Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 2. A Vindication of Natural Society; The Sublime and Beautiful

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

I. Edmund Burke

§ 2. A Vindication of Natural Society; The Sublime and Beautiful

The wide and varied reading which began at Trinity College was, apparently, the chief activity of the nine obscure years (1750–59) which Burke spent as a student of law in London, eating dinners at the Middle Temple, sojourning at country inns or rooms during the vacation with his namesake and, perhaps, kinsman William Burke, and making tentative excursions into letters with an ironical answer to Bolingbroke’s posthumous writings in A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) and an essay in aesthetics after Addison in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). Fulness of mind was the quality of Burke’s conversation which impressed Johnson and all who came to know him in these and later years—knowledge and the power of applying that knowledge, “diversifying the matter infinitely in your own mind.” “His stream of mind is perpetual,” was Johnson’s comment; “Burke is the only man whose common conversation corresponds with the general fame which he has in the world. Take up whatever topic you please, he is ready to meet you.” Burke owed his success in the House of Commons and its committees not more, perhaps, to his eloquence than to this fulness of mind, to the fact that, whatever topic he handled, America, India, Ireland, finance or trade, he spoke from a copious and close knowledge of the subject.

The works which Burke composed during these years are not of great importance. A Philosophical Enquiry is an unequal, and, in the main, rather jejune, treatise of which the fairest criticism is probably Lessing’s, that it “is uncommonly useful as a collection of all the occurrences and perceptions which the philosophers must assume as indisputable in inquiries of this kind.” Burke distinguishes the sublime so sharply from the beautiful that his description of the latter includes little which goes beyond the pretty. More interesting and suggestive is the analysis of the pleasure we take in terrible and painful spectacles—whether a tragedy in the theatre or an execution in the street. But, perhaps, most interesting of all is his discussion of the aesthetic and emotional qualities, of words which he finds to depend less on the images which they evoke than their other properties of sound and association. The business of poetry and rhetoric is “to affect rather by sympathy than imitation; to display rather the effect of things on the mind of the speaker, or of others, than to present a clear idea of the things themselves.” The germ of Laocoon is contained in these paragraphs.

A Vindication is a much more characteristic and significant document. In parodying the eloquence of Bolingbroke, Burke caught some of the first tones of his own more sonorous and varied harmonies. The conception of the essay, a defence of religion by the application to Bolingbroke’s method of attack of a reductio ad absurdum, revealed the deep religious spirit in which all Burke’s political and social speculation bottoms and roots itself. Bolingbroke had indicted revealed religions by pointing to some of the consequences which, in history, had flowed from dogmatic creeds, and Burke answers him by applying the same method to the criticism of political society.

  • Shew me an absurdity in religion, and I will undertake to shew you an hundred for one in political laws and institutions.… If after all, you should confess all these things, yet plead the necessity of political institutions, weak and wicked as they are, I can argue with equal, perhaps superior, force concerning the necessity of artificial religion; and every step you advance in your argument, you add a strength to mine.