The Sublimity of Taste in Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

By Blackwell, Mark | Philological Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Sublimity of Taste in Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Blackwell, Mark, Philological Quarterly

[T]he judgment may be compared to a clock or watch, where the most ordinary machine is sufficient to tell the hours; but the most elaborate alone can point out the minutes and seconds, and distinguish the smallest differences of time.

--David Hume, "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion"

Every nation is a motley assemblage of different characters ...

--Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society

It is in the domain of aesthetics ... that the tension between individual and collective, subjective and objective, is at its highest.

--Luc Ferry, Homo Aestheticus: The Invention of Taste in the Democratic Age

The subject of this essay is what David Hume calls "the delicacy of taste," and its focal point is Edmund Burke's "Introduction on Taste," first published in the 1759 second edition of the work Robert Jones has dubbed "by far the most ambitious examination of taste in the eighteenth century," A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, (1) Burke's "Introduction on Taste" establishes two criteria of taste, one involving untutored sensation and another dependent upon a capacity for judgment derived from experience, and he suggests them to be mutually incompatible rather than mutually reinforcing. (2) Burke demonstrates that we lose a capacity to feel strongly as we gain an ability to judge nicely, and his account of the way that our satisfaction in our critical competence---our delicacy of taste--compensates us for the erosion of pleasures that once came easily shows that his own work on the sublime--and on the relationship between social and self-preservative passions--influenced his ideas about taste. In this sense, the "Introduction on Taste" is, as Burke's editor James Boulton suggests, "an organic part" of the Enquiry, though not, as Boulton contends, simply because both are "prize example[s] of Newtonian experimental methods applied to aesthetics. " (3) Rather, the dynamics of the negative pleasure that Burke terms delight structure both his treatment of the sublime and his account of taste, especially his discussion of the relationship between natural and acquired taste (which might also be designated the sense of taste and the faculty of taste). (4) Furthermore, what I am calling the sublimity of taste in the Enquiry complicates Burke's latent agenda in the "Introduction on Taste"--articulating a standard of taste that guarantees "the ordinary correspondence of life" (11), thereby serving as the basis of social and political harmony. (5) According to Terry Eagleton, "[t]he ultimate binding force of the bourgeois social order, in contrast to the coercive apparatus of absolutism, will be habits, pieties, sentiments and affections," with the result that "power in such an order has become aestheticized." (6) Eagleton suggests that the aesthetic commonality represented by the standard of taste is the linchpin of social and political coherence in a post-absolutist Britain (20). Paradoxically, though, the very recognition of such aesthetic commonality is for Burke a mark of one's aesthetic discrimination, of one's superior faculty of taste, and thus establishes one's distinction from the "ordinary" community which that aesthetic commonality is intended to underwrite. Burke's "Introduction on Taste" thus reveals taste, in the form of aesthetic discrimination, to be not the "binding force of the bourgeois social order," but a means of exercising power and a force for social differentiation.

The "Introduction on Taste" therefore bespeaks Burke's profound ambivalence about the ideology of aesthetics. He seems committed to a standard of taste as an index of cultural and political commonality, as a means of binding the "morley assemblage of different characters" that, according to Adam Ferguson, comprises a nation. (7) Yet Burke recognizes that, even as the exercise of taste derives from a shared physiology and invites wide participation, it also affords one opportunities to distinguish oneself from the undiscriminating herd. Bernard Mandeville provocatively asserts the compatibility of selfish, socially atomizing pursuits with the greater good of the commonweal in The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714), providing one among many examples of the capacity of the "bourgeois social order" invoked by Eagleton to reconcile social and economic differentiation (private vices) with a vision of social harmony (public benefits):

what renders [man] a Sociable Animal, consists not in his desire of Company, good Nature, Pity, Affability, and other Graces of a fair Outside; but that his vilest and most hateful Qualities are the most necessary Accomplishments to fit him for the largest, and according to the World, the happiest and most flourishing Societies ... the Vileness of the Ingredients ... all together compose the wholesome Mixture of a well-order'd Society. (8)

In Albert O. Hirschman's formulation, the dangerously wayward passions of the individual may be countered and contained by forms of commercial self-interest that produce "a strong web of interdependent relationships" and thus serve the interests of the larger community. (9) Hume, for one, states in "Of Commerce" (1752) that "the public becomes powerful in proportion to the opulence and extensive commerce of private men," though he does "admit of exceptions" to this "maxim." (10) In the "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth" (1752), Hume further contends that "[t] he chief support of the British government is the opposition of interests." (11)

The Burke of the "Introduction on Taste," however, seems to find the social divisions that result from the refinement of commerce and the arts--from the refinement of taste--a melancholy spectacle. He attempts to articulate a compelling argument for a shared standard of taste as a means of overcoming such divisions, but at the same time drifts toward a vision of the man of taste as an aesthetic aristocrat whose powers of discrimination not only alienate him from the untutored, but also become analogous to the exercise of naked force. Burke's aesthetics do not reflect any particular, programmatic political commitment--his ruminations on taste do not constitute a conservative manifesto or a celebration of "bourgeois" progress in another guise--but the "Introduction on Taste" does discloses a Burke who is pulled in various directions by the contradictions of his enterprise, alternately championing an aesthetic commonality linked by Eagleton to the bourgeoisie, theorizing a "natural" aristocracy of taste, and associating such cultivated taste with a potential for tyranny.

In "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion," first published in 1741, Hume argues that, while delicacy of passion, or an extreme sensitivity to "all the accidents of life," is to be avoided, delicacy of taste, an extreme "sensibility to beauty and deformity of every kind," is to be cultivated: "When a man is possessed of that talent," Hume writes, "he is more happy by what pleases his taste, than by what gratifies his appetites, and receives more enjoyment from a poem or a piece of reasoning than the most expensive luxury can afford." (12) Hume elsewhere contends that delicacy of taste helps temper unruly passions, but in this passage he foregrounds the economic advantages of taste, which provides more substantial pleasures than an appetite for expensive luxuries would afford us, and does so more cheaply. Central to the passage above is Hume's distinction between appetite, an unrefined sense of taste associated with both the body and the materiality of filthy lucre, and taste, a refined capacity for enjoyment linked not to physical gratification but to such pleasures of the mind as poetry and reasoning. Though Hume does note that the man of delicate taste, having rendered himself susceptible to things "which escape the rest of mankind" and "feel [ing] too sensibly, how much all the rest of mankind fall short of the notions he has entertained," might suffer a narrowing of his circle of acquaintance, his emphasis falls squarely upon the advantage--the net gain--enjoyed by those of cultivated taste whose pleasures are constrained neither by their budget for expensive luxuries nor by the physical limit of their appetites (5, 7).

