Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) is an examination of how sensation, imagination, and judgment are interrelated in the experience of art. Burke explains how sensation, imagination, and judgment determine the experience of pleasure and pain, and how pleasure and pain are represented by the aesthetic concepts of beauty and sublimity.
Burke says that, in order to understand the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful, we must examine the experience of pain and pleasure. Pain is not simply the removal of pleasure, and pleasure is not simply the removal of pain. Pain may be caused by the removal of pleasure, but pain may also arise in and of itself. Similarly, pleasure may be caused by the removal of pain, but pleasure may arise in and of itself.
Pain or pleasure may be preceded by, or followed by, indifference. Indifference is a state of neither pain nor pleasure (Part I, Section II). Indifference may remove pain or pleasure. Pain or pleasure may remove indifference.
Burke declares that the ideas of pain, pleasure, and indifference are clear ideas. These clear ideas may be independent of each other. They are not relations of ideas, or ideas existing only in relation to each other. They each have their own reality.
The cessation of pleasure may result in a state of indifference, disappointment, or grief. On the other hand, the cessation of pain may result in a state of indifference, happiness, or delight. Burke uses the term "delight" to refer to a pleasure which is caused by the removal of pain, while he uses the term "joy" to refer to a pleasure which arises in and of itself.
According to Burke, pain may be a more powerful emotion than pleasure, and may have a much stronger influence on the imagination. However, the idea of pain, or of danger, when the individual is not actually in pain or in danger, may yield a pleasurable form of fear, which is described as delight. This delight is caused by the sublime.
Burke describes the sublime as being the cause of the strongest emotions which the individual is capable of feeling. The sublime may therefore produce pain, fear, or terror. The sublime in its lesser degree may cause admiration, reverence, or respect (Part II, Section I). The sublime in its highest degree may cause total astonishment.
According to Burke, clarity is not the most important quality for great works of art. Obscurity may have a more powerful effect on the imagination than clarity. The sublime may be expressed by this obscurity.
If the sublime is regarded as an obscure source of danger, it may cause a greater degree of fear than if it is regarded as a clear source of danger. This is because a source of danger may seem to be more fearful if it is obscure. Fear and terror can also be caused by a sense of sublime power, or by a dread of something indefinite or unknown which threatens the individual with pain, injury, or annihilation.
Burke argues that the sublime may be caused by deprivation, darkness, solitude, silence, or vacuity. The sublime may also be caused by immensity or infinity. The sublime may also be caused by magnitude, grandeur, or elegance.
The sublime is that which causes astonishment because it is found to have an unimagined eloquence, greatness, significance, or power. However, both pain and pleasure are caused by the sublime, because it causes the most powerful emotions which can be experienced by the individual, including awe, wonder, dread, fear, and terror.
Burke defines beauty as any quality which inspires the individual to feel affection toward that which is perceived as beautiful. Beauty has a positive social quality, in that it inspires love or affection toward whomever is perceived as beautiful.
According to Burke, beauty is not caused by symmetry, or by balanced proportion. Objects which differ in their degree of symmetry may be perceived as being equally beautiful. Objects which differ in their proportions may be perceived as being equally beautiful. Disproportion is not the opposite of beauty. Ugliness is the opposite of beauty (Part III, Section V).
Burke also says that beauty is not caused by perfection, because imperfect qualities may be perceived as beautiful. Indeed, qualities may sometimes be perceived as more beautiful because they are imperfect. Beauty may be perfect or imperfect.
According to Burke, qualities which reveal beauty include lightness, mildness, clearness, smoothness, gracefulness, and gradual variation. Although sublime objects may be vast and overwhelming, beautiful objects may be delicate and small. Although the sublime may be strong and powerful, the beautiful may be gentle and calm. Although the sublime may be tragic and gloomy, the beautiful may be joyful and bright. Thus, the sublime and the beautiful may be combined in varying ways in works of art.
A conclusion to be drawn from this theory is that the reason why a great work of art is so inspiring is because it is not merely beautiful, but sublime. While the beauty of a work of art may inspire love or admiration, the sublimity of a work of art may inspire awe or astonishment at its mystery and power.