Aesthetics and Politics in Edmund Burke

Terry Eagleton, "Aesthetics and Politics in Edmund Burke," History Workshop, No. 28 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 53-62.


What the aesthetic in Burke sets its face most firmly against is the notion of natural rights. It is precisely that dryly theoretic discourse, a revolutionary one in his day, that the appeal to the intimate habits of the body is out to worst. The essay on the beautiful and the sublime is a subtle phenomenology of the senses, a mapping of the body’s delicacies and disgusts: Burke is fascinated by what happens when we hear low vibrations or stroke smooth surfaces, by the dilation of the eye’s pupil in darkness or the feel of a slight tap on the shoulder. He is much preoccupied with sweet smells and violent startings from sleep, with the vibratory power of salt and the question of whether proportion is the source of beauty in vegetables. All of this strange homespun psycho-physiology is a kind of politics, willing to credit no theoretical notion which cannot somehow be traced to the muscular structure of the eye or the texture of the fingerpads. If there are indeed metaphysical rights, then they enter this dense somatic space as dispersed and non-identical. Like ‘rays of light which pierce into a dense medium’, Burke argues in Reflections on the French Revolution, such rights are ‘by the laws of nature, refracted from their straight line’, enduring ‘such a variety of¬†refractions and reflections, that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction’. What is natural about such rights is their deviance or aberrancy; their self-disseminatory power is part of their very essence. When Burke adds that ‘the nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity’, he speaks, in the original sense of the term, as an aesthetician. And this is equivalent, in this political context, to saying that he speaks also as a reactionary.