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GENERAL LITERATURE

AND

LITERARY BIOGRAPHY.

(May, 1811.)

Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste.-By ARCHIBALD ALISON, L L. 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 arger) 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 tings 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 some have alleged, that our perception of beauty was a simple sensation, like our perception of colour, and that the faculty of taste was an original and distinct sense, like that of seeing or hearing; this would be truly the only account that could be given, either of the sense or of its object;-and all that we could do, in investigating the nature of the latter, would be to ascertain and enumerate the circumstances 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 to 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 explain and to set forth, in their natural order, the difficulties with which the subject is sur rounded, to state here, in a very few words, one or two of the most obvious, and, as we think, decisive objections against the notion of beauty being a simple sensation, or the object of a separate and peculiar faculty. The first, and perhaps the most consider

*The greater part of this paper was first printed in the Edinburgh Review for May 1811; but was afterwards considerably enlarged, and inserted as a separate article (under the word BEAUTY) in the supplement to the Encyclopædia Britannica, published in 1824, and subsequently incorporated into the new edition of that great work in 1841, from which it is now reprinted in its complete form, by the liberal allowance of the proprietors.

It becomes of importance, therefore, in the very outset of this inquiry, to consider whether our sense of beauty be really a simple sensation, like some of those we have enumerated, or a compound or derivative feeling, the sources or elements of which may be investigated and ascertained. If it be the former, we have then only to refer it to the peculiar sense or faculty of which it is the object; and to determine, by repeated obser

able, is the want of agreement as to the time possess so much unity as to pass univer sally by the same name, and be recognise as the peculiar object of a separate sense c faculty. All simple qualities that are perceive in any one object, are immediately recognise to be the same, when they are again perceive in another; and the objects in which they ar thus perceived are at once felt so far to r semble each other, and to partake of nature. Thus snow is seen to be white, ar chalk is seen to be white; but this is 1 sooner seen, than the two substances, hov ever unlike in other respects, are felt at on to have this quality in common, and to semble each other completely in all that: lates to the quality of colour, and the sen

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presence and existence of beauty in particular objects, among men whose organization is perfect, and who are plainly possessed of the faculty, whatever it may be, by which beauty is discerned. Now, no such thing happens, we imagine, or can be conceived to happen, in the case of any other simple sensation, or the exercise of any other distinct faculty. Where one man sees light, all men who have eyes see light also. All men allow grass to be green, and sugar to be sweet, and ice to be cold; and the unavoidable inference from any apparent disagreement in such matters necessarily is, that the party is insane, or entirely destitute of the sense or organ concerned in the perception. With regard to beauty, how-of seeing. But is this felt, or could it even ever, it is obvious, at first sight, that the case intelligibly asserted, with regard to the qual is entirely different. One man sees it per- of beauty? Take even a limited and specific s petually, where to another it is quite invisible, of beauty-for instance, the beauty of for or even where its reverse seems to be con- The form of a fine tree is beautiful, and t spicuous. Nor is this owing to the insensi- form of a fine woman, and the form of a colum bility of either of the parties; for the same and a vase, and a chandelier. Yet how car contrariety exists where both are keenly alive be said that the form of a woman has a to the influences of the beauty they respect- thing in common with that of a tree or a te ively discern. A Chinese or African lover ple? or to which of the senses by which for would probably see nothing at all attractive are distinguished can it be supposed to app in a belle of London or Paris; and, undoubt- that they have any resemblance or affinity edly, an elegans formarum spectator from either of those cities would discover nothing but deformity in the Venus of the Hottentots. A little distance in time often produces the same effects as distance in place;-the gardens, the furniture, the dress, which appeared beautiful in the eyes of our grandfathers, are odious and ridiculous in ours. Nay, the difference of rank, education, or employments, gives rise to the same diversity of sensation. The little shop-keeper sees a beauty in his roadside box, and in the staring tile roof, wooden lions, and clipped boxwood, which strike horror into the soul of the student of the picturesque; while he is transported in surveying the fragments of ancient sculpture, which are nothing but ugly masses of mouldering stone, in the judgment of the admirer of neatness. It is needless, however, to multiply instances, since the fact admits of no contradiction. But how can we believe that beauty is the object of a peculiar sense or faculty, when persons undoubtedly possessed of the faculty, and even in an eminent degree, can discover nothing of it in objects where it is distinctly felt and perceived by others with the same use of the faculty?

