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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Of Beauty

February 1, 1757

My Dear Mr. Avenger,

Some time ago I sent you some of my Thoughts on the Sublime. I must admit my shame that in that Epistle, I most unjustly accus’d Scotchmen of having Souls of too heavy a Nature to understand such a lofty subject as the Sublime. For there has just come into my Hands a Manuscript, being a first attempt at an “Essay upon Taste” from an Acquaintance in North-Britain, one Mr. GERARD [Alexander Gerard, later published as An Essay on Taste (London: A. Millar, 1759) — Ed.].

The work is express’d in a nervous Style, too direct, and perhaps too philosophical for my complete Approbation, but nonetheless wrote in proper English, without those Scotticisms which too often infect the literary Productions of our North-British Brethren. But most importantly, it contains more of Truth than of Falsehood or Folly, and has many judicious things to say on that peculiar Sense or Faculty, thro’ which is discover’d those peculiar Characters of the Sublime and Beautiful in Objects of Judgment.

De gustibus non est disputandum, “of Taste there is no disputing” is an Observation worn to a Proverb, so interminable are the Contentions to which Judgments of artistic Merit seem apt to give rise. In a similar Vein we might say that there is no disputing Philosophers’ Opinions about Taste itself, so many and divers are the Theories offer’d to explain the original of this peculiar sixth Sense that is the patrimony of our Species.

Returning to our Manuscript, Mr. Gerard is of the Opinion that Beauty consists in Ease of Apprehension, or what he calls a “facility in the Conception of an Object” [Ibid. p. 31 – Ed.]. When we behold an Object of Beauty, we feel a sense of Pleasure at the Ease and Immediacy with which we comprehend its Characters. (Indeed, I dare say, we derive Pleasure not merely from the Object it self, but we are also well-pleas’d with ourselves and our own Cleverness, for being so quick of Apprehension.)

And yet, we are still led to ask, “What is it in this Object, what are the peculiar Characters that impress themselves in such an efficient Manner upon the Mind of him who apprehends?” For it is not enough to say that the beautiful Object strikes us with Pleasure by being easily comprehended. What we wish to know is ― Why is this Object easy of apprehension, while that Object is difficult? For it would seem to be therein that the Beauty of the Object lies; therein lies the Cause of our Judgment of the Object’s Beauty.

In considering of this facility of apprehension, Professor HUTCHESON wou’d identify it with the Pleasure arising from the apprehension of a Contrast in those Objects which display either Uniformity amidst Variety OR Variety amidst Uniformity [Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design (1725) – Ed.]. Whether this be the case I confess I know not, tho’ how a Fly, afloat in the midst of a Soup Bowl ― a seeming Instance of his Variety amidst Uniformity ― may be call’d beautiful is quite beyond my understanding. Such a singular kind of “Beauty” hath no Charms for me.

Gerard and Hutcheson seem to lavish their utmost Attention on this feeling of Pleasure to which Beauty gives rise, and to the seeming facility for experiencing it, a facility with which the Human Mind seems uniquely endow’d. They expend too little Effort in trying to understand the Characteristicks which are the Cause of the Pleasure. It is not enough to tell us that we experience Pleasure when we apprehend the Beauty of an Object. Again, we wish to know in what consists the Beauty of the Object that is the Source of our Pleasure.

If Beauty be a Quality found in Objects of Beauty, then according to the most ingenious Philosophers, amongst whom must be number’d Monsieur DES CARTES and the celebrated Mr. LOCKE, it must either be a primary or a secondary Quality. The former are those Qualities which inhere in Objects themselves, independent of Observation, such as Solidity, Extension, Motion, Number, and Figure. If a Ball is round, it retains this Figure whether there exists anyone to observe this Rotundity.

Secondary Qualities are better describ’d as a Power in Objects of producing certain Sensations in the perceiving Subject, Examples of these being Colour, Taste, Sound, and Smell. A Ball is not red because there is “Redness” inhering in it. Rather, given a certain Quantity of Light, and competent Powers of Sight in the Observer, there is somewhat inhering in the material Constitution of the Ball ― somewhat in the Complexion of its primary Qualities ― that, combin’d with all of these Conditions, produces in the Observer a Sensation of Redness.

Now, there can be little doubt that if Beauty be a Quality, it must be of this latter, secondary kind, tho' it may be of a more complex Nature. If, for example, a Painting strikes us as beautiful at least in part because of the particular Contrast between certain of its Colours, the which being secondary Qualities, then the Beauty of the Painting must needs be, to that extent at least, dependent upon the Nature and Configuration of its secondary Qualities.

This dependency of secondary Qualities upon the Senses and Apprehension of him who perceives them, wou’d to untutor’d Minds seem to make it bootless to dispute Judgments of Taste. As Mr. HUME remarks, “no Objects are, in themselves, desirable or odious, valuable or despicable; but that Objects acquire these Qualities from the particular Character and Constitution of the Mind, which surveys them” [David Hume, Essays, “The Sceptic” – Ed.]. And yet, we need not be too disturb’d by this, for, says he, “Though Colours were allowed to lie only in the Eye, would Dyers or Painters ever be less regarded or esteemed? There is a sufficient Uniformity in the Senses and Feelings of Mankind, to make all these Qualities the Objects of Art and Reasoning, and to have the greatest Influence on Life and Manners.”

A Man’s Faculties are as an Instrument, so attuned as to vibrate in Harmony with those of others, when pluck’d by the Fingers of the same Player. We need not doubt the existence of Musick or of the Player because some few of these Instruments are out of tune. But who is this Player?

I am of the Opinion of my Lord SHAFTESBURY, that all Matter, taken by itself, is dead, a shapeless Chaos. It is only given Form ― only becomes Intelligible ― by some Mind. This is the Foundation and Original of the Plastick Arts, and indeed of all the Arts generally. But just as there are Minds that form, so is there too some Mind that additionally forms those Minds that form [see Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Vol. II, “The Moralists; a Philosophical Rhapsody” ― Ed.]. All the World and every thing in it is a single Masterwork, wrought by the Supreme creating Mind. “The Spirit of Man is the Candle of the Lord,” as the Scripture teacheth [Proverbs 20:27 ― Ed.]. ‘Tis the Lamp He hath given us, by which we may illuminate his Work. ‘Tis the Spark of His divine Fire. We are so form’d as to be able to understand His Creation, and to grasp the Beauties it contains, since we are, after all, a Part of it. As intellectual Creatures, we are in the singular Position of being, at one and the same Time, both Figures upon His Canvas and Connoisseurs of its grand Design.

Here is as good a Place as any for me to end this rhapsodizing, being by my Nature ill-suited to play the Enthusiastick.

I am, Sir,
Your humble Servant, etc.
Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxon.

P. S. Mrs. Darlington also wishes to be remember’d to the Venerable Mr. Avenger, and sends her Compliments to Mrs. Avenger.

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