Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 December 2021
Chapter 3 addresses Edmund Burke’s role in the eighteenth-century reception of classical eloquence, investigating his provocative claim that disruptive, injudicious speech can act as a spur to sound political judgment and institutional health. While Cicero’s rhetoric and his model of public life celebrated risky spontaneity and was only loosely rule-governed, a range of Burke’s contemporaries argued that the rule-bound governance of the modern era demanded a complementary style of rule-bound speech: a discourse that was factual, restrained, dispassionate, and even happily mediocre. Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful made an important break with this line of thought, celebrating the sublime’s power to disrupt custom and ordinary time. His speeches and political writings built on this conceptual foundation, developing an account of the pain of judging and the allegedly defective deliberation that often serves to evade that pain, substituting rules and maxims for engagement with circumstantial complexities. Burke consistently argued that such deliberation is ultimately self-defeating and marked by a fatal lack of what I call “imaginative judgment.” Yet he also suggested that the rhetorical sublime – which might be excessive and even uncanny – was necessary to provoke the exercise of such judgment.