Literary Criticism of Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (1729–1797) is best known for his political writings and his activities as a statesman. In 1765 he became secretary to the marquess of Rockingham, a leader of the Whig or Liberal political party in England. He also served as a member of the English Parliament; in this capacity he was involved in the struggle, on behalf of the Whigs, to limit the power of the king, George III. He expressed his views on this issue, as well as on the problems arising in the American colonies, in a pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Causes of the Present Discontents (1770). By far his most famous work, however, was his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a scathing attack on numerous aspects of the French Revolution of 1789.

24mccarthy-jumboIn the Reflections, Burke expresses a desire to conserve the essential economic and political fabric of feudalism. He appeals to the authority of the past and opposes the collective wisdom and experience of the past to what he sees as the abstract rationalism of the French revolutionists. Like all conservatives, he maintains that, in reforming society, we must adopt a policy of gradual change, and our starting point must be the actual status quo rather than an idealistic and abstractly rational set of principles which may not be related at all to actual social and economic conditions. He insists on the validity and legitimacy of the feudal hierarchy, a hereditary monarchy, with a hereditary nobility and clergy occupying dominant positions. And finally, like many conservatives before and after him, he insists that the only practicable conception of liberty is one which ties it indissolubly to the notions of social responsibility and duty. In this text, Burke suggests that appeal to reason alone fails to accommodate a people’s sensibility, feeling, as well as considerations of taste and elegance.

These political dispositions are somewhat anticipated in Burke’s much earlier text, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke is here writing in a tradition that goes back to Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime (which Burke had read), and which was revived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries largely under the auspices of Kant and Romantic writers. Burke’s essay draws on the insights of Addison and Hume, and like these thinkers, he adopts a broadly empiricist perspective.

Burke begins by noting that we usually have fixed criteria for truth and falsehood and for the operations of reason. But where taste is concerned, a “superficial” view suggests that people differ widely. Yet, Like Hume and Kant, Burke suggests that, unless we had a standard of taste, just as we share a standard of reason, we would not be able to “maintain the ordinary correspondence of life.”1 While he acknowledges that taste, “like all other figurative terms,” is not accurate in its signification, he uses the term to refer to those faculties of mind which are affected by, or form judgments about, works of imagination (PE, 12). Burke’s attempt to show that certain standards of taste are common to all human beings shares some features with Kant’s, although his procedure is empirical like Hume’s.

His essential strategy is to divide the faculties whereby we know the external world into three: the senses, imagination, and judgment. Since the organs of all men are the same, he argues, the “manner of perceiving external objects is in all men the same.” In other words, our sense-perceptions operate in the same way (PE, 13). Given that objects in the world present the same images to all of us, the “pleasures and pains which every object excites in one man, it must raise in all mankind” (PE, 13). For example, regarding the sense of taste, we all concur not only in finding certain foods sweet and others sour but also in finding sweetness pleasant and sourness or bitterness unpleasant. Where certain people diverge from this standard, says Burke, it is because an “acquired” taste has supervened upon natural taste. A man might find tobacco pleasant, but this taste for bitterness is acquired by habit and on account of certain effects of the drug (PE, 14). Such a man would still find other bitter tastes, with which he is unfamiliar, displeasing. Burke concludes that “the pleasures of all the senses” are “the same in all, high and low, learned and unlearned” (PE, 16).

Having established this uniformity at the level of sense-perception, Burke’s strategy is to show, in characteristic empiricist fashion, that the other faculties, imagination and judgment, are also ultimately grounded on sense-perception. The imagination, says Burke, is a creative power; it can represent the images of things in the order in which they were received by our senses or it can rearrange them in a new way. Imagination is the main province of the creative arts. However, in contrast with later, Romantic views of imagination, Burke denies that the imagination can produce anything absolutely new: it “can only vary the disposition of those ideas which it has received from the senses” (PE, 17). The imagination is the “most extensive province of pleasure and pain,” and, since the imagination is merely the “representative” of the senses, the pleasure or displeasure it derives from images must rest on the same principle as the pleasure experienced by our senses. Burke concludes that “there must be just as close an agreement in the imaginations as in the senses of men” (PE, 17).

