A little over two hundred and fifty years ago, some extracts from an essay by a now little-known political thinker – one held by some to be the grandfather of modern conservatism – were sneaked out, against his will, in the pages of The London Magazine. Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, had been a contemporary of Robert Walpole at Eton and was in early life much the more successful of the two men, holding high office in the reign of Queen Anne, and widely considered the most powerful politician in the land during the years before the accession of George I. He had just turned thirty-six in the autumn of 1714 when, sent into exile by the incoming king, he began life in France as a rather washed-up figure, writing a series of short pamphlets attacking the Whig supremacy that was to rule Britain with more or less impregnable power over the coming decades. Bolingbroke’s arguments, once seen as being squarely Tory, addressed the complexities of our constitution and, in particular, the relationship between the sovereign and the people. Burke grappled with the legacy of his thought; Disraeli took him as the model for his Young England movement of the 1840s, and he had a lasting influence upon the founding fathers in America as they considered the duties of the President. But it is his celebration of patriotism, yoked by violence to a caricature of the Right’s supposed hostility to all things foreign that has ensured his on-going association with conservative thought.
In fact, this is a little unfair. The essay to which I refer, The Idea of a Patriot King, written in 1738 when Bolingbroke returned briefly to London, was an attempt to bolster a tentative alliance between the Tories and Whigs as they privately considered the succession. It pretends to address the current heir to the throne – Frederick, Prince of Wales – and provides an assessment of the virtues required in a hypothetical benevolent monarch, who is possessed of near absolute power. Its thesis is fascinating but highly controversial precisely because of the authority with which it invests the crown – a monarchist position that appears on the face of it to intend the overthrow of a century of gradual constitutional reform. Bolingbroke was staying in Twickenham at the house of his friend, Alexander Pope, at the time and was horrified to learn on the latter’s death that the manuscript, meant only for distribution among the Prince’s closest advisors, had been printed against his wishes in a small run in 1744. Although he did his best to suppress it at this late stage, extracts found their way into the popular London Magazine in 1749, leading to a posthumous attack upon Pope’s character by his former friend and the origins of a lengthy literary feud over the reputation of the great poet.
Bolingbroke’s essay defends the constitutional centrality of the Crown in the government of Britain but aims to steer a careful course between the High Tory position of kingship as a divine right and the overly circumscribed monarchy of the Whigs, for whom the king was essentially a facilitator of stable political power. For Bolingbroke, the latter position implied the loss of a unique relationship, enshrined in British tradition, between the people and the Crown – on his account, an actual rather than merely symbolic representation of the virtues of the nation. Contrary to the Whigs’ king, Bolingbroke’s would rule above political parties, being the spiritual embodiment of a flourishing empire and a moral example of virtue and decorum to the people. There is one passage in the essay that strikes me especially and it comes at a point where Bolingbroke is describing the virtues required in a prince. Decency and grace are his essential qualities, he says, and when they are neglected, princely virtues lose their ‘lustre’ – an odd word that seems to imply something about the surface appearance of power; something indeed that links power intimately if somewhat obscurely to beauty. To drive this home, he goes on directly to compare the prince to a work of art in which only the connoisseur can detect its beauty if there are defects to the whole. For monarchical power to be an effective representation of all that is best in a nation, he argues, the prince must be a beautiful manifestation of the virtues of leadership appreciable to all; an example of the grace and decency that at its best binds society at large together.
Well, it might fairly be said that this is pretty recondite stuff with little relevance to our own time. For all that the golden pageantry of the Queen’s speech at the state opening of parliament retains a certain beauty of style, it would be a brave man who would argue that this surface appearance alone enshrines the British people in a state of grace. But I wonder whether Bolingbroke does not instantiate a tradition of thought that has been neglected, ridiculed even, and which we might do well to consider. The connection that he makes between political power and the beauty of appearance is vexed. Any student of twentieth century politics can remind us, for example, of the apparent beauty of the films of Leni Riefenstahl, which ignore the disgusting nature of Nazism to present the grace of its occasional spectacle. More interestingly, however, we might use Bolingbroke’s essay as an opportunity to reflect on the political capital of arguments for and against beauty itself as an aesthetic category.
