Page images
PDF
EPUB

far too narrow and circumscribed a view of the matter, and one which seems almost exclusively applicable to works of human art; it being plain enough, we think, that a beautiful landscape, or a beautiful horse, has no more unity, and no more traces of design, than one which is not beautiful.

We do not pretend to know what the schoolmen taught upon this subject during the dark aces: but the discussion does not seem lo have been resumed for long after the revival of letters. The followers of Leibnitx were pleased to maintain that beauty consisted in perfection; but what constituted perfection (in this respect) they did not attempt to define. M. Crouzas wrote a long essay, to show that beauty depended on these five elements, variety, unity, regularity, order, and proportion; and the Père André, a still longer one to prove, that, admitting these to be the true foundations of beauty, it was still most important to consider, that the beauty which results from them is either essential, or natural, or artificial—and that it may be greater or less, according as the characteristics of each of these classes are combined or set in opposition.

Among ourselves, we are not aware of any considerable publication on the subject till the appearance of Lord Shaftesbury's Characteristics: in which a sort of rapturous Platonic doctrine is delivered as to the existence of a primitive and Supreme Good and Beauty, and of a certain internal sense, by which both beauty and moral merit are distinguished. Add i son published several ingenious papers in The Spectator, on the pleasures of the imagination, and was the first, -we believe, who referred them to the specific sources of beauty, sublimity, and novelty. He did not enter much, however, into the metaphysical discussion of the nature of beauty itself; and the first philosophical treatise of note that appeared on the subject, may be said to have been the Inquiry of Dr. Hucheson, first published, we believe, in 1735.

In this work, the notion of a peculiar internal sense, by which we are made sensible of the existence of beauty, is very boldly promulgated, and maintained by many ingenious arguments: Yet nothing, we conceive, can be more extravagant than such a proposition; and nothing but the radical faults of the other parts of his theory could possibly have driven the learned author to its adoption. Even after the existence of the sixth sense was assumed, he felt that it was still necessary that he should explain what were the qualities by which it was gratified; and these, he wae pleased to allege, were nothing but the combinations of variety with uniformity; all objects, as he has himself expressed it, which are equally uniform, being beautiful in proportion to their variety—and all objects equally various being beautiful in proportion to th-"ir uniformity. Now. not to insist upon the obvious and radical objection that this is not true in fact, as to flowers, landscapes, or indeed of any thing but architecture, if it be true of that—it could not fail to strike the

i ingenious author that these qualities of uniformity and variety were not of themsclvi-H agreeable to any of our known senses or ¡acuities, except when considered as symbols of utility or design, and therefore could not intelligibly account for the very lively emotions j which we often experience from the perception of beauty, where the notion of design or utility is not at all suggested. He was constrained, therefore, either to abandon this view of the nature of beauty altogether, or to imagine a new sense or faculty, whose only function it should be to receive delight from the combinations of uniformity and variety, without any consideration of their being significant of things agreeable to our other faculties: and this being accomplished by the mere force of the definition, there was no room for farther dispute or difficulty in the matter. j Some of Hucheson's followers, such as Ge; rard and others, who were a little startled at the notion of a separate faculty, and yet | wished to retain the doctrine of beauty depending on variety and uniformity, endeavoured, accordingly, to show that these qualities were naturally agreeable to the mind, and were recommended by considerations arising from its most familiar properties. Uniformity or simplicity, they observed, renders our con! ception of objects easy, and saves the mind from all fatigue and distraction in the consideration of them ; whilst variety, if circumscribed and limited byan ultimate uniformity, gives it a pleasing exercise and excitement, and keeps its energies in a state of pleasurable activity. Now, this appears to us to be mere trifling. The varied and lively emotions which we receive from the perception of beauty, obviously have no sort of resemblance to the pleasure of moderate intellectual exertion: nor can any thing be conceived more utterly dissimilar than the gratification we 'have in gazina on the form of a lovely woman, arid the satisfaction we receive from working an easy problem in arithmetic or geometry. If a triangle is more beautiful than a regular polygon, as those authors maintain, merely be¡ cause its figure is more easily comprehended. the number four should be more beantilul than the number 327. and the form of

