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(May, 1811.) Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste.-By ARCHIBALD Alison, LL. B., F. R. S.,
Prebendary of Sarum, * &c. 2 vols. 8vo. There are few parts of our nature which | define what green or red is, say that green is have given more trouble to philosophers, or the colour of grass, and red of roses or of appeared more simple to the unreflecting, blood, it is plain that we do not in any respect than the perceptions we have of Beauty, and explain the nature of those colours, but only the circumstances under which these are pre- give instances of their occurrence; and that sented to us. If we ask one of the latter (and one who had never seen the objects referred larger) class, what beauty is? we shall most to could learn nothing whatever from these probably be answered, that it is what makes pretended definitions. Complex ideas, on the things pleasant to look at; and if we remind other hand, and compound emotions, may alhim that many other things are called and ways be defined, and explained to a certain perceived to be beautiful, besides objects of extent, by enumerating the parts of which sight, and ask how, or by what faculty he they are made up, or resolving them into the supposes that we distinguish such objects, we elements of which they are composed: and must generally be satisfied with hearing that we may thus acquire, not only a substantial, it has pleased God to make us capable of such though limited, knowledge of their nature, a perception. The science of mind may not but a practical power in their regulation or appear to be much advanced by these re- production. sponses; and yet, if it could be made out, as It becomes of importance, therefore, in the some have alleged, that our perception of very outset of this inquiry, to consider whether beauty was a simple sensation, like our per- our sense of beauty be really a simple senception of colour, and that the faculty of taste sation, like some of those we have enumewas an original and distinct sense, like that rated, or a compound or derivative feeling, of seeing or hearing; this would be truly the the sources or elements of which may be inonly account that could be given, either of the vestigated and ascertained. If it be the sense or of its object;—and all that we could former, we have then only to refer it to the do, in investigating the nature of the latter, peculiar sense or faculty of which it is the would be to ascertain and enumerate the cir- object; and to determine, by repeated obsercumstances under which it was found to indi- vation, under what circumstances that sense cate itself to its appropriate organ. All that is called into action: but if it be the latter, we can say of colour, if we consider it very we shall have to proceed, by a joint process strictly, is, that it is that property in objects of observation and reflection, to ascertain what by which they make themselves known to are the primary feelings to which it may be the faculty of sight; and the faculty of sight referred; and by what peculiar modification can scarcely be defined in any other way than of them it is produced and distinguished. We as that by which we are enabled to discover are not quite prepared, as yet, to exhaust the the existence of colour. When we attempt whole of this important discussion, to which 10 proceed farther, and, on being asked to we shall be obliged to return in the sequel of
our inquiry; but it is necessary, in order to The greater part of this paper was first printed explain and to set forth, in their natural order, in the Edinburgh Review for May 1811; but was the difficulties with which the subject is surafterwards considerably enlarged, and inserted as a rounded, to state here, in a very few words, separate article (under the word BrautY) in the one or two of the most obvious, and, as we supplement to the Encyclopædia Brittannica, pub- think, decisive objections against the notion the new edition of that great work in 1841, from of beauty being a simple sensation, or the shich it is now reprinted in its complete form, by object of a separate and peculiar faculty. the liberal allowance of the proprietors.
The first, and perhaps the most consider.
