Edmund Burke on what is beautiful

The United States has had its piano-playing presidents. But political leaders are not necessarily known for artistic commentary as well. British statesman Edmund Burke was an exception. Today he is customarily cited as a forebear of the rise in conservative government. But in the 1750s he was writing not only on matters of state but on aesthetics - and discovering, long before today's philosophers, that small is beautiful.

The most obvious point that presents itself to us in examining any object, is its extent or quantity. And what degree of extent prevails in bodies that are held beautiful, may be gathered from the usual manner of expression concerning it. I am told that, in most languages, the objects of love are spoken of under diminutive epithets. It is so in all languages of which I have any knowledge. . . .

Anciently in the English language the diminishing ling was added to the names of persons and things that were the objects of love. Some we retain still, as darling, (or little dear,) and a few others. But, to this day, in ordinary conversation, it is usual to add the endearing name of little to everything we love: the French and Italians make use of these affectionate diminutives even more than we. In the animal creation, out of our own species, it is the small we are inclined to be fond of; little birds, and some of the smaller kinds of beasts. A great beautiful thing is a manner of expression scarcely ever used; but that of a great ugly thing is very common.

There is a wide difference between admiration and love. The sublime, which is the cause of the former, always dwells on great objects, and terrible; the latter on small ones, and pleasing; we submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us; in one case we are forced, in the other we are flattered, into compliance. In short, the ideas of the sublime and the beautiful stand on foundations so different, that it is hard, I had almost said impossible, to think of reconciling them in the same subject, without considerably lessening the effect of the one or the other upon the passions. So that, attending to their quantity, beautiful objects are comparatively small.

The next property constantly observable in such objects is smoothness: a quality so essential to beauty, that I do not now recollect anything beautiful that is not smooth. In trees and flowers, smooth leaves are beautiful; smooth slopes of earth in gardens; smooth streams in the landscape; smooth coats of birds and beasts in animal beauties.. . .

A very considerable part of the effect of beauty is owing to this quality; indeed the most considerable. For, take any beautiful object, and give it a broken and rugged surface; and however well formed it may be in other respects, it pleases no longer.

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