far more agreeable than that of a branchirg

oak. The radical error, in short, consists in

fixing upon properties that are not interesting

| in themselves, and can never be conceived,

therefore, to excite any emotion, as the foun

tain-spring of all our emotions of beauty : and

it is an absurdity that must infallibly iead to

others — whether these take the shape of a

violent attempt to diwruise the truly different

| nature of the properties so selected, or of the

; bolder expedient of creating a peculiar faculty,

j whose office it is to find them interesting.

The next remarkable theory was that proposed by Edmund Burke, in his Trca'ifc of the SMimc and Beautiful. But of this, in spite of the great name of the nnihor, we cannot persuade ourselves that it is necessary to say much. His explanation is founded upon 'a species of materialism — not much to have been expected from the general character of

(usgenius, or t lie strain of his other specula-1 tious—ior it all resolves into this—that all objects appear beautiful, whicu have the power of producing a peculiar relaxation of our nerves ancl fibres, and thus inducing a certain decree of bodily languor and sinking. 01 all the suppositions that have been at any time hazarded to explain the phenomena of beaaty, this, we think, is the most unfortunately imagined, and the most weakly supported. There is 110 philosophy in the doctrine —and the fundamental assumption ¡sin every way contradicted by the most familiar experience. There is no relaxation of the libres in the perception of beauty—and there is no pleasure in the relaxation of the fibres. If there were, it would follow, that a warm bath Mould be by far the most beautiful thing in the world—and that the brilliant lights, and bracing airs of a fine autumn morning, would be the very reverse of beautiful. Accordingly, though the treatise alluded to will always be valuable on account of the many fine and just remarks it contains, we are not aware that there is any accurate inquirer into the subject (with the exception, perhaps, of Mr. Price, in whose hands, however, the doctrine assumes a new character) by whom the fundamental principle of the theory has not been explicitly abandoned.

A yet more extravagant doctrine was soon afterwards inculcated, and in a tone of great authority, in a long article from the brilliant pen of Diderot, in the French Encyclopédie; and one which exemplifies, in a very striking manner, the nature of the difficulties with which the discussion is embarrassed. This ingenious person, perceiving at once, that the beautv which we ascribe to a particular class of objects, could not be referred to any peculiar and inherent quality in the objects themselves, but depended upon their power of exciting certain sentiments in our minds; and beiiiir, at the same time, at a loss to discover what common power could belong to so vast a. variety of objects as pass under the general appellation of beautiful, or by what tie all the various emotions which are excited by the perception of beauty could be united, was at last driven, by the necessity of keeping his definition sufficiently wide and comprehensive, to hazard the strange assertion, that all objects were beautiful which excite in us the idea of relation; that our sense of beauty consisted in tracing out the relations which the object possessing it might have to other objects; and that its actual beauty was in proportion to the number and clearness of the relations thus suggested and perceived. It is scarcely necessary, we presume, to expose by any arguments trie manifest fallacy, or rather the palpable absurdity, of such a theory as this. In the first place, we conceive it to be obvious, that all objects whatever have an infinite, and consequently, an equal number of relations, and are equally likely to suggest them to those to whom they are presented ;— or. at ail event»} it is certain, that ugly and еаЫе objects have just as many relathose that are agreeable, and ought.

therefore, to be just as beautiful, if the sense of beauty consisted in the perception of relations. In the next place, it seems to be sufficiently certain, from the experience and common feelings of all men, that the perception of relations among objects is not in itself accompanied by any pleasure whatever; and in particular has no conceivable resemblance to the emotion we receive from the perception of beauty. When we perceive one ugly old woman sitting exactly opposite to two other ugly old women, and observe, at the same moment, that the first is as big as the other two taken together, we humbly conceive, that this clear perception of the relations in which these three Graces stand to each other, cannot well be mistaken for a sense of beauty, and that it does not in the least abate or interfere with our sense of their ugliness. Finally, we may observe, that the sense of beauty results instantaneously from the perception of the object; whereas the discovery of its relations to other objects must necessarily be a work of time and reflection, in the course of which the beauty of the object, so far from being created or brought into notice, must, in fact, be lost sight of and forgotten.

