble about what exactly constitutes a great soul. As long as we’re aware of the difficulty of coming up with a precise definition we won’t believe that we have settled once and for all what exactly is sublime.

Work Cited:

Longinus. On the Sublime. Translated by H. L. Havell, Macmillan, 1890.

The Structure of the Essay

It can be difficult to follow Longinus, so here is a convenient overview of the structure of his essay on the sublime. We’ve followed the conventional numbering of the sections.

1. Definition of the sublime.
2. Art vs. Nature.
3-7. The true vs. the false sublime (e.g., bombast).
8. The five aspects of the sublime:

A. Grand thoughts
B. Passionate language
C. Use of poetic figures
D. Noble diction
E. Harmonious sentence structure

The Five Aspects of the Sublime

A. Grand Thoughts
9. Greatness of soul (majestic descriptions, comparison of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey).
10. Selection of subject matter (poetic passages describing the frenzy of love, the terror of storms).
11-12. Amplification.
13-14. Imitating the great authors of the past (e.g., Plato imitated Homer).
15. Proper use of visual imagery.

B. Passionate Language
[This section is missing from the manuscript]

C. Figures of Speech
16. Swearing oaths (apostrophe).
17. Sublime rhetorical devices seem natural; mere rhetoric comes across as disingenuous.
18. Rhetorical questions.
19. Asyndeton (omission of conjunctions).
20. Combining figures to express passion.
21. Passion ignores conjunctions.
22. Hyperbaton (grammatical inversions).
23-24. Singulars as plurals (and vice versa).
25. Using the present tense for past events.
26. Direct personal address (use of the second person).
27. Sudden shift in person.
28-29. Periphrasis.

D. Noble Diction
30. Introduction to the power of words.
31. When homely and vulgar language is sublime.
32. Using a succession of metaphors to express passion.
33. Great writers will make mistakes; lesser writers are too concerned with correctness.
34. It is better to be great in only one or two things than second-best in everything.
35. Humans are made to long for greatness.
36. Exact mimesis is less important in literature than in sculpture.
38. Hyperbole should originate naturally from the context, not be inserted artificially.

E. Harmonious Sentence Structure
39. The proper arrangement of words is like a musical harmony or rhythm.
40. The phrasing of an entire passage makes it sublime, even if the words are common or plain.
41. The pace of sublime language is stately, not rushed or too lively.
42. Sublime writing is neither too brief nor too wordy.
43. Mundane and sordid details are best avoided.

44. Whether sublime works are more likely created under a democratic or despotic government.

Topics in the Sublime


It is difficult to discuss every last aspect of Longinus’ essay On the Sublime. He covers many specific literary devices and provides examples from numerous authors.

Instead, we’ll touch on several points of interest. Think of this as taking a drive through the mountains and stopping at some viewpoints along the way.

Photo to a mountain range with the topics explored in this lesson



If there is a refrain to Longinus’ essay, it’s that passion trumps everything:

“For I would confidently pronounce that nothing is so conducive to sublimity as an appropriate display of genuine passion, which bursts out with a kind of ‘fine madness’ and divine inspiration, and falls on our ears like the voice of a god.” (Section 8)

To put it another way, you can be hyper correct and know every last rhetorical device, but in the end it doesn’t matter if you lack passion. Great writers take risks. They write with feeling and inspiration. Although they often make mistakes, the whole is greater than the parts. Their writing is so vivid that you feel like you’re in the middle of a storm or that you’ve been in love yourself.

For Longinus, writing is completely different from winning the pentathlon (Section 34). In such a competition you can be second best in every event and yet have the highest total score. Sublimity is much more like the hundred-meter dash, where the athletes are superbly trained for a single task and would do progressively worse at longer distances.

When you’re passionate, the rhetorical devices will seem natural and there is no need to disguise them (Section 17). For example, hyperbole falls flat if added artificially, but if it stems naturally from the emotional context, then it will be entirely fitting. Similarly, while sublimity rarely involves sordid or mundane topics (e.g., bodily functions, trivial events, etc.), it is possible to use common and plain language and still create a masterpiece (Section 31).

Passion is therefore also more important than mimesis. Whereas a sculptor will want to make a realistic statue, authors are free to go beyond nature. Their standard of realism is whether their writing resonates emotionally. For instance, when you’re carried away with excitement, it makes sense to provide a flood of images, or to omit conjunctions (Sections 19-21, 31). As Longinus writes,

“passion requires a certain disorder of language, imitating the agitation and commotion of the soul.” (Section 20)


Because the sublime is all about passion, Longinus is fascinated by the psychology of reading and listening. When we are captivated by a passage, then we identify with the author’s perspective, to the point that we feel as if we’ve written the work ourselves:

“It is natural to us to feel our souls lifted up by the true Sublime, and conceiving a sort of generous exultation to be filled with joy and pride, as though we had ourselves originated the ideas which we read.” (Section 7)

Similarly, good writers identify with their characters. In a sublime depiction of battle, “the mind of the poet is swept along in the whirlwind of the struggle” (Section 9).

