On April 15, the anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln, one of Western civilization’s great icons was nearly destroyed. A catastrophic fire broke out in the exquisite, centuries-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The medieval roof and 19th century spire were destroyed, and the vast interior was flooded by water from the Seine used to fight the flames. Had the fire been allowed to blaze for just a few minutes longer, the bell towers and much of the rest of the exterior might have been lost.

Parisians thronged the quays to watch, joined by millions of television viewers around the world. The crowds were mostly silent; some softly sang “Ave Maria.” All were transfixed by a spectacle both horrifying and oddly compelling. Sorrow was naturally the dominant emotion, but as day turned to night and the flames leaped high in the air in an incandescent display, fascination mingled with sadness as the work of centuries was undone within hours. The citizens of London were similarly enraptured when the Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834, a scene captured by eyewitness J.M.W. Turner in a dazzling pair of paintings. The sight of destruction at a safe distance inspires both fear and wonder.

This tangle of emotions was explored by the 18th century Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke in his 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

Burke was born in 1730 on the banks of the Liffey in Dublin, and educated at Trinity College. In 1750, he moved to London to study law at the behest of his father, but soon abandoned legal studies in favor of literary life. Enquiry was a best seller and helped make his reputation; eight years later he was elected to Parliament, where he would emerge as one of the greatest orators of the age.

In Enquiry he wrote, “I can never persuade myself that pleasure and pain are mere relations, which can only exist as they are contrasted.” As his biographer Richard Bourke has observed, Burke did not believe that “the diminution of the one entailed an increase in the experience of the other.” Rather, both can be evoked simultaneously, often by the elemental fury of nature. As Burke observed, the blending of pity and fear leads to a paradox: “terror is a passion which produces delight when it does not press too close, and pity is a passion accompanied by pleasure, because it arises from love”. Notre Dame, the literal and metaphorical center of Paris for nearly a millennium, is not only a temple of Christian worship but a love object for the millions who have visited or admired it from afar.

Burke believed that “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, 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.” And for a few hours on that fateful day, people in Paris and around the world were united in shared emotion as one of the greatest jewels of our civilization teetered on the brink of destruction. Doubtlessly haunted by the eventual collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, many looked at the bell towers of Notre Dame in an agony of suspense, wondering if they would remain standing and rejoicing when they did. The release from that unbearable tension was itself a source of pleasure in the midst of so much pain.

Of course, the sight of the roofless ruin the following morning was anything but sublime. Yet hopefully, the same passions that united millions while the flames were burning will energize the effort to rebuild. Vast sums have already been pledged and the French president has declared the restoration a national priority to be completed within five years.

Notre Dame has survived many setbacks. The last time it suffered such serious damage was during the 1790s, when revolutionary mobs ransacked it and transformed it into a so-called “Temple of Reason.” And the most articulate and outspoken critic of this wanton destruction? Burke, author of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, a foundational tract of modern conservatism. There is little in the present or the past that cannot be better understood by the study of Burke.

Michael F. Bishop is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society, and the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.