Another more plausible and ingenious theory was suggested by the Père Huffier, and afterwards adopted and illustrated with great talent in the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds. According to this doctrine, beauty consists, as Aristotle held virtue to do, in mediocrity, or conformity to that which is most usual. Thus a beautiful nose, to make use of Dr. Smith's very apt, though homely, illustration of this doctrine, is one that is neither very long nor very short—very straight nor very much bent—but of an ordinary form and proportion, compared with all the extremes. It is the form, in short, which nature seems to have aimed at in all cases, though she has more frequently deviated from it than hit it; but deviating from it in all directions, all her deviations come nearer to it than they ever do to each other. Thus the most beautiful in every species of creatures bears the greatest resemblance to the \vhole species, while monsters are so denominated because they bear the least; and thus the beautiful, though in one sense the rarest, as the exact medium is but seldom hit. is invariably the most common, because it is the central point from which all the deviations are the least remote. This view of the matter is adopted by Sir Joshua in its full extent, and is even carried so far by this great artist, that he does not scruple to conclude, "That if we were more used to deformity than beauty, deformity would then lose the idea that is now annexed to it, and take that of beauty;—just as we approve and admire fashions in dress, for no other reason than that we are used to them."

Now, not to dwell upon the very startling conclusion to which these principles must lead, viz. that things are beautiful in proportion as they are ordinary, and that it is merely their familiarity which constitutes their beauty, we would observe, in the first place, that the whole theory seems to har~ been suggested by a consideration of animal forms, or perhaps of the human figure exclusively. In these forms, it is quite true that great and monstrous deviations from the usual proportions are extremely disagreeable. But this, we have no doubt, arises entirely from лоте idea of pain or disaster attached to their existence ; or from their obvious unfitness for the functions they have to perform. In vegetable forms, accordingly, these irregularities excite no such disgust: it being, in fact, the great object of culture, in almost all the more beautiful kinds, to produce what may be called monstrosities. And, in mineral substances, where the idea of suffering is still more completely excluded, it is notorious that, во far from the more ordinary configurations being thought the most beautiful, this epithet is scarcely ever employed but to denote some rare and unusual combination of veins, colours. or dimensions. As to landscapes, again, ana almost all the works of art, without exception. the theory is plainly altogether incapable of application. In what sense, for example, can it be said that the beauty of natural scenery consists in mediocrity ; or that those landscapes are the most beautiful that are the most common? or what meaning can we attach to the proposition, that the most beautiful building, or picture, or poem, is that which bears the nearest resemblance to all the individuals of its class, and is, upon the whole, the most ordinary and common?

To a doctrine which is liable to these obvious and radical objections, it is not perhaps necessary to make any other; but we must remark farther, first, that it necessarily supposes that our sense of beauty is, in all cases, preceded bv such a large comparison between various individuals of the same species, as may enable us to ascertain that average or mean form in which beauty is supposed to consist; and, consequently, that we could never discover any object to be beautiful antecedent to such a comparison ; and, secondly, that, even if we were to allow that this theory afforded some explanation of the superior beauty of any one object, compared with others of the same class, it plainly furnishes no explanation whatever of the superior beauty of one class of objects comparea with another. We may believe, if we please, that one peacock is handsomer than another, because it approaches more nearly to the average or mean form of peacocks in general: but this reason will avail us nothing whatever in explaining why any peacock is handsomer than any pelican or penguin. We may say, without manifest absurdity, that the most beautiful pig is that which has least of the extreme qualities that .sometimes occur in the tribe; but it would be palpably absurd to give this reason, or any thing like it. for the superior beauty of the tribe of antelopes or spaniels.

