Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III: Beauty - Elements of Criticism, vol. 1
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CHAPTER III: Beauty - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, vol. 1 
Elements of Criticism, Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). 2 vols. Vol. 1.
Part of: Elements of Criticism, 2 vols.
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Having discoursed in general of emotions and passions, I proceed to a more narrow inspection of such of them as serve to unfold the principles of the fine arts. It is the province of a writer upon ethics, to give a full enumeration of all the passions; and of each separately to assign the nature, the cause, the gratification, and the effects. But a treatise of ethics is not my province: I carry my view no farther than to the elements of criticism, in order to show, that the fine arts are a subject of reasoning as well as of taste. An extensive work would ill suit a design so limited; and to confine this work within moderate bounds, the following plan may contribute. The observation made above, that things are the causes of emotions, by means of their properties and attributes,* furnisheth a hint for distribution. Instead of a painful and tedious examination of the several passions and emotions, I purpose to confine my inquiries to such attributes, relations, and circumstances, as in the fine arts are chiefly employ’d to raise agreeable emotions.<196> Attributes of single objects, as the most simple, shall take the lead; to be followed with particulars, which, depending on relations, are not found in single objects. Dispatching next some coincident matters, I proceed to my chief aim; which is, to establish practical rules for the fine arts, derived from principles previously established. This is a general view of the intended method; reserving however a privilege to vary it in particular instances, where a deviation may be more commodious. I begin with beauty, the most noted of all the qualities that belong to single objects.
The term beauty, in its native signification, is appropriated to objects of sight: objects of the other senses may be agreeable, such as the sounds of musical instruments, the smoothness and softness of some surfaces; but the agreeableness denominated beauty belongs to objects of sight.
Of all the objects of external sense, an object of sight is the most complex: in the very simplest, colour is perceived, figure, and length, breadth, and thickness. A tree is composed of a trunk, branches, and leaves; it has colour, figure, size, and sometimes motion: by means of each of these particulars, separately considered, it appears beautiful; how much more so, when they are all united together? The beauty of the human figure is extraordinary, being a composition of numberless beauties arising from the parts and qualities of<197> the object, various colours, various motions, figures, size, &c.; all united in one complex object, and striking the eye with combined force. Hence it is, that beauty, a quality so remarkable in visible objects, lends its name to express every thing that is eminently agreeable: thus, by a figure of speech, we say a beautiful sound, a beautiful thought or expression, a beautiful theorem, a beautiful event, a beautiful discovery in art or science. But as figurative expression is the subject of a following chapter, this chapter is confined to beauty in its proper signification.
It is natural to suppose, that a perception so various as that of beauty, comprehending sometimes many particulars, sometimes few, should occasion emotions equally various: and yet all the various emotions of beauty maintain one common character, that of sweetness and gaiety.
Considering attentively the beauty of visible objects, we discover two kinds.1 The first may be termed intrinsic beauty, because it is discovered in a single object viewed apart without relation to any other: the examples above given are of that kind. The other may be termed relative beauty, being founded on the relation of objects. The purposed distribution would lead me to handle these beauties separately; but they are frequently so intimately connected, that, for the sake of connection, I am forc’d in this instance to vary from the plan, and to bring them both into the same<198> chapter. Intrinsic beauty is an object of sense merely: to perceive the beauty of a spreading oak or of a flowing river, no more is required but singly an act of vision. The perception of relative beauty is accompanied with an act of understanding and reflection; for of a fine instrument or engine, we perceive not the relative beauty, until we be made acquainted with its use and destination. In a word, intrinsic beauty is ultimate: relative beauty is that of means relating to some good end or purpose. These different beauties agree in one capital circumstance, that both are equally perceived as belonging to the object. This is evident with respect to intrinsic beauty; but will not be so readily admitted with respect to the other: the utility of the plough, for example, may make it an object of admiration or of desire; but why should utility make it appear beautiful? A natural propensity mentioned above,* will explain that doubt: the beauty of the effect, by an easy transition of ideas, is transferred to the cause; and is perceived as one of the qualities of the cause. Thus a subject void of intrinsic beauty, appears beautiful from its utility; an old Gothic tower, that has no beauty in itself, appears beautiful, considered as proper to defend against an enemy; a dwelling-house void of all regularity, is however beautiful in the view of convenience; and the<199> want of form or symmetry in a tree, will not prevent its appearing beautiful, if it be known to produce good fruit.