What is surprising about his essay in terms of eighteenth century thought is not that he thinks that beauty is a good thing but rather that he chooses to invoke it as a way of validating the Crown as an institution of supreme political power. Beauty, to the eighteenth century mind, was an inherent good – not only one of the means for explaining the value of art, but the essential quality of everything important in the matter of judgment: the one factor in the appearance of things that explains our desire to wish to conserve them. And on his account, this is as true of an institution, such as the Crown, that presented itself beautifully as a manifestation of the best of the nation’s virtues as it would be of a painting or a building or a poem that was the best of its class of objects. If this seems idealistic or even naïve to the modern mind, then this tells us something key about the extent to which the stock of beauty as a value has fallen.
Historically, there is plenty of evidence for the notion that beauty is the supreme value in aesthetic judgment. Plato, Philip Sidney, Friedrich Schiller, Lord Tennyson: none of these would object to the idea, indeed they would be surprised by any suggestion to the contrary. In the twentieth century, however, the idea that beauty was an insuperable value came in for a shock attack. The essence of modernism is its account of art’s repeated insistence that human life is miserable, alienated and brought up short by mechanisation, and its chief avatar, in the university domain, critical theory, repeatedly reminds us that the valorisation of beauty is in fact little more than a plea for the pleasures of escapism from realities of squalid political life. Terry Eagleton, one of the most prominent left- wing critics of the last quarter century, has spent most of his career insisting that the bourgeois wish to escape into the delights of beauty facilitates the wider control that the ruling class exerts over the masses. Lower middle-class disgruntlement is somehow disavowed by the aspiration to dwell within a world of beautiful art that is only ever constructed upon terms that validate those at the top of society. Like many a good advocate of left-wing reform, he appears to have regretted the excesses of his own earlier intentions, ending up by writing a series of recent books that are disarmingly conservative.
The greatest assault upon the value of beauty, in political terms, came a good deal earlier however, as the polity of Britain reckoned with the legacy of the French Revolution, and we haven’t entirely moved beyond this. Romantic thought famously placed the horror of the experience of the sublime – redolent of all that is threatening about human existence – above the gentle decorum of an eighteenth century admiration of ordered beauty. The association of beauty with an abstract ideal in the mind comprising a formal order – decorum and even inorganic iciness – is widespread in much twentieth century thought. The art historian T. J. Clark wrote recently of his hatred of the beautiful and describes modernism very much as an impassioned rejection of it. And the apocalyptic vision out of which so much of the last century’s culture grew did indeed have little use for beauty and particularly so as it is lazily presented as an aloof term incarnate of all the remoteness that its antonym, the sublime, wars against – garish, tense, visceral, humane but aware of the limits of the human. Perhaps it is not too much to say that as the sublime’s fortunes have been raised so those of beauty have fallen away. And if this is true of modernism, with its reaction against romanticism, then further irony is in play. For all that romanticism celebrates beauty, both in Keats’ dictum that beauty is truth and elsewhere more theoretically in Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth or less ethereally in the popular poet Felicia Heman’s beautiful stately homes, it is the sublime that remains the locus classicus for its students of the romantic imagination in its grandest incarnations. Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’ will remain, I suspect, a better touchstone for future generations of romantic readers than his ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’.
Between Shelley and Bolingbroke, Edmund Burke stands as the originator of modern conservative thought in his horror of revolution. Anyone who has ever read his Reflections on the Revolution in France must be struck at once both by the persuasive power of the prose and also by the invocation of beauty itself as he mourns the passing of the old regime in the wake of the sublime terror of the mob. Burke’s stunning work has always invited strong reactions, not least from those who find his celebration of the beauty of tradition to be a clear assault upon the liberty of the people. But I wonder whether this isn’t to misunderstand him, and indeed I suggest that Burke solidifies a trend in political thought that is already nascent in Bolingbroke whereby beauty becomes a key term in conservatism more widely. Burke’s love of tradition is not merely for its own sake but is rather a plea for conservation and only gradual change. It is about discovering beauty within the world in which we dwell rather than insisting that what we have must be torn down or swept aside and replaced by something better. Perhaps it was hard in the twentieth century to find much that was worth preserving given the horrors that faced us, but a large part of me suspects that there is a dire human price to pay if society gives up on the search for beauty as a public as well as a private good.