Such description suggests that great writing is inspired. It is something that happens to you. This explains why Longinus insists that while rhetoric can be sublime, it also involves an element of premeditation and artfulness. The sublime is more spontaneous.


If the sublime takes you by surprise, do you have any control over what is sublime for you? After all, Longinus also believes that our moral views determine what we find noble and worthy of admiration. In Section 7, he writes,

“It is proper to observe that in human life nothing is truly great which is despised by all elevated minds. For example, no man of sense can regard wealth, honour, glory, and power, or any of those things which are surrounded by a great external parade of pomp and circumstance, as the highest blessings.”

In other words, a good person would have viewed Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies as just hollow displays of power. Likewise, some people might find big stadium concerts today an empty celebration of materialism, success, and self-indulgence.

So does morality have anything to do with the sublime? In the eighteenth century, when Edmund Burke develops Longinus’ ideas, he argues that power is a key feature of the sublime. What do you think? Does such power have to be exercised for good before it can be sublime?

The Anxiety of Influence

Another source of the sublime is rivalry. When writers strive to outdo each other, their agon (struggle) will lead them to greater heights. Longinus describes this contest as a kind of “emulous imitation,” where an author borrows from a famous predecessor, but only to do it better. Here is how Longinus describes Plato’s desire to topple Homer:

“Nor in my opinion would so many fair flowers of imagery have bloomed among the philosophical dogmas of Plato, nor would he have risen so often to the language and topics of poetry, had he not engaged heart and soul in a contest for precedence with Homer, like a young champion entering the lists against a veteran.” (Section 13)

Longinus’ observation is particularly funny when we recall that Plato distrusted poetry and railed against copying and imitation. Ironically, he couldn’t avoid falling under Homer’s spell and becoming a copy himself!

The twentieth-century critic Harold Bloom has called this rivalry between younger and older poets a case of “anxiety of influence.” Bloom uses Freudian psychology to argue that the new poet on the block sees the established writer as a father figure who must be killed (metaphorically anyway). The death blow is often dealt via a literary allusion: in this way the younger writer ostensibly pays his respects to the senior figure while actually subverting the original passage and making it better.


The issue of competition resurfaces in the final chapter of On the Sublime, where Longinus reflects on the importance of politics. The question is whether sublime art is more likely to be produced in a democracy or under a dictatorship.

Longinus first gives the opinion of a “certain philosopher” who wonders whether enjoying liberty and freedom in a democratic society does not provide great opportunity for the sublime. By contrast, tyranny turns us into slaves and flatterers.

Longinus responds that democracy also enslaves us, but in this case to materialism, apathy, and sloth:

“Are we not enslaved, nay, are not our careers completely shipwrecked, by love of gain, that fever which rages unappeased in us all, and love of pleasure?” (Section 44)

The lawless pursuit of pleasure and money stifles the sublime, and people no longer understand anything about the supernatural or about what is truly important.

In sum, the sublime is not just an aesthetic experience (like saying “that’s a nice piece of art!”), but it should be the expression of a good person who is not deceived by empty values and pleasures.

Work Cited:

Longinus. On the Sublime. Translated by H. L. Havell, Macmillan, 1890.

The Four Causes

Aristotle’s Scientific Approach

The opening sections of the Poetics are quite confusing. Aristotle appears to be classifying different art forms (poetry, music, painting) using a bewildering set of criteria.

It turns out that Aristotle starts with the most general concept (art) and then gradually zooms in. We might diagram this as follows:

A diagram showing Aristotle's classification of different types of poetry

In Aristotle’s time, much literature had a musical component, and so it is not surprising to see him include hymns (as well as other forms of music).

By “poetry,” Aristotle therefore means a wide variety of literary works, and indeed the term “poiēsis” stems from the verb “to make.” The poet is a maker, and poetry is not so much a matter of rhyming (even a scientist can rhyme), but of representing the world in a certain way. Aristotle begins by thinking about making and then focuses on mimesis (imitation) as found in literature. Poetry is thus a productive art—like building a boat or framing a house—though the world of poetry remains quite distinct from reality.

To further distinguish the various kinds of poetry, Aristotle turns to “the four causes,” which are four different ways to explain the properties and purpose of any object.

