Edmund Burke's 1757 treatise, "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful," is a clearly written, well-argued, and variously inflected work of philosophy. Coming out of and contending with the traditions of philosophies of passion, understanding, and aesthetics from Aristotle and Longinus to Descartes, Hobbes to Locke, and Shaftesbury to Hume, Burke would seem to be taking on a world of difficulty at the tender age of 28. However, Burke manages to maintain control and exercise great wit in his treatise by confining his "Enquiry" to the ways we interact with the physical world, and how in this interaction, we formulate our aesthetic ideas of sublimity and beauty.
Burke's "Enquiry" is divided into five parts, with an introduction. The introduction is perhaps his most witty segment, as he tries, as Shaftesbury, Addison, and Hume before him, to formulate a standard of Taste, a popular subject of conjecture in the 18th century. Physically, and not without some irony, he chooses to speak of Taste primarily as a feature of eating. In response to his predecessors, though, he does say that since our attitudes toward the world come from our senses, that the majority of people can see (sight being very important) and react; thus all people are capable of some degree of Taste. Education and experience, he must admit, though, do refine Taste. In Part One, Burke examines the individual and social causes which arouse our sense of the sublime and the beautiful, those being the primal feelings of terror/pain and love/pleasure, respectively. Throughout the "Enquiry," Burke insists that these are not opposites strictly speaking - that pain and pleasure are mediated by a neutral state of indifference, which is the natural state of man. (Compare that idea to Hobbes and Locke!)
Parts Two, Three, and Four find Burke explaining his notion of the passions in relation to his basis of the physical world. Grandeur, potential threat, darkness, and ignorance for Burke excite our nerves and produce the sublime, a feeling of terror which is simultaneously delightful as long as it does not cause immediate pain. These he finds both in the physical world and in tragedies of literature and history. Smallness, softness, clarity, and weakness delimit the beautiful, which produces affection and sympathy. The contrasts and interventions that Burke makes throughout the "Enquiry" on these bases are variously inflected with issues of anxiety over gender roles, race, and power. Burke's politics give the work a joyful and troubling complexity to the literary minded.
Part Five, then, is a look at the effect that words, language, and poetry can have in influencing our affect in regards to the sublime and the beautiful. In it, he gathers together statements he sprinkles throughout the treatise on the nature of poetry - that its emphasis on representation of emotion, rather than imitation of objects, gives it a power that is perhaps unequalled even by nature. In Burke's "Enquiry," one can see a nascent fascination with landscape, mystery, and sensation that would find its flowering in the Gothic and Romantic movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His insistent break with earlier philosphers who combined aesthetics and morality is a serious challenge to moral philosophy with regard to art and Taste. His physical descriptions of emotional response prefigures Freud's psychological ponderings in "Three Essays on Sexuality" and "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," as well as linguistic theory. In all, a fascinating and complicated work for being as short as it is.
This review is dedicated to the memory of Vernon Lau. Unfortunately, Burke did not deal in the "Enquiry" with the pain or terror of immediate personal loss. One can only wonder if Burke's obsession with philosophical distance between people and fear wasn't motivated by a loss of his own.