It is not until the publication of "Of the Standard of Taste" in the Four Dissertations (1757) that Hume dwells at length on the importance of cultivating the delicacy of taste. Citing the wine-tasting episode from Don Quixote, in which Sancho's kinsmen can detect the influence of leather and iron on wine drawn from a hogshead in which an old key with a leather thong has been dropped, Hume invokes "the great resemblance between mental and bodily taste" before defining delicacy of taste: "Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense." (13) The analogy between bodily and mental taste here might suggest that differing degrees of discernment simply arise naturally, as a result of different configurations or articulations of bodily organs. But Hume underscores the possibility--indeed the necessity--of cultivating taste: "But though there be naturally a wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to encrease and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty" (237). (14) That practice seems to consist mostly in comparison, for "it is impossible to continue in the practice of contemplating any order of beauty, without being frequently obliged to form comparisons between the several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other" (240). Though Hume admits that "a very delicate palate, on many occasions, may be a great inconvenience both to a man himself and to his friends," he maintains that "a delicate taste of wit or beauty must always be a desirable quality, because it is the source of all the finest and most innocent enjoyments, of which human nature is susceptible" (236).

Three issues raised by Hume are central to this discussion: first, the analogy between mental and bodily taste--that is, between judgment and sense; second, the necessity of practice and comparison to the cultivation of a delicate taste; and third, the insistence that delicacy of taste is an advantage rather than an inconvenience. For, as the allusion to Don Quixote and the example of the gourmand suggest, there is always the possibility--never pursued seriously by Hume--that refined taste can limit our sources of pleasure, teaching us to detect iron and leather in wine that we might otherwise enjoy, or vitiating the pleasure that we might otherwise take in a simple meal. Like the man of delicate taste in "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion," whose circle of acquaintance becomes smaller and smaller as his faculty of discrimination sharpens, the "true judge in the finer arts" sketched in "Of the Standard of Taste" distinguishes himself from "the generality of men" (243) and, unable to "be satisfied with himself while he suspects, that any excellence or blemish in a discourse has passed him unobserved" (236, my emphasis), narrows the range of both people and works of art which please him.

Hume's "Of the Standard of Taste" is often taken to have provoked Burke's "Introduction on Taste." (15) Indeed, Boulton suggests that it was to counter Hume's prevailing skepticism about determining the standard of taste that Burke developed his theory: "Hume is sceptical, Burke convinced of the possibility of fixing a standard; the first emphasizes the factors making for variety, the second those making for uniformity of taste among all men." (16) As I hope to demonstrate, this distinction between theorists who emphasize the variety of taste and those who stress its uniformity is, in Burke's case, extremely problematic. But I would nonetheless like to underscore two other important differences between Hume and Burke: the degree of commitment to a sensafionist position in Burke, evinced by the physiological (or empirico-psychological) underpinnings of the Enquiry, and Burke's emphasis on what we might call the melancholy of taste, on the necessary loss of certain pleasures that accompanies the cultivation of aesthetic delicacy. Burke's sensationism suggests that, Boulton to the contrary, analogies between mental and bodily taste in the Enquiry are not merely deceptively simple comparisons. (17) Indeed, the Enquiry's exploration of the physiology of taste is all the more striking in the context of a contemporary work such as Alexander Gerard's An Essay on Taste (1759), which, citing Francis Hutcheson, stresses the dependence of taste on the powers of imagination--variously called the "internal senses," "subsequent senses," or "reflex senses"--and carefully distinguishes these senses from external sense:

[Hutcheson] terms them subsequent and reflex senses; subsequent, because they always suppose some previous perception of the objects, about which they are employed; thus a perception of harmony presupposes our hearing certain sounds, and is totally distinct from merely hearing them, since many, who enjoy the external sense of hearing in the greatest perfection, have no musical ear; reflex, because in order to their exertion, the mind reflects upon and takes notice of some circumstance or mode of the object that was perceived, besides those qualities, which offered themselves to its attention at first view. Thus the perception of any object does not give us the pleasant sentiment of novelty, till we have reflected on the circumstance, that we have never perceived it formerly. (18)

Gerard, in fact, identifies a number of faculties affecting one's taste: the reflex senses, judgment, sensibility of heart, and the external senses all play their role. This multiplication of contributing factors perhaps issues from his apparent indifference to the problem of fixing a standard. Unlike Burke, for whom physiology provides a possible basis for uniform canons of taste, Gerard pays scant attention to sensation tout simple.

Burke's interest in the notion that intensity of pleasure and delicacy of taste are inversely proportional anticipates the Romantic nostalgia for an elusive, always-already lost state of pre--critical indeed, prelapserian--bliss, calling to mind the Wordsworth "sad / At thought of raptures now for ever flown" in Book 5 of The Prelude, or the Wordsworth of "Tintern Abbey" who convinces himself that the "joy / Of elevated thoughts" and "a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused" is "Abundant recompense" for the loss of the "aching joys" and "dizzy raptures" of "thoughtless youth," or the Byron who opines, "Oh could I feel as I have felt,--or be what I have been," in the "Stanzas for Music ('There's not a joy the world can give')." (19) In his essay "Of the Standard of Taste," of course, Hume likewise suggests that some pleasures are abandoned as the refinement of taste proceeds apace. Nonetheless, Hume's heavy emphasis on the vulgarity, coarseness, and primitiveness of the pleasures experienced by the unrefined--the indelicate--slyly intimates that these are enjoyments better left behind:

The coarsest daubing contains a certain lustre of colours and exactness of imitation, which are so far beauties, and would affect the mind of a peasant or Indian with the highest admiration. The most vulgar ballads are not entirely destitute of harmony or nature; and none but a person, familiarized to superior beauties, would pronounce their numbers harsh, or narration uninteresting (238).

