Published Humanitas, Volume XIX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2006
St. John’s University
Both Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be grouped among the key thinkers of the eighteenth century. They are widely understood to be quite different from one another, and their outlooks—especially their political-philosophical views—are often contrasted by scholars. Among those who have profitably contrasted Burke with Rousseau is the early twentieth century literary scholar and social critic Irving Babbitt. Babbitt famously favors the “classic” over the “romantic”; he considers romanticism’s ethical and political implications to be destructive of society. He uses Rousseau as his prime representative of romanticism and of all that is wrong with it, and uses Burke as a foil in criticizing Rousseau. Although Babbitt never explicitly describes Burke’s thought as “classical,” Burke sometimes seems to serve as Babbitt’s primary representative of the “classical” perspective he champions.
What is odd about Babbitt’s treatment of Burke and Rousseau is that Babbitt never points out that Burke is, himself, a romantic. Literary scholars and students of aesthetics have long grouped both Rousseau and Burke among the originators or articulators of the romantic tradition. Although it is Rousseau who is more widely associated with the romantic movement today, Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful was, for a century, almost ‘required reading’ for writers and artists of a romantic bent, or for anyone with an interest in romanticism, not just in the English-speaking world but on the Continent as well. Burke’s romanticism is rarely discussed by political theorists, and many rank-and-file conservatives who admire Burke’s politics have probably never thought of him as a representative of the romantic movement. Yet, this is an undeniable dimension of Burke’s thought. It is argued here that understanding Burke’s romanticism is an important part of understanding Burke. Understanding Burke’s romanticism also helps one understand the subtle ways in which aesthetics, ethics, and politics interact.
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