Edmund Burke and the Romantic Era
An exceprt from a book review by Arthur Krystal — Hello, Beautiful: What We Talk About When We Talk About Beauty:
- Following Hume's lead that sensations are at the root of whatever imperfect knowledge we may have, Burke also maintained that certain sensations, if powerful enough, are absolute in a way that brooks no disinterestedness. Burke's "A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful," published in the same year as Hume's essay, argued that beauty "belongs" to things only when they induce in us feelings like "affection and tenderness." What sort of beautiful things might those be? -- any that possess qualities of comparative smallness, smoothness, variety (though the parts must be in come relation), and delicacy. So an Arabian horse wins out over a charger, and a greyhound over a mastiff. And a woman's beauty, incidentally, "is enhanced by [her timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it." Is that a problem for anyone?
Even more than Hume, Burke stressed the physiological effects of things. Beauty, for instance, which is characterized by charm, harmony, simplicity, radiance, along with perfection of detail, derives from feelings of pleasure and has a relaxing effect on the "fibers" of the human body. By contrast, the sublime, which derives from feelings of pain, tightens these fibers. Beauty merely invites; the sublime commands.
By relegating beauty to what pleases us, Burke not only cut out its metaphysical heart but demoted it to mere appearances. Even the idea that the beautiful was composed -- in both senses of the word, having form and serenity -- worked to diminish it. The sublime, after all, was not so much composed as intimidating. This distinction allows us to turn from beauty (since it depends on our apprehension of it) but not from the sublime, which exists independently of us. The effect of Burke's treatise was immediate. If feeling rather than reason was behind artistic expression -- if the sublime scattered pleasure and beauty before it, just as genius sent taste and the rules of decorum packing -- then artists who demonstrated greater energy and raw power were better than those who adhered to order and regularity. Because the beautiful could be realized, it was limited. But the sublime, which channeled the infinite and the inexpressible, could never be fully or artfully rendered. From this Burke deduces that: "A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea." Goodbye Aquinas and Descartes; with a wave of the sublime, Burke cast out the neoclassical.