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Saturday, September 22, 2018

Burke’s Discussion of Sublime and Beautiful

Immanuel Kant, writing his Critique of Judgement more than three decades after Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful first appeared, criticizes Burke for not going far enough and of offering an ‘extremely fine’ but ‘merely empirical’ and ‘psychological’ analysis.

In his Critique of Judgement, Kant writes: “To make psychological observations, as Burke did in his treatise on the beautiful and the sublime, thus to assemble material for the systematic connection of empirical rules in the future without aiming to understand them, is probably the sole true duty of empirical psychology, which can hardly even aspire to rank as a philosophical science.”

However, Kant accepted Burke’s aesthetic dualism, which entails the reduction of aesthetic categories to the two chief qualities of beauty and sublimity. Moses Mendelssohn has also criticized Burke’s Enquiry, but he judged that it offered philosophical ideas which could give a systematic mind an opportunity for reflection. Burke's Enquiry was translated into German by Christian Garve in 1773.

The subsequent aestheticians like Arthur Schopenhauer and even Friedrich Nietzsche also accepted Burke’s aesthetic dualism. Nietzsche’s distinction between the ‘Apollonian’ and ‘Dionysian’ in The Birth of Tragedy is in essence a treatment of the distinction that was first originated by Burke. So despite the criticism that Burke’s Enquiry has received, the book has been enormously influential.

In Part I, Section VII of the Enquiry titled “Of The Sublime,” Burke writes:
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. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasure which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or than the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body, could enjoy. Nay, I am in great doubt whether any man could be found, who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction, at the price of ending it in the torments, which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late unfortunate regicide in France. But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death: nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are, delightful, as we every day experience. The cause of this I shall endeavour to investigate hereafter.
In the passage, “Of Beauty” (Part I, Section X), he says:
The passion which belongs to generation, merely as such, is lust only. This is evident in brutes, whose passions are more unmixed, and which pursue their purposes more directly than ours. The only distinction they observe with regard to their mates, is that of sex. It is true, that they stick severally to their own species in preference to all others. But this preference, I imagine, does not arise from any sense of beauty which they find in their species, as Mr. Addison supposes, but from a law of some other kind, to which they are subject; and this we may fairly conclude, from their apparent want of choice amongst those objects to which the barriers of their species have confined them. But man, who is a creature adapted to a greater variety and intricacy of relation, connects with the general passion the idea of some social qualities, which direct and heighten the appetite which he has in common with all other animals; and as he is not designed like them to live at large, it is fit that he should have something to create a preference, and fix his choice; and this in general should be some sensible quality; as no other can so quickly, so powerfully, or so surely produce its effect. The object therefore of this mixed passion, which we call love, is the beauty of the sex. Men are carried to the sex in general, as it is the sex, and by the common law of nature; but they are attached to particulars by personal beauty. I call beauty a social quality; for where women and men, and not only they, but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them, (and there are many that do so,) they inspire us with sentiments of tenderness and affection towards their persons; we like to have them near us, and we enter willingly into a kind of relation with them, unless we should have strong reasons to the contrary. But to what end, in many cases, this was designed, I am unable to discover; for I see no greater reason for a connexion between man and several animals who are attired in so engaging a manner, than between him and some others who entirely want this attraction, or possess it in a far weaker degree. But it is probable, that Providence did not make even this distinction, but with a view to some great end; though we cannot perceive distinctly what it is, as his wisdom is not our wisdom, nor our ways his ways.
In his Introduction to Burke’s Enquiry, Paul Guyer says that although Burke is regarded as a conservative defender of tradition, in his Enquiry he has argued vigorously against the entire tradition of Western aesthetics. He notes that Burke has attempted to overthrow the entire system of thought “about beautiful and sublime going back to Plato, Aristotle, and the first-century CE Greek critic known as Longinus.” 

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