20 NOVEMBER, 2014
By: Maria Popova
A 100-second anatomy of astonishment.
Britain’s Open University has previously given us some illuminating animated explainers of the history of the English language, the world’s major religions, philosophy’s greatest thought experiments, and the major creative movements in design. They have now partnered with BBC broadcaster and In Our Time host Melvyn Bragg on a series adapting Bragg’s BBC4 podcast A History of Ideas into short animations that synthesize some of humanity’s most influential ideas.
Among them is 18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s exploration of the difference between the beautiful and the sublime, scrutinized in his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (public library | IndieBound).
In one of the most powerful passages in the book, Burke describes the effect of the sublime in its highest degree — a psychic state we might, today, call awe:
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. 1 In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.
This, no doubt, is what Ptolemy meant when he beheld the heavens and what Carl Sagan felt two millennia later in encountering the cosmos.
Complement with Ursula K. Le Guin’s sublime meditation on what beauty really means, Susan Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, and the evolutionary science of “beauty overload.”
HT Open Culture
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