Edmund Burke: Sublime and Beautiful


THE passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it. Astonishment is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; its inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect. No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime.

It is impossible to look on anything dangerous as trifling or contemptible, so that even serpents are capable of raising ideas of the sublime. The sublimity of the ocean is due to the fact that it is an object of no little terror. How closely allied are terror and sublimity we may judge from the Greek language, which has but one word for 'fear' and for 'wonder,' another for 'terrible' or 'respectable,' while a third means either 'to reverence' or 'to fear.'

To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary, for a great deal of apprehension vanishes when we are able to see the full extent of any danger. Night adds to our dread of ghosts; almost all the heathen temples were dark; and despotic governments, founded on fear, keep their ruler as much as may be from the public eye. Clearness, on the other hand, is not the same as beauty; it is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination.

Indeed, a great clearness is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasm. Poetry is, therefore, superior to painting as a means of raising the passions, although the latter gives the clearest images. The fact is, that our ignorance of things causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. In great passages of Milton the mind is hurried out of itself by a crowd of grand and confused images, which affect because they are crowded and confused. The images of poetry are always obscure. To see a thing distinctly is to see its bounds, and cut it off from infinity. A clear idea is another name for a little idea.

SUBLIMITY includes, besides the idea of danger, the idea of danger, the idea of power also. Pleasure follows the will, and we are generally affected with it by many things of a force inferior to our own; but pain is always inflicted by a power in some way superior. Strength, violence, pain and terror are therefore ideas which occupy the mind together. The sublimity of wild animals is due to their power; and the power of princes is not unmixed with terror, so that we address them as 'dread majesty.'

I know that some have said that we can contemplate the idea of God without terror or awe. If I may speak of this without impropriety, I will say that no conviction of the justice with which it is exercised, nor of the mercy with which it is tempered, can wholly remove the terror that naturally arises from a force which nothing can withstand. It has even been said that fear originated the idea of deity, and true it is that, before Christianity, there was very little said of the love of God.

ALL general privations are great, because they are all terrible--vacuity, darkness, solitude and silence. Again, vastness, or greatness of dimension, is a powerful cause of the sublime; and of the three measures of extension, length strikes us least, and height is less grand than depth. The effects of a rugged, broken surface are stronger than those of a polished one.

The last extreme of littleness is sublime also, because division, as well as addition, is infinite.

Infinity fills the mind with that sort of delightful horror which is the truest test of the sublime; and succession and uniformity of parts, which constitute the artificial infinite, give the effect of sublimity in architecture. But in regard to the sublime in building, greatness of dimension is also requisite, though designs which are vast only by their dimensions are always the sign of a common and low imagination. No work of art can be great but as it deceives.

Another kind of infinity also causes pleasure, as the young of animals are pleasant because they give the promise of something more, and unfinished sketches are often more pleasing than the completed work. Difficulty is the true source of greatness, as Stonehenge impresses the mind by the immense force necessary for such a work.

Magnificence, which involves a great profusion of things splendid or valuable in themselves, is sublime, and is exemplified in the starry heavens, whose apparent disorder augments their grandeur. The sublimity of magnificence is achieved by poets who use a dazzling richness and profusion of images.

After extension, colour is capable of raising ideas of greatness, and all colours depend upon light. The rays of the sun, or the flash of lightning, have an effect due to their great strength or celerity. But darkness is more sublime than light. Our great poet spoke of the Deity as 'encircled with the majesty of darkness,' an idea not only poetical, but philosophically just.


BY beauty, as distinguished from the sublime, I mean that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion analogous to it. I also distinguish love, or the satisfaction which arises to the mind upon contemplating anything beautiful, from desire, which is an energy of the mind that hurries us on to the possession of certain objects.

In what does beauty consist? The usual answer to this question has been that it consists in certain proportions of parts; but I very much doubt whether it has anything at all to do with proportions. Proportion is the measure of relative quantity; but beauty has nothing to do with mensuration and, as a matter of fact, the parts of plants and animals which are found to be beautiful are not constantly formed upon certain measures.

Thus, flowers are of almost every sort of shape and arrangement; and though we find in them a regular figure and a methodical disposition of the leaves, yet in an oblique view, when this order is not apparent, the flower retains its beauty. The swan's long neck and short tail enter into a beautiful proportion, but so do the short neck and long tail of the peacock.

You may assign any proportions you please to every part of the human body, and I undertake that a painter shall observe them all, and yet produce, if he likes, a very ugly figure. The same painter shall considerably deviate from these proportions and yet produce a very beautiful figure.

This prejudice in favour of proportion has arisen from an impression that if deformity be removed, beauty must result. But deformity is opposed, not to beauty, but to the complete, common form; and beauty affects us as deviating from the common. The true opposite to beauty is ugliness, and between them is a sort of mediocrity, which has no effect upon the passions.