The Four Causes

The four causes can be defined as follows:

  • The material cause refers to the materials out of which something is made. For instance, a sofa might be made from leather, wood, metals, staples, etc.
  • The formal cause is the essence or form of something. It’s how we define and describe the object. For example, a cello is a stringed instrument played with a bow, a bowl is a round dish with a concave inside.
  • The efficient cause describes how something is made or put together. The word efficient goes back to Latin (ex + facio = to work out). For instance, to create a flowerbed, we might need a gardener along with tools such as a shovel and wheelbarrow.
  • The formal cause consists of the goal or purpose of the object. A table exists for eating on (among other functions), a fountain provides beauty and pleasure, a teacher is meant to make us smarter and wiser.

To illustrate this division further, let’s use the four causes to analyze a smoothie:

Image of a smoothie to illustrate Aristotle's four causes

Four Causes Smoothie
Material Cause Ingredients: banana, strawberries, raspberries, yoghurt, milk, etc.
Formal Cause Formal Definition: A refreshing drink made from blended fruit. Typically served in a glass or cup.
Efficient Cause A person employing a blender.
Final Cause To quench one’s thirst.


From here it is not such a difficult transition to literature:

Image of books to illustrate Aristotle's Four Causes

Four Causes Poetry
Material Cause Sound, speech, rhythm, melody.
Formal Cause The artistic representation (mimesis) of people in action.
Efficient Cause A poet using writing techniques such as point of view (e.g., first-person narration) to relate a story.
Final Cause Pleasure.



For Aristotle, the four causes allow us to understand the “natural order” of things. Aristotle treats art as if it can be organized and subdivided like a species of animal or plant. Similarly, the history of an art form can be described as a natural development or evolution.

It might be argued that this approach confuses nature and culture, and later critics would argue that no artificial product created by people is ever truly natural. A Marxist critic, for example, would suggest that the popularity of a genre reflects the values of a social class, which in turn wants to pass off its worldview as if it is rooted in nature.

In any case, the four causes help us make sense of Aristotle’s language. When he talks about different “media” (colour, rhythm, music), he means the material cause. When he mentions the different objects imitated by art, he is discussing the formal cause. When he turns to the “manner” in which the art work is created and performed, he is interested in the efficient cause.

Now it’s also possible to see how Aristotle defines a specific genre. For example, early on, Aristotle contrasts comedy and tragedy because their formal cause is different: comedy represents or imitates people that are worse than the average human being; tragedy describes people that are better.

If we zoom in and analyze tragedy in more detail, we can see all four causes in action:

Aristotle's Definition of Tragedy Broken Down by The Four Causes

We’ll talk about this in more detail in the next lesson, but it’s helpful to see how we can break down Aristotle’s definition into its component parts!

Our Passions


Working in the tradition of John Locke, Edmund Burke has a mechanistic understanding of how our human passions operate and what purpose they serve.

Burke argues that our most important aesthetic experiences are either of beauty or the sublime, and he suggests that these emotions can be traced back to feelings of pleasure or pain. Burke further suggests that with pain we are concerned about our individual welfare, whereas pleasure is primarily found in our dealings with society:

A diagram showing how Edmund Burke traces the sublime and the beautiful back to pleasure and pain

For Burke, the sublime has less social utility than beauty, though as we’ll see, the sublime may make us reverent towards powerful people and objects. Beauty, on the other hand, draws us together as social animals, most obviously through love and courtship.

Pleasure and Pain

Burke reduces our primary aesthetic experiences to just two: the beautiful and the sublime. He doesn’t think that other emotions (e.g., curiosity) are as powerful.

Whereas beauty gives us pleasure, the sublime includes an element of pain. Here is how Burke defines the sublime:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible [terrifying], or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

Pain is thus felt more strongly than pleasure, and we can find pain, death, and danger sublime when we enjoy them at a distance.

In focusing on pleasure and pain, Burke follows Locke, but he does not agree that pleasure is the absence of pain, and vice versa. Burke suggests that there is a state of “indifference” in between, a neutral feeling where we don’t fully experience either.

Of course our feeling of indifference may be affected by prior emotions. After pleasure “we fall into a soft tranquility, which is tinged with the agreeable colour of the former sensation.” Similarly, after pain we feel sobered and still experience a sense of awe. Despite these lingering feelings, pleasure and pain are distinct sensations.

Burke does allow for two exceptions. First, when we do enjoy a removal of pain we should call that delight, and distinguish it from positive pleasure. Much later in the essay, Burke will claim that the sublime is actually a form of delight, since we don’t experience any real pain. Early on he’s not very clear about this.

