A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful [NOOK Book]


This eloquent 1757 treatise on aesthetics explores how interactions with the physical world affect the formulation of ideals related to beauty and art. Edmund Burke's landmark study not only proved tremendously influential on the development of aesthetic theory, but also offered the first complete philosophical exposition for separating the beautiful and the sublime into their own respective rational categories.
The beautiful, according to Burke, comprises that which is well ...
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A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

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This eloquent 1757 treatise on aesthetics explores how interactions with the physical world affect the formulation of ideals related to beauty and art. Edmund Burke's landmark study not only proved tremendously influential on the development of aesthetic theory, but also offered the first complete philosophical exposition for separating the beautiful and the sublime into their own respective rational categories.
The beautiful, according to Burke, comprises that which is well formed and aesthetically pleasing. The sublime, on the other hand, possesses the power to compel and destroy. This distinction bears a noteworthy historical relevance, since the popular preference for the sublime rather than the beautiful indicates the transition from the Neoclassical to the Romantic era. Burke's dissertation is both a precursor of his later political writings and one of the first major works in European literature to explore the concept of the sublime—a topic as fascinating to eighteenth-century thinkers as it is to modern philosophers and critics.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780486146768
  • Publisher: Dover Publications
  • Publication date: 8/31/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 160
  • File size: 776 KB

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A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

By Edmund Burke

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14676-8




The first and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is Curiosity. By curiosity, I mean whatever desire we have for, or whatever pleasure we take in novelty. We see children perpetually running from place to place to hunt out something new; they catch with great eagerness, and with very little choice, at whatever comes before them; their attention is engaged by every thing, because every thing has, in that stage of life, the charm of novelty to recommend it. But as those things which engage us merely by their novelty, cannot attach us for any length of time, curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its object perpetually; it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness and anxiety. Curiosity from its nature is a very active principle; it quickly runs over the greatest part of its objects, and soon exhausts the variety which is commonly to be met with in nature; the same things make frequent returns, and they return with less and less of any agreeable effect. In short, the occurrences of life, by the time we come to know it a little, would be incapable of affecting the mind with any other sensations than those of loathing and weariness, if many things were not adapted to affect the mind by means of other powers besides novelty in them, and of other passions besides curiosity in ourselves. These powers and passions shall be considered in their place. But whatever these powers are, or upon what principle soever they affect the mind, 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. Some degree of novelty must be one of the materials in every instrument which works upon the mind; and curiosity blends itself more or less with all our passions.



Pain and Pleasure

It seems then necessary towards moving the passions of people advanced in life to any considerable degree, that the objects designed for that purpose, besides their being in some measure new, should be capable of exciting pain or pleasure from other causes. Pain and pleasure are simple ideas, incapable of definition. People are not liable to be mistaken in their feelings, but they are very frequently wrong in the names they give them, and in their reasonings about them. Many are of opinion, that pain arises necessarily from the removal of some pleasure; as they think pleasure does from the ceasing or diminution of some pain. For my part I am rather inclined to imagine, that pain and pleasure in their most simple and natural manner of affecting, are each of a positive nature, and by no means necessarily dependent on each other for their existence. The human mind is often, and I think it is for the most part, in a state neither of pain nor pleasure, which I call a state of indifference. When I am carried from this state into a state of actual pleasure, it does not appear necessary that I should pass through the medium of any sort of pain. If in such a state of indifference, or ease, or tranquility, or call it what you please, you were to be suddenly entertained with a concert of music; or suppose some object of a fine shape, and bright lively colors to be presented before you; or imagine your smell is gratified with the fragrance of a rose; or if without any previous thirst you were to drink of some pleasant kind of wine; or to taste of some sweetmeat without being hungry; in all the several senses, of hearing, smelling, and tasting, you undoubtedly find a pleasure; yet if I enquire into the state of your mind previous to these gratifications, you will hardly tell me that they found you in any kind of pain; or having satisfied these several senses with their several pleasures, will you say that any pain has succeeded, though the pleasure is absolutely over? Suppose on the other hand, a man in the same state of indifference, to receive a violent blow, or to drink of some bitter potion, or to have his ears wounded with some harsh and grating sound; here is no removal of pleasure; and yet here is felt, in every sense which is affected, a pain very distinguishable. It may be said perhaps, that the pain in these cases had its rise from the removal of the pleasure which the man enjoyed before, though that pleasure was of so low a degree as to be perceived only by the removal. But this seems to me a subtilty, that is not discoverable in nature. For if, previous to the pain, I do not feel any actual pleasure, I have no reason to judge that any such thing exists; since pleasure is only pleasure as it is felt. The same may be said of pain, and with equal reason. I can never persuade myself that pleasure and pain are mere relations, which can only exist as they are contrasted: but I think I can discern clearly that there are positive pains and pleasures, which do not at all depend upon each other. Nothing is more certain to my own feelings than this. There is nothing which I can distinguish in my mind with more clearness than the three states, of indifference, of pleasure, and of pain. Every one of these I can perceive without any sort of idea of its relation to any thing else. Caius is afflicted with a fit of the colic; this man is actually in pain; stretch Caius upon the rack, he will feel a much greater pain; but does this pain of the rack arise from the removal of any pleasure? or is the fit of the colic a pleasure or a pain just as we are pleased to consider it?