There are two ways in which we can receive pleasure from the operations of the imagination. We can derive pleasure from the properties of the object itself, or from the resemblance which the imitation produced by the imagination has to the original object. Burke sees both of these causes of pleasure as working uniformly in all people, since “they operate by principles in nature” and not by any peculiar habits that people have (PE, 17). Burke here invokes Locke’s distinction between wit and judgment. Wit, according to Locke, is characterized by tracing resemblances among things, whereas judgment typically discerns differences. Following Locke, Burke insists that wit and judgment are entirely different in their nature. He urges that we derive far greater satisfaction from wit than from judgment; the latter is used in the distinctions we make in our everyday engagement with the world. But when we utilize wit, when we find resemblances among things, “we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock” (PE, 17–18). Burke anticipates here many Romantic views of the power of poetry to challenge conventional ways of representing the world.

Burke attempts to show how the pleasure deriving from resemblance between imitation and the actual object is generally the same in all people. Such pleasure varies not according to varying capacities of taste but according to people’s knowledge of the real object, a knowledge which is accidentally acquired and circumstantial, a knowledge which depends upon “experience and observation” (PE, 18). Hence the taste underlying our pleasure in resemblance is uniform. However, like Hume, Burke concedes that this pleasure may be modified by comparison with other objects. A refined or superior taste depends not on one man having a greater faculty of taste but on his possessing greater knowledge and experience of the mode of art in question. “So far as taste is natural,” says Burke, “it is nearly common to all” (PE, 19–20). In other words, taste unrefined by knowledge and experience is the same in all people.

Insofar as taste belongs to the imagination, then, “its principle is the same in all men” (PE, 20). However, people can differ in the degree to which they are affected by an object. This difference can arise from two causes: either from a greater degree of “natural sensibility” or from “a closer and longer attention to the object” (PE, 21). This type of difference brings us to the province of judgment. The imagination is engaged when we are dealing with the artistic representation of sensible objects or the passions, since we can represent these “without any recourse to reasoning” (PE, 22). But when works of imagination extend to the characters and actions of men, their relations, vices and virtues, says Burke, they fall under the province of judgment, which “is improved by attention and by the habit of reasoning” (PE, 22). Taste here becomes a “refined judgment.” Burke concludes that taste “is not a simple idea, but is partly made up of a perception of the primary pleasures of sense, of the secondary pleasures of the imagination, and of the conclusions of the reasoning faculty, concerning the various relations of these, and concerning the human passions, manners and actions. All this is requisite to form Taste.” Since the senses underlie the activities of imagination and judgment, says Burke, they are “the great originals of all our ideas, and consequently of all our pleasures.” Hence the “whole ground-work of Taste is common to all” (PE, 22).

While Burke acknowledges that the principles of taste, though uniform, are present in different people in varying degrees, he attributes such variation to certain defects. Taste requires both sensibility and judgment; if sensibility is defective, this will result in a lack of taste, as for example in people whose feelings might be considered to be blunt. If judgment is weak, this will produce a “wrong” or “bad” taste. Factors contributing to weak judgment include “ignorance, inattention, prejudice, rashness, levity, obstinacy” (PE, 23). Having said this, Burke does not view taste as a separate faculty of the mind, as distinct from judgment and imagination. He insists that good taste is distinguished from bad taste only by the exercise of our understanding. Taste, he urges, “is improved exactly as we improve our judgment, by extending our knowledge, by a steady attention to our object, and by frequent exercise” (PE, 25).

Burke’s comments on the sublime and beautiful anticipate in some respects the account later offered by Kant, which is otherwise very different. He says that whatever excites ideas of pain, danger, and terror is a source of the sublime; and the sublime is the “strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling,” far more powerful than emotions of pleasure (PE, 36). Ultimately, pain is so potent a force because it is “an emissary” of death, the “king of terrors.” It is when we are able to distance ourselves from such pain and terror that we can find them delightful; and it is this feeling which is sublime (PE, 36). The sublime differs from the beautiful in fundamental ways: sublime objects are vast, rugged, obscure, dark; beautiful objects are small, smooth, light, and delicate. Sublime objects are founded on pain while beautiful objects give pleasure (PE, 113).


1. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 11. Hereafter cited as PE.

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