Sunday, October 30, 2016
Seeking a haven from the present madness, I am currently catching up on recent scholarship concerning Edmund Burke - a conservative icon, or was he?
At all events, Burke resembles Adam Smith in producing not one, but two masterpieces, which stand athwart one another. The Reflections on the Revolution in France was a remarkably prescient analysis of the excesses yet to come (he published it in 1790). In it, he provided a new version of an abiding theme, the value of the principle of prescription. This is not simply a laudation of things as they are, but a recognition that long-standing manners and customs should be carefully examined before discarding them.
Burke's other masterpiece, the Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful was composed at the beginning of his career. It initiated a basic transformation of aesthetics. Prior to this time, it had been assumed that the success of a work of poetry or art depended on its creator's having mastered the principle of ideal beauty. The sublime, a notion going back to Longinos in antiquity, was merely a heightened version of this imperative: beauty with oomph, if you will.
By contrast, Burke asserted the opposition of the two, leading to a two-source view of aesthetic merit. The sublime presents images of danger and pain; we relish them when we learn that we will not actually suffer. This insight is what underlies the plethora of horror films we are now experiencing.
For its part, the beautiful encompasses our sense of comfort in settled human society, with its opportunities for love and contentment.
Later these ideas were taken up - not to their advantage in my view - by Immanuel Kant.