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Edmund Burke’s Aesthetics of Meaning

edmund burke enquiry into the sublime and beautiful

One of the contemporary claims made by those on the political right is that conservatives, in contrast to their leftist rivals, privilege reason over the emotions. This is perhaps best exemplified by Ben Shapiro’s jibe that “facts don’t care about your feelings.”

It is surprising, then, that the major work of theoretical philosophy written by Edmund Burke, the father of Anglo-American conservatism, was concerned primarily with aesthetics and the emotions they evoked. Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry in the Sublime and Beautiful remains a seminal work in the field, cited by luminaries as diverse as Immanuel Kant and Russell Kirk. Yet it remains little read next to his epoch-making Reflections on the Revolution in France. This is a shame, since Burke’s account of aesthetics is worth studying. In particular, reflecting on the nature of the sublime and the beautiful can help us go beyond just the facts to understanding the meaning human beings give to the world.

Reason and Aesthetic Meaning

In his classic The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Russell Kirk suggests that the primary difference between progressives and conservatives is that the former ask What is this?, whereas the latter ask What does this mean? The first question is ontological and requires that we ponder the capacity of human reason to know the world as it truly is “in itself.” The second question is aesthetic and concerns the very human reactions and feelings we have to the world we have been “thrown” into, as Heidegger would say. While Burke was certainly not uninterested in ontological questions and human reason, he would likely have approved of Kirk’s characterization. This is because, unlike many of his Enlightenment peers, Burke was deeply aware of how we are driven by our emotions first and reason second—if at all. As he artfully put it early in the Enquiry:

I am afraid it is a practice much too common in inquiries of this nature to attribute the cause of feelings which merely arise from mechanical structures of our bodies, or from the natural frame and constitution of our minds, to certain conclusions of the reasoning faculty on the objects presented to us; for I should imagine that the influence of reason in producing our passions is nothing near so extensive as it is commonly believed.

In this remarkable passage, Burke critiques Enlightenment efforts to explain human behavior through rationalized and mechanistic science that reduce everything to simple cause-and-effect stimuli. Burke reminds us of the significance of human emotions, and in particular our emotional reaction to the world. Understanding the rich emotional meanings we attribute to the world and to given aestheticized objects and even concepts is as important as pure reason when trying to understand human nature and behavior. These aesthetic objects and concepts provide us with particular sources of meaning and our sense of self-identity in an often cold and indifferent natural order.

This does not mean there are not other objects that arouse far more wicked and malicious emotions in us. And the Enquiry does contain some ruminations on ugliness and disgust, and most interestingly some profound reflections on Milton’s Lucifer and his attractions. Burke’s sustained analysis of objects and concepts that inspire negative and destructive emotions in us would largely be saved for the Reflections. In the Enquiry, Burke focuses his attention first and foremost on understanding edifying aesthetic objects and concepts; in particular, those that fall into his categories of the sublime and the beautiful.

The Sublime and the Beautiful

Burke stresses throughout the Enquiry that we need to be careful in distinguishing between the sublime and the beautiful, as they often coincide and resemble one another in the reactions they provoke in us. Nevertheless, the sublime and the beautiful are quite different in their form and affect, requiring a careful mind to distinguish them. The key area of distinction is that sublime objects and concepts tend to inspire awe and even terror at their vastness, whereas beautiful ones tend to give us pleasure in their lightness and delicacy.

To use Burke’s language, sublime objects fill us with astonishment, “and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” Here Burke makes the shocking and innovative observation that the sublime is in fact an important aesthetic category because of the terror and “pain” it causes us, owing to how the sublime reveals the finitude of our understanding and projects. Oftentimes we cannot even fully understand or experience sublime objects and concepts, since clear (and one might add, beautiful) ideas are “small” ideas. While “starry heaven” can fill us with a sense of existential dread at how eternity seems determined to snuff out our brief life, it can also awaken us to the necessity to live freer and more authentic lives while the opportunity still presents itself. The aesthetic reaction provoked by the sublime peaks with our thoughts on the nature of God, who as a being of infinite power, reveals to us the slightness of all our conceits. Burke is emphasizing the biblical proverb that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom:

But whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested on every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him. . . . If we rejoice, we rejoice trembling, and even whilst we are receiving benefits, we cannot but shudder at a power that can confer benefits of such mighty importance.

By contrast, beautiful objects and concepts please us with “positive” qualities that inspire “love, or some passion similar to it.” As beauty is “no creature of our reason, since it strikes us without any reference to use,” it consists purely of those qualities that are pleasing to our senses. Interestingly, Burke claims that the objects and concepts that embody beauty are often small and delicate; thus they must “submit” to us and flatter with their “compliance” to our finite strength. Birds and flowers are pleasing to our eye with their delicate fragility, grace is demonstrated by profound control of one’s self in relation to the environment, and the “softness, the winding surface, the unbroken continuance” of beautiful music demonstrate an artist’s command of her craft. Here Burke emphasizes that the ability to subsume the many variations of sound in a musical suite into a single piece of art demonstrates true aesthetic mastery of one’s craft.

Great variety and a quick transition from one measure or tone to another are contrary to the genius of the beautiful in music. Such transitions often excite mirth, or other sudden and tumultuous passions, but not that sinking, that melting, that languor, which is the characteristical effect of the beautiful, as it regards every sense.

Burke’s examples of beautiful objects and concepts is admirably thorough, but we might add to his examples by invoking C. S. Lewis on the pleasures one enjoys owing exclusively to the private pleasure they bring. These can range from a warm bed to hot chocolate. Or perhaps a stronger beverage when needed.

Conclusion: On the Centrality of Human Feeling

Burke’s analysis of aesthetics remains important to us because it is a corrective to the popular belief, mentioned in the introduction, that “facts” and reason are more important than our emotions. In the Enquiry, as in his later, more political works, he consistently emphasizes how many of our behaviors are often motivated far more by emotional effect than through reasoned reflection. To truly understand human nature and behavior, one needs to recognize this and cease lamenting it, as many of the Enlightenment philosophes of Burke’s day tended to do.

Of course, this does not mean Burke is arguing for some kind of devolution into irrationalism. He always acknowledged that ignorance of reason and facts can lead to disaster. This is particularly true when a prudent understanding of reason’s limitations is abandoned to the Promethean belief that metaphysical abstraction can enhance our powers indefinitely.

What Burke is emphasizing is that indefinitely empowering reason means little unless the emotional soul of humankind is also cared for through exposure to the sublime and the beautiful. To come back to the quote by Russell Kirk, this is because it is the soul of humankind that ultimately determines the inner meaning of the world we inhabit. Exposure to the sublime and the beautiful creates deeper kinds of human personality. Such individuals can then create meaningful objects and concepts of enduring value, even given the finite power of their reason. Therefore, a wise society will ensure that its members enjoy regular exposure to the sublime and beautiful, whether at church on Sundays or through great works of art.


Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies in 2017 and is currently professor of political science and international relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books include Making Human Dignity Central to International Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism.


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