How to Think about the Sublime and Beautiful: Aesthetics for Everyone

(From my podcast, Pneuma by Daniel Finneran)

Hello all, and welcome to this episode of Pneuma.

I’m your humble host, Daniel Finneran, and I’m honored to be joined by you today.

The subtitle of a recent episode, “Guided Beach Meditation” contained the following three words: the sand, the sea, and the sublime. For a treatment of the first two, the shifting sand and the salty sea, I refer you to that episode, to which I’ll provide a link in the show notes below.

I want, in this episode, to focus in a bit more on the last word, the sublime, a mysterious and captivating term about which, as is my long-winded wont, I have much more to say. 

But it’s not only the sublime that I want to discuss. I want to talk about the beautiful as well–the other side, so to speak, of the aesthetic coin. The beautiful is held in contrast to the sublime, and an ability to discriminate between the two will help to refine your aesthetic taste, to ennoble your thoughts, to enrich your daily life, to elevate your spirit, and to deepen your poetic soul. 

I want to develop these two phenomena in greater detail; to define and explore them; to measure the impact that they have on your aesthetic sense; to provide examples of their appearance in the visible, sublunary world; to suggest their manifestation in that which waits beyond; and to foster in you a keen sensitivity to their presence in nature, art, and life.

The sublime and the beautiful: a distinction between the two was first offered by the great Irish conservative Parliamentarian, orator, and philosopher, Edmund Burke. 

Edmund Burke, born in Dublin in 1729, is perhaps least remembered for his contributions to the field of aesthetics. He’s far better-known for his prescient criticism of the French Revolution before the Terror; his unwavering support for the colonial Americans in their War of Independence; and his vehement prosecution of the notorious nabob, Warren Hastings, the former governor of India over whose impeachment he presided. 

It can’t go unnoticed that all these issues are essentially political in nature. Important to that field of study, no doubt, but not typical of the material about which we here on Pneuma usually care to talk. On my sister podcast, “Finneran’s Wake”, on which I urge you to click and pass a few minutes, such topics are curiously examined and giddily pursued, but, here on Pneuma, we’ll follow them no further. 

What, then, has Burke—a confirmed political philosopher, more closely aligned  to Machiavelli than to Michelangelo—have to say about aesthetics? 

Listen a little while longer, and we’ll find out.

One of Burke’s first complete treatises bore the title, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In our age of short attention spans and catchy headlines, his original title has been condensed, mercifully, to the much more manageable, On the Sublime and Beautiful. The abridgment, in keeping with the essay’s theme, is in itself quite beautiful, and it serves as a lovely indication to the reader of what’s to come. 

After establishing, in his prefatory remarks, that there are, indeed, fixed principles of taste of which every single human being, no matter the level of his educational attainment, has an instinctual and infallible sense, he proceeds to introduce the idea of the sublime. 

The sublime, says Burke, is the “Strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling”. 

Think about that for a moment: the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of feeling. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that the mind’s capability of feeling strong emotions is nearly boundless. Strong emotions often beget yet stronger children, and we have no way of estimating precisely where this strength might exhaust itself or arrive at a terminal point. Even the most phlegmatic and subdued among us feels very strong emotions. We’re visited (or, depending on the case, tormented) by them in large numbers each and every single day. 

According to Burke, the sublime is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. 

The question, then, becomes: what is the source of the sublime? What is its cause? By what peculiar means is it brought to life? 

For one, terror. Terror is a source of the sublime. 

In the words of Burke, “Terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too closely” to us. 

If, god forbid, our life is in immediate peril, we experience no delight. This much, I think, is obvious to us all. The sight of a black bear, for example, standing erect on its hind legs, growling and salivating at the prospect of eating us for dinner, is terrifying, no doubt, but not in the least delightful. The extreme threat, the acute and crushing terror by which we’re menaced, presses upon us too closely. 

We must feel terror at some remove, at some comfortable distance. By so doing, we become acquainted with the sublime and experience delight. 

