Edmund Burke is a quintessential thinker to all who consider themselves properly on the political right. But while I’m undertaking a thesis on his political aesthetics, focusing on him specifically, Burke’s aesthetical outlook—in comparison to other rightwing thinkers—helps to draw a division between the “conservative” and the “traditionalist.” While both affirm the basic realities of right thought: Hierarchy, parochialism, particularism, history, identity, etc., a major split between the conservative and traditionalist (or reactionary) seems to be on the question of aesthetics.
In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, Burke argued that humans are aesthetic creatures who seek aesthetic experiences. The sublime, Burke defended, is something innate in humans. However, when we experience the goodness of the sublime, it is at a distance rather than face-to-face; for, if it was face-to-face, like God telling Moses no one could look upon his face and survive, the close encounter with the sublime always leads to death and destruction.
Concerning the sublime, Burke said the source of the sublime is in feeling “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Burke identified the awe with danger, pain, terror, horror, and dread. In other words, insignificance. In being made small, brought low, or humbled, in feeling a sense of being overwhelmed by totality—that is the sublime. The sublime is also found in the dark, the hidden, and the obscure. The sublime produces in us all these things, but most especially the sense of insignificant reverence for the superior object. Mystery also encapsulates the sublime.
Contrasted against the sublime, the beautiful Burke took the opposite position that closeness and revelation, or revealing, is that which is characteristic of the beautiful. Face to face, not in awe and dread, but in the pleasing gaze, is what defines the beautiful. The beautiful, moreover, is soft, smooth, small, and delicate. The beautiful produces in us a sense of love. “An appearance of delicacy, and even of fragility, is almost essential to [the beautiful].”
The traditionalist occupies the murky territory between the sublime and the beautiful. The traditionalist agrees with Burke that humans, as spiritual animals and created by an awesome and all-consuming fire, are not equals with that Fire. If what we love submits to us, but before God we submit in reverence, God is that which stands over and beyond us. Like Job, we can only bow in prostration before the Vast and Sacred Other. However, the traditionalist also knows that we live by the beautiful and that general society, the great society, the society of the family and of love, is what man also seeks. “The beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness, or delicacy, and is even enhanced by their timidity,” Burke writes. The fragile and the delicate are beautiful because it calls us to it in mystery and delicacy, demanding our best, our protection, and our generosity.
Aesthetic distinctions matter and are important, especially if man is an aesthetical animal. While it is clear that Burke wanted to carve out room for the sublime, the sublime at a distance rather than up close, he preferred the beautiful and thought that the beautiful was the object of general society which provided rest and felicity for the toiling and troublesome life that we live in. However, the traditionalist—and the reactionary—winces at an overarching tilt to the beautiful. Too much of the delicate beautiful erases the sublime, which Burke characterized as being from lust and we, which is harmful for man. Man, as even Burke knew and tried to defend, needs the sublime.
One of the remarkable accomplishments of Catholic, or traditional Catholic, aesthetics is the marriage between the sublime and beautiful—since the Catholic tradition of art and sacred music understood that man needed both. The Holy Mother at the Annunciation is an image of the beautiful. But Matthew Grunewald’s “The Crucifixion” is an image of the sublime.
The conservative privileges the beautiful over the sublime, possibility to the inevitable exclusion of the sublime over time. The traditionalist seeks the unity and union of the beautiful and the sublime. The reactionary, in aesthetics, goes all the way to fully immersing himself in the sublime instead of the beautiful.