“Those who deal in political aesthetics have long noted that Burke’s aesthetics is the core ground of his outlook.”
“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful is one of the most important works of aesthetics in philosophy. It is also indispensable for understanding Burke’s political views; as Stephen K. White has written, “Burke’s aesthetic reflections are crucial to a full understanding of his political conceptions.” The sublime, according to Burke, is the manifestation of the passion of raw astonishment, frenzied ecstasy, and zeal; it is large, and oftentimes terrorizing. The beautiful, by contrast, brings a calmness over the person which produces the passion of love; it is small, delicate, and intimately familiar.
There are several ways of understanding this most profound work of Burke’s thought. At one level, Burke carves out room for the sublime in human life and society. He recognizes the human need, drive, indeed, impulse, for the sublime and thinks society needs to have space for it. It is wrong, however, to think he celebrates and prefers the sublime. Burke most certainly does not. Rather, he prefers the beautiful but not at the exclusion of the sublime. Reading the Enquiry politically, Burke identifies the sublime with the despotic and powerful, “Besides these things which directly suggest the idea of danger, and those which produce a similar effect from a mechanical cause, I know of nothing sublime which is not some modification of power.” Moreover, “despotic governments…are founded on the passions of men.” Burke links aesthetics with politics in his treatise; after all, he identifies primal society as sublime and the “good society” as beautiful. One is founded on lust and the other on love.
It is sometimes a common trope to hear that Burke broke with his earlier radicalism when he came to oppose the French Revolution. At face value, this argument seems valid. He was “a radical,” a Whig, and a supporter of the American Revolution before 1789. Yet why, with the sudden and destructive emergence of the French Revolution, did Burke react so violently against the supposed radical political principles to which he subscribed? In short, he didn’t.
Burke’s preference for the beautiful is the pillar of his conservatism. It is visible even in his early thought despite his seeming surface radicalism.
Those who deal in political aesthetics have long noted that Burke’s aesthetics is the core ground of his outlook. His preference for the small and beautiful, the fragile and delicate, is even seen in his early satirical essay A Vindication of Natural Society. Despotic government is asymmetrical, excessive, and overburdensome—all things indicative of the sublime. Burke deplored artificial society. Then, he wrote eloquently about the limits and problems of artificial social engineering in Reflections on the Revolution in France.
In describing the French Revolution, Burke repeatedly uses the language of the sublime in the context of the events, the dreams, and the national assembly constructed by the revolutions. He describes the revolutionary society as “great object,” something vast and seemingly infinite and powerful. “We are alarmed,” he writes, “into reflection; our minds (as it has long since been observed) are purified by terror, and pity; our weak, unthinking pride is humbled under the dispensations of mysterious wisdom. Some tears might be drawn from me, if such a spectacle were exhibited on the stage.” He also notes of the revolution, “the French Revolution is the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world…[e]verything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and of all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies. In viewing this monstrous tragicomic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeed.” Sublime misery, in Burke’s outlook, was the outcome of the revolution.
It is important to remember that in Burke’s dichotomy of the sublime and the beautiful he did not, as stated, reject the sublime or the reality of it. He recognized the profound need and deep impulse in the depths of humanity for the sublime. The sublime is best experienced in a healthy manner “at a distance,” which doesn’t bring about our extirpation.
While Burke saw a positive encounter with the sublime at a distance, he also took the time to comment upon the closeness of the sublime and how it leads to terror, obscurity, and horror. The sudden and compulsive emergence of the grotesque and the sudden, which are also an integral part of the sublime, causes a freezing of the passions which become suspended in a state of total shock and horror. We cannot, however, help but indulge our grossest fantasies in this sadomasochistic yearning for the sublime, “Of Feeling little more can be said, than that the idea of bodily pain in all the modes and degrees of labour, pain, anguish, torment, is productive of the sublime and nothing else in this sense can produce it.”
