Pity and Fear: Providential Sociability in Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry

  • Richard Bourke
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives internationales d'histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 206)


Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry has regularly been interpreted as serving either a political or theological purpose. This chapter argues that the work was intended instead as a study of imaginative sensibility, focussing on the emotions of pity and fear as these were stimulated by the experience of the beautiful and the sublime. In investigating these emotions, Burke’s central question became that of how the imagination is drawn to sympathise with situations that inspire uncomfortable sentiments like fear. After posing this question, Burke proceeded to consider it in its religious and social aspects. On the one hand, he examined how the awesome spectacle of divine power could induce a feeling of pride, reviving a question that Boileau had already explored through the lens of Longinus. On the other hand, he considered the old Aristotelian topic, debated in the eighteenth century from Jean-Baptiste Dubos to David Hume, of how the representation of terrible emotions could move an audience to pity. This latter question extended into a wider inquiry into the role of aesthetic education in religious and political life. The chapter argues that while Burke recognised the centrality of aesthetic sentiment to religious conviction and social cohesion, the intention of the Enquiry was to show that although the various departments of life were enlivened by the imagination, they were not simply reducible to taste.


Eighteenth Century Critical Reflection Philosophical Enquiry Moral Sentiment Artistic Representation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I am grateful to the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library for support that enabled me to undertake research contained in this chapter. I would also like to express my thanks to Jennifer Pitts, and to the participants in the Ideen Forum Geschichte at Munich University, for discussing my argument, and to Michael Sonenscher, Rowan Boyson and Michael Funk Deckard for their comments on an earlier draft.

Copyright information

© Springer Netherlands 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of History, Queen MaryUniversity of LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations