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Book Review: ‘A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Sublime and Beautiful’ by Edmund Burke

A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Sublime and Beautiful by Edmund Burke The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

First published in 1756, then republished with significant additions the next year, Edmund Burke’s ‘A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’ is a seminal work in the subject of aesthetics.

What characteristics and attributes do things we universally call “beautiful” possess?

So also, whatever else we might call what Burke categorizes as “sublime,” there is something about great and terrible mountains and dangerous creatures which is of an entirely different quality and nature from those things which we call pretty and sweet.

Burke is not in a hurry, though. Nor does he even promise that we will know these things as well at the end as we will possess greater humility in having faced the daunting challenge of trying to understand them better. Nevertheless, Burke infuses his exploration of the topic with a love for truth, goodness, and beauty which itself embodies both stylistically and symbolically those same qualities he is endeavoring that we all grasp with greater appreciation.

“We must not attempt to fly, when we can scarcely pretend to creep.”

That is, ‘slow down.’ We will never understand these things if we are in a hurry and fly right over them. Burke then bids us stop and smell the roses here, and appreciate their thorns, then see the illiberality of the other sciences moderated with a fuller and more soulful humanity.

Seeing what comes of the stubborn relativizing and purely materialistic trivializing of all that is wild and wonderful in our day, I dare say Burke can help us here to regain our civilization.

By that I mean that Burke’s ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful‘ really is a fine example of a civilized gentleman doing what the best of such used to be known for. And if we would learn to be more civil relative our enjoyment of aesthetics, for instance, we can look to not only what he is saying in substance but also the manner in which we gracefully explores it here.

Dare I say it, we could all stand much more of this kind of civility and gentlemanliness – this combination of intellectual humility and spiritual confidence. And we should study to acquire and embody it ourselves as Burke did, fitted for our own context and today of course.

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