The notion, in short, seems to have been hastily adopted by the ingenious persons who have maintained it, partly upon the narrow ground of the disgust produced by monsters in the animal creation, which has been already sufficiently explained—and partly in conse

quence of the fallacy wrhich lurks h. the vague and general proposition of those things being beautiful which are neither too big nor too little, too massive nor too slender, &e.: Irom which it was concluded, that beauty must consist in mediocrity :—not considering that tho particle too merely denotes those degrees which are exclusive of beauty, without in any way fixing what those degrees are. For llie plain meaning of these phrases is. that (lie rejected objects are too massive or too slender to be beautiful: and, therefore, to say that an object is beautiful w hich is neither too big nor too little, &c. is really saying nothing more than that beautiful objects are such as are not in any degree ugly or disagreeable. The illustration as to the effects of use or custom in the article of dress is singularly inaccurate and delusive; the fact being, that we never admire the dress which we are most accustomed to see —which is that of the common people—but the dress of the few who are distinguished by rank or opulence; and that we require no more custom or habit to make us admire this dress, whatever it may be. than is necessary to associate it in our thoughts with the wealth, and dignity, and graceful manners of those who wear it.

We need say nothing in this place of the opinions expressed on the subject of beanty by Dr. Gerard. Dr. Blair, and a whole herd of rhetoricians; because none of them pretend to have any new or original notions with regard to it, and, in general, have been at no pains to reconcile or render consistent the various accounts of the matter, which they have contented themselves with assembling and laying before their readers all together, as affording among them the best explanation that coold be offered of the question. Thus they do not scruple to say, that the sense of beanty is sometimes produced by the mere organic affection of the senses of sight or hearing; at other times, by a perception of a kind of regular variety: and in other instances by the association of interesting conceptions:—thu» abandoning altogether any attc-mpt to answer the radical question—how the feeling of beauty should be excited by such opposite causes—and confounding together, without anv attempt at discrimination, those theories which imply the existence of a separate sense—or faculty, and those which resolve our se.ise of beauty into other more simple or familiar emotions.

Of late years, however, we have had three publications on the subject of a far higher character—we mean, Mr. Alison's Esftrijs on the Nature and Principien of Taste—Mr. Payne Knight's Analytical Inquiry into the saiiie subjects—and Mr. Dugal Stewart's Disserta/tons on the Beautiful and on Taste, in Ыь volume of Philosophical Ksfays. All these works possess an infinite deal of merit, and hare amorg them disclosed almost all the truth that is to be known on the subject ; though, as it seems to us, with some little admixture of efror, from which it will not, however, be difficult to separate it.

Mr. Alieon maintains, that all beauty, or at least that |J1 the beauty of material objecte, depends on the associations that may have connected them with the ordinary affections or emotions of our nature; and in this, which is the fundamental point of his theory, we conceive him to be no less clearly right, than he is convincing and judicious in the copious and beautiful illustrations by which he has sought to establish its truth. When he proceeds, however, to assert, that our sense of beauty consists not merely in the suggestion tf ideas of emotion, but in the contemplation si a connected seríes or train of such ideas, and indicates a state of mind in which the faculties, half active and half passive, arc given up lo a sort of reverie or musing, in which they may wander, though among kindred impressions, far enough from the immediate object of perception, we will confess that he not only teems to us to advance a very questionable proposition, but very essentially to endanger the evidence, as well as the consistency, of his général doctrine. We are far from denying, that, in minds of sensibility and of reflecting habits, the contemplation of beautiful objects will be apt, especially in moments of leisure, and when the mind is vacant, to give rise to such trains of thought, and to such protracted meditations; but we cannot possibly admit that their existence is necessary to the perception of beauty, or that it is in this state of mind exclusively that the sense of beauty exists. The perception of beauty, on the contrary, we hold to be, in most cases, quite instantaneous, and altogether as immediate as the perception of the external qualities of the object to which it is ascribed. Indeed, it seems only necessary to recollect, that it is to a pref£-nt material object that we actually ascribe ind refer this beauty, and that the only thing to be explained is, how this object comes to ippear beautiful. In the long train of interesting meditations, however, to which Mr. Alison refers—in the delightful reveries in which he would make the sense of beauty consist—it is obvious that we must soon lose light of the external object which gave the first impulse to our thoughts; and though we may afterwards reflect upon it, with increased interest and gratitude, as the parent of so many charming images, it is impossible, we conceive, that the perception of its beauty can ever depend upon a long series of various and shifting emotions.