When these two beauties coincide in any object, it appears delightful: every member of the human body possesses both in a high degree: the fine proportions and slender make of a horse destined for running, please every eye; partly from symmetry, and partly from utility.
The beauty of utility, being proportioned accurately to the degree of utility, requires no illustration; but intrinsic beauty, so complex as I have said, cannot be handled distinctly without being analysed into its constituent parts. If a tree be beautiful by means of its colour, its figure, its size, its motion, it is in reality possessed of so many different beauties, which ought to be examined separately, in order to have a clear notion of them when combined. The beauty of colour is too familiar to need explanation. Do not the bright and chearful colours of gold and silver contribute to preserve these metals in high estimation? The beauty of figure, arising from various circumstances and different views, is more complex: for example, viewing any body as a whole, the beauty of its figure arises from regularity and simplicity; viewing the parts with relation to each other, uniformity, proportion, and order, contribute to its beauty. The beauty of motion deserves a chapter by itself; and another chapter is destined<200> for grandeur being distinguishable from beauty in its proper sense. For a description of regularity, uniformity, proportion, and order, if thought necessary, I remit my reader to the Appendix at the end of the book. Upon simplicity I must make a few cursory observations, such as may be of use in examining the beauty of single objects.
A multitude of objects crowding into the mind at once, disturb the attention, and pass without making any impression, or any distinct impression: in a group, no single object makes the figure it would do apart, when it occupies the whole attention.* For the same reason, the impression made by an object that divides the attention by the multiplicity of its parts, equals not that of a more simple object comprehended in a single view: parts extremely complex must be considered in portions successively; and a number of impressions in succession, which cannot unite because not simultaneous, never touch the mind like one entire impression made as it were at one stroke. This justifies simplicity in works of art, as opposed to complicated circumstances and crowded ornaments. There is an additional reason for simplicity, in works of dignity or elevation; which is, that the mind attached to beauties of a high rank, cannot descend to inferior beauties. The best artists accordingly have in all ages been go-<201>verned by a taste for simplicity. How comes it then that we find profuse decoration prevailing in works of art? The reason plainly is, that authors and architects who cannot reach the higher beauties, endeavour to supply want of genius by multiplying those that are inferior.
These things premised, I proceed to examine the beauty of figure as arising from the above-mentioned particulars, namely, regularity, uniformity, proportion, order, and simplicity. To exhaust this subject, would require a volume; and I have not even a whole chapter to spare. To inquire why an object, by means of the particulars mentioned, appears beautiful, would, I am afraid, be a vain attempt: it seems the most probable opinion, that the nature of man was originally framed with a relish for them, in order to answer wise and good purposes. To explain these purposes or final causes, tho’ a subject of great importance, has scarce been attempted by any writer. One thing is evident, that our relish for the particulars mentioned, adds much beauty to the objects that surround us; which of course tends to our happiness: and the Author of our nature has given many signal proofs, that this final cause is not below his care. We may be confirmed in this thought upon reflecting, that our taste for these particulars is not accidental, but uniform and universal, making a branch of our nature. At the same time it ought not to be overlooked,<202> that regularity, uniformity, order, and simplicity, contribute each of them to readiness of apprehension; enabling us to form more distinct images of objects, than can be done with the utmost attention where these particulars are not found. With respect to proportion, it is in some instances connected with a useful end, as in animals, where the best proportioned are the strongest and most active: but instances are still more numerous, where the proportions we relish have no connection with utility. Writers on architecture2 insist much on the proportions of a column, and assign different proportions to the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian: but no architect will maintain, that the most accurate proportions contribute more to use, than several that are less accurate and less agreeable; neither will it be maintained, that the length, breadth and height of rooms assigned as the most beautiful proportions, tend also to make them the more commodious. With respect then to the final cause of proportion, I see not more to be made of it but to rest upon the final cause first mentioned, namely, its contributing to our happiness, by increasing the beauty of visible objects.