Hume's unsentimental treatment of folk and indigenous cultures proves him to be free of any nostalgia for mythical "simpler times" and unconcerned about the possibility that "superior" aesthetic discrimination entails social division.

Likewise D'Alembert, whose "Reflexions on the Use and Abuse of Philosophy in Matters That Are Properly Relative to Taste," appended to Gerard's Essay on Taste, maintains that "the knowledge we acquire ... is, almost always, attended with the diminution of our pleasures":

The rude simplicity of our ancestors rendered the impressions they received from the monstrous productions of the ancient theatre, more lively and striking than those which we receive, in this polished age, from the most perfect of our dramatick performances .... Though this knowledge may diminish our pleasures, yet it flatters our vanity. We applaud ourselves on account of that delicacy and refinement, that renders us difficult to be pleased, and even look upon them as meritorious. (20)

D'Alembert seems divided about the relative merits of our ancestors' "rude" but "lively" enjoyment of "monstrous" drama, on the one hand, and our own vain tendency to congratulate ourselves for a delicacy that attenuates our pleasures, on the other. Yet he shares Hume's indifference to problems of social division, as is evident in his early restriction of the faculty of taste to those with "minds that are susceptible of delicate sentiments and perceptions" (227).

Like Hume, who stresses that only "the sound state of the organ" is able "to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment" ("Standard" 234), Burke founds his standard of taste on sensation, arguing that "the manner of perceiving external objects is in all men the same," that "bodies present similar images to the whole species," and that therefore "the pleasures and the pains which every object excites in one man, it must raise in all mankind, whilst it operates naturally, simply, and by its proper powers only" (13-14). Nonetheless, Burke recognizes that the same objects do not excite the same emotions in different people, not because there exists no standard of taste, but because custom and habit foster deviations from the natural experience of pleasure and pain. These deviant likings or "alien pleasures" (14) are tolerable as long as one maintains the ability to distinguish one's acquired from one's natural relishes, what one likes from what one should like or once did like. Indeed, Burke's standard of taste depends upon the claim that "there is in all men a sufficient remembrance of the original natural causes of pleasure, to enable them to bring all things offered to their senses to that standard, and to regulate their feelings and opinions by it" (16). "Remembrance of the original natural causes of pleasure" is, then, the standard of the standard, as it were. To be the victim of custom or habit and to recognize that fact is to want natural taste, taste as a capacity for proper sensation-what I termed above the sense of taste; thus one's faulty experience of displeasure at the taste of something sweet must be corrected by one's remembrance that it is natural to enjoy sweets, that is to say, by one's memory of the standard established by one's ur-sensations, which approximate nature. (21) To fail to distinguish minutely between degrees of natural pleasure, on the other hand, is to lack taste as a cultivated power of judgment, or the faculty of taste; and to have no ability to distinguish natural from learned tastes is to be mad (14). (22) One may, then, possess taste as a faculty of evaluative judgment even though one's ability to taste naturally, as such, has been compromised or even attenuated. Or one may enjoy a quick sensibility of pleasure and still want good judgment, like the "very poor judge" who "is more affected by a very poor piece, than the best judge by the most perfect" (25).

Burke thus distinguishes two kinds of taste, what he calls "natural and acquired relish" (14), which seem roughly equivalent to sensation and reflective judgment and are at least analogous to what Hume terms bodily taste and mental taste. Though some version of the sensation-reflection or sensation-judgment distinction is a commonplace of aesthetic theory in the period, Burke's invocation of natural and acquired tastes may in part be motivated specifically by Montesquieu's Essai sur le gout, which appeared as part of the article "Gout" in the Encyclopddie of 1757. An abridged translation was included in the Annual Register for 1758 and was almost certainly read by Burke shortly before or as he composed his own essay on taste. (23) The complete English version appeared in 1759, appended to Alexander Gerard's An Essay on Taste. In this version of Montesqueieu's fragmentary essay, Burke might have found ideas about natural and acquired relish similar to his own. Montesquieu writes,

On croit d'abord qu'il suffirait de connaitre les diverses sources de nos plaisirs, pour avoir le gout; et que, quand on a lu ce que la philosophie nous dit la-dessus, on a du gout, et que l'on peut hardiment juger des ouvrages. Mais le gout naturel n'est pas une connaissance de theorie; c'est une application prompte et exquise des regles meme que l'on ne connait pas.... Ainsi ce que nous pourrions dire ici, et tous les preceptes que nous pourrions donner pour former le got, ne peuvent regarder que le gout acquis, c'est-a-dire ne peuvent regarder directement que ce gout acquis, quoiqu'il regarde encore indirectement le gout naturel: car le gout acquis affecte, change, augmente et diminue le gofit naturel, comme le gout naturel affecte, change, augmente et diminue le gofit acquis. (24)

[We are, at first sight prone enough to imagine that a knowledge of the various sources of our pleasures is sufficient in order to the attainment of what is called taste, and that the man who has studied the dictates of philosophy upon this subject is a man of taste, and may judge with confidence concerning all the productions of nature and art. But this is a mistake: for the natural taste does not consist in a theoretick knowledge, but in the quick and exquisite application of rules which, in speculation, may be really unknown to the mind.... All, therefore, that can be said upon the subject before us, and all the precepts that we can lay down for forming our taste, can only regard directly that taste that is to be acquired, though they have a distant and indirect relation to the natural one. This indirect relation is manifest; for the acquired taste affects, changes, augments and diminishes the natural one, just as the former is affected, changed, augmented and diminished by the latter.] (25)

The prompt, precise, and unconscious application of rules which Montesquieu associates with natural taste may, of course, be changed, even augmented, through acquired precepts which become second nature to us; indeed, Montesquieu's use of parallel syntax and diction in the final sentence to emphasize the mutual constitution of natural and acquired tastes makes it unclear exactly how one distinguishes them. But Burke, whose standard of taste relies upon a standard of natural taste--of sensation--which must function as a touchstone even when that taste is vitiated, manifests more concern about the parameters of natural and acquired response. (26) As Howard Caygill notes, "Burke's faculty of taste ... is a judgement of the senses with the properties of reason" (85), and thus "the problem of establishing a standard of taste was especially difficult for Burke since he rejected all rational principles of taste" (84).

