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Burke, Kant and the Sublime

by Gur Hirshberg

“…my first observation… will be found very nearly true; that the sublime is an idea belonging to selfpreservation. That it is therefore one of the most affecting we have. That its strongest emotion is an emotion of distress, and that no pleasure from a positive cause belongs to it.” (Burke, p.79)

An inquiry into the sublime is worthwhile if only because the observation above seems counterintuitive: in current parlance, the ‘sublime’ is often taken to describe one or another sensual pleasure, as in a ‘sublime piece of music’, a ‘sublime kiss’, or even, to quote The New York Times food critic, “at Chez Pushcart, the cuisine is sublime.” The connection between these pleasures and self-preservation may be apparent – as in the case of food – or it may elude us, as in the case of music. But we do not immediately associate the sublime with self-preservation; if ‘distress’ is experienced, it is experienced when the ‘sublime’ moment has ended and not because we perceive distress as part of what defines that moment itself. Therefore, the contemporary observer is likely either to dispute Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime, or to say that Burke goes too far by even attempting to define such a subjective term. If Burke associates the sublime with distress, the relativist would argue, then that association implies nothing beyond Burke’s own experience; perhaps Burke was a masochist.

In the first introduction to his Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant levels a criticism of Burke which is precisely the opposite of the relativist’s; Kant charges that Burke does not go far enough. “Empirical psychology”, writes Kant,

“will hardly ever be able to claim the rank of a philosophical science, and probably its only true obligation is to make psychological observations (as Burke does in his work on the beautiful and sublime), and hence to gather material for future empirical rules that are to be connected systematically, yet to do so without trying to grasp these rules.” (Critique of Judgment, p.427)

What we have here is not just a statement by Kant that his own work is of greater merit than Burke’s. To call an observation ‘empirical’ is to suggest a realm in which the truth or falsity of claims can be tested; an empirically true claim is a statement of fact. That is saying more for Burke than the contemporary relativist would. Kant believes empirical rules exist (though to Kant’s mind Burke had not formulated these, but merely ‘gathered materials’) but they are not sufficient to connect aesthetics to a basic, absolute principle and thus to make aesthetic judgments possible (as opposed to mere statements of fact or acknowledgments of sensation). “Aesthetic reflective judgments”, says Kant,

“claim necessity…If these judgments, in claiming necessity, did not contain a reference to such a principle, we would have to assume it legitimate to assert that the judgment ought to hold universally because observation proves that it actually holds universally, and to assert, conversely, that from the fact that everybody judges a certain way it follows that he also ought to judge that way. But that is obviously absurd.” (Critique…, p.248)

Absurd it may be, but it is certainly easier to identify, for example, the Mona Lisa as an object of beauty, than to explain precisely what underlying principle is involved in that judgment.

As for the sublime, Kant tells us that

“in what we usually call sublime in nature there is … an utter lack of anything leading to particular objective principles… the theory of the sublime [is thus] a mere appendix to our aesthetic judging of the purposiveness of nature.” (Critique…, p.100)

Far from being a “mere appendix”, the experience of the sublime was, for Burke, more valuable than the experience of the beautiful. In his own words, Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful is an “examination of our passions in our breasts.” As he associates it with selfpreservation, it follows that for Burke, the sublime is the more important of the two aesthetic categories. And it is no mere coincidence that further down along the psychology versus metaphysics continuum, we arrive at Sigmund Freud, who has a great deal to say about the sublime and about sublimation, but who writes of beauty that it:

“has no obvious use: nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it… Psychoanalysis…has scarcely anything to say about beauty… All that seems certain is its derivation from the field of sexual feeling.” (Freud, p.33)

Burke calls his enquiry ‘philosophical’ and inasmuch as it raises philosophical questions, that is an apt description. But Kant was nearer the mark when he called Burke’s a work of empirical psychology. In his ‘Introduction on Taste,’ Burke writes – in a passage which sounds fairly similar to Kant’s passage about aesthetic judgments holding universally – that :

“if Taste has no fixed principles, if the imagination is not affected according to some invariable and certain laws, our labour… must be judged an useless… undertaking…. to set up for a legislator of whims and fancies.” (Burke, p.12)