This might sound strange, but we also experience delight in the suffering of others. 

In their Suffering, you say? Really? How on earth can this be? Would this not make us sadists, brutes, demons?–heartless, savage barbarians unqualified for admittance into the gentle society of our fellow men? 

The source of our delight is not in the other person’s pain, for whose relief we would stop at nothing, but in the pity that’s provoked in us. 

Pity, Burke claims, “is a passion accompanied with pleasure because it arises from love and social affection”. 

Pity strengthens the bonds we enjoy with our fellow humans. It should be added, however, that this is not an “Unmixed delight, but one that’s blended uneasiness. The fright we have in such things hinders us from shunning scenes of misery; and the pain we feel prompts us to relieve courses in relieving those who suffer”. 

Thus, the pitiful delight, or the delightful pity by which we’re overcome when we witness another person in agony, duress, or emotional discomfort, is a powerful stimulus to sympathy.

The sublime causes astonishment. Astonishment is “That state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror”. Note, again, the influence of terror and horror when speaking of things that are sublime. 

Astonishment, you see, is not surprise, merely. That’s far too weak a synonym, if it has any claim to synonymity whatsoever. By someone’s misbehavior, for example, you might be disgusted, offended, hurt, or confused, but you are not, properly speaking, astonished. To be astonished is to be stupefied, to be thunderstruck, to be completely shaken to the bone and arrested on the spot. 

Astonishment, then, is the “effect of the sublime in its highest degree”. 

We now know that terror causes the sublime, and the sublime causes astonishment. We must ask ourselves, is there anything else that causes the sublime? And is there anything else of which the sublime is the cause? 

Vastness, or greatness of dimension, according to Burke, “is a powerful cause of the sublime”. 

In speaking of “dimension”, Burke means to include length, height, and depth. Of these, he says, “Length strikes (us) least; a hundred yards of even ground will never work such an effect as a tower a hundred yards high, or a rock or mountain of that altitude”. 

This, I think, is clear enough. Imagine standing on the goal line of a regulation-sized football field and looking directly out. Before you stretches a hundred yards. It is a long, but not an overpowering expanse of turf. Now, imagine that football field tilted vertically, so that you’re gazing upward, toward the sky, in search of the opposite end zone. It’s now propped up ninety degrees from its original resting position.That, height, is sublimer than length. 

Likewise, says Burke, “I am apt to imagine that height is less grand than depth; and that we are more struck at looking down from a precipice, than looking up at an object of equal height”. 

He goes on to specify that “a perpendicular has more force in forming the sublime than an inclined plane; and the effects of a rugged and broken surface seem stronger than where it is smooth and polished”. 

Imagine you’re approaching the precipice of a deep canyon, a vast chasm into which, with but one false step, you could easily tumble and fall. This is more terrifying, and therefore more sublime, than looking up at a towering figure. 

What do you think about this? Do you find it more impressive to look up a big, steep mountain, or to look down a plunging, precipitous cliff? Among all my dauntless hiking friends out there, a hesitant answer is probably now circulating or being argued. I, for one, have to concur with Burke: depth is more sublime than height. To look down into a bottomless depth is more affecting than to look up at a towering summit.

Another source of the sublime is infinity. This is why we like nothing better than to stare out at the ocean and the horizon. The eye, of course, is unable to detect the bounds of the ocean, nor the edges of the air. Its imponderable limits laugh at our feeble human organs of perception. The water, as a consequence, is rendered only apparently infinite, though we know, in reality, it eventually converges with and yields to a distant shore. 

Finally, magnificence is a source of the sublime. 

“A great profusion of things”, says Burke, “which are splendid or valuable in themselves, is magnificent”. 

“The starry heaven, (for instance), though it occurs so very frequently to our view, never fails to excite an idea of grandeur”. 

I couldn’t agree more. 

