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

Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Sublime

In his aesthetic treatise <i>A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful</i> (1757), Edmund Burke (1729-1797) proposes his concept of the sublime. Although several eighteenth-century commentators had attempted the same thing, Burke’s <i>Enquiry</i> far exceeds the others in both scope and intellectual acuity. The sublime has a long history, dating back to the first century C.E. when the Greek critic Longinus first presented his concept of the sublime in his aesthetic treatise <i>On Sublime</i> (</i>Peri hypsous</i>). The root word is the Latin <i>sublimis</i>, an amalgamation of “sub” (up to) and “limen” (literally, the top piece of a door).

According to Tom Furniss, the central task of Burke’s <i>Enquiry</i> is to develop a set of theoretical principles to demonstrate that the sublime and the beautiful are extremely repugnant to each other. This idea leads to the conventional distinction between pleasure and pain. Burke also makes another significant and controversial distinction between pleasure and delight; he characterizes the former as the enjoyment of some “positive” stimulus of the senses, while the latter...

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