Secondly, when pleasure ceases, we may feel grief. However, grief is not pure pain, especially since we often indulge in it. It actually has a lot in common with pleasure!

Here is an updated version of our diagram:

Diagram showing how Edmund Burke argues that there is a state of indifference between pleasure and pain.

Our Social Passions

Burke spends quite a bit of time discussing our various social passions, even though some of this material is a digression from his interest in beauty and the sublime. Perhaps it is too challenging to create an entire aesthetic theory out of just two concepts!

In any case, the passions that belong to society are divided into two categories: the society of the sexes and society in general. The first of these is limited to love between two people. What motivates people to start a courtship is beauty. However, Burke is quick to differentiate between love and lust. People are not like animals in heat, who copulate whenever the urge takes them. People use their reason to control their urges, and they do not experience pain or uneasiness when they cannot experience sexual pleasure. Similarly, some lovers may go mad, but love cannot be called painful. In short, Burke seems rather skeptical about the power of love!

When it comes to society in general, we again experience love for other beings, just as we are drawn to all kinds of beauty. Even though solitude can be enjoyable, we usually much prefer the company of others. Burke further argues that our social bonds are strengthened through sympathy, imitation, and ambition.


Burke argues that sympathy is primarily a social virtue, in that it compels us to show charity to others. We might object that the association with pleasure is debatable, as we feel sympathy when others suffer and feel pain. So is sympathy pleasurable or painful? Burke tends to avoid this problem, although he does note in passing that when sympathy makes us worried about our own self-preservation, it can be sublime.

Humans beings are strangely drawn to tragedy. Our sympathy further increases when the sufferer is a noble person. That said, Burke takes issue with the idea that that we enjoy tragedies because we are free from danger ourselves, and because we reason that it is just a fiction. Burke suggests that these kinds of reasons are made up after the fact, and that our passions and emotions occur without much reasoning. Sympathy is natural and instinctive.

The more real the tragedy, the more we are drawn to it. Burke writes that if during a play someone shouted that a criminal was to be executed next door, everyone would flock to see it.


Society also functions through imitation. Much of education consists of copying the behaviour and lessons of our teachers: “It is by imitation far more than by precept, that we learn everything.”

Presumably, this is also why we enjoy mimesis in art. In painting, for instance, some objects are pleasing because of the artist’s skill in imitation, not because of the worthiness of the object. We might admire a bowl with fruit in a still-life, or a cottage and dunghill in a landscape. These kinds of paintings will never be sublime, but they might be beautiful and pleasing.


Ambition drives us to outdo others, and so we create great works of art. The urge to compete is essential to the proper workings of society.

Here too, Burke’s classification is somewhat artificial. He admits that ambition also affects us in sublime moments, when there is “a sort of swelling and triumph,” as we feel pleased with ourselves. Similarly, when we see awesome objects, then our minds claims “some part of the dignity and importance of the things which it contemplates.” In other words, we identify with great things.

Since power is a key feature of the sublime, and since the sublime involves admiration and respect, it seems that the ambition to be great should be associated equally with the sublime. Is not Milton’s Satan sublime in part because of his ambition? Or what about those who through great effort achieve success? If we want to be critical, then, we might complicate our earlier diagram as follows:

A diagram showing how Edmund Burke categories the passions in relation to society and the individual


Diagramming Burke’s ideas helps to clarify his argument, but the experience of reading him is much less streamlined. Burke is not super organized, and he often digresses. Perhaps this shows the challenge he faces. Has he simplified our passions too much? Can we create such clear distinctions between pleasure and pain, between beauty and the sublime? Where does a genre like tragedy fit in? Is Hamlet not a sublime play, even though Burke views sympathy as first of all a social virtue?

Burke also struggles to reconcile different visions of what it means to be human. On the one hand, he views our emotions as caused automatically, so that the body is a kind of machine that simply reacts to outside forces. Aesthetic experiences happen to us. We do not reason about how far removed from danger we are, or think carefully about whether something is fictional or not. On the other hand, aesthetics involves an element of cool reflection, as we consider carefully whether a work of art is realistic and represents nature accurately. Similarly, human beings act rationally when in love, and should not simply lust after beauty.

Despite these difficulties, Burke sketches out a dramatic contrast between the effects of pleasure and pain. In our next lesson we’ll see how he differentiates the sublime from the beautiful.

Work Cited

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,

The Efficient Cause


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 avoid tensing his nerves and so was able to “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.

The Senses

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:

Photos of an elephant eye and a field of flowers to demonstrate how our eyes either tense up or relax

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.

Work Cited

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,