Burke's example of the smooth marble table best illustrates his distinction between natural and acquired taste. (27) Set the table before two men, Burke directs, and "they both perceive it to be smooth, and they are both pleased with it, because of this quality. So far they agree" (21). The two men derive from sensation a pleasure that signifies the quality of smoothness; there is something like an ontology of smoothness available to them through the senses, a smoothness in which all unjaded people concur. But now set a series of tables before them, each polished to a different degree of smoothness:

It is very probable that these men, who are so agreed upon what is smooth, and in the pleasure from thence, will disagree when they come to settle which table has the advantage for point of polish. Here is indeed the great difference between Tastes, when men come to compare the excess or diminution of things which are judged by degree, and not by measure. (22)

Burke calls this "Taste by way of distinction" (23) or "the critical Taste," which "does not depend upon a superior principle in men, but upon superior knowledge" (19). Burke elsewhere notes that "the principle of this knowledge is very much accidental, as it depends upon experience and observation, and not on the strength or weakness of any natural faculty" (18). Hence Burke's conclusion about the polished tables: "In these nice cases, supposing the acuteness of the sense equal, the greater attention and habit in such things will have the advantage. In the question about the tables, the marble polisher will unquestionably determine the most accurately" (22).

What is striking about Burke's example is the way it compromises some of the principles of taste earlier set out. Attention and habit--that is, a customary association with the objects in question--refine the judgment, the capacity to evaluate degree. But habit and custom are also exactly what dull the pleasure we take in the liveliness of our sensations, our enjoyment of things as such; hence the fact that the poor judge "is more affected by a very poor piece, than the best judge by the most perfect." The novice table-toucher enjoys the most forceful sensation of pleasure in the marble's smoothness, a pleasure that has everything to do with the sensation's novelty and the novice's ignorance. "It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions," Burke notes while discussing the power of obscurity in the Enquiry (61). Here, then, is the natural principle of taste at work: an ability to distinguish sensations by kind, or, to use Burke's terminology, "by measure" (22).

The marble polisher exercises the refined judgment that his habitual contact with marble brings him. No longer enjoying the pleasure of smoothness as easily as he once did, he is, one imagines, like the Burke who despairs of ever again enjoying the unexamined pleasures of his youth:

In the morning of our days, when the senses are unworn and tender, when the whole man is awake in every part, and the gloss of novelty fresh upon the objects that surround us, how lively at that time are our sensations, but how false and inaccurate the judgments we form of things? I despair of ever receiving the same degree of pleasure from the most excellent performances of genius which I felt at that age, from pieces which my present judgment regards as trifling and contemptible (25).

Judgment, then, exists in inverse proportion to the aesthetic force of sensual taste--one is gained at the expense of the other: "Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little" (61). The critical taste is cultivated by knowledge drawn from the very experience, habit, and custom which diminish the pleasures of sensation undergirding the natural taste; thus, as Tom Furniss puts it, "the exercise which develops proper taste is precisely that which threatens to render the observer insensitive to sensory stimuli and incapable of imaginative activity" (85). Burke's assessment of the progress of the arts is for this very reason less sanguine than Hume's:

The most powerful effects of poetry and music have been displayed, and perhaps are still displayed, where these arts are but in a very low and imperfect state. The rude hearer is affected by the principles which operate in these arts even in their rudest condition ... But as the arts advance towards their perfection, the science of criticism advances with equal pace, and the pleasure of judges is frequently interrupted by the faults which are discovered in the most finished compositions. (25-26)

Because powerful affective response and discerning critical judgment are at odds in this account, the advancement and perfection of the arts result in a sort of Pyrrhic victory for aesthetic cultivation--and for those judges whose critical faculties are purchased at the cost of their capacity to enjoy rude pleasures.

Gerard, for one, also confronts habit's tendency "to diminish the sensibility of taste" (118), yet he is more hopeful than Burke about the phenomenon. He acknowledges that, through experience, "we become indifferent to the imperfect degrees of beauty, which fully satisfied us before," and he concedes that, when the "utmost beauty and perfection" are "wanting, we feel a deficience; we are unsatisfied and disappointed" (118). Indeed, "[t]o a taste refined, and by practice qualified for making comparisons," Gerard writes, "an inferior sort or degree of beauty appears a real and positive blemish" (119-20). Nonetheless, Gerard believes the experienced judge amply compensated for this metamorphosis of beauties into blemishes by a corresponding transformation of imperfections into glories: "what was censured as a fault, often on our taste becoming refined, appears a beauty" (121). And his theory of the "reciprocal influence" of the various internal senses enables him to argue that the "foreign aid" of "the kindred powers of taste" allows one vitiated "internal sense" to be supplied by its fellows (79-84). Gerard further claims that, though the same object continually presented to our senses loses its charms, the fact that the "objects of taste are infinitely various" (109) leaves us little time to brood over the passing of but one among innumerable sources of pleasure.

Gerard's rumination on the capacity of beauties to become blemishes and of faults to mutate into charms neatly encapsulates the problem of taste and perhaps helps to explain Burke's interest in a standard that might maintain the integrity of aesthetic categories. If the novice considers one thing beautiful and the connoisseur another, whose taste carries the day? This is no small matter for the Burke who holds it "probable that the standard both of reason and Taste is the same in all human creatures" (11) and whose standard of taste derives from a natural capacity for response. Wherein resides the acuteness of the connoisseur's judgment? Do his faculties of perception--his senses or feelings--become more precise even as the affective charge attendant upon those feelings attenuates? Are acuteness of feeling and sensibility of feeling distinct for Burke, so that the learned judge's sensations are vivid and "exquisite" even though the feelings--"annexed pains and pleasures" (16)--derived from those sensations have weakened? In the "Introduction on Taste," judgment, an evaluative faculty dependent upon comparison, may enhance one's capacity for sensation while simultaneously dulling sensation's aesthetic effects.

