Academic journal article Humanitas

Burke's Higher Romanticism: Politics and the Sublime

Academic journal article Humanitas

Burke's Higher Romanticism: Politics and the Sublime

Article excerpt


Both Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be grouped among the key thinkers of the eighteenth century. They are widely understood to be quite different from one another, and their outlooks--especially their political-philosophical views--are often contrasted by scholars. Among those who have profitably contrasted Burke with Rousseau is the early twentieth century literary scholar and social critic Irving Babbitt. Babbitt famously favors the "classic" over the "romantic"; he considers romanticism's ethical and political implications to be destructive of society. He uses Rousseau as his prime representative of romanticism and of all that is wrong with it, and uses Burke as a foil in criticizing Rousseau. Although Babbitt never explicitly describes Burke's thought as "classical," Burke sometimes seems to serve as Babbitt's primary representative of the "classical" perspective he champions.

What is odd about Babbitt's treatment of Burke and Rousseau is that Babbitt never points out that Burke is, himself, a romantic. Literary scholars and students of aesthetics have long grouped both Rousseau and Burke among the originators or articulators of the romantic tradition. Although it is Rousseau who is more widely associated with the romantic movement today, Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful was, for a century, almost 'required reading' for writers and artists of a romantic bent, or for anyone with an interest in romanticism, not just in the English-speaking world but on the Continent as well. Burke's romanticism is rarely discussed by political theorists, and many rank-and-file conservatives who admire Burke's politics have probably never thought of him as a representative of the romantic movement. Yet, this is an undeniable dimension of Burke's thought. It is argued here that understanding Burke's romanticism is an important part of understanding Burke. Understanding Burke's romanticism also helps one understand the subtle ways in which aesthetics, ethics, and politics interact.

Burke, Rousseau, and Romanticism

In some ways, Burke's romanticism seems problematic and even paradoxical. Harold Laski maintained that "no man was more deeply hostile to the early politics of the romantic movement ... than was Burke; yet, on the whole, it is with the romantics that Burke's fundamental influence remains." (1) This raises the question: How can Burke, who viewed Rousseau's legacy and the "early politics of the romantic movement" so negatively, be identified closely with the same movement? Of course, this is only a meaningful question if one believes that strong connections exist between the aesthetic (or artistic) and the political and ethical. This article is premised upon such a belief. But, perhaps the case of Burke and romanticism suggests that such connections do not exist, or, at least, do not exist in this case. Or, one might argue that the political and ethical worldviews of Burke and other romantics like Rousseau are really not as different as is usually supposed, and as Burke's own remarks suggest. Or, one might argue that Burke is really not a romantic at all. The perspective articulated by this article is that, for Burke (and for other thinkers such as Rousseau), close ties do in fact exist between aesthetic approaches and political-ethical worldviews. Also, it is accepted that Burke and other romantics like Rousseau are in fact quite different politically and ethically, but that the common classification of Burke as a romantic is nevertheless correct.

Although Babbitt never mentions Burke's associations with romanticism (of which he was surely aware), he does note some similarities between Burke and Rousseau: he finds them both to be, in some way, "individualistic," (2) and he admits that "the antiintellectual [sic] side of Burke reminds one at times of the antiintellectual side of Rousseau," but maintains that "the resemblance is, however, only superficial. …

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