able, is the want of agreement as to the time possess so much uniiy as to pass univerpresence and existence of beauty in particular sally by the same name, and be recogniseu objects, among men whose organization is as the peculiar object of a separate sense or perfect, and who are plainly possessed of the faculty. All simple qualities that are perceived faculty, whatever it may be, by which beauty in any one object, are immediately recognised is discerned. Now, no such thing happens, to be the same, when they are again perceived we imagine, or can be conceived to happen, in another; and the objects in which they are in the case of any other simple sensation, or thus perceived are at once felt so far to rethe exercise of any other distinct faculty. semble each other, and to partake of the same Where one man sees light, all men who have nature. Thus snow is seen to be white, and eyes see light also. All men allow grass to chalk is seen to be white; but this is no
and sugar to be sweet, and ice to be sooner seen, than the two substances, howcold; and the unavoidable inference from any ever unlike in other respects, are felt at once apparent disagreement in such matters neces- to have this quality in common, and to resarily is, that the party is insane, or entirely semble each other completely in all that redestitute of the sense or organ concerned in lates to the quality of colour, and the sense the perception. With regard to beauty, how- of seeing. But is this felt, or could it even be ever, it is obvious, at first sight, that the case intelligibly asserted, with regard to the quality is entirely different. One man sees it per- of beauty? Take even a limited and specitic sort petually, where to another it is quite invisible, of beauty-for instance, the beauty of form. or even where its reverse seems to be con- The form of a fine tree is beautiful, and the spicuous. Nor is this owing to the insensi- form of a fine woman, and the form of a column, bility of either of the parties; for the same and a vase, and a chandelier. Yet how can it contrariety exists where both are keenly alive be said that the form of a woman has any to the influences of the beauty they respect- thing in common with that of a tree or a temively discern. A Chinese or African lover ple? or to which of the senses by which forms would probably see nothing at all attractive are distinguished can it be supposed to appear in a belle of London or Paris; and, undoubt that they have any resemblance or affinity? edly, an elegans formarum spectator from either The matter, however, becomes still more of those cities would discover nothing but de- / inextricable when we recollect that beauty formity in the Venus of the Hottentots. A does not belong merely to forms or colours, little distance in time often produces the but to sounds, and perhaps to the objects of same effects as distance in place;—the gar- other senses; nay, that in all languages and dens, the furniture, the dress, which appeared in all nations, it is not supposed to reside exbeautiful in the eyes of our grandfathers, are clusively in material objects, but to belong odious and ridiculous in ours. Nay, the dif- also to sentiments and ideas, and intellectual ference of rank, education, or employments
, and moral existences. Not only is a tree gives rise to the same diversity of sensation. beautiful, as well as a palace or a waterfall; The little shop-keeper sees a beauty in his but a poem is beautiful, and a theorem in roadside box, and in the staring tile roof, mathematics, and a contrivance in mechanics. wooden lions, and clipped boxwood, which But if things intellectual and totally segrestrike horror into the soul of the student of gated from matter may thus possess beauty, the picturesque; while he is transported in how can it possibly be a quality of material surveying the fragments of ancient sculpture, objects? or what sense or faculty can that be, which are nothing but ugly masses of mould- whose proper office it is to intimate to us the ering stone, in the judgment of the admirer existence of some property which is common of neatness. It is needless, however, to mul- to a flower and a demonstration, a valley and tiply instances, since the fact admits of no an eloquent discourse? contradiction. But how can we believe that The only answer which occurs to this is beauty is the object of a peculiar sense or plainly enough a bad one; but the statement faculty, when persons undoubtedly possessed of it, and of its insufficiency, will serve better, of the faculty, and even in an eminent degree, perhaps, than any thing else, to develope the can discover nothing of it in objects where it actual difficulties of the subject, and the true is distinctly felt and perceived by others with state of the question with regard to them. It the same use of the faculty ?
may be said, then, in answer to the questions This one consideration, we confess, appears we have suggested above, that all these obto us conclusive against the supposition of jects, however various and dissimilar, agree beauty being a real property of objects, ad- at least in being agreeable, and that ihis dressing itself to the power of taste as a sepa- agrecableness, which is the only quality they rate sense or faculty; and it seems to point possess in common, may probably be the irresistibly to the conclusion, that our sense beauty which is ascribed to them all. Now, of it is the result of other more elementary to those who are accustomed to such discusfeelings, into which it may be analysed or sions, it would be quite enough to reply, that resolved. A second objection, however, if though the agreeableness of such objects depossible of still greater force, is suggested by pend plainly enough upon their beauty, it by considering the prodigious and almost infinite no means follows, but quite the contrary, that variety of things to which this property of their beauty depends upon their agreeablebeauty is ascribed; and the impossibility of ness; the latter being the more comprehensive imagining any one inherent quality which or generic term, under which beauty must can belong to them all, and yet at the same l rank as one of the species. Its nature, there.
fore, is no more explained, nor is less ab- 1 give; and find ourselves just wnere we wero surdity, substantially committed, by saying at the beginning of the discussion, and em. that things are beautiful because they are barrassed with all the difficulties arising from agreeable, than if we were to give the same the prodigious diversity of objects which seem explanation of the sweetness of sugar; for no to possess these qualities. one, we suppose, will dispute, that though it We know pretty well what is the faculty be very true that sugar is agreeable because of seeing or hearing; or, at least, we know it is sweet, it would be manifestly prepos- that what is agreeable to one of those faculterous to say that it was sweet because it was ties, has no effect whatever on the other. We agreeable. For the benefit, however, of those know that bright colours afford no delight to who wish or require to be more regularly the ear, nor sweet tones to the eye; and are initiated in these mysteries, we beg leave to therefore perfectly assured that the qualities add a few observations.