And now with respect to the beauty of figure as far as it depends on the other circumstances mentioned; as to which, having room only for a slight specimen, I confine myself to the simplest figures. A circle and a square are each of them perfectly regular, being equally confined to a pre-<203>cise form, which admits not the slightest variation: a square however is less beautiful than a circle. And the reason seems to be, that the attention is divided among the sides and angles of a square; whereas the circumference of a circle, being a single object, makes one entire impression. And thus simplicity contributes to beauty: which may be illustrated by another example: a square, tho’ not more regular than a hexagon or octagon, is more beautiful than either; for what other reason, but that a square is more simple, and the attention less divided? This reasoning will appear still more conclusive, when we consider any regular polygon of very many sides; for of this figure the mind can never have any distinct perception.
A square is more regular than a parallelogram, and its parts more uniform; and for these reasons, it is more beautiful. But that holds with respect to intrinsic beauty only; for in many instances, utility turns the scale on the side of the parallelogram: this figure for the doors and windows of a dwelling-house, is preferred because of utility; and here we find the beauty of utility, prevailing over that of regularity and uniformity.
A parallelogram again depends, for its beauty, on the proportion of its sides: a great inequality of sides annihilates its beauty: approximation toward equality hath the same effect; for proportion there degenerates into imperfect uniformity, and the figure appears an unsuccessful attempt to-<204>ward a square. And thus proportion contributes to beauty.
An equilateral triangle yields not to a square in regularity, nor in uniformity of parts, and it is more simple. But an equilateral triangle is less beautiful than a square; which must be owing to inferiority of order in the position of its parts: the sides of an equilateral triangle incline to each other in the same angle, being the most perfect order they are susceptible of; but this order is obscure, and far from being so perfect as the parallelism of the sides of a square. Thus order contributes to the beauty of visible objects, no less than simplicity, regularity, or proportion.
A parallelogram exceeds an equilateral triangle in the orderly disposition of its parts; but being inferior in uniformity and simplicity, it is less beautiful.
Uniformity is singular in one capital circumstance, that it is apt to disgust by excess: a number of things destined for the same use, such as windows, chairs, spoons, buttons, cannot be too uniform; for supposing their figure to be good, utility requires uniformity: but a scrupulous uniformity of parts in a large garden or field, is far from being agreeable. Uniformity among connected objects, belongs not to the present subject: it is handled in the chapter of uniformity and variety.
In all the works of nature, simplicity makes an<205> illustrious figure. It also makes a figure in works of art: profuse ornament in painting, gardening, or architecture, as well as in dress or in language, shows a mean or corrupted taste:
No single property recommends a machine more than its simplicity; not solely for better answering its purpose, but by appearing in itself more beautiful. Simplicity in behaviour and manners has an enchanting effect, and never fails to gain our affection: very different are the artificial manners of modern times. General theorems, abstracting from their importance, are delightful by their simplicity, and by the easiness of their application to variety of cases. We take equal delight in the laws of motion, which, with the greatest simplicity, are boundless in their operations.
A gradual progress from simplicity to complex forms and profuse ornament, seems to be the fate of all the fine arts: in that progress these arts resemble behaviour, which, from original candor and simplicity, has degenerated into artificial refinements. At present, literary productions are crowded with words, epithets, figures: in music,<206> sentiment is neglected for the luxury of harmony, and for difficult movement: in taste properly so called, poignant sauces with complicated mixtures of different savours, prevail among people of condition: the French, accustomed to artificial red on a female cheek, think the modest colouring of nature altogether insipid.
The same tendency is discovered in the progress of the fine arts among the ancients. Some vestiges of the old Grecian buildings prove them to be of the Doric order: the Ionic succeeded, and seems to have been the favourite order, while architecture was in its height of glory: the Corinthian came next in vogue; and in Greece, the buildings of that order, appear mostly to have been erected after the Romans got footing there. At last came the Composite with all its extravagancies, where simplicity is sacrificed to finery and crowded ornament.