What is ‘psychological’ and new here, is that Burke seeks to arrive at these fixed principles by studying human passions. That we can learn anything useful from the study of our passions in themselves, that they are a meaningful ‘unit of analysis’, these were very resonant notions in 1757 when the Enquiry was published. Thomas Weiskel tells us that “[t]he sublime revives as God withdraws from an immediate participation in the experience of man.” (Weiskel, quoted in Adam Phillips, p.xi)

In the eighteenth century, ‘God’s withdrawal’ was unmistakably taking place. Kant, for example, did not want to condition people’s obedience to moral law on their assuming as he did, that God exists. And even for Kant himself, that assumption was not one that arose of its own, from faith, grace or such ‘quaint’ notions, but from human necessity: “…in order to set ourselves a final purpose in conformity with the moral law…it is also necessary that we assume…that there is a God.” (Critique.., p.340) In that language were sewn the seeds of Freud’s twentieth century debunking of religion in Civilisation and its Discontents, where the Devil is posited as

“…the best way out as an excuse for God [i.e. as an explanation for evil]; in that way [the Devil] would be playing the same part as an agent of economic discharge as the Jew does in the world of the Aryan ideal.” (Freud, p.79)

The idea of God and the Devil is as much a human construct for Freud as the Aryan ideal. Indeed other passages suggest that he finds the former idea every bit as reprehensible as the latter. “The whole thing,” Freud writes of religion,

“is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.” (Freud, p.22)

Burke would have disagreed with Freud on the matter of God’s existence. In one section of the Enquiry Burke writes: “Our Creator has designed that we should be united by the bond of sympathy; he has strengthened that bond by a proportionable delight.” (Burke, p.42). And a few pages later, Burke suggests that God ‘planted’ ambition in man, and that without ambition there would be no progress. But that smacks of the same kind of belief necessitated by the believers’ ends as Kant’s passage about “setting ourselves a final purpose.” For Burke, it is not sufficient to state that God’s ways are mysterious and that if He endows us with ambition, He must have his reasons. No; ambition must be linked to ‘progress’ to make it palatable to the enlightened; God’s will is intelligible to man: He wants progress.

All of this may seem a digression from what this article set out to be: an inquiry into the sublime. Actually, the opposite is the case: Burke’s and Kant’s theories of the sublime sprang from worldviews in which what one thought of God’s relationship to man determined the very legitimacy of aesthetics as a field of inquiry.

Adam Phillips writes, “In Burke’s Enquiry, we find the beginnings of a secular language for profound human experience: in rudimentary form, a new erotic empiricism.” (Phillips, p.xi) Could there be, though, dimensions to the sublime that are not connected to eros? On simply reading one of Kant’s section headings, ‘On the Mathematically Sublime’, one suspects that there are. Sublime experience, for Kant, consists of two types of ‘agitations of the mind’: the ‘mathematically sublime’ and the ‘dynamically sublime.’ (Critique.., p.101)

Kant’s definition of the mathematically sublime reminds us again of what we may call ‘Weiskel’s Law of the Conservation of Awe’. For down to the last detail, Kant’s description of the mathematically sublime parallels the Judeo-Christian account of God’s magnitude. “We call sublime” Kant writes, “what is absolutely large ….” (Critique.., p.103) and “That is sublime in comparison with which everything else is small.” (p.105) Further along in the Critique, Kant refers to

“…the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law…the commandment [Exodus 20:4]: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth.” (Critique.., p.135)

That passage has traditionally been interpreted as proscribing idolatry, against the depiction of gods other than the True God. It is taken for granted that God Himself defies depiction. As the Jewish hymn has it:

“…No form or shape has the incorporeal One,
Most holy He, past all comparison.
He was, ere aught was made in heaven, or earth,
But His existence has no date, or birth.”
(Daniel ben Judah, p.7)

It is no mere coincidence that that hymn approaches, in its description of God, Kant’s formula of the sublime as “what even to be able to think proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of sense.” (Critique.., p.106) The hymn was written around 1800, a time when it seemed particularly necessary to remind enlightened men that there are things in the universe which are inconceivable and ‘past all comparison’. With this theme in mind, the hymn’s composer wrote a tribute to God, whereas Kant, for his part, sums up the wondrous irony of comprehending the incomprehensible, by, predictably, glorying in the powers of the human mind.