This one consideration, we confess, appears to us conclusive against the supposition of beauty being a real property of objects, addressing itself to the power of taste as a separate sense or faculty; and it seems to point irresistibly to the conclusion, that our sense of it is the result of other more elementary feelings, into which it may be analysed or resolved. A second objection, however, if possible of still greater force, is suggested, by considering the prodigious and almost infinite variety of things to which this property of beauty is ascribed; and the impossibility of imagining any one inherent quality which can belong to them all, and yet at the same

The matter, however, becomes still m inextricable when we recollect that bea does not belong merely to forms or colo but to sounds, and perhaps to the objects other senses; nay, that in all languages in all nations, it is not supposed to reside clusively in material objects, but to bel also to sentiments and ideas, and intellec and moral existences. Not only is a beautiful, as well as a palace or a waterf but a poem is beautiful, and a theoren mathematics, and a contrivance in mecha But if things intellectual and totally se gated from matter may thus possess bea how can it possibly be a quality of mate objects? or what sense or faculty can that whose proper office it is to intimate to us existence of some property which is com to a flower and a demonstration, a valley an eloquent discourse?

The only answer which occurs to th plainly enough a bad one; but the stater of it, and of its insufficiency, will serve be perhaps, than any thing else, to develope actual difficulties of the subject, and the state of the question with regard to them may be said, then, in answer to the ques we have suggested above, that all these jects, however various and dissimilar, a at least in being agreeable, and that agreeableness, which is the only quality possess in common, may probably be beauty which is ascribed to them all. to those who are accustomed to such di sions, it would be quite enough to reply, though the agreeableness of such object pend plainly enough upon their beauty, no means follows, but quite the contrary their beauty depends upon their agree ness; the latter being the more comprehe or generic term, under which beauty rank as one of the species. Its nature, t

fare, is no more explained, nor is less ab-give; and find ourselves just where we were surdity substantially committed, by saying at the beginning of the discussion, and emthat 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 be very true that sugar is agreeable because it is sweet, it would be manifestly preposterous to say that it was sweet because it was agreeable. For the benefit, however, of those who wish or require to be more regularly nitiated in these mysteries, we beg leave to add a few observations.

In the first place, then, it seems evident, that agreeableness, in general, cannot be the same with beauty, because there are very many things in the highest degree agreeable, that can in no sense be called beautiful. Moderate heat, and savoury food, and rest, and exercise, are agreeable to the body; but Lone of these an be called beautiful; and among objects of a higher class, the love and esteem of others, and fame, and a good conscience, and health, and riches, and wisdom, are all eminently agreeable; but none at all beautiful, according to any intelligible use of the word. It is plainly quite absurd, therefore, say that beauty consists in agreeableness, without specifying in consequence of what it agreeable or to hold that any thing whatver is taught as to its nature, by merely assing it among our pleasurable emotions. In the second place, however, we may remark, that among all the objects that are agreeable, whether they are also beautiful or t, scarcely any two are agreeable on account of the same qualities, or even suggest their agreeableness to the same faculty or organ. Most certainly there is no resemblance or affinity whatever between the qualities which make a peach agreeable to the palate, and a beautiful statue to the eye; which soothe us an easy chair by the fire, or delight us in a philosophical discovery. The truth is, that agreeableness is not properly a quality of any object whatsoever, but the effect or result of certain qualities, the nature of which, in every particular instance, we can generally define etty exactly, or of which we know at least with certainty that they manifest themselves respectively to some one particular sense or faculty, and to no other; and consequently it would be just as obviously ridiculous to suppose a faculty or organ, whose office it was to perceive agreeableness in general, as to suppose that agreeableness was a distinct quality that could thus be perceived.

The class of agreeable objects, thanks to the bounty of Providence, is exceedingly large. Certain things are agreeable to the palate, and others to the smell and to the touch. Some again are agreeable to our faculty of imaginaton, or to our understanding, or to our moral feelings; and none of all these we call beautiful. But there are others which we do call beautiful; and those we say are agreeable to our faculty of taste;-but when we come to ask what is the faculty of taste, and what are the qualities which recommend the subjects to that faculty?—we have no such answer to

We know pretty well what is the faculty of seeing or hearing; or, at least, we know that what is agreeable to one of those faculties, has no effect whatever on the other. We know that bright colours afford no delight to the ear, nor sweet tones to the eye; and are therefore perfectly assured that the qualities which make the visible objects agreeable, cannot be the same with those which give pleasure to the ear. But it is by the eye and by the ear that all material beauty is perceived; and yet the beauty which discloses itself to these two separate senses, and consequently must depend upon qualities which have no sort of affinity, is supposed to be one distinct quality, and to be perceived by a peculiar sense or faculty! The perplexity becomes still greater when we think of the beauty of poems or theorems, and endeavour to imagine what qualities they can possess in common with the agreeable modifications of light or of sound.