which make the visible objects agreeable, In the first place, then, it seems evident, cannot be the same with those which give that agreeableness, in general, cannot be the pleasure to the ear. But it is by the eye
and same with beauty, because there are very by the ear that all material beauty is permany things in the highest degree agreeable, ceived; and yet the beauty which discloses that can in no sense be called beautiful. itself to these two separate senses, and conseModerate heat, and savoury food, and rest, quently must depend upon qualities which and exercise, are agreeable to the body; but have no sort of aifinity, is supposed to be one none of these can be called beautiful; and distinct quality, and to be perceived by a peamong objects of a higher class, the love and culiar sense or faculty! The perplexity beesteem of others, and fame, and a good con- comes still greater when we think of the science, and health, and riches, and wisdom, beauty of poems or theorems, and endeavour are all eminently agreeable; but none at all to imagine what qualities they can possess in beautiful, according to any intelligible use of common with the agreeable modifications of the word. It is plainly quite absurd, therefore, light or of sound. to say that beauty consists in agreeableness, It is in these considerations undoubtedly without specifying in consequence of what it that the difficulty of the subject consists. The is agreeable-or to hold that any thing what- faculty of taste, plainly, is not a faculty like ever is taught as to its nature, by merely any of the external senses, the range of whose classing it among our pleasurable emotions. objects is limited and precise, as well as the
In the second place, however, we may re- qualities by which they are gratified or ofmark, that among all the objects that are fended; and beauty, accordingly, is discovered agreeable, whether they are also beautiful or in an infinite variety of objects, among which not, scarcely any two are agreeable on account it seems, at first sight, impossible to discover of the same qualities, or even suggest their any other bond of connexion. Yet boundless agreeableness to the same faculty or organ. as their diversity may appear, it is plain that Most certainly there is no resemblance or they must resemble each other in something, affinity whatever between the qualities which and in something more definite and definable make a peach agreeable to the palate, and a than merely in being agreeable; since they beautiful statue to the eye; which soothe us are all classed together, in every tongue and in an easy chair by the fire, or delight us in a nation, under the common appellation of beauphilosophical discovery. The truth is, that tiful, and are felt indeed to produce emotions agreeableness is not properly a quality of any in the mind that have some sort of kindred or object whatsoever, but the effect or result of affinity. The words beauty and beautiful, in certain qualities, the nature of which, in every short, do and must mean something; and are particular instance, we can generally define universally felt to mean something much pretty exactly, or of which we know at least more definite than agreeableness or gratificawith certainty that they manifest themselves tion in general: and while it is confessedly respectively to some one particular sense or by no means easy to describe or define what faculty, and to no other; and consequently it that something is, the force and clearness of would be just as obviously ridiculous to sup- our perception of it is demonstrated by the pose a faculty or organ, whose office it was to readiness with which we determine, in any perceive agreeableness in general, as to sup- particular instance, whether the object of a pose that agreeableness was a distinct quality given pleasurable emotion is or is not propthat could thus be perceived.
