Edmund Burke on Pleasure and Pain


BUT let us turn now to the problem of the origin of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful. The first and simplest emotion is curiosity, or the desire for, or pleasure in, novelty. Children are always running after something new. This appetite is very sharp, but is easily satisfied; and some degree of novelty is a necessary element in every object of taste.

The objects designed to move our passions must therefore be in some measure new, but they must also be capable of exciting pain or pleasure. Now, pain and pleasure are simple ideas which are incapable of definition. Many think, unjustifiably, that pain arises necessarily from the removal of some pleasure, and pleasure from the cessation of some pain; but the human mind is for the most part in a state of indifference, from which it is carried occasionally into a state of pleasure or pain. There is a certain emotion, akin to pleasure, which arises on the cessation of pain. This relative pleasure I call 'delight,' and use that word in no other sense.

Most of the ideas which are capable of impressing the mind with pain or pleasure may be reduced to the principles of 'self-preservation' and of 'society.'

The passions which concern self-preservation turn mostly on pain or danger, and whatever is fitted in any way to excite the ideas of pain and danger, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime, and is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

Those passions, on the other hand, which belong to society, whether it be the society of the sexes or that more general society which we have with men, animals, and even with the inanimate world, have their origin in pleasures. The object of the love of the sexes is beauty, and beauty is the social quality which attaches us to other objects of our affection.

Among the various passions of society, sympathy, imitation and ambition are of the first importance. Of these, sympathy is the cause of our pleasure in tragedy, in the witnessing of which we are always aware that the distresses and catastrophes are fictitious. Imitation is the passion which forms our manners, our opinions, our lives, and is one of the strongest links of society. Ambition is a social passion, because it leads a man to distinguish himself before others.

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