It likewise occurs to us to observe, that if every thing was beautiful, which was the occasion of a train of ideas of emotion, it is not easy to see why objects that are called ugly ihould not be entitled to that appellation. If they- are sufficiently ugly not to be viewed with indifference, they too will give rise to idea» of emotion, and those ideas are just as likely to run into trains and série?, as those of a more agreeable description. Nay, as contrast itself is one of the principles of association, it is not at all unlikely, that, in the train of impressive ideas which the sight of ugly objects may excite, a transition may be ultimately made to such as are connected with pleasure; and, therefore, if the perception of

I the beauty of the object which first eoggested them depended on its having produced a series of ideas of emotion, or even of agreeable emotions, there seems to be no good reason for doubting, that ugly objects may thus be as beautiful as any other, and that beaut) and ugliness may be one and the same thing. Such is the danger, as it appears to us, of deserting the object itself, or going beyond ita immediate effect and impression, in order to discover the sources of its beauty. Our view of the matter is safer, we think, and far more simple. We conceive the object to be associated either in our past experience, or by some universal analogy, with pleasures, or emotions that upon the whole are pleasant; and that these associated pleasures are instantaneously suggested, as soon as the object is presented, and by the first glimpse of its physical properties, with which, indeed, they are con substantiated and confounded in our sensations.

The work of Mr. Knight is more lively, various, and discursive, than Mr. Alison's—but not so systematic or conclusive. It is the cleverer book of the two—but not the most philosophical discussion of the subject. He agrees with Mr. Alison in holding the most important, and, indeed, the only considerable part of beauty, to depend upon association; and has illustrated this opinion with a great variety of just and original observations. But he maintains, and maintains stoutly, that there is a beauty independent of association—prior to it, and more original and fundamental—the primitive and natural beauty of colours and sounds. Now, this we look upon to be a heresy; and a heresy inconsistent with the very first principles of Catholic philosophy. We shall not stop at present to give our reasons for this opinion, which we shall illustrate at large before we bring this article to a close; —but we beg leave merely to suggest at present, that it our sense of beauty be confessedly, in most coses, the mere image or reflection of pleasures or emotions that have been associated with objects in themselves indifferent, it cannot fail to appear strange that it should also cm some few occasions be a mere organic or sensual gratification of these particular organs. Language, it is believed, affords no other example of so whimsical a combination of different objects under one appellation: or of the confounding of a direct physical sensation with the suggestion of a social or sympathetic moral feeling. We would observe also, that while Mr. Knight stickles so violently for this alloy of the senses in the constitution of beauty, he admits, unequivocally, that sublimity is, in every instance, and in all cases, the effect of association alone. Yet sublimity and beauty, in any just or large sense, and with a view to the philosophy of either, are manifestly one and the same; nor is it conceivable to us, that, if sublimity be always the result of an association with ideas .of power or danger, beauty can possibly be, in any case, the result of a mere pleasurable impulse on the nerves of the eye or the ear. We shall return, however, to this discussion hereafter. Of Mr. Knight we i have only further to observe, that \ve think he is not less heretical in maintaining, that \ we have no pleasure in sympathising with' distress or suffering, but only with mental: energy; and that, in contemplating the sublime, we are moved only with a sense of power and grandeur, and never with any feeling of terror or awe.—These errors, however, are less intimately connected with the subject of our present discussion.