High above us, strewn across the vast, dark canopy of night, the heavenly orbs are scattered in a mass of splendid confusion. Occasionally they gather and organize themselves in brilliant constellations of ancient heroes and beasts, mythical figures embedded in their everlasting, firmamental home, but, by and large, they fix themselves in an unplanned effusion of light. 

That concludes our survey of the causes of the sublime. 

…By which we’re then led to a consideration of its elegant opposite, the beautiful. 

And in what way, according to Burke, are we to define the beautiful

“By beauty I mean that quality, or those qualities in bodies, that are the causes of love”.

Very charmingly put, but, again, we find ourselves at a loss and in urgent need of another definition! What does Burke mean when he uses the term love? Romantic love? Platonic love? Paternal love? Filial love? Love for one’s country? Love for a brand? For a celebrity? For a soccer club? For a flavor of ice cream? 

Burke is very clear in his differentiation of love, by which he means, “That satisfaction which arises to the mind upon contemplating anything beautiful, of whatsoever nature it may be” from desire or lust. Love, properly understood, is a deep affinity that enlivens the spirit and tickles the soul. It’s the pure, joyous contemplation of beauty, for the sake of its being beautiful. It’s a phenomenon that speaks but faintly to the body and the sensual organs through which its knowledge is conveyed; rather, its message is directed at and resonates in the mind, and the mind alone. 

There you have it–at least in part. Burke defines love negatively by assuring us that it is not desire or lust. It is not a function of our appetitive soul, to borrow a term from Aristotle. This type of love, rightly understood, has nothing to do with our baser, cruder, animal instincts. It has nothing to do with the gratification of the bodily, physical, dare I say, sexual urges by which we’re not infrequently visited. 

Positively, love is that “satisfaction which arises to the mind upon contemplating anything beautiful”. Love takes residence in the rational soul (to borrow again from Aristotle, according to whom the soul is in three parts divided: you have the nutritive soul, common to plants, animals, and humans alike; the appetitive soul, of which both animals and humans partake; and, finally, highest of all, the rational soul, of which humans (and gods) are the sole proprietors). 

Love is born of the contemplation of beautiful things. Beauty, in a very fundamental sense, gives life to love. Beauty preexists love, as your mother and your father preexist you. Beauty begets love. Beauty is known through love, just as you are begotten by and known through your two parents. 

We know, now, that beauty is the parent of love, but that leaves unanswered the difficult question of beauty’s parentage. What gives birth to beauty? In whose divine womb is it conceived? Or, like some omnipotent deity coursing through the empyrean above, is beauty self-created? Is it dependent on no anterior force? Is it a fruit independent of both soil and seed? 

To pursue an answer to these questions would, I fear, lead us too far afield from the engrossing theme on which we’re presently focused. Perhaps we shall address them another time. 

In the same way that St. Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval Catholic theologian, sought to define God by that which He was not (e.g. atemporal; aspatial; unlimited in wisdom, kindness, power, presence, and love), Burke likewise proceeds to define beauty negatively. 

To that end, he asks, Is proportion the cause of beauty? 

Burke thinks not. 

Take, for example, a swan, the length of whose neck far exceeds that of her legs. At this glaring disproportion, we look not in the least unfavorably, but, to the contrary, approvingly. We adore the swan for its gracile neck and total elegance of form, despite what is, by any measure, a clear imbalance between an elongated neck and a pair of stubby limbs. 

The same can be said of humans. Perhaps, in its idealized figuration, the circumference of the human neck should be twice that of the wrist, or equivalent to that of the calf, but would we condemn as “deformed”, “ugly”, or “disagreeable” that neck which failed to meet so exacting a standard? 

Mathematical ideas are not the true measures of beauty. 

Neither, for that matter, is fitness. That is to say, a thing’s utility in no way relates to its beauty. 