It is in these considerations undoubtedly that the difficulty of the subject consists. The faculty of taste, plainly, is not a faculty like any of the external senses, the range of whose objects is limited and precise, as well as the qualities by which they are gratified or offended; and beauty, accordingly, is discovered in an infinite variety of objects, among which it seems, at first sight, impossible to discover any other bond of connexion. Yet boundless as their diversity may appear, it is plain that they must resemble each other in something, and in something more definite and definable than merely in being agreeable; since they are all classed together, in every tongue and nation, under the common appellation of beautiful, and are felt indeed to produce emotions in the mind that have some sort of kindred or affinity. The words beauty and beautiful, in short, do and must mean something; and are universally felt to mean something much more definite than agreeableness or gratification in general: and while it is confessedly by no means easy to describe or define what that something is, the force and clearness of our perception of it is demonstrated by the readiness with which we determine, in any particular instance, whether the object of a given pleasurable emotion is or is not properly described as beauty.

What we have already said, we confess, appears to us conclusive against the idea of this beauty being any fixed or inherent property of the objects to which it is ascribed, or itself the object of any separate and independent faculty; and we will no longer conceal from the reader what we take to be the true solution of the difficulty. In our opinion, then, our sense of beauty depends entirely on our previous experience of simpler pleasures or emotions, and consists in the suggestion of agreeable or interesting sensations with which we had formerly been made familiar by the

direct and intelligible agency of our common to imagine, that recollections thus strikin sensibilities; and that vast variety of objects, suggested by some real and present exister to which we give the common name of beau- should present themselves under a differ tiful, become entitled to that appellation, aspect, and move the mind somewhat dif merely because they all possess the power of ently from those which arise spontaneousl recalling or reflecting those sensations of the ordinary course of our reflections, and which they have been the accompaniments, not thus grow out of a direct, present, or with which they have been associated in peculiar impression. our imagination by any other more casual The whole of this doctrine, however, bond of connection. According to this view shall endeavour by and bye to establish i of the matter, therefore, beauty is not an in- more direct evidence. But having now herent property or quality of objects at all, plained, in a general way, both the difficu but the result of the accidental relations in of the subject, and our suggestion as to t which they may stand to our experience of true solution, it is proper that we should ta pleasures or emotions; and does not depend short review of the more considerable the upon any particular configuration of parts, that have been proposed for the elucida proportions, or colours, in external things, nor of this curious question; which is one of upon the unity, coherence, or simplicity of most delicate as well as the most popul intellectual creations-but merely upon the the science of metaphysics-was one of associations which, in the case of every indi- earliest which exercised the speculative i vidual, may enable these inherent, and other-nuity of philosophers-and has at last wise indifferent qualities, to suggest or recall think, been more successfully treated to the mind emotions of a pleasurable or in- any other of a similar description. teresting description. It follows, therefore, that no object is beautiful in itself, or could appear so antecedent to our experience of direct pleasures or emotions; and that, as an infinite variety of objects may thus reflect interesting ideas, so all of them may acquire the title of beautiful, although utterly diverse and disparate in their nature, and possessing nothing in common but this accidental power of reminding us of other emotions.

In most of these speculatious we shall rather imperfect truth than fundamental e or, at all events, such errors only as arise! rally from that peculiar difficulty which have already endeavoured to explain, as sisting in the prodigious multitude an versity of the objects in which the con quality of beauty was to be accounted Those who have not been sufficiently a of the difficulty have generally dogma from a small number of instances, and rather given examples of the occurren beauty in some few classes of objects, afforded any light as to that upon wh essentially depended in all; while thos felt its full force have very often fou other resource, than to represent beat consisting in properties so extremely and general, (such, for example, as the of exciting ideas of relation,) as alm elude our comprehension, and, at the time, of so abstract and metaphysical scription, as not to be very intelligibly as the elements of a strong, familia pleasurable emotion.

This theory, which, we believe, is now very generally adopted, though under many needless qualifications, shall be farther developed and illustrated in the sequel. But at present we shall only remark, that it serves, at least, to solve the great problem involved in the discussion, by rendering it easily conceivable how objects which have no inherent resemblance, nor, indeed, any one quality in common, should yet be united in one common relation, and consequently acquire one common name; just as all the things that belonged to a beloved individual may serve to remind us of him, and thus to awake a kindred class of emotions, though just as unlike each other as any of the objects that are classed under the general name of beautiful. His poetry, for instance, or his slippers-his acts of bounty or his saddle-horse-may lead to the same chain of interesting remembrances, and thus agree in possessing a power of excitement, for the sources of which we should look in vain through all the variety of their physical or metaphysical qualities.