For Burke, as for Gerard, the marble polisher and the judge who sacrifice the pleasures of sensation receive a compensatory satisfaction, but it is different in kind from the enjoyment it supplants, and it is viewed unfavorably by Burke:

the judgment is for the greater part employed in throwing stumbling blocks in the way of the imagination, in dissipating the scenes of its enchantment, and in tying us down to the disagreeable yoke of our reason: for almost the only pleasure that men have in judging better than others, consists in a sort of conscious pride and superiority, which arises from thinking rightly; but then, this is an indirect pleasure, a pleasure which does not immediately result from the object which is under contemplation. (25)

The second-order pleasure attendant upon the exercise of judgment shatters the fellow-feeling established by men's unanimity in the principles of natural taste; witness the disagreement that erupts when men are asked to evaluate not whether the tables are smooth, but how smooth they are. Eminence, distinction, and the pleasures of comparison then substitute for the "agreeable" and shared pleasures of the body. But what is most interesting in this passage is Burke's articulation of what I would call the sublimity of taste. His pleasures of imagination (Burke seems to mean "sensibility" here; see p. 23) having literally been "interrupted" or "blocked" by the judgment, the man of critical taste is able to recuperate a sort of indirect or negative pleasure, a pleasure in degree rather than in kind, from his conscious superiority to another's cognitive and aesthetic shortcomings. (28) The man of critical taste's judgment ultimately triumphs in the humiliation of his own sensibility, just as he glories in the superiority of his cultivated or acquired taste to the natural, unexamined sensation of another. He moves from feeling, along with his imagination, subjected by the yoke of evaluative judgment to identifying with that tyrannical power in order to regard others as "trifling and contemptible" (25), and he derives from thus "making distinctions" that pleasure "of a negative and indirect nature" which Burke elsewhere designates the sublime (18).

Tom Furniss has argued that "proper taste seems precisely to exclude the man of taste from the exercise induced by the sublime" (86), thus elaborating Frances Ferguson's suggestion that in the Enquiry, "Knowledge is purchased only by the loss of power and the loss of sublimity." (29) But rather than making sublime experience and the acquisition of delicate taste fundamentally incompatible, Burke uses the dynamics of negative pleasure which structure the sublime encounter to explain the compensatory mechanism whereby the man of taste enjoys a power and a sublime distinction that--perhaps perversely--depend precisely upon what Ferguson terms the bathos of experience, the diminishing returns of sense. To put it crudely, Burke's theory of taste, like his account of the sublime experience, might be summed up as, "No pain, no gain." Without the capacity to feel pain, to be exercised by a sublime encounter, the gain or pleasure that we call sublime delight would be unavailable to us. However, the pain that comes with the exercise of one's capacities is sometimes the pain of loss, of one's growing inability to experience the bracing pain--the delight--that comes with sublime exercise; that is, to feel no (physical) pain, in Burke's system, brings a kind of (mental) pain. Thus the diminishing returns of delight are themselves recompensed by the exercise of critical and comparative faculties, which results in a sort of second-order delight, a gain predicated on the pain that results when we can no longer feel a pain which once brought us pleasure.

The imperfections of this analogy between Burke's account of taste and his theory of the sublime are evident and must be acknowledged. First, taste of course applies to beautiful as well as to sublime objects. Second, the sublime for Burke is something that everyone naturally and immediately feels rather than the exclusive preserve of a few polished aesthetes. Third, the sublime not only produces "the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling" (39) but also "anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force" (57), making the sublime experience--fueled by obscurity, confusion, passion--quite unlike the cool, detached evaluation, the clarity of judgment, and the dampened affect often associated by Burke with acquired taste. Yet the parallels between Burke's account of the dynamics of negative pleasure and his description of the paradoxes of acquired taste are striking and instructive nonetheless. And the divide between the intensity of sublime affect and the anaesthetic numbness of acquired taste must not be overstated, both because Burke sometimes describes the pleasures of critical judgment using a rhetoric associated with the sublime--recall the experienced reader who is "transported with the Eneid" (20-21, my emphasis)--and because sublimity in Burke is often depicted in ways that obscure and complicate its links to intense and immediate physical response. (30)

Jules Law, for instance, has demonstrated in The Rhetoric of Empiricism that Burke's sublime depends not upon sensual immediacy, but "on the figure of distance": "Burke's categorical distinction between the 'beautiful' and the 'sublime'," Law contends, "in fact, reduces to a distinction between impressions of surface and those of depth, respectively." (31) Let us return to the example of the marble table once more. The novice marble-toucher is able, quite literally, to enjoy the superficial pleasures of the stone's smooth surface, while the marble polisher detects a depth, a texture that goes unnoticed by the uninitiated. The experience of the novice is transacted at the point of contact between the surface of his sensible body and the seemingly unbroken surface of the marble, while the polisher-critic's distance from the "natural" force of the experience, from unmediated sensation, permits him to perceive the marble's unevenness, its three-dimensionality, its depth, and to draw from the depths of his own experience comparisons sufficient to render cool, distant, authoritative judgment. We might describe this as the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime rewritten as a distinction between the sense of taste and the faculty of taste. But we might also describe it as analogous to two quite different accounts of the sublime, one in which the sublime experience is the product of sensual immediacy, and another in which the sublime is predicated upon distance and loss (recall Wordsworth's own recourse to "a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused" in the face of such loss). As Law notes, echoing Caygill's assessment of Burke, the paradox of the sublime--and thus of the critical taste--is that "reflection provides the distance or mediation necessary for a truly aesthetic effect and at the same time threatens to overwhelm aesthetic response by turning it into a rational idea" (133).

