Introduction to Political Aesthetics

Political aesthetics has been an important topic of political philosophy ever since the publication of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. For Burke’s critics, his sudden criticism of the French Revolution was shocking if not an act of apostasy given his previous support for the American Revolution. For Burke and his defenders, both in his time and today, there was a remarkable consistency in his political outlook from the 1750s through to the time of his death in 1797—that consistency being his aesthetics.

Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) charted out the aesthetics of the sublime and the beautiful. While Burke defended the reality and importance of the sublime, it is also clear that he favors the beautiful over the sublime as a matter of personal taste. This is, perhaps, the place of grand misunderstanding and consternation among Burke’s former supporters who were shocked when he broke with the more radical Whigs (and his protégé Charles Fox) and stood on the side of William Pitt and the anti-revolutionary Tory government. They had read Burke as favoring the sublime instead of the beautiful. As David Womersley writes concerning Burke’s political attitudes and emotions, in looking at this support for the American Revolution and his disseverance with the British supporters of the French Revolution, “By juxtaposing The Sublime and the Beautiful with Burke’s major political writings of the 1750s and the 1770s, this edition allows a different picture to emerge, in which the aesthetic and political subjects are linked more through the category of the beautiful than the sublime. Particularly, in Burke’s writings on the war with the American colonies, love and affection are the cardinal political emotions, not reverence and awe.”

The subdivision of political philosophy concerned with political aesthetics examines the nature of the political and political ideology from aesthetic attitudes. Burke, for many reasons, is foundational—not only for giving the first systematic treatise of the sublime and beautiful, but for also being seen as a founding father of modern conservatism and the reactive force against the revolutionary and social engineering society as opposed to natural and organic society (a theme already prefigured in his Vindication of Natural Society). Aesthetic choices and tastes are instrumental for understanding political predisposition.

Burke argues that the sublime is “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Those emotions are danger, pain, and terror. The beautiful, by contrast, is “distinguished from the sublime…by…that quality or those qualities in bodies by which the cause love, or some passion similar to it.” The emotion, or feeling, of love, produces a feeling of pleasantry, joy, and restfulness. The sublime, however, is the greatest power of aesthetics and exhausts in astonishment. The beautiful, as mentioned, is a more tempered quality leading to felicity and rest. The sublime, Burke tells us, leads to dread and reverence; the beautiful, by comparison, submits to us and leads to a reciprocal union between the object of love and the lover. Power and terror define the sublimes. Fragility and love define the beautiful.

There are many layers to the Sublime and the Beautiful. While Burke certainly thinks the sublime is good when encountered at a distance, leading to a good humbling and feeling of insignificance in the person which provides perspective regarding humanity’s place in the great chain of being (see Enquiry, iv.1), there is also the reality of closeness in Burke’s reflections on the sublime. The sublime, Burke informs us, is all about the frenzying of the passions. This desire, indeed, near masochistic lust, for the sublime is the product of a bored and unexciting society. As “General Society” leads to more leisure, less work, and more commonality, the desire for the sublime grows. Without work the human impulse for the sublime materializes. The state of general inactivity—lack of excited movement—is the cause for the want of the sudden “horrid convulsions” which make the painful delightful.

Furthermore, because man is a fundamentally hierarchal animal, the desire for egalitarianism is a byproduct of the masochistic sublime instead of a genuine pleasant egalitarianism. People submit to dictatorial politics, whether of the left or right, because people are drawn to the aesthetic spectacle of power and horror. “Despotic governments…are founded on the passions of men,” Burke notes. And the French Revolution was definitely energized by irrational passion as it was lack of labor and the boredom of unemployment and the re-actualization of self-preservation. (Burke also suggests that the sublime is rooted in our primordial impulse for self-preservation.) The desire for a better future, which is not rational but passionate, leads to people submitting before power to make manifest that lust deep in the souls of men.

What is clear from Burke’s aesthetics is that the sublime is characterized by frenzy, deep yearnings, and terror. The beautiful is characterized by restfulness, pleasure, and love. The defining aesthetic for conservatism is the beautiful—for conservatives see the fragility of the beautiful and, to quote Cicero, “admirable systems,” which are very easily toppled and destroyed which brings widespread harm to the masses who benefit, perhaps unconsciously, from such systems guiding and protecting and providing for them. Revolutionary movements, of both the progressive and reactionary stripe, are defined by the aesthetic of horror, dread, and terror; of power, pomp, and shock. Who can deny that all the great totalitarian movements, whether communist or fascist, have been masters at the aesthetics of the sublime?

However, there seems to be a defining break between the revolutionary sublime of the left and the reactionary sublime of the right. The reactionary sublime is an attempt to save man, human nature, and the reality of hierarchy. The reactionary agrees with Burke that there is a deep aesthetic soul to human nature and this lust for the sublime is the defining characteristic of the peculiar creature known as man. For the reactionary, the movement to the pleasant or the eradication of the sublime in its entirety, is the eradication of man and the creation of a new species altogether. Thus, the reactionary defense of the sublime is paradoxically a defense of humanism in its truest ontological sense—a defense of that very nature which defines humanity.

The sublime of the revolutionary left, at least to the reactionary, is a false sublime. It is a temporary actualization of the sublime to eventually be discarded as we move into the end of history state of utopian communism. From the purview of political aesthetics, the sublime emerges in history like the dictatorship of the proletariat. The revolutionary sublime of the left is something temporary but necessary in the movement to utopia; but just as Friedrich Engels said the state would wither away after the threat of counterrevolution has been eradicated, so too does the sublime dictatorship of the proletariat therefore wither away after it has achieved its goal: to forcibly create, like God, the perfect society.

The leftist welcomes the sublime as a temporary movement in humanity’s progression into a new creature. The reactionary flies back to the sublime as the salvation of human nature in a world where eros is being destroyed for the pleasurable felicity of the beautiful in conservatism or the mechanical utopian lifestyle of the left. Political aesthetics makes sense of the so-called “horseshoe theory” in this manner; the closeness of the far-left and the far-right is because of aesthetics: both embrace the sublime but for very, very, very different reasons.

But the re-emergence of the sublime is the result of a tired, worn out, and unexciting life. The thrill of fight or flight, of life or death, or, as Burke said, self-preservation, is what opens the eyeballs to the glorious fire and masochistic pain that runs deep in the blood of humans. As another famous Briton said, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” If true, we return to what Dudley Young explained in his Origins of the Sacred; the ecstasy of lustful sex and war is primordial soul of the sacred.[1]

 

[1] See Dudley Young, Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War.

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