chapter  10
10 Pages

Passion play: play, free will and the sublime


At the heart of the human experience is a seeming contradiction: we are often healthiest and happiest when our suffering is most acute. More to the point, suffering can restore happiness. The eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke was not the first to notice this phenomenon – Plato and Aristotle touch on the matter, as do Seneca and Spinoza – but he may have described it most pithily in his Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Beautiful and Sublime. ‘Whatever is in any sort terrible,’ he writes, ‘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’ (Burke 1757: 86). Here Burke is using the word ‘sublime’ in a way we seldom do any more, not as a synonym for ‘inspiring’ or ‘magnificent’ but to identify an experience of pleasure paradoxically predicated on pain, danger and trepidation. The immensities and power of nature (say, a raging river) can evoke these thrilling feelings. We feel at once fragile and invigorated. Even the hardships and challenges of daily life can arouse these contradictory feelings. ‘Without all doubt’, he continues,

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 exquisitely sensible body could enjoy.