The Difference between the Removal of Pain and Positive Pleasure

We shall carry this proposition yet a step further. We shall venture to propose, that pain and pleasure are not only, not necessarily dependent for their existence on their mutual diminution or removal, but that, in reality, the diminution or ceasing of pleasure does not operate like positive pain; and that the removal or diminution of pain, in its effect has very little resemblance to positive pleasure. The former of these propositions will, I believe, be much more readily allowed than the latter; because it is very evident that pleasure, when it has run its career, sets us down very nearly where it found us. Pleasure of every kind quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference, or rather we fall into a soft tranquility, which is tinged with the agreeable color of the former sensation. I own, it is not at first view so apparent, that the removal of a great pain does not resemble positive pleasure: but let us recollect in what state we have found our minds upon escaping some imminent danger, or on being released from the severity of some cruel pain. We have on such occasions found, if I am not much mistaken, the temper of our minds in a tenor very remote from that which attends the presence of positive pleasure; we have found them in a state of much sobriety, impressed with a sense of awe, in a sort of tranquillity shadowed with horror. The fashion of the countenance and the gesture of the body on such occasions is so correspondent to this state of mind, that any person, a stranger to the cause of the appearance, would rather judge us under some consternation, than in the enjoyment of anything like positive pleasure.


Iliad. 24.

As when a wretch, who conscious of his crime,
Pursued for murder from his native clime,
Just gains some frontier, breathless, pale, amaz'd;
All gaze, all wonder!"

This striking appearance of the man whom Homer supposes to have just escaped an imminent danger, the sort of mixed passion of terror and surprise, with which he affects the spectators, paints very strongly the manner in which we find ourselves affected upon occasions any way similar. For when we have suffered from any violent emotion, the mind naturally continues in something like the same condition, after the cause which first produced it has ceased to operate. The tossing of the sea remains after the storm; and when this remain of horror has entirely subsided, all the passion, which the accident raised subsides along with it; and the mind returns to its usual state of indifference. In short, pleasure (I mean any thing either in the inward sensation, or in the outward appearance like pleasure from a positive cause) has never, I imagine, its origin from the removal of pain or danger.



Of Delight and Pleasure, as opposed to each other

But shall we therefore say, that the removal of pain or its diminution is always simply painful? or affirm that the cessation or the lessening of pleasure is always attended itself with a pleasure? by no means. What I advance is no more than this; first, that there are pleasures and pains of a positive and independent nature; and, secondly, that the feeling which results from the ceasing or diminution of pain does not bear a sufficient resemblance to positive pleasure to have it considered as of the same nature, or to entitle it to be known by the same name; and thirdly, that upon the same principle the removal or qualification of pleasure has no resemblance to positive pain. It is certain that the former feeling (the removal or moderation of pain) has something in it far from distressing, or disagreeable in its nature. This feeling, in many cases so agreeable, but in all so different from positive pleasure, has no name which I know; but that hinders not its being a very real one, and very different from all others. It is most certain, that every species of satisfaction or pleasure, how different soever in its manner of affecting, is of a positive nature in the mind of him who feels it. The affection is undoubtedly positive; but the cause may be, as in this case it certainly is, a sort of Privation. And it is very reasonable that we should distinguish by some term two things so distinct in nature, as a pleasure that is such simply, and without any relation, from that pleasure, which cannot exist without a relation, and that too a relation to pain. Very extraordinary it would be, if these affections, so distinguishable in their causes, so different in their effects, should be confounded with each other, because vulgar use has ranged them under the same general title. Whenever I have occasion to speak of this species of relative pleasure, I call it Delight; and I shall take the best care I can, to use that word in no other sense. I am satisfied the word is not commonly used in this appropriated signification; but I thought it better to take up a word already known, and to limit its signification, than to introduce a new one which would not perhaps incorporate so well with the language. I should never have presumed the least alteration in our words, if the nature of the language, framed for the purposes of business rather than those of philosophy, and the nature of my subject that leads me but of the common track of discourse, did not in a manner necessitate me to it. I shall make use of this liberty with all possible caution. As I make use of the word Delight to express the sensation which accompanies the removal of pain or danger; so when I speak of positive pleasure, I shall for the most part call it simply Pleasure.


Excerpted from A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful by Edmund Burke. Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction On Taste
Part One
I. Novelty
II. Pain and Pleasure
III. The Difference between the Removal of Pain and Positive Pleasure
IV. Of Delight and Pleasure, as opposed to each other
V. Joy and Grief
VI. Of the Passions which belong to Self-Preservation
VII. Of the Sublime
VIII. Of the Passions which belong to Society
IX. The Final Cause of the Difference between the Passions belonging to Self-Preservation, and those which regard the Society of the Sexes
X. Of Beauty
XI. Society and Solitude
XII. Sympathy, Imitation, and Ambition
XIII. Sympathy
XIV. The Effects of Sympathy in the Distresses of Others
XV. Of the Effects of Tragedy
XVI. Imitation
XVII. Ambition
XVIII. The Recapitulation
XIX. The Conclusion
Part Two
I. Of the Passion caused by the Sublime
II. Terror
III. Obscurity
IV. Of the Difference between Clearness and Obscurity with regard to the Passions
[IV.] The Same Subject continued
V. Power
VI. Privation
VII. Vastness
VIII. Infinity
IX. Succession and Uniformity
X. Magnitude in Building
XI. Infinity in Pleasing Objects
XII. Difficulty
XIII. Magnificence
XIV. Light
XV. Light in Building
XVI. Color considered as productive of the Sublime
XVII. Sound and Loudness
XVIII. Suddenness
XIX. Intermitting
XX. The Cries of Animals
XXI. Smell and Taste. Bitters and Stenches
XXII. Feeling. Pain
Part Three
I. Of Beauty
II. Proportion not the Cause of Beauty in Vegetables
III. Proportion not the Cause of Beauty in Animals
IV. Proportion not the Cause of Beauty in the Human Species
V. Proportion further considered
VI. Fitness not the Cause of Beauty
VII. The Real Effects of Fitness
VIII. The Recapitulation
IX. Perfection not the Cause of Beauty
X. How far the Idea of Beauty may be applied to the Qualities of the Mind
XI. How far the Idea of Beauty may be applied to Virtue
XII. The Real Cause of Beauty
XIII. Beautiful Objects Small
XIV. Smoothness
XV. Gradual Variation
XVI. Delicacy
XVII. Beauty in Color
XVIII. Recapitulation
XIX. The Physiognomy
XX. The Eye
XXI. Ugliness
XXII. Grace
XXIII. Elegance and Speciousness
XXIV. The Beautiful in Feeling
XXV. The Beautiful in Sounds
XXVI. Taste and Smell
XXVII. The Sublime and Beautiful compared
Part Four
I. Of the Efficient Cause of the Sublime and Beautiful
II. Association
III. Cause of Pain and Fear
IV. Continued
V. How the Sublime is produced
VI. How Pain can be a Cause of Delight
VII. Exercise necessary for the Finer Organs
VIII. Why Things not Dangerous sometimes produce a Passion like Terror
IX. Why Visual Objects of Great Dimensions are Sublime
X. Unity, why requisite to Vastness
XI. The Artificial Infinite
XII. The Vibrations must be Similar
XIII. The Effects of Succession in Visual Objects explained
XIV. Locke's Opinion concerning Darkness, considered
XV. Darkness Terrible in its own Nature
XVI. Why Darkness is Terrible
XVII. The Effects of Blackness
XVIII. The Effects of Blackness moderated
XIX. The Physical Cause of Love
XX. Why Smoothness is Beautiful
XXI. Sweetness, its Nature
XXII. Sweetness relaxing
XXIII. Variation, why Beautiful
XXIV. Concerning Smallness
XXV. Of Color
Part Five
I. Of Words
II. The Common Effect of Poetry, not by raising Ideas of Things
III. General Words before Ideas
IV. The Effect of Words
V. Examples that Words may affect without raising Images
VI. Poetry not strictly an Imitative Art
VII. How Words influence the Passions
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  • Posted October 10, 2009

    Ever Wonder Why...

    If you've ever wondered why people like horror movies, read this book. If you've ever pondered the nature of beauty and asked if it was more of an intrinsic characteristic (outside ourselves) or a subjective experience, read this book. Burke offers a firm footing for anyone interested in exploring the idea of beauty or our penchant for the horrific.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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