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TUDMUND BURKE's essay on the «Sublime and Beautiful” shows
everywhere the unmistakable inspiration of the genius which
Ź made him one of the greatest men of modern times. It is sometimes criticized as unscientific by those who subject its theories of the beautiful to severe analysis, but it is equally safe to assert that from the tiine of Longinus to the close of the nineteenth century, every attempt made to define the efficient causes of the Sublime and Beautiful” is, in the nature of things, a failure, being in its essence a part of the impossibility of limiting the Absolute and defining the Infinite. «When I say I intend to inquire into the efficient cause of Sublimity and Beauty," writes Burke, “I would not be understood to say that I can come to the ultimate cause. I do not pretend that I shall ever be able to explain why certain affections of the body produce such a distinct emotion of mind, and no other; or why the body is at all affected by the mind, or the mind by the body. A little thought will show this to be impossible.”
What Burke did undertake was to examine into the relations between emotion due to sensation and the operations of the higher intellect. If he does not demonstrate a single proposition, we need not concern ourselves with his failure, nor need we regret it. Burke at his best is no more logical than Shakespeare. His essay on the “Sublime and Beautiful ” is as much a work of genius as “The Tempest,” but “The Tempest » proves nothing, except that there is such a reality as genius capable of “taking hold on the skirts of the infinite.” When the vibratory theory of light and of force, operating in co-relation with light and heat through the whole universe, is so well defined that the relations between color and music, tone and light, the melody of a poem and the spectrum of a rainbow, can be clearly defined, the mind which insists on scientific definition will be better prepared to define Burke's failures. In the meantime, we have the privilege of studying the operation of his great intellect in the essay he intended to make its master work,- an essay nowhere unworthy of the genius which shows at once its modesty and its power in the conclusion that the great chain of causes, which links one to another, even to the throne of God himself, can never be unraveled by any industry of ours.”
Burke was born in Dublin, January 12th, 1729. After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, he studied law and began the work as a writer which would have made him famous even if he had not found opportunity to develop his genius for oratory. From the time he made his first speech in Parliament in 1766 until he had achieved his great triumph in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, it became more and more apparent that the English-speaking world had in him its greatest orator. That eminence is still his, nor does it seem likely that he will ever be supplanted. His most noted writings beside the essay on the “Sublime and Beautiful » (A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756), are his «Reflections on the Revolution in France » (1790), his « Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents » (1770), and his « Letters on a Regicide Peace ) (1796-97). He died at Beaconsfield, England, July 8th, 1797.
THE PRINCIPLES OF GOOD TASTE
N A superficial view we may seem to differ very widely from U each other in our reasonings, and no less in our pleasures;
but notwithstanding this difference, which I think to be rather apparent than real, it is probable that the standard both of reason and taste is the same in all human creatures. For if there were not some principles of judgment as well as of sentiment common to all mankind, no hold could possibly be taken either on their reason or their passions sufficient to maintain the ordinary correspondence of life. It appears indeed to be generally acknowledged that with regard to truth and falsehood there is something fixed. We find people in their disputes continually appealing to certain tests and standards, which are allowed on all sides, and are supposed to be established in our common nature. But there is not the same obvious concurrence in any uniform or settled principles which relate to taste. It is even commonly supposed that this delicate and aërial faculty, which seems too volatile to endure even the chains of a definition, cannot be properly tried by any test, nor regulated by any standard. There is so continual a call for the exercise of the reasoning faculty, and it is so much strengthened by perpetual contention, that certain maxims of right reason seem to be tacitly settled amongst the most ignorant. The learned have improved on this rude science and reduced those maxims into a system. If taste has not been so happily cultivated, it was not that the subject was barren, but that the laborers were few or negligent; for to say the truth, there are not the same interesting motives to impel us to fix the one which urge us to ascertain the other. And after all, if men differ in their opinion concerning such matters, their difference is not attended with the same important consequences; else I make no doubt but that the logic of taste, if I may be allowed the expression, might very possibly be as well digested, and we might come to discuss matters of this nature with as much certainty as those which seem more immediately within the province of mere reason. And, indeed, it is very necessary, at the entrance into such an inquiry as our present, to make this point as clear as possible; for if taste has no fixed principles, if the imagination is not affected according to some invariable and certain laws, our labor is like to be employed to very little purpose; as it must be judged a useless, if not an absurd undertaking, to lay down rules for caprice, and to set up for a legislator of whims and fancies.
The term taste, like all other figurative terms, is not extremely accurate; the thing which we understand by it is far from a simple and determinate idea in the minds of most men, and it is therefore liable to uncertainty and confusion. I have no great opinion of a definition, the celebrated remedy for the cure of this disorder. For when we define, we seem in danger of circumscribing nature within the bounds of our own notions, which we often take up by hazard, or embrace on trust, or form out of a limited and partial consideration of the object before us, instead of extending our ideas to take in all that nature comprehends, according to her manner of combining. We are limited in our inquiry by the strict laws to which we have submitted at our setting out.
– Circa vilem patulumque morabimur orbem,
A definition may be very exact, and yet go but a very little way towards informing us of the nature of the thing defined; but let the virtue of a definition be what it will, in the order of things, it seems rather to follow than to precede our inquiry, of which it ought to be considered as the result. It must be acknowledged that the methods of disquisition and teaching may be sometimes different, and on very good reason undoubtedly; but for my part, I am convinced that the method of teaching which approaches most nearly to the method of investigation is incomparably the best; since, not content with serving up a few barren and lifeless truths, it leads to the stock on which they grew; it tends to set the reader himself in the track of invention, and to direct him into those paths in which the author has made his own discoveries, if he should be so happy as to have made any that are valuable.
But to cut off all pretense for caviling, I mean by the word Taste no more than that faculty or those faculties of the mind, which are affected with, or which form a judgment of, the works of imagination and the elegant arts. This is, I think, the most general idea of that word, and what is the least connected with any particular theory. And my point in this inquiry is, to find whether there are any principles, on which the imagination is affected, so common to all, so grounded and certain, as to supply the means of reasoning satisfactorily about them. And such principles of taste I fancy there are, however paradoxical it may seem to those who on a superficial view imagine that there is so great a diversity of tastes, both in kind and degree, that nothing can be more determinate.
All the natural powers in man, which I know, that are conversant about external objects are the senses, the imagination, and the judgment. And first with regard to the senses. We do and we must suppose, that as the conformation of their organs are nearly or altogether the same in all men, so the manner of perceiving external objects is in all men the same, or with little difference. We are satisfied that what appears to be light to one eye appears light to another; that what seems sweet to one palate is sweet to another; that what is dark and bitter to this man is likewise dark and bitter to that; and we conclude in the same manner of great and little, hard and soft, hot and cold, rough and smooth; and indeed of all the natural qualities and affections of bodies. If we suffer ourselves to imagine that their senses present to different men different images of things, this skeptical proceeding will make every sort of reasoning on every subject vain and frivolous, even that skeptical reasoning itself which had persuaded us to entertain a doubt concerning the agreement of our perceptions. But as there will be little doubt that bodies present similar images to the whole species, it must necessarily be allowed that the pleasures and the pains