On this point, I quote Burke at length: 

“Many things are very beautiful, in which it is impossible to discern any idea of use. And I appeal to the first and most natural feelings of mankind, whether on beholding a beautiful eye, or a well-fashioned mouth, or a well-turned leg, any ideas of their being well fitted for seeing, eating, or running, ever present themselves. What idea of use is it that flowers excite, the most beautiful part of the vegetable world? It is true, that the infinitely wise and good Creator has, of his bounty, frequently joined beauty to those things which he has made useful to us: but this does not prove that an idea of use and beauty are the same thing, or that they are any way dependent on each other”.

That utility and beauty are found in combination is mere coincidence. The former is not a cause of the latter, and the latter is by no means damaged by the absence of the former. We must uncouple the tightly-joined notions of utility, or fitness, and beauty. 

After exhausting all the things by which beauty is uncaused, Burke proceeds, at last, to give us a positive definition. Beauty, he says, “Is a thing much too affecting not to depend upon some positive qualities. And, since it is no creature of our reason, since it strikes us without any reference to use…we must conclude that beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies acting upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses”. 

It should be here noted that Burke, like so many British intellectuals of his age, was an empiricist: his epistemology (or his theory about how people came to know things) held that all things are known through empirical, physical, measurable data, communicated to the mind through the mediating power of the senses. 

What, then, are the qualities of beauty by which the mind, or the soul, is impressed? 

Objects that are small; smooth, gradually, not abruptly varied; delicate; and of mild coloration. These sensible qualities enter the mind, in which feelings of love immediately swell. 

I think we’ll end this discussion on the sublime and the beautiful in Burke’s own, inimitable words. In contrasting the two sides of the aesthetic coin, he says the following: 

“Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth and polished; the sublime, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates it often makes a strong deviation; beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought be solid, and even massive”. 

I ask you, in closing, do you ever take note of the sublime? Of that which is beautiful, are you so much as dimly conscious? Are you sensitive enough to appreciate the large and the small, the awesome and the delicate, by which you’re everywhere surrounded? To examine nature in all her fine gradations and overwhelming splendor? To stand, with eyes transfixed and mouth agape, before the image of a towering mountain or a ceaseless sea? To look upon your partner through eyes of reverence and infatuation? To cradle an infant with boundless affection and limitless love? To touch a flower with knowing hands? To hear a symphony with a feeling ear? 

I want you, for just a minute, to think about something sublime. When is the last time you encountered such an image? Perhaps you were hiking recently at the Grand Canyon. Perhaps you were enjoying a final summer’s day at the beach. Perhaps you simply looked up toward the heavens at sunset, and witnessed the marvelous explosion and mixture of orange, red, purple, saffron, and blue.

Just breathe, and think about whatever image suggests itself to you. 

Think about the sublime. 

Now, for another minute, I want you to think about something beautiful. When is the last time you were greeted by a truly beautiful sight? Perhaps you exercised the sacred duty of bathing the tender flesh of a newborn child. Perhaps you plucked and held a blushing, fragile, light pink rose in the palm of your hand. Perhaps you stooped down along the shoreline and retrieved a perfect seashell, smoothed by a thousand years of salty kisses and gentle currents. 

Just breathe, and think about that which is beautiful. 

Breathe, and think about beauty. 

I know this episode was a touch longer, and a little more philosophical than those to which we’re accustomed. The theme, I contend, was too grand to be left unexplored. And, so, in this episode, we looked at the differences between the sublime and the beautiful; counted their respective causes; demonstrated their examples in nature and life; and learned how to detect them. 

The central mind of this episode, around which all my feeble commentary revolves, is Edmund Burke. We learned about his great, if not widely-cited, contribution to aesthetics. His work is as good as any for the promotion of your own understanding of this difficult field. We referenced, if only briefly, Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. 

I hope you are able to take Burke’s lessons and apply them to your own life. I can assure you, a deeper knowledge of the sublime and the beautiful will enrich, enlarge, and exalt it. 

Thank you for listening to this episode. 

Please, subscribe….

And with that, I’ve exhausted myself. Farewell, from Pneuma.

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