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25 Oct

John Todhunter’s Theory of the Beautiful

In Todhunter’s Theory of the Beautiful (1872), beauty is infinite loveliness, which we apprehend both by reason and by the enthusiasm of love. The recognition of beauty as being such depends on taste; there can be no criterion for it. The only approach to a definition is found in culture. (What culture is, is not defined.) Intrinsically, art that which affects us through lines, colours, sounds, or words is not the product of blind forces, but of reasonable ones, working, with mutual helpfulness, towards a reasonable aim. Beauty is the reconciliation of contradictions.

From What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer Maude, New York : Funk & Wagnalls (1904), p. 35. (archive.org).

A fairly accurate summary of John Todhunter’s treatise on aesthetics, The Theory of the Beautiful (1872). Todhunter is not as much of a relativist as Tolstoy suggests. He does think that temperament and culture affect our taste, but argues that (as with ethics) there is “an approach to unanimity” which argues for an absolute standard of beauty. (There are echoes of Hutcheson here, whose aesthetics are also summarised by Tolstoy). Beauty is, for Todhunter, a Hegelian “identity of opposites”, the reconciliation of opposite qualities into a harmonious whole.

Dublin-born John Todhunter came from a Quaker background. After studying in Trinity he became Professor of English Literature at Alexandra College, Dublin. He was also Visiting Physician to Cork Street Fever Hospital.

This essay, originally given as a lecture in Trinity College Dublin, made Todhunter’s name. It allowed him to give up medical work (which was becoming difficult for him due to ill health) and turn full time to writing, settling in London in 1881. He produced numerous essays, plays and works of poetry. He had been friends with John B. Yeats since their university days; the family lived near him when they moved to London. He was present at the founding of the Irish Literary Society by William B. Yeats, Douglas Hyde and others. John Todhunter died in London on 25th October, 1916.

Further Reading

John Todhunter (1920) “The Theory of the Beautiful” in Essays of the late John Todhunter, with a foreword by Standish O’Grady, London E. Mathews, pp. 13-49 (archive.org)

Iris Murdoch’s critique of Tolstoy’s account of art.

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