On the Sublime, which is traditionally attributed to Longinus (the first or second century AD?), analyzes the sources of the sublime in literature. They include nobility of mind, the ability to feel powerful emotions, aesthetic structure, beautiful prose, and enormous natural phenomena, like the ocean or mountains. When this treatise was translated into English in 1674, it set off a widespread debate about the sublime to become what Hugh Honour calls "the most confused and confusing aesthetic notion of our time." . In this welter of contradictory opinions, Edmund Burke produced A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Idea of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757); it became the definitive essay on this subject and provided a theoretical basic for the contradictory emotions of pleasure and fear that the Gothic novel aroused in readers.

Burke permanently separated the beautiful from the sublime and made them incompatible categories; that is, a landscape might be beautiful or sublime, but not both. The sublime, he asserted, has only one cause, terror.


A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Idea of
the Sublime and the Beautiful


Section VI.ľof the Passions Which Belong to Self-preservation

Most of the ideas which are capable of making a powerful impression on the mind, whether simply of Pain or Pleasure, or of the modifications of those, may be reduced very nearly to these two heads, self-preservation and society; to the ends of one or the other of which all our passions are calculated to answer. The passions which concern self-preservation, turn mostly on pain or danger. The ideas of pain, sickness, and death, fill the mind with strong emotions of horror; but life and health, though they put us in a capacity of being affected with pleasure, make no such impression by the simple enjoyment. The passions therefore which are conversant about the preservation of the individual turn chiefly on pain and danger, and they are the most powerful of all the passions.


Section VII.ľof the Sublime

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that, is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the ,strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy. Nay, I am in great doubt whether any man could be found, who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction, at the price of ending it in the torments, which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late unfortunate regicide in France. But a pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful is, that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience.


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