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Attuned to the aesthetic | Aeon

Everyday beauty. A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, Known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’ (c1660) by Pieter de Hooch. Courtesy the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam

Everyday beauty. A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, Known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’ (c1660) by Pieter de Hooch. Courtesy the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam

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Attuned to the aesthetic

The ultimate value of the world can be discovered if you are sensitive to what is beautiful

by Tom Cochrane + BIO

Everyday beauty. A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, Known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’ (c1660) by Pieter de Hooch. Courtesy the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam

We care about more than our own lives. We care about our families and friends and our local communities. We care about the political scene, and regularly check the news about the latest travesty. Every so often, something truly horrific happens; the kind of calamity that makes one despair of the world. Every so often, a child is murdered. It does not matter how far away it is. It matters to us. It weighs on us.

Moral evils have a way of calling into question the value of the world. Can the world really be a good place if such things happen? Classically, this is a problem for theists. Yet anyone can wonder what value, if any, our Universe has. It is closely related to wondering what the point of it all is.

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry about it. Perhaps we should regard the Universe as evaluatively blank, and find value only in our own lives, or in the lives of our loved ones. After all, many would say that value itself is something that we make up. However, I’m not asking whether value is purely up to us or not. I’m asking what we value, or should value. Even if we think that value is something that we do, or is in some sense made out of pleasure, we can still wonder what those valuing activities should be directed at, or in what things we can take pleasure.

Suppose that in response to moral evil someone says: ‘Yes, well that is obviously regrettable, but it doesn’t really affect what I value. I just focus on my own life and my friends and family.’ This seems an extraordinarily small-minded attitude to take. I suspect there are very few people who would be fully satisfied if they and their loved ones were secure while the rest of the world burned. Instead, most of us prefer to set the value of our limited lives within a larger context. We want to say that we are part of a good world, and even contribute to its goodness. And if we can say this, the value of our own lives is considerably more robust. Indeed, if our own lives are going badly, being able to look to the value of the world can be an important buffer against nihilism and despair.

Furthermore, what we seek is a kind of ultimate or final value; a value that requires no further rationale or justification. Without this, we are always prey to the further question: but what is the value of that? Note that final value is not the same as intrinsic value, which is value independent of context. While final value can be intrinsic, it can also be fully contextually sensitive. This is exactly what we seek when contemplating the world at large.

So can we find final value in the world? I believe that we can, so long as we are attuned to aesthetic value. Aesthetic value is a catch-all term that encompasses the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the dramatic, the comic, the cute, the kitsch, the uncanny, and many other related concepts. It is a well-worn cliché that the practical person scorns aesthetic value. But there’s reason to think that it is the only way in which we can draw final positive value from the entire world. Thus, to the extent that we care whether or not we live in a good world, we must be aesthetically sensitive.

Why think this? Alongside aesthetic value, I suppose there to be two other general kinds of value: moral value and prudential value. Yet these other values cannot offer an ultimate positive value for the world. To value something prudentially is to value it in relation to one’s personal status or those with whom one is personally affiliated. Yet this value is limited and fragile. It cannot justify the world beyond the narrow borders of one’s personal sphere. It is also constantly vulnerable to intrusions from the (dis)values of the wider world, as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated only too well. Moral value, meanwhile, is broader. Here we concern ourselves with the relations between all morally significant beings. Yet the world is, for the most part, not morally good. And even if people stopped treating each other so brutally, it is not clear that this would deliver a definite positive value so much as eliminate a definite negative value. Moreover, there is a vast universe for which moral value has no relevance at all. Moral value only really concerns the interactions of humans and some other animals on the filmy surface of one particular planet that we know about.

In contrast, aesthetic value is precisely a way in which we can get positive final value from the world at large. The value of a beautiful or sublime thing is final because it needs no justification in terms of some other good that it allows us to obtain. It need not make us richer, or healthier, or more popular in any way whatsoever. In fact, like storms and volcanos, many objects of aesthetic value are potentially harmful. Still their aesthetic value abides. This robustness is due to the way that valuing something aesthetically is, psychologically, a way in which we get beyond our own personal concerns and become oriented towards the goodness of the thing in its own right. Moreover, the scope of aesthetic value is vast. It can take in literally everything, either individually or in concert with other things. For instance, the James Webb Space Telescope recently revealed to us galaxies, formed more than 13 billion years ago, hidden in a patch of sky the size of a grain of sand held at arms-length. Our reaction? To stare awestruck, marvelling at the richness of the Universe, its sheer unadulterated magnificence. This is a paradigmatic aesthetic experience.