As Burke continues his reflections on the nature of the sublime, “Fear or terror, which is an apprehension of pain or death, exhibits exactly the same effects, approaching in violence to those just mentioned in proportion to nearness of the cause, and the weakness of the subject.” Getting too close to the sublime gets one cut in half like the rollie pollie humans described by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. Being close to the sublime is a frightening, horrifying, and terrifying experience—but it is also, paradoxically, exhilarating in the most perverse of ways. The sublime, Burke says, “[is] often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself.”
In charting out the sublime and beautiful in human society, Burke reflected on the reality that the sublime was the society of lust and vengeance. However, the “general society”—which is also “the great society”—does not have lust but love and beauty at its core. “[G]reat society…has no mixture of lust, and its object is beauty…The passion of love has its rise in positive pleasure.” If the sublime is something that causes dread, horror, terror, fear, humiliation, and pain, the beautiful is something that causes pleasure, nicety, and fondness; moreover, the beautiful is something delicate and fragile. As Burke declaratively states, “An appearance of delicacy, and even of fragility, is almost essential to [beauty].”
To love is to have anguish over what is easily destroyed.
Burke’s preference for the beautiful is the pillar of his conservatism. It is visible even in his early thought despite his seeming surface radicalism. It was not that he was a radical in the destructive sense. It was that he opposed too much power and despotism. They both threaten to the delicacy and fragility of the small and organic society which develops through a myriad of accidental circumstances in history and produces quite remarkably—especially as related to the English constitutional order—a great degree of liberty, which can be too easily lost. That possibility of loss is also indicative of love. To love is to have anguish over what is easily destroyed. And as Burke wrote in Reflections, it is very easy to destroy and much more difficult to build and enjoy, “Rage and phrensy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”
Concerning the American Revolution, it was not the principle of “revolution” which readers of Burke should concentrate on. Rather, as White acknowledges, it is aesthetics. Burke’s writings on the American Revolution are founded on the language of the beautiful and not the sublime. His reflections on the American crisis is one filled with a spirit of love because he recognized Americans as Englishmen, “First the people of the Colonies are descendants of Englishmen…The Colonists emigrated from you, when this part of your character was most predominate; and they took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands. They are therefore not only devoted to Liberty, but to Liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles.” Burke is filled with love and sympathy, not horror and dread, when observing the American cause.
Furthermore, his witnessing of the American Revolution—if we can call it that—was at a safe and far distance. The proximity of the French Revolution was right across the channel and nearer to home. The possibility of complete immersion into the grandeur and grandiosity of “delightful horror” and excessive pain shocked Burke to his core. The sudden reincarnation of vengeful and bloodthirsty Ishtar, in the form of Lady Guillotine, was a terrifying reality. That terrifying reality was what Charles Dickens brilliantly satirized concerning the new Lady of Revolutionary Rebirth, “Liberty, equality, fraternity or death; – the last, much the easiest to bestow O Guillotine!” The Americans wanted to build up the ancient liberties of the English way. The Jacobins were filled with a rage and spite that could only pull down and destroy.
The feeling of humiliation and belittling, the being made to feel insignificant, beneath the vast blade of the guillotine is the sublime manifestation of le terrible. To be directly beneath such an awesome instrument of power and terror is the sudden feeling of the sublime which suspends all motions and dissolves away the human creature in the sudden drop of racing metal ending in a rugged and horrific decapitation. It makes the human being—who in most cases is fit, strong, and powerful—feel to be fragile, delicate, and weak. To be dropped beneath the blade of the Guillotine leads to the “tranquility tinged with terror” as one realizes the horrifying reality of his littleness in the cosmos which leads to a masochistic “delightful horror” deep in the human psyche and soul.
But Burke’s insights into the sublime are also informative in understanding the seductive allure of this sadomasochistic sublime at the root of totalitarianism. Burke never denies, even in discussing the close experience of the sublime which often leads to death, that this type of yearning and experience of the sublime is something humans flee from. On the contrary, humans still desire this immersion into the sublime.
Totalitarianism rests on the animalistic desire of the sadomasochistic sublime deep in the souls of men. There was poetic justice in the killing of Maximilian Robespierre.