The social and political implications of Burke's reflections on the sublimity of taste are perhaps most intriguing. Howard Caygill contends that the "British theory of taste.., was shaped by very specific political and intellectual circumstances" (41), citing in particular the role played by a burgeoning conception of an autonomous civil society in his analysis of the development of British aesthetic theory. Tom Furniss argues more narrowly that "[f] or Burke, aesthetics is not aloof from society but crucial to maintaining the social fabric. If there were no common standards of taste or reason, society would break down" (74). And Frans De Bruyn has demonstrated that, in Burke's view, "[t] he statesman and the connoisseur are.., virtually identical," for "[t] he same bias of mind that fits one to judge of a work of art is also requisite to the exercise of civil leadership." De Bruyn identifies Burke's man of taste as a natural aristocrat whose "refined sensibility and judgment are largely the product of his privileged environment and education," but he does not pursue the evident tension between Burke's desire to articulate a common standard of taste and his emphasis on the distinction, the privilege that refines the man of taste's judgment (50-51). Burke's Enquiry clearly encourages us to draw an analogy between unvitiated sensation, which all share as their idealized pre-history and which brings "natural" pleasure, and the social passions that bind us; he likewise links the judgment, which divides men and turns them to the cultivation of "conscious pride and superiority" as a selfish compensation for their loss of pure sentience, and the self-preservative passions that isolate us. As the sublime refers to self-preservative and the beautiful to social passions in the Enquiry, Burke's theory connects natural taste, social cohesion, and the beautiful, on the one hand, and acquired taste, selfish isolation, and the sublime, on the other. (32)

Thus the sublime turn in Burke's "Introduction on Taste" seems at odds with his attempt to delimit a standard of taste with which all can concur, a standard, as he puts it, "sufficient to maintain the ordinary correspondence of life" (11). Indeed, according to Burke, the existence of such a standard is challenged only by "those, who on a superficial view imagine, that there is so great a diversity of Tastes both in kind and in degree" (13, my italics). In other words, only the person of cultivated taste able to see beneath the surface of things, to look beyond the "superficial view," recognizes that there is a standard of taste common to all, so that the very recognition of our aesthetic--and thus social---commonality becomes a mark of aesthetic and social distinction. Aesthetic cultivation and a cosmopolitan outlook seem to go hand in hand, though a cultivated cosmopolitanism also--paradoxically--alienates one from the majority of people moved by rude pleasures and local attachments.

An alternative reading of what I have called the sublimity of taste is available through Burke's own description of the social passion of ambition. Rather than viewing the distinction established by the critical taste as sublime or anti-social, and thus as compromising the standard of taste's role as the healing balm of a socially and politically divided world, one might recognize that ambition, the desire to signalize oneself, is at work here. The "satisfaction arising from the contemplation of his excelling his fellows in something deemed valuable amongst them" (50), which Burke sees as ambition's goal, is clearly the very satisfaction enjoyed by the marble polisher and the man of delicate taste. As ambition is designated a social passion by Burke, ensuring that human society does not stagnate in imitative behavior and sympathetic fellow-feeling, one could re-evaluate my argument that Burke's taste is, as Caygill puts it, an "ambiguous faculty" (85) which mingles natural and acquired capacities and promises at once to unite and divide humankind.

However, the turn to ambition merely shifts our attention from one ambiguous term to another, for Burke's ambition is no less vexed a concept than his taste. Though ambition is a social passion and is thus associated with the beautiful, references to Longinus' On the Sublime appear in the section on ambition as part of Burke's analysis of the mind's ability to claim for itself the "dignity and importance of the things which it contemplates" (50-51)--that is, to take credit for powers which are not its own in an effort to distinguish itself. Thus Burke defines flattery as "no more than what raises in a man's mind an idea of a preference [that is, a distinction] which he has not" (50). This desire for distinction even extends to a capacity to "take a complacency in some singular infirmities, follies, or defects of one kind or another" (50), or to make a virtue of a defect. To do so is of course to enjoy (illusory, imaginary) compensatory satisfaction in the face of (real, physical) misery and inadequacy. What is striking is how closely Burke's discussion of this perversion of ambition--this tendency to take pride in infirmities and defects--parallels his account of the negative or indirect pleasure we take in our delicacy of taste, a faculty that indemnifies us for the infirmity of our sense of taste--that is, for the attenuation of the positive pleasures of sense. Taste's ambiguous position as at once an individuating faculty that distinguishes the few and an aesthetic touchstone that guarantees the social and political coherence of the many is thus complemented by ambition's amphibious status as the social passion that drives one to the seemingly antisocial expedient of distinguishing oneself, of preserving oneself at all costs from absorption by the social body. (33) Burke's discussion of the cultivation of taste, therefore, is understandably less celebratory than Hume's, and his reflections on the acquisition of a superior critical capacity more ambivalent, an ambivalence nicely expressed by a phrase like "negative pleasure." For, in a world where aesthetics and ethics, analyses of beauty and analyses of society often fuse, Burke is confronted with an account of the dialectics of taste that suggests the potential incompatibility of aesthetic discrimination and social harmony, of cultivated taste and civil society. (34)

I want to close by reading three consecutive scenes that neatly distill the issues explored in this essay. All three immediately precede the puzzle of the smooth marble table. Each is one of the "several instances" invoked by Burke in support of his assertion that "the critical Taste does not depend upon a superior principle in men, but superior knowledge" (19), and each leaves in doubt the virtues of refining one's delicacy of taste. Burke's first story concerns the shoemaker who "set the painter right with regard to some mistakes he had made in the shoe of one of his figures" (19). This anecdote associates delicacy not with the broad aesthetic education of an elite, but with the learning of a craft and a concomitant specialized knowledge that smacks of vulgar parochialism. In this instance, the shoemaker's delicate taste does not hold out the promise of unifying people of different talents and passions, but instead risks splintering society into disparate interest groups. The contrast between "the natural good Taste of the painter" who "want[s] an exact knowledge in the formation of a shoe" and the narrow expertise of the shoemaker perhaps distinguishes the general, universal appeal of an art such as painting from the guild mentality associated with the cobbler. Yet the shoemaker's inability to appreciate the broad reach of the painting he criticizes, together with the scene's reinscription of a status hierarchy based on aesthetics if not on social rank, bodes ill for "the ordinary correspondence of life" that concerns Burke. The shoemaker's delicacy of taste and the painter's "natural good taste" seem fundamentally incompatible with one another.