But what taste is to prevail next? for fashion is in a continual flux, and taste must vary with it. After rich and profuse ornaments become familiar, simplicity appears lifeless and insipid; which would be an unsurmountable obstruction, should any person of genius and taste endeavour to restore ancient simplicity.*4 <207>
The distinction between primary and secondary qualities in matter, seems now fully established. Heat and cold, smell and taste, though seeming to exist in bodies, are discovered to be effects caused by these bodies in a sensitive being: colour, which appears to the eye as spread upon a substance, has no existence but in the mind of the spectator. Qualities of that kind, which owe their existence to the percipient as much as to the object, are termed secondary qualities; and are distinguished from figure, extension, solidity, which in contradistinction to the former are termed primary qualities, because they inhere in subjects whether perceived or not. This distinction suggests a curious inquiry, Whether beauty be a primary or only a secondary quality of objects? The question is easily determined with respect to the beauty of colour; for if colour be a secondary quality, existing no where but in the mind of the spectator, its beauty must exist there also. This conclusion equally holds with respect to the beauty of utility, which is plainly a conception of the mind, arising not from sight, but from reflecting that the thing is fitted for some good end or purpose. The question is more intricate with respect to the beauty of regularity; for if regularity be a primary quality, why not also its beauty? That<208> this is not a good inference, will appear from considering, that beauty, in its very conception, refers to a percipient; for an object is said to be beautiful, for no other reason but that it appears so to a spectator: the same piece of matter that to a man appears beautiful, may possibly appear ugly to a being of a different species. Beauty therefore, which for its existence depends on the percipient as much as on the object perceived, cannot be an inherent property in either. And hence it is wittily observed by the poet, that beauty is not in the person beloved, but in the lover’s eye. This reasoning is solid; and the only cause of doubt or hesitation is, that we are taught a different lesson by sense: a singular determination of nature makes us perceive both beauty and colour as belonging to the object, and, like figure or extension, as inherent properties. This mechanism is uncommon; and when nature to fulfil her intention prefers any singular method of operation, we may be certain of some final cause that cannot be reached by ordinary means. For the beauty of some objects we are indebted entirely to nature; but with respect to the endless variety of objects that owe their beauty to art and culture, the perception of beauty greatly promotes industry; being to us a strong additional incitement to enrich our fields and improve our manufactures. These however are but slight effects, compared with the connections that are formed among indi-<209>viduals in society by means of this singular mechanism: the qualifications of the head and heart, form undoubtedly the most solid and most permanent connections; but external beauty, which lies more in view, has a more extensive influence in forming these connections: at any rate, it concurs in an eminent degree with mental qualifications, to produce social intercourse, mutual goodwill, and consequently mutual aid and support, which are the life of society.
It must not however be overlooked, that the perception of beauty doth not, when immoderate, tend to advance the interests of society. Love in particular arising from a perception of beauty, loses, when excessive, its sociable character: the appetite for gratification prevailing over affection for the beloved object, is ungovernable; and tends violently to its end, regardless of the misery that must follow. Love in that state is no longer a sweet agreeable passion: it becomes painful, like hunger or thirst; and produceth no happiness but in the instant of fruition. This discovery suggests a most important lesson, That moderation in our desires and appetites, which fits us for doing our duty, contributes at the same time the most to happiness: even social passions, when moderate, are more pleasant than when they swell beyond proper bounds.<210>
[* ]Chap. 2. part 1. sect. 1. first note.
[1. ]Kames’s references to intrinsic and relative beauty, and the beauty of utility, allude to contemporary debate: see the editor’s Introduction.
[* ]Chap. 2. part 1. sect. 5.
[* ]See the Appendix, containing definitions, and explanation of terms, § 33.
[2. ]The reference is to the Edinburgh discussion of Claude Perrault’s views. See the notes for<179> and<400> in volume 1,<465> in volume 2, and the editor’s Introduction.
[3. ]Lines 293–96.
[* ]A sprightly writer observes, “that the noble simplicity of the Augustan age was driven out by false taste; that the gigantic, the puerile, the quaint, and at last the barbarous and the monkish, had each their successive admirers; that music has become a science of tricks and slight of hand,” &c.
[4. ]Kames here omits three pages from the first edition.