Closer to home, aesthetic value is always to hand. Consider the lucid quality of grass after the rain; the graceful swoop of a bird; an elegant gesture; a witty remark; a dramatic cloudscape; the subtle shades of a cat’s fur; a finely tuned engine; the exquisite symmetries of microscopic diatoms. Aesthetic value is super-abundant. It takes it all in.

A more cosmic perspective finds the beauty in all things

So I argue that aesthetic value is the only way to value the entire world, to affirm that this is a good world. Yet some readers may regard this approach as spiritually hollow or bankrupt. For those with religious sensibilities, the value of the Universe is underwritten by an act of divine creation. Our part in God’s plan makes life worthwhile and this world a good world. Even still, we can maintain the aesthetic claim. For suppose that God created all of this. What then? What’s the value of God’s plan? You must still find something of final positive value in that act of creation. Ultimately, you will be brought back to aesthetic value; the sense of the world’s goodness in its own right. This value stands for theist and atheist alike.

That the aesthetic value of the world is common ground for both theist and atheist is illustrated by the striking fact that two of its most notable defenders are Friedrich Nietzsche and Augustine of Hippo. Nietzsche is known as one of the most strident atheists of all time, while Augustine is a literal saint. Here is Augustine writing in 389 CE (from On Genesis against the Manichees):

I admit that I do not know why mice and frogs were created, or flies or worms. Yet I see that all things are beautiful in their kind, though on account of our sins many things seem to us disadvantageous. For I observe the body and members of no living thing in which I do not find that measures, numbers, and order contribute to its harmonious unity. I do not understand where all these things come from if not from the highest measure, number and order, which lies in the immutable and eternal sublimity of God. If those silly chatterboxes would think of this, they would stop bothering us and, considering all the beauties, both the highest and the lowest, they would praise God their craftsman in all of them.

Augustine is drawing on a tradition stretching back to Plato (eg, in the Timaeus) and the Pythagoreans that focuses on the beautiful orderliness of nature. The classical notion of beauty is of things making sense and fitting together. Augustine sees in it evidence of God’s providential design. Note in particular how he points to flies and worms – creatures that we may find disgusting – pointing out that it is ‘our sins’ (that is, our selfish interests) that make them seem unworthy. A more cosmic perspective finds the beauty in all things.

Skipping forward 1,500 years, here is Nietzsche in his preface to The Birth of Tragedy (1872):

[A]rt – and not morality – is set down as the properly metaphysical activity of man; in the book itself the piquant proposition recurs time and again, that the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon. Indeed, the entire book recognises only an artist-thought and artist-after-thought behind all occurrences, – a ‘God’, if you will, but certainly only an altogether thoughtless and unmoral artist-God, who, in construction as in destruction, in good as in evil, desires to become conscious of his own equable joy and sovereign glory; who, in creating worlds, frees himself from the anguish of fullness and overfullness, from the suffering of the contradictions concentrated within him.

Note that Nietzsche’s mention of God is metaphorical here. He was at this time of his life influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer’s vision of the world as the manifestation of an underlying, blindly striving will. Nietzsche would later repudiate this metaphysics, though not his fundamental aesthetic sensibility.

While both Augustine and Nietzsche value the world in aesthetic terms, their takes are rather different. Where Augustine focuses on beautiful order, Nietzsche focuses on the drama of creation and destruction: of powerful forces set in opposition. This is his notion of ‘Dionysian ecstasy’, which is intended to reconcile us with suffering through a kind of thrilling intoxication. Nietzsche and Augustine also differ in their moral perspectives. Nietzsche contrasts aesthetic value and moral value, as the above passage indicates. Augustine partly derives his sense of the harmonious order from the consideration that sinners will be sent to hell.

Listen to author Tom Cochrane in conversation with Brigid Hains at the Sophia Club. You can also listen on your preferred podcast app here.

So where should we stand on aesthetic value? I side with Nietzsche in contrasting aesthetic and moral value (contrast, not oppose, as I shall elaborate). Yet I also agree with Augustine in celebrating the orderliness of nature, an orderliness that the advances of sciences increasingly reveal. Moreover, beauty and drama are not mutually exclusive. Both should be regarded as indispensable elements of the aesthetic sense of the world. And not just these two, but all the various aesthetic values. For although the Universe is certainly beautiful, the perspective it involves can sometimes be distant or aloof. Dramatic and comic value get us closer to the action. They allow us to draw value from stress and frustration, from absurdity and error.

Aesthetic values constitute a psychological toolkit that enables us to appreciate literally everything. The aesthetic attitude is then the inclination to seek out the perspective from which the final value of things is apparent. We might describe it as a kind of optimism that value is out there, should we observe things in the right way. It can also be closely aligned with the purest motivation for science and philosophy: to unpick the mysteries of things for its own sake.

