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THEORY OF BEAUTY.
Edinburgh Review, May, 1811.
OBJECTIONS against the notion of beauty being a simple sensation or the object of a separate and peculiar faculty:
1. The first is the want of agreement as to the presence and existence of beauty in particular objects among men whose organization is perfect, and who are plainly possessed of the faculty, whatever it may be, by which beauty is discerned. Now, no such thing happens, we imagine, or can be conceived to happen, in the case of any other simple sensation, or the exercise of any other distinct faculty. Where one man sees light, all men who have eyes see light also. All men allow grass to be green, and sugar to be sweet, and ice to be cold; and the unavoidable inference from any apparent disagreement in such matters necessarily is, that the party is insane, or entirely destitute of the sense or organ concerned in the perception. With regard to beauty, however, it is obvious at first sight that the case is entirely different. One man sees it perpetually, where to another it is quite invisible, or even where its reverse seems to be conspicuous. How can we believe, then, that beauty is the object of a peculiar sense or faculty, when persons undoubtedly possessed of the faculty, and even in an eminent degree, can discover nothing of it in objects where it is distinctly felt and perceived by others with the same use of the faculty ?
This one consideration appears to us conclusive against the supposition of beauty being a real property of objects, addressing itself to the power of taste as a separate sense or faculty; and it seems to point irresistibly to the conclusion, that our sense of it is the result of other more elementary feelings, into which it may be analyzed or resolved.
2. A second objection, however, if possible of still greater force, is suggested by considering the prodigious and almost infinite variety of things to which this property of beauty is ascribed, and the impossibility of imagining any one inherent quality which can belong to them all, and yet at the same time possess so much unity as to pass universally by the same name, and be recognized as the peculiar object of a separate sense or faculty. The form of a fine tree is beautiful, and the form of a fine woman, and the form of a column, and a vase, and a chandelier. Yet how can it be said that the form of a woman has any thing in common with that of a tree or a temple ? or to which of the senses by which forms are distinguished can it be supposed to appear that they have any resemblance or affinity ?
3. The matter, however, becomes still more inextricable when we recollect that beauty does not belong merely to forms or colors, but to sounds, and perhaps to the objects of other senses; nay, that, in all languages and in all nations, it is not supposed to reside exclusively in material objects, but to belong also to sentiments and ideas, and intellectual and moral existences. Not only is a tree beautiful, as well as a palace or a waterfall; but a poem is beautiful, and a theorem in mathematics, and a contrivance in mechanics. But, if things intellectual and totally segregated from inatter may thus possess beauty, how can it possibly be a quality of material objects ? or what sense or faculty can that be whose proper office it is to intimate to us the existence of some property which is common to a flower and a demonstration, a valley and an eloquent discourse ?
4. It may be said, then, in answer to the questions we have suggested above, that all these objects, however various and dissimilar, agree at least in being agreeable; and that this agreeableness, which is the only quality they possess in common, may probably be the beauty which is ascribed to them all. Now, to those who are accustomed to such discussions, it would be quite enough to reply, that, though the agreeableness of such objects depends plainly enough upon their beauty, it by no means follows, but quite the contrary, that their beauty depends upon their agreeableness; the latter being the more comprehensive or generic term, under which beauty must rank as one of the species. Its nature, therefore, is no more explained, nor is less absurdity substantially committed, by saying that things are beautiful because they are agreeable, than if we were to give the same explanation of the sweetness of sugar; for no one, we suppose, will dispute, that, though it be very true that sugar is agreeable because it is sweet, it would be manifestly preposterous to say that it was sweet because it was agreeable.
5. In the first place, then, it seems evident that agreeableness
in general can not be the same with beauty, because there are very many things in the highest degree agreeable that can in no sense be called beautiful. Moderate heat, and savory food, and rest and exercise, are agreeable to the body; but none of these can be called beautiful: and, among objects of a higher class, the love and esteem of others, and fame, and a good conscience, and health and riches and wisdom, are all eminently agreeable, but none at all beautiful according to any intelligible use of the word. It is plainly quite absurd, therefore, to say that beauty consists in agreeableness, without specifying in consequence of what it is agreeable; or to hold that any thing whatever is taught as to its nature by merely classing it among our pleasurable emotions.
6. In the second place, however, we may remark, that among all the objects that are agreeable, whether they are also beautiful or not, scarcely any two are agreeable on account of the same qualities, or even suggest their agreeableness to the same faculty or organ. Most certainly there is no resemblance or affinity whatever between the qualities which make a peach agreeable to the palate, and a beautiful statue to the eye; which soothe us in an easy-chair by the fire, or delight us in a philosophical discovery. The truth is, that agreeableness is not properly a quality of any object whatsoever, but the effect or result of certain qualities, the nature of which, in every particular instance, we can generally define pretty exactly, or of which we know at least with certainty that they manifest themselves respectively to some one particular sense or faculty, and to no other; and, consequently, it would be just as obviously ridiculous to suppose a faculty or organ whose office it was to perceive agreeableness in general, as to suppose that agreeableness was a distinct quality that could thus be perceived.
