December 5, 2021

The beautiful and the great.

Does the beautiful and the great spring from the same source? A short essay.

The beautiful and the great.

“Look at The Shard in London! Is it not beautiful?”

If Irish philosopher Edmund Burke was asked this question, I imagine that he would reply: “No, The Shard is not beautiful. It is great.” I imagine this, because Burke made the following distinction.

The Great has terror for its basis … the beautiful is founded on mere positive pleasure. (Burke, 1998)

This is an interesting remark. And it gives strong meaning to the two words. Suddenly, the sentence “we were great” means “we used to instil terror in people’s hearts”. Whereas the sentence “we were beautiful” means “we used to be pleasing to people”. Greatness impresses us. An active example of this might be bungee-jumping. It is a sensation of pure terror, of awe, and it might be truly great. However, it is not beautiful, as it is not pleasurable.

The interpretation presented is quite anthropocentric, and that is intentional. Rephrasing a common philosophical question might reveal why.

If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound? This question is interesting because it is not entirely clear. If by “sound” we mean the physical phenomenon of changes in air pressure, then I think it fair to say that it does make a sound. However, if we mean “that which is heard”, then I think it is fair to say that it makes no sound.

Now, let us rephrase this little question. If a tree falls and no one experiences it, does it terrorise?

The obvious answer to this question seems to be no, because terror is an experience which does not exist objectively. Pleasure seems to exist in the same way. Not objectively, but tangent to a subject. In this case, tangent to humans.

If pleasure and terror exists as such, then why do we insist on building great buildings instead of beautiful buildings? The Shard in London, The ArtScience Museum in Singapore, and the monestary of Sainte Marie de la Tourette near Lyon are all examples of architecture which terrorises the people around it. Think about it: A building terrorises people! And gets away with it! People do not get away with terrorising people. So, why are we stricter with fellow human beings than we are with buildings?

I do not mean to say that buildings are as terorising as bungee-jumping or a tree falling. Nor that all great things ought to vanish. Surely, a great piece of architecture which makes us feel small can be good every once in a while. But when it dominates the scene; when terror is placed centre-stage ahead of pleasure, by us and for us, is there not something wrong with our priorities?

Rousseau would likely reply “yes” to that last question by arguing that our amour-propre has gone wild. Amour-propre is a perverted form of self-love, wherein social status matters more than actually loving oneself. Perhaps that is what is going on. Perhaps we are caught up in the status that greatness provides, instead of simply treating ourselves to some beauty.

Edmund Burke rings out from the past with this wonderfully concise distinction, and I think that the time has come to press this insight to our chests. It is time for beauty to please us, and for terror to take the back seat. If not, the consequences of letting status of greatness take over can be dire. Rousseau explains this when he tries to escape that terror of amour-propre by wandering alone in nature.

In solitude, the troubles of amour-propre and the tumult of people tarnished, in my view, the freshness of the little forests and the woods. An unwelcome crowd followed me everywhere and veiled all nature from me. It was not until after being detached from the social passions and from their sad procession that I found it again with all its charms. (translated from Rousseau, 1999, p. 54)

So, no, the beautiful and the great do not spring from the same source. Moreover, we do not have to awe our neighbours all the time. Some beauty will suffice.

I leave you with that, and hope that you embrace pleasure and combat terror for the betterment of your being.


Burke, E. (1998). A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful: And other pre-revolutionary writings. Penguin.

Rousseau, J.-J. (1999). Rêveries du promeneur solitaire. Medialibri S.R.L.


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