By the help of the same consideration, we get rid of all the mystery of a peculiar sense or faculty, imagined for the express purpose of perceiving beauty; and discover that the power of taste is nothing more than the habit of tracing those associations, by which almost all objects may be connected with interesting emotions. It is easy to understand, that the recollection of any scene of delight or emotion must produce a certain agreeable sensation, and that the objects which introduce these recollections should not appear altogether indifferent to us: nor is it, perhaps, very difficult

This last observation leads us to mal other remark upon the general chara these theories; and this is, that some of though not openly professing that do seem necessarily to imply the existenc peculiar sense or faculty for the perc of beauty; as they resolve it into pro that are not in any way interesting or able to any of our known faculties. are all those which make it consist in ] tion-or in variety, combined with r ity-or in waving lines-or in unitythe perception of relations-without e ing, or attempting to explain, how any o things should, in any circumstances, af with delight or emotion. Others, ag not require the supposition of any such rate faculty; because in them the se beauty is considered as arising from more simple and familiar emotions, are in themselves and beyond all .. agreeable. Such are those which teach

beauty depends on the perception of utility, gests that beauty may be the mere organic or of design, or fitness, or in tracing associa- delight of the eye or the ear; 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 separated and set apart from objects that are agreeable to our other senses and faculties, and, at the same time, classed together under the common appellation of beautiful. Now, we are not only quite unable to discover what this property is, but it is manifest, that objects which make themselves known to the ear, can have no property as such, in common with objects that make themselves known to the eye; it being impossible that an object which is beautiful by its colour, can be beautiful, from the same quality, with another which is beautiful by its sound. From all which it is inferred, that as beauty is admitted to be something real, it cannot be merely what is agreeable to the organs of sight or hearing.

There is no practical wisdom, we admit, in those fine-drawn speculations; nor any of that spirit of patient observation by which alone any sound view of such objects can ever be attained. There are also many marks of that singular incapacity to distinguish between what is absolutely puerile and foolish, and what is plausible, at least, and ingenious, which may be reckoned among the characteristics of "the divine philosopher," and in some degree of all the philosophers of antiquity: but they show clearly enough the subtle and abstract character of Greek speculation, and prove at how early a period, and to how great an extent, the inherent difficulties of the subject were felt, and produced their appropriate effects.

There are some hints on these subjects in the works of Xenophon; and some scattered observations in those of Cicero; who was the first, we believe, to observe, that the sense of beauty is peculiar to man; but nothing else, we believe, in classical antiquity, which requires to be analysed or explained. It appears that St. Augustin composed a large treatise on beauty; and it is to be lamented, that the speculations of that acute and ardent genius on such a subject have been lost. We discover, from incidental notices in other parts of his writings, that he conceived the beauty of all objects to depend on their unity, or on the perception of that principle or design which fixed the relations of their various parts, and presented them to the intellect or imagination as one harmonious whole. It would not be fair to deal very strictly with a theory with which we are so imperfectly acquainted: but it may be observed, that, while the author is so far in the right as to make beauty consist in a relation to mind, and not in any physical quality, he has taken

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The most ancient of which it seems necessary to take any notice, is that which may be traced in the Dialogues of Plato-though we are very far from pretending that it is possible to give any intelligible or consistent account of its tenor. It should never be forgotten, however, that it is to this subtle and ingenious spirit that we owe the suggestion, that it is mind alone that is beautiful; and that, in perceiving beauty, it only contemplates the shadow of its own affections;-a doctrine which, however mystically unfolded in his writings, or however combined with extravagant or absurd speculations, unquestionably carries in it the the germ of all the truth that has since been revealed on the subject. By far the largest dissertation, however, that this great philosopher has left upon the nature of beauty, is to be found in the dialogue entitled The Greater Hippias, which is entirely devoted to that inquiry. We do not learn a great deal of the author's own opinion, indeed, from this performance; for it is one of the dialogues which have been termed Anatreptic, or confuting-in which nothing is concluded in the affirmative, but a series of sophistical suggestions or hypotheses are successively exposed. The plan of it is to lead on Hippias, a shallow and confident sophist, to make a variety of dogmatical assertions as to the nature of beauty, and then to make him retract and abandon them, upon the statement of some obvious objections. Socrates and he agree at first in the notable proposition, "that beauty is that by which all beautiful things are beautiful;" and then, after a great number of suggestions, by far too childish and absurd to be worthy of any notice-such as, that the beautiful may peradventure be gold, or a fine woman, or a handsome mare-they at last get to some suppositions, which show that almost all the theories that have since been propounded on this interesting subject had occurred thus early to the active and original mind of this keen and curious inquirer. Thus, Socrates first suggests that beauty may consist in the fitness or suitableness of any object to the place it occupies; and afterwards, more generally and directly, that it may consist in utility-a notion which is ultimately rejected, however, upon the subtle consideration that the useful is that which produces good, and that the producer and the product being necessarily different, it would follow, upon that supposition, that beauty could not be good, nor good beautiful. Finally, he sug

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