Edmund Burke is the famous Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher. He is generally remembered for two important treatises, one in philosophy and the other in political philosophy. Those works are An Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful and Reflections on the Revolution in France. I wrote my MA thesis on the political aesthetics of Burke, connecting his aesthetic outlook to his political disposition, so here it is important and essential to see how these two seemingly different aspects of Burke do, in fact, connect.
Burke’s dichotomy of the sublime and beautiful influenced Romanticism, both in the literary arts and in intellectual philosophy. Burke identified the sublime as, “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” In sum, the sublime is the manifest feeling and experience of dread terror, a feeling of insignificance, in the face of something monumentally overwhelming. The sublime also frequently ends in death as Burke explained: “Fear or terror, which is an apprehension of pain or death, exhibits exactly the same effects, approaching in violence to those just mentioned in proportion to nearness of the cause, and the weakness of the subject.”
In contrast to the sublime, the beautiful is marked by a pleasing delicacy and the feeling of love, “The passion of love has its rise in positive pleasure.” The experience of beauty is the experience of positive pleasure, of love, of the pleasantries that make one feel at home with Beauty as opposed to the dread horror of the sublime which is best experienced at a distance lest one suffer pain and death.
It is important to note that Burke doesn’t reject the sublime. As a matter of fact, Burke believes that human nature has an instinctive appetite for the sublime. The want for mystery and feeling of anguish associated with the sublime was once the staple of religion. In a de-sacralizing world in the aftermath of the Reformation, and in the emerging industrial and urban society of the nascent Industrial Revolution that was bringing geographic dislocation and a new way of life, Burke’s Sublime and the Beautiful is an attempt to navigate the new world and offer a defense of—to carve out space for—the sublime. Burke believes that the sublime is an intrinsic want in humanity. It is essential to make room for it.
That said, Burke privileges the beautiful. “General Society,” and “good society,” Burke maintains, is constructed around the beautiful. The beautiful is more common than the sublime. Human nature also has an appetite for the beautiful. We want pleasure. We want love. We want the beautiful because the beautiful gives us pleasure, a sense of tranquility.
Concerning politics, Burke’s revulsion at the horror of the French Revolution and its manifestation of Terror was predicated on his understanding the sublime. After all, he called the French Revolution the most “Astonishing” event in the history of the world up to that time. Not only did the French Revolution and Terror produce a feeling of dread astonishment in Burke and many other observers, just as Burke asserted in his Inquiry that the sublime often leads to pain, suffering, and death itself, so too did the French Revolution chart that exact course.
Revolutionaries embrace the politics of the sublime because the sublime has been stripped from their lives. Revolutionaries tend to be irreligious, therefore they find no feeling of the sublime in religion and mystery which they have rejected. Revolutionaries also seek to destroy, to tear down, which is another manifest feeling of the sublime projected outward rather than inward. Burke explained that the want for the sublime was a want for pain. Revolutionaries want pain, just not for themselves but on their enemies or those whom they feel are deserving punishment. The Revolutionary psyche is the external realization of the internal desire for the sublime. Per Burke, “Of Feeling little more can be said, than that the idea of bodily pain in all the modes and degrees of labour, pain, anguish, torment, is productive of the sublime and nothing else in this sense can produce it.” The feeling of bodily pain, anguish, torment, etc. are “productive of the sublime.” This invariably leads to “the present destruction of the person.”
Against sublime revolution then is beautiful conservatism. Burke’s defense of English society, the English constitution, and the rule of law were a result of his desire and appreciation for beauty. There is a beauty in a good society, a general society, in which men and women live together in relative harmony with one another. Those societies that take into account the lives of “the dead, the living, and to be born,” reflect that beauty in the harmony of lives: the harmony of lives past, present, and future.
Further, because Burke associates beauty with home and society, it isn’t a surprise he praises the role of families and the “little platoons” in Reflections. That is the first instantiation of the experience of beauty and love in our lives. Because we love the beauty of our homes and families we do not seek to destroy our homes and families as the sublime revolutionary spirit does. There is a peaceful pleasantry to beauty which causes us to want to defend it, “An appearance of delicacy, and even of fragility, is almost essential to [beauty].” In beauty’s fragility we realize how delicate beauty is, and when we come to realize how fragile beauty is we do our uttermost to protect it. This is a basic human impulse.
While Burke’s political aesthetics endorses the beautiful over the sublime, it is important that we remember that the desire for beauty and the sublime are part of human nature. The totalitarian and revolutionary spirit that is the sublime (consider how 20th century totalitarian movements from Nazism to fascism to Stalinism were very sublime in their aesthetic) is very much part of the human condition and can rear its “dread terror” at any time.
Burke was aware of the danger of the sublime and sought non-political means to allow people to experience it. Aesthetic experience and religious mysticism were the two key aspects of Burke’s articulate defense of the sublime. Why? Aesthetic pain and religious dread are psychological and internal and therefore not directed at the “present destruction of [other] persons.” When the human impulse for the sublime is castrated, however, it will find a new outlet. The advent of the French Revolution and the totalitarian movements of the 20th century revealed where the sublime manifested itself: politics. And when the sublime manifested itself in politics, Burke defended the beautiful. And he did so because the Beautiful signifies harmony and in his other political writings he associated liberty with harmony.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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