But is Kant right to place such great emphasis on the powers of the mind? The Bible enjoins us to “love God with [our] heart[s]” (Deuteronomy 6:5) alluding to the very passions that served as Burke’s focus. Indeed, accounts of the human mind are conspicuously scarce in the Bible. One notable exception, the account of the acquisition of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, is perhaps the exception that proves the rule; certainly it is not very flattering. One almost feels pity for Kant, that the Bible treats the mind thus…but if all he can say of the sublime’s impact on the mind is that this impact consists of “agitation” – he does not even call it “profound agitation”, and one gets the impression that Kant marvels at the mind’s ability to experience this agitation more than he does at the agitation itself – then perhaps that is his just desert.

Burke’s account of “[t]he passion caused by the great and sublime in nature,.. [which] is Astonishment” (Burke, p.53) is far more resonant to the Biblically-minded than Kant’s ‘agitations of the mind’. “Admiration, reverence and respect”; these, Burke tells us, are “the inferior effects” of the sublime (ibid, emphasis mine). Burke does not say why they are inferior; perhaps their inferiority is just an ‘empirical fact’. But at least Burke leaves room for believers like this writer to say: “Of course they are inferior. We are humans, inadequate to the task of according God the admiration, reverence and respect He commands of us; astonishment is the response elicited by our recognising that inadequacy.”

Though it was certainly not meant to, Kant’s definition of ‘reverence’ can be taken to support that very point. In his Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes of reverence that it “is not a feeling received through outside influence, but one self-produced by a rational concept and therefore specifically distinct from feelings of the first kind all of which can be reduced to inclination or fear…” (p.69)

Kant does not care much for ‘feelings of the first kind’; he would likely classify astonishment as a feeling ‘reducible to fear’. Rather than dismissing as arrogant Kant’s classification of reverence as ‘self-produced’, though, we can think of it as complementing Burke’s account of the superior and the inferior effects of the sublime. Thus ‘admiration, reverence and respect’ are inferior precisely because they are ‘self-produced’; we can agree with Kant’s distinctions without sharing his preference for the ‘self-produced’ over ‘fears and inclinations’ when the source of these latter is God.

The connection between the sublime and fear is made repeatedly by both Kant and Burke; it is that connection which will bring us back full circle to those a priori principles, that link the sublime to morality. To quote Freud yet again:

“First [in our psychological development] comes renunciation of instinct owing to fear of aggression by the external authority…[a]fter that comes the erection of an internal authority, and renunciation of instinct owing to fear of it – owing to fear of conscience.” (Freud, pp. 89-90)

The distinction between external and internal authority is, of course, central to Kant’s metaphysics of morals; moral action is only meaningful to Kant if it springs from the individual’s free and disinterested good will. Yet disinterested action must be reconciled with the existence of an awe-inspiring Creator. For that reconciliation, Kant’s notion of the ‘dynamically sublime’ is necessary. “When in aesthetic judgment, we consider nature as a might that has no dominance over us”, writes Kant, “then it is dynamically sublime. If we are to judge nature as sublime dynamically, we must present it as arousing fear.” (Critique.., p.119) That ‘we’, humans are the ones doing the judging of nature, that we “must present it as arousing fear” not because it is so, but because only then will it meet our criterion of the dynamically sublime, these ends-oriented definitions are by now not surprising. But we have nothing to fear, as it were, for “[w]e can, however, consider an object fearful without being afraid of it,..” (ibid) Question: What ‘object’ is it which Kant has in mind? Answer: “…Thus a virtuous person fears God without being afraid of him.” (ibid) Up until that sentence, Kant is talking about nature. But nature is too amorphous to illustrate ‘fearfulness without fear’, so God (‘the incorporeal One’, remember) is brought in as an example of that notion. Further, if God, like nature, is ‘dynamically sublime’, then He has ‘no dominance over us’; we simply acknowledge Him as a ‘might’. Now it is a very odd Deity that neither dominates us nor makes us afraid, whilst at the same time being proclaimed as mighty and awe-inspiring. Kant succeeds in eliciting more than an ‘agitation of the mind’ from such a description; it is truly ‘astonishing’, though perhaps not quite in the same way that Burke uses the word. But in the context of Kant’s metaphysics, if we are to have a Deity at all – for the setting of ‘final causes’ and all that – then those must be Its characteristics if we are to have total moral autonomy at the same time. In the section where he writes of “the most sublime passage in the Jewish law,” Kant asserts that:

