Thursday, August 7, 2014

On Taste...

This is a collection of four of Edmund Burke's most important works.  In the first, he argues that, contrary to the opinion even more popular in our day than in his, taste is objective.  A person who claims that a lemon is sweet is deficient or insane.  Likewise a person who finds a perfect fifth inharmonious, or a person who claims that green and orange do not clash.  In the second essay, written when he was nineteen, he distinguishes between what is sublime and what is beautiful with the claim that the sublime promises pain and produces astonishment, beauty promises pleasure and produces delight.  Unfortunately, some of his aesthetic theories are distressingly literal - he suggests that the effect of discordance is produced by the violence of the sound waves against the eardrum - and some of his science is now out of date.

Reflections on the French Revolution occupies over half the book, and is without a doubt Burke's masterwork.  Here Burke makes his case for organic, customary government over the arbitrary exercise of power in pursuit of abstractions.  True liberty, Burke claims, can only be found in the context of order.  The freedom of the passions only results in enslavement by the passions.  He denies that the French Revolution was akin to the Glorious Revolution (I think he rather overstates this, as he has far too negative an opinion of James II).  Russell Kirk describes this work as having been written at a "white heat", and truly Burke spares nothing in his description of revolutionary injustice.  This is a polemical work, not an abstract consideration of political theory, but it is more effective as a result, especially as the bloodiest chapters of Terror and Bonapartism were still in the future when it was written.  Letter to a Noble Lord is a response to his critics, further explicating Burke's case.

The first two works, written while Burke was a young man, are interesting enough.  The latter two works, on the other hand, are undoubtedly the product of genius, and still relevant as arguments for governments which are structured to relate to people, instead of "seeing like a state".

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