erly described as beauty. The class of agreeable objects, thanks to What we have already said, we confess, the bounty of Providence, is exceedingly large. appears to us conclusive against the idea of Certain things are agreeable to the palate, and this beauty being any fixed or inherent propothers to the smell and to the touch. Some erty of the objects to which it is ascribed, or again are agreeable to our faculty of imagina- itself the object of any separate and indetion, or to our understanding, or to our moral pendent faculty; and we will no longer confeelings; and none of all these we call beau- ceal from the reader what we take to be the tiful. But there are others which we do call true solution of the difficulty. In our opinion, beautiful; and those we say are agreeable to then, our sense of beauty depends entirely on our faculty of taste;—but when we come to our previous experience of simpler pleasures ask what is the faculty of taste, and what are or emotions, and consists in the suggestion of the qualities which recommend the subjects agreeable or interesting sensations with which to that faculty ?—we have no such answer to l we had formerly been made familiar by the
direct and intelligible agency of our common to imagine, that recollections thus strikingly sensibilities; and that vast variety of objects, suggested by some real and present existence, to which we give the common name of beau- should present themselves under a different tiful, become entitled to that appellation, aspect, and move the mind somewhat differmerely because they all possess the power of ently from those which arise spontaneously in recalling or reflecting those sensations of the ordinary course of our reflections, and do which they have been the accompaniments, not thus grow out of a direct, present, and or with which they have been associated in peculiar impression. our imagination by any other more casual The whole of this doctrine, however, we bond of connection. According to this view shall endeavour by and bye to establish upon of the matter, therefore, beauty is not an in- more direct evidence. But having now exherent property or quality of objects at all, plained, in a general way, both the difficulties but the result of the accidental relations in of the subject, and our suggestion as to their which they may stand to our experience of true solution, it is proper that we should take a pleasures or emotions; and does not depend short review of the more considerable theories upon any particular configuration of parts, that have been proposed for the elucidation proportions, or colours, in external things, nor of this curious question; which is one of the upon the unity, coherence, or simplicity of most delicate as well as the most popular in intellectual creations, but merely upon the the science of metaphysics was one of the associations which, in the case of every indi- earliest which exercised the speculative ingevidual, may enable these inherent, and other. nuity of philosophers and has at last, we wise indifferent qualities, to suggest or recall think, been more successfully treated than to the mind emotions of a pleasurable or in any other of a similar description. teresting description. It follows, therefore, In most of these speculatious we shall find that no object is beautiful in itself, or could rather imperfect truth than fundamental error; appear so antecedent to our experience of di- or, at all events, such errors only as arise naturect pleasures or emotions; and that, as an rally from that peculiar difficulty which we infinite variety of objects may thus reflect in- have already endeavoured to explain, as conteresting ideas, so all of them may acquire sisting in the prodigious multitude and dithe title of beautiful, although utterly diverse versity of the objects in which the common and disparate in their nature, and possessing quality of beauty was to be accounted for. nothing in common but this accidental power Those who have not been sufficiently aware of reminding us of other emotions.
of the difficulty have generally dogmatised This theory, which, we believe, is now very from a small number of instances, and have generally adopted, though under many need rather given examples of the occurrence of less qualifications, shall be farther developed beauty in some few classes of objects, than and illustrated in the sequel. But at present afforded any light as to that upon which it we shall only remark, that it serves, at least, essentially depended in all; while those who to solve the great problem involved in the felt its full force have very often found no discussion, by rendering it easily conceivable other resource, than to represent beauty as how objects which have no inherent resem- consisting in properties so extremely vague blance, nor, indeed, any one quality in com- and general, (such, for example, as the power mon, should yet be united in one common of exciting ideas of relation, as almost to relation, and consequently acquire one com- elude our comprehension, and, at the same mon name; just as all the things that belonged time, of so abstract and metaphysical a deto a beloved individual may serve to remind scription, as not to be very intelligibly stated, us of him, and thus to awake a kindred class as the elements of a strong, familiar, and of emotions, though just as unlike each other pleasurable emotion. as any of the objects that are classed under This last observation leads us to make one the general name of beautiful. His poetry, other remark upon the general character of for instance, or his slippers—his acts of bounty these theories; and this is, that some of them, or his saddle-horse—may lead to the same though not openly professing that doctrine, chain of interesting remembrances, and thus seem necessarily to imply the existence of a agree in possessing a power of excitement, peculiar sense or faculty for the perception for the sources of which we should look in of beauty; as they resolve it into properties vain through all the variety of their physical that are not in any way interesting or agreeor metaphysical qualities.
able to any of our known faculties. Such By the help of the same consideration, we are all those which make it consist in proporget rid of all the mystery of a peculiar sense tion-or in variety, combined with regularor faculty, imagined for the express purpose ity—or in waving lines—or in unity-or in of perceiving beauty; and discover that the the perception of relations without explainpower of taste is nothing more than the habit ing, or attempting to explain, how any of these of tracing those associations, by which almost things should, in any circumstances, affect us all objects may be connected with interesting with delight or emotion. Others, again, do emotions. It is easy to understand, that the not require the supposition of any such séparecollection of any scene of delight or emotion rate faculty; because in them the sense of must produce a certain agreeable sensation, beauty is considered as arising from other and that the objects which introduce these more simple and familiar emotions, which recollections should not appear altogether in- are in themselves and beyond all dispute different to us: nor is it, perhaps, very difficult agreeable. Such are those which teach that
deauty depends on the perception of utility, gests that beauty may be the inere organic or of design, or fitness, or in tracing associa- delight of the eye or the car; to which, after tions between its objects and the common stating very slightly the objection, that it joys or emotions of our nature. Which of would be impossible to account upon this these two classes of speculation, to one or ground for the beauty of poetry or eloquence, other of which, we believe, all theories of he proceeds to rear up a more refined and beauty may be reduced, is the most philo- elaborate refutation, upon such grounds as sophical in itself, we imagine can admit of these: If beauty be the proper name of that no question; and we hope in the sequel to which is naturally agreeable to the sight and leave it as little doubtful, which is to be con- hearing, it is plain, that the objects to which sidered as most consistent with the fact. In it is ascribed must possess some common and the mean time, we must give a short account distinguishable property, besides that of being of some of the theories themselves.
