Edmund Burke on: the sublime Normally, we hate being made to feel small. We can’t stand being humbled, or reminded of our own insignificance; we get affronted and resentful. The 18th century Anglo-Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, however, thought that these experiences could be rather wonderful, and quite important too. To explain what he meant he developed the idea of the sublime in a beautiful book called, “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, first published in England in 1757. In modern use, sublime just means “very, very nice”: “a sublime glass of chambertin”, “a sublime plate of scrambled eggs with truffles”. But, this wasn’t at all what Burke was interested in, although there is a slight connection. For Burke, a sublime experience is indeed one that’s really nice, but it’s nice for a very strange reason: it makes us feel insignificant. Burke was obsessed with a range of experiences, that is, sublime experiences, in which being slightly humiliated is actually something we relish. He was picking up on a sector of human experience that, up to then, had been totally ignored. One of his key examples is storms, the vast dark skies oppressive, the wind is horribly powerful, large trees are overturned, we feel we’re nothing in the face of the violence of nature. But, this helps put things in perspective: in comparison with the storm, the familiar irritants of daily life seem less significant. Something similar happens when we contemplate a huge mountain, or view the enormous frozen wilderness of the Labrador Coast from the window of an Airbus A380. Burke also liked vast, momentous stories. He loved Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, which describes the cosmic struggle between God and Satan, because stories like these also make the irksome details of ordinary life seem, for a moment, almost idiotically minor. Burke is latching onto a good way of being made to feel small. He’s noticing that when we feel small in some ways, we become good and large in other dimensions: bits of our egoism and pride seem less impressive, so we might be moved to be more tolerant – less wrapped up in our own concerns. Burke saw the sublime as a useful corrective; it restores perspective, and that’s why we like it. It’s a psychological maneuver that can benefit us in many ways, and shows its utility whenever there’s an excessive tendency to get caught up in the details of an immediate situation. Thanks to Edmund Burke, a little, but valuable area of experience gained a name. It became possible to focus on it, and see its role in life more clearly. The sublime emerged, at first, in connection with nature and the arts, but its contribution to existence is actually quite broad: we don’t just need the sublime on holiday, or in an art gallery, which are, unfortunately, the places we’re liable to encounter it; it’s something we need to build into our lives on a daily basis. In the Utopia, there would be deliberate strategies to ensure we encounter the sublime on a regular basis. In the past, religions were quite careful to set up a meeting with the sublime every Sunday. After a week in a factory, or the office, or caught up in domestic life, everyone would be confronted with ideas of internal grandeur: a God who loves the world so much that he sacrifices his only son for our salvation, architecture that asserted the heritage of a thousand years and music calculated to make us feel part of the whole of humanity. But, for almost everyone that resource is no longer available. We’re collectively in need of new occasions to meet the sublime in a reliable frequent way so that we can be made to feel small in the most helpful way on a regular basis.