In a depreciated and deracinated society which has been stripped of meaning and substance, it is easy to turn to the sadomasochistic sublime as offering excitement, passion, and frenzy in a world of emptiness. Aesthetic frenzy is all humans have left in such a deracinated state of existence. The sadomasochistic sublime is a like a drug, people need their fix even if it causes them to die. Because humans do desire the sublime, the totalitarian impulse always resides deep in the nature of humans.
This uprooted person looks to the experience of the sublime as something enticing. To be in the midst of the tidal wave of herd activity, of shouts and sloganeering, of conflict and struggle, is an awesome experience in the traditional sense of the world; it is the feeling of astonishment as Burke used it. “Sounds have a great power in these as in most other passions…Excessive loudness is sufficient to overpower the soul, to suspend its action, and to fill it with terror.” In short, we do crave this. Burke continues to ruminate on this peculiarity deep inside the hearts of humans, “a mode of terror is the exercise of the finer parts of the system…if the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person, as these emptions clear the parts, whether fine or gross, of a dangerous troublesome incumbrance, they are capable of producing delight; not pleasure, but a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquility tinged with terror.”
Totalitarianism rests on the animalistic desire of the sadomasochistic sublime deep in the souls of men. There was poetic justice in the killing of Maximilian Robespierre. Yet his death was also a sublime moment for Joseph de Maistre and many of the Revolution’s fiercest critics.
Robespierre’s jaw was shattered in his arrest and was held together by a bandage which prevented his head from fitting into Madame Guillotine when it was his turn to feel the sublimity of insignificance and his coming extirpation. The executioner ripped the bandage off and Robespierre let out a shrieking cry that pierced the air and filled the square. Maistre said it was the demon which possessed Robespierre that was screaming in agony in realizing it was about to lose its possessed body. Those who reveled, or indulged in schadenfreude, in Robespierre death saw something more than poetic justice being loosed from on high. They saw sublime justice in the fall of the blade and the silencing of that loud voice of excessive loudness.
The sudden and grizzly, if not otherwise gruesome, death of Robespierre equally embodied the sublime as explained by Burke. But Robespierre’s critics saw the sublime from a distance instead of experiencing the sublime like the man screaming in horror and pain as the blade suddenly dropped to end the screaming. The more boisterous and militant critics of the Revolution were filled with a “delightful horror” and a “tranquility tinged with terror” in watching the most brutal of revolutionary figures be carried to a violence that led to “the present destruction of the person” which transformed the sadomasochistic sublime into a purely sadistic sublime as they watched (or read about) a man being destroyed by the forceful blade of shrieking metal falling down to earth.
Burke’s political aesthetics are the key to understanding his thought. The fragility of beauty is what he defends. He defends organic and fragile beauty in the Vindication, he prefers it in in Enquiry, and he realizes it in the clearest sense in Reflections. Despite this, Burke’s penetration in the aesthetic soul of humanity is hauntingly brilliantly.
Deep in the pulsating darkness of human hearts is this yearning for the sadomasochistic sublime. There is a deep desire for pain and humiliation – whether self-inflicted or induced onto others. This might rupture into a torrential maelstrom of sadomasochistic totalitarianism at any moment because of the need for the cathartic feeling of disordered passions and the disordered imagination. Thus, as Burke says, the totalitarian and sublime revolutionary impulse is to have all “transmigrations…purified by fire and blood.” It is as if the primeval instinct for blood sacrifice is still at the root of the sublime and the psychology behind totalitarian desires and manifestations.
Control of the passions is the prerequisite for the movement to the “great society” and the cultivation of a beautiful society. Releasing the passions leads to despotism. Worst of all, this cathartic zeal can lead to the worst kind of violence because there is a primal and animalistic spirit to humanity deeply yearning for the sadomasochism involved in totalitarianism. We would do well to reflect with Burke on where we find ourselves in today’s political climate that celebrates force, violence, and zeal as the cornerstone of virtue.
Paul Krause is a graduate student in philosophy writing a thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke and holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the forthcoming book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).