agreeable, in consequence of which they are The most ancient of which it seems neces- separated and set apart from objects that are sary to take any notice, is that which may be agreeable to our other senses and faculties, traced in the Dialogues of Plato-though we and, at the same time, classed together under are very far from pretending that it is possible the common appellation of beautiful. Now, to give any intelligible or consistent account we are not only quite unable to discover what of its tenor. It should never be forgotten, this property is, but it is manifest, that objects however, that it is to this subtle and inge- which make themselves known to the ear, nious spirit that we owe the suggestion, that can have no property as such, in common it is mind alone that is beautiful; and that, with objects that make themselves known to in perceiving beauty, it only contemplates the eye; it being impossible that an object the shadow of its own affections ;-a doctrine which is beautiful by its colour, can be beauwhich, however mystically unfolded in his tiful, from the same quality, with another writings, or however combined with extrava- which is beautiful by its sound. From all gant or absurd speculations, unquestionably which it is inferred, that as beauty is admitted carries in it the the germ of all the truth that to be something real, it cannot be merely what has since been revealed on the subject. By is agreeable to the organs of sight or hearing. far the largest dissertation, however, that this There is no practical wisdom, we admit, in great philosopher has left upon the nature of those fine-drawn speculations; nor any of that beauty, is to be found in the dialogue entitled spirit of patient observation by which alone The Greater Hippias, which is entirely de- any sound view of such objects can voted to that inquiry. We do not learn a be attained. There are also many marks great deal of the author's own opinion, in- of that singular incapacity to distinguish deed, from this performance; for it is one of between what is absolutely puerile and the dialogues which have been termed Ana- foolish, and what is plausible, at least, and treptic, or confuting-in which nothing is ingenious, which
be reckoned among concluded in the affirmative, but a series of the characteristics of “the divine philososophistical suggestions or hypotheses are suc- pher," and in some degree of all the philosocessively exposed. The plan of it is to lead phers of antiquity: but they show clearly on Hippias, a shallow and confident sophist, enough the subtle and abstract character of to make a variety of dogmatical assertions as Greek speculation, and prove at how early to the nature of beauty, and then to make a period, and to how great an extent, the him retract and abandon them, upon the inherent difficulties of the subject were felt, statement of some obvious objections. So- and produced their appropriate effects: crates and he agree at first in the notable There are some hints on these subjects in proposition," that beauty is that by which the works of Xenophon; and some scattered all beautiful things are beautiful;" and then, observations in those of Cicero, who was the after a great number of suggestions, by far first, we believe, to observe, that the sense too childish and absurd to be worthy of any of beauty is peculiar to man; but nothing notice—such as, that the beautiful may per- else, we believe, in classical antiquity, which adventure be gold, or a fine woman, or a requires to be analysed or explained. It aphandsome mare--they at last get to some pears that St. Augustin composed a large suppositions, which show that almost all the treatise on beauty; and it is to be lamented, theories that have since been propounded on that the speculations of that acute and ardent this interesting subject had occurred thus genius on such a subject have been lost. We early to the active and original mind of this discover, from incidental notices in other parts keen and curious inquirer. Thus, Socrates of his writings, that he conceived the beauty first suggests that beauty may consist in the of all objects to depend on their unity, or on fitness or suitableness of any object to the the perception of that principle or design place it occupies; and afterwards, more gen- which fixed the relations of their various erally and directly, that it may consist in parts, and presented them to the intellect or utility—a notion which is ultimately reject- imagination as one harmonious whole. It ed, however, upon the subtle consideration would not be fair to deal very strictly with that the useful is that which produces good, a theory with which we are so imperfectly and that the producer and the product being acquainted: but it may be observed, that, necessarily different, it would follow, upon while the author is so far in the right as to that supposition, that beauty could not be make beauty consist in a relation to mind, good, nor good beautiful. Finally, he sug- and not in any physical quality, he has taken