Journal Article

The Review of English Studies Prize Essay: The Meaning of the ‘Sublime and Beautiful’: Shaftesburian Contexts and Rhetorical Issues in Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry

Paddy Bullard

in The Review of English Studies

Volume 56, issue 224, pages 169-191
Published in print April 2005 | ISSN: 0034-6551
Published online April 2005 | e-ISSN: 1471-6968 | DOI:

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The argument of Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry was shaped by its author for a particular polemical purpose, that of demonstrating the incompatibility of the aesthetic categories of the sublime and the beautiful. This article shows that the conjunction of ‘sublime’ and ‘beautiful’ into a single collocation was identified during the first half of the eighteenth century with the writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury. In Characteristicks, Shaftesbury used the phrase to translate the Roman idea of honestum (the honourable), which he in turn identified with the Platonic concept of τo καλoν (the morally beautiful). A succession of writers, including Frances Hutcheson, Richard Fiddes, and Thomas Birch, considered this concept of the ‘sublime and beautiful’ as central to Shaftesbury's moral Idealism. A second group of controversialists, including Bernard Mandeville and John Brown, thought the phrase typical of everything that was inaccurate and spurious in his philosophy. It is proposed that Burke originally conceived the Philosophical Enquiry as an intervention in this argument on the side of Brown and Mandeville. Burke intended finally to purge moral discourse of such aesthetic terms as ‘beauty’, ‘proportion’, ‘congruity’, and ‘perfection’—but made the odd choice of doing so by writing a treatise of aesthetics. Burke's complicated rhetorical motives for obscuring his proper controversial intentions are considered in the conclusion.

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Subjects: Literary Studies (Postcolonial Literature) ; Literary Studies (American) ; Literary Studies (British and Irish)