Neither is utility, or fitness, the cause of beauty. For then the wedge-like snout of the swine, with its little sunk eyes, so well adapted for digging and rooting, would be extremely beautiful. There are few animals whose parts are better contrived, or who seem less beautiful, than a monkey. The stomach and the liver are incomparably well adapted for their purpose, yet are not beautiful. The effect of proportion and of fitness is to produce approbation, the acquiescence of the understanding, but not love.

Neither, again, is perfection the cause of beauty; for beauty, where it is highest, as in women, almost always carries with it the idea of weakness and imperfection. The qualities of mind which most engage our hearts are the softer virtues, and the chosen companions of our recreations are rarely persons of shining qualities.

What, then, are the real causes of beauty?

IN the first place, beautiful objects are small. In most languages, objects of love are spoken of under diminutive epithets. We rarely say 'a great beautiful thing,' but often 'a great ugly thing.' There is a wide difference between admiration and love; and while the sublime has to do with great and terrible objects, the beautiful is found in small and pleasing things.

The next property constantly observable in objects of love is smoothness; I can recollect nothing beautiful that is not smooth. Smooth leaves in trees, smooth slopes in gardens, smooth streams in the landscape, smooth coats of birds and beasts, smooth skins in fine women, and smooth surfaces in ornamental furniture.

Beautiful bodies are never composed of angular parts, nor do their parts continue long in the same straight line. They vary their direction every moment and change under the eye by a continual deviation.

Further, an air of robustness and strength is very prejudicial to beauty; an appearance of delicacy, and even of fragility, is almost essential to it. This may be remarked alike in plants and in animals, and it is obvious in the case of the fair sex, whose timidity is a quality of mind analogous to it.

Of the colours of beautiful objects we note that they must not be dusky or muddy, but clean and fair; they must not be of the strongest kind, but mild in tone; or, if vivid, they must be so diversified that each abates the other, or be mixed with such gradations that it is impossible to fix the bounds of each.

The beautiful, in the sense of feeling, is in almost every respect similar to the beautiful in the sense of vision; for instance, softness, smoothness and a continually varying surface are the sources of pleasure in either case.


BEAUTY, indeed, presents a remarkable contrast with the sublime; they may sometimes occur together, but they are none the less opposite and contradictory. As for the causes of them, their ultimate cause can never be unravelled by any industry of ours, but we may distinguish certain proximate causes.

The sense of the sublime, then, has its source in an unnatural tension of the nerves, such as is produced both by fear and by pain, and may even be aroused in some degree by mimicking the facial and bodily expressions of fear and pain. Human emotions are very intimately associated with nervous and other physical changes, and the mood of terror may be regarded as an exercise of the finer parts of our bodily system, clearing them of a troublesome encumbrance and so becoming, incidentally, a cause of delight.

Vastness arouses the sense of the sublime by straining the nerves and muscles of the eye; and a similar physical explanation is suitable to the sublimity of the artificial infinite, which is produced, as we have seen, by a succession of similar visual objects. Darkness is terrible for the same reason; we know that as the light diminishes the pupil of the eye is enlarged by the retiring of the iris, and doubtless any great darkness exaggerates this change until it sets up a painful nervous tension.

In every one of its modifications the sense of the sublime has its nervous basis, due to changes which are in some degree painful, and an analogous nervous basis may be discovered for the sense of the beautiful.

For in the latter case, also, the body is affected. When we have before us objects of love and complacency the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to the sides; and all this is accompanied by an inward sense of languor. It is impossible not to conclude that beauty acts by relaxing the whole system. The easy gradations of line, and the soft tones of colour, which are proper to beauty, affect the sense by lulling it to repose.

A brief consideration must be devoted, in conclusion, to the effects of words with reference to these passions of the sublime and beautiful. It is commonly supposed that the power of words lies in their raising in the mind the ideas of those things for which the words as 'virtue,' 'honour,' and the like. Nobody, on hearing these sounds, conceives precise notions of the relations which they represent. Their effect is that of sounds, not of representations; but of sounds which have been habitually associated with certain effects on the mind.

A word may produce three effects on the hearer--the sound, the picture, and the affection of the soul; and words like 'honour' and 'liberty' produce the first and third of these, but not the second. Words like 'blue,' 'green,' 'cold,' and still more, words like 'horse,' 'man,' may produce all three of these effects, but their general effect does not arise from their forming pictures.

The power of poetic imagery depends on the affections of the soul produced immediately by the sounds of the words. Consider what is the source of the power in Milton's lines, where he describes the travels of the fallen angels through their dismal habitation.

O'er many a dark and dreary vale They passed, and many a region dolorous; O'er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp; Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death, A universe of death.

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