“The same [proscription against making graven images] holds also for our presentation of the moral law, and for the predisposition within us for morality. It is indeed a mistake to worry that depriving this presentation of whatever could commend it to the senses will result in its carrying with it no more than a cold and lifeless approval without moving force or emotion.” (Critique.., p.135)

In the context of the dynamically sublime, then, it is fear of God in the traditional sense – before He became dynamically sublime – which Kant finds analogous to making a graven image. Fear of God certainly commends the moral law to the senses, but Kant is mistaken if he thinks that he can allay believers’ worries by promising them that obeying the “bare law for its own sake” can be as erotic as obeying the law out of fear. For the believer’s chief worry does not concern eros versus ‘cold and lifeless approval’, but rather salvation versus damnation.

Again Burke, with his appreciation for Milton, for a Hell of fire and brimstone, is closer to the traditional conception of God: “I know of nothing sublime which is not some modification of power, [which]…rises…from terror…the common stock of everything that is sublime.” (Burke, p.59) It is fitting that the Biblical references that Burke cites as sublime are from the Book of Job, in which God and man appear in utterly unequal confrontation. “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook,” God taunts Job, “Will he make a covenant with thee?” (Job, 41: 1&4) “I know some people are of the opinion,” wrote Burke, some years before Kant appeared on the scene,

“that no awe, no degree of terror, accompanies the idea of power, and have hazarded to affirm, that we can contemplate the idea of God himself without any such emotion…yet no conviction of the justice with which it is exercised, nor the mercy with which it is tempered, can wholly remove the terror that naturally arises from a force which nothing can withstand.” (Burke, pp.62-3)

In his commentary on Genesis, the mediaeval commentator Rabbi Levi writes: “if (one) desirest the world to endure, there can be no absolutely strict judgment, while if (one) desirest absolutely strict judgment, the world cannot endure.” (Levi, p.429) Kant desirest both, and his metaphysical world, with its formulations of the sublime hinging on the powers of the human mind, cannot endure under scrutiny. “Shall mortal man be more just than God?” Job is asked. (Job: 4:17) Of course, the fact that he cannot is no reason for man to abandon justice altogether, but “absolutely strict” justice does violence to our knowledge of human limitations. Kant tells us that “…the mind has a power surpassing any standard of sense.” That, in essence, is what he derives from his study of the sublime. But a formula which defines the sublime in cerebral terms alone may be as much a sign of the deterioration of the soul in the eighteenth century, as the equation of the term with the sensual is a sign of the deterioration of our language in the twentieth century. Through approaching the Source of the sublime as more than a necessary component of our metaphysics – indeed, as the Being Who gave the mind its powers and on Whom those powers are dependent – we may yet come nearer the true meaning of the sublime.


Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, edited with an introduction by Adam Phillips, (OUP, 1990).
Daniel ben Judah, ‘Yigdal’, in J.H. Hertz, ed., The Authorised Daily Prayer Book. (Bloch, 1975).
Freud, Sigmund, Civilisation and Its Discontents with a biographical introduction by Peter Gay, (W.W. Norton & Co., 1989).
Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgment translated by Werner S. Pluhar, (Hackett Publishing Co., 1987).
Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. translated and analysed by H.J. Paton, (Harper & Row, 1964)
Rabbi Levi’s commentary in Midrash Rabbah translated by H. Freedman (The Soncino Press, 1983) volume 1.

© G. Hirshberg 1994

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