The third in this trilogy of scenes, a story of aesthetic discord which Burke tries to construe as an example of the "parity" of taste, compares the man who "is charmed with Bellianis, and reads Virgil coldly," to another who "is transported with the Eneid, and leaves Don Bellianis to children" (20-21). Burke wants to claim that the difference between them consists only in the degree of "their being affected," which arises "either from a greater degree of natural sensibility, or from a closer and longer attention to the object" (21). But Burke's emphasis on parity obscures an important distinction between the untutored reader whose pleasures proceed from "natural sensibility" and the acute judge whose "closer and longer attention to the object" brings both an appreciation of the "refined language of the Eneid" and a sense of superiority to the "degraded" and childlike taste of his fellow (21). The distinction between the "charms" enjoyed by the naive and the "transport" experienced by the initiate--between the passivity of the former and the long, close work of reading performed by the latter (recall Burke's description of the sublime as a form of labor, exertion, exercise, as "a surmounting of difficulties" [135])--should alert knowing readers that the lexicon of the beautiful and the sublime is leaking from the Enquiry proper into Burke's essay on taste and introducing there the very differences that his emphasis on parity and on a taste "common to all" (20) is intended to overcome. For if part of the learned man's pleasure consists in the delight that he experiences as he judges himself superior to the admirers of Bellianis, judgments implied by Burke's own language of degradation and infantilism, then his pleasure and his taste differ indeed from those of the untutored reader. The pleasures and tastes of the two men must in fact differ as significantly as do the categories of pain, pleasure, and delight which Burke himself takes such pains to distinguish (32-37).

I have saved the second of Burke's three "instances" for last because it most forcefully underlines the questions of taste, power, and social harmony that become tangled in the "Introduction on Taste." (35) Burke recounts the story of the Turkish emperor, Muhammad II, who, having been shown by a painter "a fine piece of a decollated head of St. John the Baptist ... observed one defect; he observed that the skin did not shrink from the wounded part of the neck.... His Turkish majesty had indeed been acquainted with that terrible spectacle, which the others could only have represented in their imagination" (20). Burke's remarkable passage touches on a number of the concerns of this essay. By choosing a Turkish Grand Signior as his figure for the man of delicate taste, Burke puts maximum possible pressure on the idea that all differences, all threats to bourgeois social harmony can be reconciled by aesthetics. Yet Burke also softens some of the implications of his choice through a judicious retelling of the story; one possible source text, an English version of De Piles' The Art of Painting, recounts that, "to convince [the painter] that his criticism was just," the sultan "order'd a slave to be brought to him, and commanded his head to be immediately struck off ... that [the painter] might see, that presently after the head is separated from the body, the skin of the neck shrinks back." (36) This version of the anecdote makes clear a relationship between acquired taste, sublime terror, and the exercise of power that is intimated more gently and indirectly by Burke.

The fact that Burke soft-pedaled the violence of this story by excluding the details of the sultan's summary execution of a slave may testify to his recognition of its force, its capacity to impugn an acquired delicacy of taste and to call into question a shared standard of judgment about questions of aesthetics. After all, Burke closes this anecdote about the Turkish emperor by asserting once again that "there is something in common to the painter, the shoemaker, the anatomist, and the Turkish emperor"--that their differences belie a shared natural taste: "So far as Taste is natural, it is nearly common to all" (20). Yet Burke's "nearly" is an index to his own ambivalence about the matter. The head separated from the body in the story of the Grand Signior may be taken as a metaphor for the disarticulation of the mental and bodily--or acquired and natural--tastes, a problem that preoccupies Burke in this section of the essay, as the subsequent story of the partisans of Virgil and Don Bellianis reveals. Or perhaps the differences that threaten to fracture the national body are figured by a painted representation of a decapitated head, itself a fitting emblem for a sultan whose violence not only divides his subjects, but also divides him from them. Burke links delicacy of taste to the brutally indelicate exercise of power, rendering discriminating judges like the sultan men one shrinks from indeed. And he shows the dulling of natural sensibility that accompanies the cultivation of aesthetic expertise, here represented in the sultan's failure to shrink from the spectacle of decapitation and his concomitant inability to sympathize with--to harmonize with--those over whom he lords, those whom he judges his inferiors. Finally, Burke equates the Turkish emperor's depth of knowledge, his capacity to look beneath the surface of things, with cutting open a human body and pushing past the skin's surface in order to discover what lies underneath. (37) In this instance, the cultivation of taste is not, as Eagleton suggests, "the ultimate binding force of the bourgeois social order" (20) but a "terrible spectacle" (Burke 20) little different from "the coercive apparatus of absolutism" (Eagleton 20). The Turkish emperor, associated with terror and with the aesthetic pleasures that others' pain can bring (witness the decollated head of John the Baptist as a subject of painting), becomes Burke's most persuasive, forceful, astonishing example of the sublimity of taste--that is, of delicacy of taste gone wrong.

The University of Hartford


(1) Robert W. Jones, Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Analysis of Beauty (Cambridge U. Press, 1998) 56; my emphasis.

(2) Tom Huhn, "Burke's Sympathy for Taste," Eighteenth-Century Studies 35 (Spring 2002): 382. Huhn helpfully distinguishes these as the "sense of taste" and the "faculty of taste."

(3) Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Orion of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. James T. Boulton (Roudedge & Kegan Paul, 1958), intro., 28. Further references to Burke's text will be cited in the body of the essay by page number.

(4) Tom Furniss makes a similar argument in Edmund Burke's Aesthetic Ideology: Language, Gender, and Political Economy in Revolution (Cambridge U. Press, 1993), 70: "On the one hand, he wants the sublime to be open to all since he wants cultural, social, economic, and political achievement to be similarly open; on the other hand, he wants to maintain distinctions between classes and between the meritorious and the mediocre.... It is this contradiction, and the possibility that the formulation of the sublime in the first edition might have left insufficient safeguards against egalitarian interpretations, which the 'Essay on Taste' wrestles with and ends up reinscribing in a new way."