7. The words “beauty” and “beautiful,” in short, do and must mean something, and are universally felt to mean something, much more definite than agreeableness or gratification in general; and, while it is confessedly by no means easy to describe or define what that something is, the force and clearness of our perception of it is demonstrated by the readiness with which we determine, in any particular instance, whether the object of a given pleasurable emotion is or is not properly described as beauty.
8. In our opinion, our sense of beauty depends entirely on our previous experience of simpler pleasures or emotions, and consists in the suggestion of agreeable or interesting sensations with which we had formerly been made familiar by the direct and intelligible agency of our common sensibilities; and that vast variety of objects to which we give the common name of beautiful become entitled to that appellation merely because they all possess the power of recalling or reflecting those sensations of which they have been the accompaniments, or with which they have been associated in our imagination by any other more casual bond of connection. According to this view of the matter, therefore, beauty is not an inherent property or quality of objects at all, but the result of the accidental relations in which they may stand to our experience of pleasures or emotions; and does not depend upon any particular configuration of parts, proportions, or colors, in external things, nor upon the unity, coherence, or simplicity of intellectual creations, but merely upon the associations, which, in the case of every individual, may enable these inherent and otherwise indifferent qualities to suggest or recall to the mind emotions of a pleasurable or interesting description. It follows, therefore, that no object is beautiful in itself, or could appear so antecedent to our experience of direct pleasures or emotions; and that, as an infinite variety of objects may thus reflect interesting ideas, so all of them may acquire the title of beautiful, although utterly diverse and disparate in their nature, and possessing nothing in common but this accidental power of reminding us of other emotions.
9. This theory, which, we believe, is now very generally adopted, though under many needless qualifications, shall be further developed and illustrated in the sequel: but at present we shall only remark, that it serves, at least, to solve the great problem involved in the discussion, by rendering it easily conceivable how objects which have no inherent resemblance, nor, indeed, any one quality in common, should yet be united in one common relation, and consequently acquire one common name; just as all the things that belonged to a beloved individual may serve to remind us of him, and thus to awake a kindred class of emotions, though just as unlike each other as any of the objects that are classed under the general name of Beautiful.
By the help of the same consideration, we get rid of all the mystery of a peculiar sense or faculty, imagined for the express purpose of perceiving beauty; and discover that the power of taste is nothing more than the habit of tracing those associations by which almost all objects may be connected with interesting emotions.
10. The beauty which we impute to outward objects is nothing more than the reflection of our own inward emotions, and is made up entirely of certain little portions of love, pity, or other affections, which have been connected with these objects, and still adhere, as it were, to them, and move us anew whenever they are presented to our observation. Before proceeding to bring any proof of the truth of this proposition, there are two things that it may be proper to explain a little more distinctly: First, what are the primary affections, by the suggestion of which we think the sense of beauty is produced ? and, secondly, What is the nature of the connection by which we suppose that the objects we call beautiful are enabled to suggest these affections ?
11. With regard to the first of these points, it fortunately is not necessary either to enter into any tedious details, or to have recourse to any nice distinctions. All sensations that are not absolutely indifferent, and are, at the same time, either agreeable when experienced by ourselves, or attractive when contemplated in others, may form the foundation of the emotions of sublimity or beauty.
The sum of the whole is, that every feeling which it is agreeable to experience, to recall, or to witness, may become the source of beauty in external objects when it is so connected with them as that their appearance reminds us of that feeling.
12. Our proposition, then, is, that these emotions are not original emotions, nor produced directly by any material qualities in the objects which excite them, but are reflections, or images, of the more radical and familiar emotions to which we have alreaily alluded ; and are occasioned, not by any inherent virtue in the objects before us, but by the accidents, if we may so express ourselves, by which these may have been enabled to suggest or recall to us our own past sensations or sympathies.
13. We might almost venture, indeed, to lay it down as an axiom, that, except in the plain and palpable case of bodily pain or pleasure, we can never be interested in any thing but the fortunes of sentient beings; and that every thing partaking of the nature of mental emotion must have for its object the feelings, past, present, or possible, of something capable of sensation. Independent, therefore, of all evidence, and without the help of any explanation, we should have been apt to conclude that the emotions of beauty and sublimity must have for their objects the sufferings or enjoyments of sentient beings; and to reject as intrinsically absurd and incredible the supposition that material objects, which obviously do neither hurt nor delight the body, should yet excite, by their mere physical qualities, the very powerful emotions which are sometimes excited by the spectacle of beauty.
II. 14. It appears to us, then, that objects are sublime or beautiful, first, when they are the natural signs and perpetual concomitants of pleasurable sensations, or, at any rate, of some lively feeling or emotion in ourselves or in some other sentient beings; or, secondly, when they are the arbitrary or accidental concomitants of such feelings; or, thirdly, when they bear some analogy or fanciful