Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Shaftesbury, Burke, and Wollstonecraft: Permutations on the Sublime and the Beautiful

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Shaftesbury, Burke, and Wollstonecraft: Permutations on the Sublime and the Beautiful

Article excerpt

Perhaps no other aspect of Edmund Burke's thought has been so subject to ridicule as the various, scattered observations upon the beauty of women inserted into A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). In her criticism in the Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) of Burke's defense of Marie Antoinette in the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Mary Wollstonecraft mercilessly exposed the vulnerability of these observations, drawing attention to their frivolity and hedonism.1 The details of Burke's notion of female beauty seem susceptible to such criticism, for they include softness, smoothness, subtle variation, mild colors, roundness, delicacy, fragility, and weakness, even counterfeit weakness. The force of the identification of beauty with delicacy and weakness is to associate it with objects that arouse love and desire. In the way Burke imagines the body aroused by these passions, it appears in repose, facing the beholder with a listless yet graceful air. As Burke envisages the position of this figure:

the head inclines something on one side; the eyelids are more closed than usual, and the eyes roll greatly with an inclination to the object, the mouth is a little opened, and the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh: the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to the sides. All this is accomplished with an inward sense of melting and languor.2

Taken out of context, such an account seems to merit the observations of critics like Wollstonecraft. In its preoccupation with what is vain and sensuous, it abandons the traditional Neo-Platonic identification of beauty and virtue.3 This may be why Burke's conception of beauty has received relatively little critical attention; as Frances Ferguson notes, "recent discussions of the sublime, remarkably, all but delete the beautiful and present the sublime as functioning in supreme isolation from its companion and counterpoise, the beautiful."4 Yet if we remember that Burke's sublime is at once opposed to and privileged over the beautiful, then we should not be surprised that the latter should be depicted in terms of a hedonistic lassitude. This tendency was latent in the opposition between the sublime and the beautiful from the start. It is well known that in setting beauty off against the sublime, Burke was departing from the position set forth by Joseph Addison in his seminal Pleasures of the Imagination (1711), where a balanced symmetry is established between the great, the beautiful, and the novel. What is less well known is that Burke's Enquiry bears a striking resemblance to a relatively unfamiliar work of Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury. In A Notion of the Historical Draught and Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules (1712), Shaftesbury commissions and directs an Italian painter, Paolo de Matthaeis, to depict a scene in which the Greek hero is standing at a crossroads, forced to choose between two goddesses: a beautiful Pleasure and a sublime Virtue. Even though Burke is sometimes given credit for inaugurating the opposition between the sublime and the beautiful, Shaftesbury's distinction is as sharply drawn as Burke's, and something of the hedonism of Burke's beauty can be seen in Shaftesbury's insistence that Pleasure should be given "the supine air and character of ease and indolence."5 An analysis of the terms of Shaftesbury's directions can help to clarify the nature not only of Burke's opposition in the Enquiry but also of the significant, far-reaching transformation it undergoes in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. In all three works, the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is, indeed, a place of difference. It permits an inquiry into the identity of the beautiful in contra-distinction from what is sublime. In the process, it allows the successive rewriting and naturalization of the basic terms of the categories. Yet, at the same time, it defers any final access to the goal of the inquiry, since the sublime surprisingly proves, in the last analysis, to be as vulnerable to critical exposure as the beautiful. …

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