(5) This implicit social agenda distinguishes Burke's work on taste from that of contemporaries such as Alexander Gerard, on the one hand, and from the author of the Letters concerning Taste, 2nd ed. (London, 1755), on the other, who sees aesthetic approbation not as a harbinger of social accord, but as a sign that the deity has tuned us to vibrate with a "responsive Harmony" when we encounter beauty (8).

(6) Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 20.

(7) Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (Edinburgh, 1767), 290.

(8) Bernard Mandeville, "The Preface," The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (London, 1714), n.p.

(9) Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton U. Press, 1977), 52.

(10) David Hume, "Of Commerce," Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987), 255. The essay first appeared in Political Discourses (1752).

(11) Hume, "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth," Essays, 525. The essay first appeared in Political Discourses (1752).

(12) Hume, "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion," Essays, 3, 4, 5. The essay first appeared in the Essays, Moral and Political of 1741.

(13) Hume, "Of the Standard of Taste," Essays, 235.

(14) As Richard Shusterman asserts, "when we look at whom Hume regards as the good critic or 'true judge,' it is obviously not a healthy innocent or homme sauvage, but someone who is thoroughly educated, socially trained, and culturally conditioned." See his "Of the Scandal of Taste: Social Privilege as Nature in the Aesthetic Theories of Hume and Kant," Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art, ed. Paul Mattick, Jr. (Cambridge U. Press, 1993), 105.

(15) James Boulton notes the connection (Burke, Philosophical Inquiry, intro., 23-29), and C. P. Courtney ratifies Boulton's assessment in Montesquieu and Burke (Blackwell, 1963), 44. Howard Caygill likewise concurs; see his Art of Judgement (Blackwell, 1989), 84.

(16) Burke, Philosophical Inquiry, intro., 29.

(17) On the connections between mental and bodily taste in Burke, Boulton writes: "Though Burke himself draws analogies with 'the sensation of the palate', a simple comparison of this kind would not deceive him" (Burke, Philosophical Inquiry, intro., 31). For a thought-provoking analysis of "the complementarity and interdependence of sense and judgment" (382) which emphasizes the mimetic turn in Burke's Essay, see Huhn, 379-93.

(18) Alexander Gerard, An Essay on Taste, with Three Dissertations on the Same Subject (London, 1759), 1:1-2 n.

(19) William Wordsworth, The Fourteen-Book Prelude, ed. W.J.B. Owen (Cornell U. Press, 1985), 108, lines 547-48; William Wordsworth, "Tintern Abbey, "Lyrical Ballads, and Other Poems, 1797-1800, ed. James Butler and Karen Green (Cornell U. Press, 1992), 118, lines 85-97; Lord Byron, The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Jerome J. McGann, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981) 3:186, line 17.

(20) D'Alembert, "Reflexions on the Use and Abuse of Philosophy in Matters That Are Properly Relative to Taste," (qtd. in Gerard, 248-49).

(21) As Tom Huhn notes, sensation is for Burke "the internal likeness of nature" (383).

(22) On these distinctions, see Frans De Bruyn, "Edmund Burke's Natural Aristocrat: The 'Man of Taste' as a Political Ideal," Eighteenth Century Life 11 (May 1987): 50.

(23) Courtney 44.

(24) Montesquieu, Essai sur le gout (Paris: Payot et Rivages, 1993), 13-14.

(25) Translation from Gerard, 264-65.

(26) Compare Gerard, for whom "[c]ustom supplies the place of an external monitor," pointing out "beauties" and "blemishes" we would otherwise learn to appreciate only with the help of an experienced guide (110). For Gerard, the standard of taste ultimately relies not upon natural, physiological responses to external stimuli, but upon cultural transmission through approved tutors who have internalized principles of taste, making them second nature.

(27) Gerard also selects differing sensitivities to smoothness as his preferred example of our capacity to refine sensation: "Even our external senses may be rendered more acute than they were at first.... Touch often becomes much more exquisite in those, whose employment leads them to examine the polish of Bodies, than it is in those who have no occasion for such examination" (100).

(28) Discussing the difference between wit and judgment, Burke notes that "what pleasure we derive from [judgment] is something of a negative and indirect nature," while we have "naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances," which is the work of wit (18).

(29) Frances Ferguson, "The Sublime of Edmund Burke, or the Bathos of Experience," Glyph 8 (1981): 72.

(30) Burke may also have been familiar with descriptions of taste that uncannily echo--or anticipate--the language he uses to portray the experience of sublimity. In An Essay on Taste, for instance, included with the works of Diderot and D'Alembert as an appendix to Gerard's Essay, Voltaire writes, "Taste then, in general, is a quick discernment, a sudden perception, which, like the sensation of the palate, anticipates reflexion" (qtd. in Gerard, 213).

(31) Jules Law, "Empiricist Aesthetics: Burke's 'Analogy' of the Senses," The Rhetoric of Empiricism: Language and Perception from Locke to I. A. Richards (Cornell U. Press, 1993), 152, 132.

(32) Relevant to the analogy I am describing is Huhn's interpretation of beauty in Burke as "a quality in objects that also works to break down ... some of the boundaries between us and the world," thus reproducing one's "kinship with things" and evoking "the pleasure we take in feeling a kinship and closeness to others (388, 387).

(33) For an interesting argument that Burke's ambition is not anti-social, see Huhn, 389.

(34) On the "ease with which the aesthetic slips into other disciplinary modes" (363), especially in the eighteenth century, see G. Gabrielle Starr, "Ethics, Meaning, and the Work of Beauty," Eighteenth-Century Studies 35 (Spring 2002): 361-78.

(35) My thinking about this moment has been instigated by Anthony Pollock's "Masochism and Agency in Burke's Aesthetic Theory," a talk delivered at the meeting of the Northeast American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies (New York: October, 2002).

(36) De Piles, The Art of Painting, with the Lives and Characters of above 300 of the Most Eminent Painters, 2nd ed. (London, 1744), 158.

(37) For a differently inflected reading of this passage, see Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804 (Duke U. Press, 1999), 201-2.

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