For Edmund Burke, beauty has a social aspect: it not only compels us to marry another person, but it is also a shared value that draw us together as fellow creatures. Burke defines beauty as follows:
“By beauty I mean that quality or those qualities in bodies, by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it.”
Burke is quick to add that such love is not lust. We might physically desire a fairly average woman, while great beauty (in men or other animals) excites no desire. This is of course also the logic men have used to justify beauty pageants, but that’s another matter.
Even though Burke has said that pleasurable emotions are not affected by power relationships, now he changes his mind. He posits an interesting difference between admiration of sublime objects and love for what is beautiful:
“[W]e 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.”
It can’t be understated how controversial this is. For one thing, Burke believes that when men fall in love they are particularly attracted to weakness and fragility. They want to feel powerful in relation to a beautiful woman. This is also the argument some radical feminists make, though in much starker terms: for them, all men are rapists, whether in thought or in action.
Do we need to link the appreciation of beauty to power, or is it possible to be more dispassionate? When you admire a beautiful painting in a museum, does that make you feel powerful? Or how about this famous Gerrit Rietveld chair?
As you can see, there is plenty of room for debate, but instead of getting sidetracked, let’s take a closer look at how Burke defines beauty.
Before Burke tells us what beauty is, he actually spends a great deal discussion what beauty is not! Specifically, Burke does not believe that beauty has all that much to do with proper proportions or usefulness. Nor does Burke require perfection. We’ll briefly review his reasons, but feel free to skip over this if you want to find out what Burke thinks are the real causes of beauty.
For Burke, beauty has little to do with exact measurement, with calculation or geometry. Nature is too varied to give us specific rules:
“the rose is a large flower, yet it grows upon a small shrub; the flower of the apple is very small, and grows upon a large tree; yet the rose and the apple blossom are both beautiful.”
Burke quite likes these clever contrasts: he also points out how the swan has a long neck and a short tail, yet the peacock has a short neck and a long tail. Despite these differences, both are beautiful.
While there are patterns in nature (e.g., the arrangement of petals in a flower), proportion is not an overriding factor. The same is true for human beings, and Burke points out that there is disagreement among artists whether the ideal body is seven heads or eight heads high. He also pokes fun at architects who suggest that their buildings imitate the proportions of the human body.
In other words, those who come up with “perfect proportions” have a tendency to read them into nature, rather than derive them from nature:
“For there is in mankind an unfortunate propensity to make themselves, their views, and their works, the measure of excellence in everything whatsoever.”
This is why Burke dislikes carefully sculpted gardens with geometric patterns: “they turned their trees into pillars, pyramids, and obelisks …” Burke definitely would have disapproved of the gardens at Versailles:
Fortunately, he says, gardening styles are becoming more organic again.
Finally, beauty is not the opposite of deformity. You can’t just remove a deformity and expect something to be beautiful. If someone has a hunchback, and you were able to fix this, that wouldn’t necessarily make the person beautiful. It would only restore them to their proper form. The opposite to beauty is ugliness, and in between is mediocrity.
If things adapted to usefulness were beautiful, then we would admire the “wedge-like snout of a swine,” which is very useful for digging! Likewise, a peacock’s feathers are beautiful, but not useful for flying (though one might object that they are useful for courtship …).
Burke even makes this argument about men and women:
“if beauty in our own species was annexed to use, men would be much more lovely than women; and strength and agility would be considered as the only beauties.”
He obviously never lived long enough to discover that “strong is the new beautiful”!
Despite Burke’s gender biases, he makes a good point that usefulness does not imply beauty:
“The stomach, the lungs, the liver, as well as other parts, are incomparably well adapted to their purposes; yet they are far from having any beauty.”
Burke admits that proportion and utility are not entirely irrelevant, yet he is keen to avoid an overly rationalistic explanation of the effects of beauty. He suggests that God did not design things solely to appeal to our reason, “but he endued it with powers and properties that prevent the understanding, and even the will; which, seizing upon the senses and imagination, captivate the soul before the understanding is ready either to join with them, or to oppose them.”
The judgment or intellect might value the usefulness of something, but beauty hits us instantaneously. For instance, we might be entranced by a beautiful arm, whereas an anatomist would have a much less passionate response.
Perfection is not a main cause of beauty either. This is where Burke shares his view that female beauty always has an aspect of weakness:
“[I]n the female sex, [beauty] almost always carries with it an idea of weakness and imperfection. Women are very sensible of this; for which reason, they learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, to counterfeit weakness and imperfection, and even sickness. In all they are guided by nature. Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty.”
Burke likes women to be modest, blushing, and fragile.
Beauty is also associated with the softer virtues. Some virtues are sublime (e.g., fortitude, justice, wisdom—things that cause admiration rather than love), whereas others are beautiful (compassion, kindness, liberality). These lesser virtues are not so much about living perfect lives: they’re more about showing kindness and love.
At this point Burke goes on a digression about how for companionship we typically turn to kindly souls, not to paragons or people with strong virtues. We’re more likely to love our mother than our father, whose authority causes us to show reverence (Apparently fathers are more sublime than mothers!).
However, having made the case that perfection is not essential for beauty, let’s find out what the key features actually are!
So what is beauty? Beauty has the following features:
Many languages use the diminutive to talk in “terms of affection and tenderness” (92). For instance, in English ling is added to form darling (little dear). We love things that are small.
Yes, roughness is not attractive.
Burke likes curves! He also likes variety.
That’s why he finds the neck and breasts of a woman particularly beautiful. He loves “the smoothness; the softness; the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye slides giddily, without knowing where to fix or whither it is carried.” Calling a woman’s beauty a “deceitful maze” is obviously problematic, and Burke clearly sees desire as a giddy, slippery thing.
What Burke does not like is angles: “I do not find any natural object which is angular, and at the same time beautiful”!
The oak tree is robust and sublime. Myrtles and orange trees are beautiful.
Here too Burke can’t resist making a comment about the delicacy of women, though he does add that he wants women to be physically ill:
“The beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness or delicacy, and is even enhanced by their timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it. I would not here be understood to say, that weakness betraying very bad health has any share in beauty.”
Burke appreciates any colours that are clear and bright, but not strong and glaring.
Speaking about people’s facial features, Burke writes, “the face must be expressive of such gentle and amiable qualities as correspond with the softness, smoothness, and delicacy of the outward form.”
Burke prefers a clear eye, not clouded, not darting here and there, but slow and languid.
When it comes to posture and motion, beautiful people have a je ne sais quoi quality that the term gracefulness strives to capture.
Beautiful things are marked by regularity and simplicity of form. When a large object has these qualities, it is said to be fine or specious (false).
Again, beautiful things are not rough, but soft, smooth, gradual, and varied. Don’t forget that Burke hates angles!
All the senses can make us appreciate beauty. For example, Burke likes his music mellow. He loves “that sinking, that melting, that languor.”
Burke’s major contribution to aesthetics is to clearly separate the beautiful from the sublime and to elevate the latter in importance. Burke definitely underscores the difference between them:
“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.”
Of course sometimes the beautiful and the sublime may be combined in one object. The beautiful does not detract much from the sublime (which is the more powerful emotion), but the reverse is not always true.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful with Several Other Additions. The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 12 volumes, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm
Sailko. [Photo of Gerrit Rietveld Chair]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64516371
Urban, at French Wikipedia. [Photo of the Orangerie]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50951