With Mr. Stewart we have less occasion for quarrel: chiefly, perhaps, because he has made fewer positive assertions, and entered less into the matter of controversy. His Essay on the Beautiful is rather philological than metaphysical. The object of it is to show by what gradual and successive extensions of meaning the word, though at first appropriated to denote the pleasing effect of colours alone, misht naturally come to signify all the other pleasing thing» to which it is now applied. In this investigation he makes many admirable remarks, and touches, with the hand of a master, upon many of the disputable parts of the question; but he evades the particular point at issue between us and Mr. Knight, by stating, that it is quite immaterial to his purpose, whether the beauty of colours be supposed to depend on their organic effect on the eye, or on some association between them and other agreeable emotions—it being enough for his purpose that this was probably the first sort of beauty that was observed, and that to which the name was at first exclusively applied. It is evident to us, however, that he It'ans to the opinion of Mr. Knight, as to this beauty being truly sensual or organic. In observing, too, that beauty is not now the name of any one thing or quality, but of very many different qualities—and that it is applied to them all, merely because they are often united in the same objects, or perceived at the same time and by the same organs—it appears to us that he carries his philology a little too far, and disregardsnther principles of reasoning of far higher authority. To give the name of beauty, for example, to every thin« that interests or pleases us through the channel of sight, including in this category the mere impulse of light that is pleasant to the organ, and the presentment of objects whose whole charm consists in awakening the memory of social emotions, seems to us to be confounding things together that must always be separate in our feelings, and ¡riving; a far greater importance to the mere identity of the organ by which they are perceived, than is warranted either by the ordinary language or ordinary experience of men. Upon the same principle we should give this name of beautiful, and no other( to all acts of kindness or magnanimity. and, indeed, to every interesting occurrence which took place in our sight, or came to our knowledge by means of the eye :—nay, as the ear i» als) allowed to be a channel for impressions of beauty, the same name should be given to any interesting or pleasant thins that we hear—and good news read to us from the gazette should be denominated beautiful,

just as much as a fine composition of music. These tilings, however, are never called beautiful, and are felt, indeed, to afford a gratification of quite a different nature. It is no doubt true, as Mr. Stewart has observed, that beauty is not one thing, but many—and does not produce one uniform emotion, but an infinite variety of emotions. But this, we conceive, is not merely because many pleasant things may be intimated to us by the same sense, but because the things that are called beautiful may be associated with an infinite variety of agreeable emotions of the specific character of which their beauty will consequently partake. Nor does it follow, from the fact of this great variety, that there can be no other principle of union among these agreeable emotions, but that of а тштг., extended to them all upon the very slight ground of their coming through the same organ; since, upon our theory, and indeed upon Mr. Stewart's, in a vast majority of instances, there is the remarkable circumstance of their being all susgfstcd by association with some present sensation, and all modified and confounded, to our feelings, by ал actual and direct perception.

It is unnecessary, however, to pursue these criticisms, or, indeed, this hasty review of the speculation of other writers, any farther. The few observations we have already made, will enable the intelligent reader, both to understand in a general way what has been already done on tbTe subject, and in some degree prepare him to appreciate the merits of that theory, substantially the same with Mr. Alison's, which we shall now proceed to illustrate somewhat more in detail.

The basis of it is, that 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 suLrgi'st these affections?

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 love of sensation seems to be the ruling appetite of human nature; and many sensations, in which the painful may be thought to predominate. are consequently sought for with avidity, and recollected with interest, even in our own persons. In the persons of others emotion«

« PreviousContinue »