In terms of its contribution to a well-lived life, the aesthetic attitude has two important implications. First, since aesthetic value is independent of one’s personal and practical aims, it endures even when one’s life is going very badly indeed. No doubt there are times when it is not especially appropriate to look at things aesthetically. We’d rather the emergency room doctor is not distracted by the beauties of our internal organ structure. Still, the independence of aesthetic value makes it something that you can turn to when life seems hopeless, and a means of relief from personal problems. This is a significant source of resilience. There is currently some debate over whether depression cuts one off from appreciating beauty, but the philosopher Tasia Scrutton has plausibly argued that depression may only undermine the enjoyment of cheerful sunny scenes, and not the appreciation of the gothic aspects of nature that resonate with one’s condition while also elevating and dignifying it.

How can everything be aesthetically valuable if some of it, indeed a lot of it, is ugly?

The other important implication is a general model of the good life, exemplified by the artist. The artist is receptive to the aesthetic value of the world. They are inspired to reproduce that value, filtered through their own special sensitivities and tastes, and to share it with others. This is an excellent model of the meaningful life. Individual life can be conceived as the elaboration or fractalisation of the final value of the world. In this way, the model encompasses both due appreciation and self-realisation.

These ideas – that aesthetic value makes the world worthwhile, and that a good life is lived in pursuit and reflection of that aesthetic value – are the substance of a philosophy of life called ‘aestheticism’. One need not be an artist to be an aestheticist. A wide range of activities can be conceived along these lines. Anyone interested in drawing on the aesthetic values of the world, and then expressing their sense of the world’s value, be it in creating something, or in sharing their understanding with others, can legitimately think of themselves as adhering to aestheticist principles. So, for example, scholars of all kinds can understand their activities as appreciating and expressing what order there is to the world. Anyone involved in engineering or crafts similarly draws on fundamental principles about how things fit together, how forces and materials work, that they then encapsulate in the objects they produce. Cultivators of nature, including human nature, are similarly involved in the task of responding to what values there are and filtering them through their special sensitivities.

Now, for this account of aestheticism to be convincing, I must address two major problems, both of which concern the core principle that literally everything can be aesthetically valued. The first problem is that of ugliness. How can everything be aesthetically valuable if some of it, indeed a lot of it, is ugly? We may think of this as the internal challenge to aestheticism because it acknowledges the importance of aesthetic value but worries that it cannot be fully achieved. The second problem is that of evil, particularly moral rather than natural evil. How can we aesthetically value horrific acts of violence? Even if technically we could, wouldn’t it be abhorrent to do so? We may think of this as the external challenge to aestheticism, because it rejects aesthetic value from the standpoint of a distinct value.

Let us consider the internal challenge first. There is no doubt that some things are ugly. Mouldy stains on an old carpet, rotting animal carcasses, blackheads sprouting on one’s face, broken appliances, out-of-tune instruments, and so on. In general, what makes things ugly is where there is some norm for how things ought to be, and then relative to this norm, the item is distorted, distended, discoloured or spoiled in some way. Given that ugliness is relative to a norm, and that norms are selective, it is conceptually speaking inevitable that some things will be ugly. In fact, we might think that things can be beautiful only in contrast to what is ugly (or at least bland).

There are many occasions when artists deliberately produce ugliness in search of some other value

One response to ugliness is to recognise what is known as ‘difficult beauty’. This is the idea that the beauty of many things is not immediately apparent, but requires their placement in appropriate context. Just as the dissonant chord in a piece of music is redeemed as part of a larger harmony, so disease and disorder can be redeemed when understood as parts of a larger grandeur. The notion is particularly applied by philosophers to the appreciation of ecology. Holmes Rolston writes in his book Environmental Ethics (1988):

If hikers come upon the rotting carcass of an elk, full of maggots, they find it revolting. Here is a bad example of its kind, disharmony, a putrid elk. Any landscape looked at in detail is as filled with dying as with flourishing things. Everything is in some degree marred and ragged – a tree with broken limbs, a crushed wildflower, an insect-eaten leaf. An eagle chick plagued with ticks is not a pretty thing … [Yet if] we enlarge our scope in retrospect and prospect (as ecology greatly helps us do), we get further categories for interpretation. The rotting elk returns to the humus, its nutrients recycled; the maggots become flies, which become food for the birds; natural selection results in better-adapted elk for the next generation … With a more sophisticated critical sense the aesthetician comes to judge that the clash of values, pulled into symbiosis, is not ugly but a beautiful thing. The world is not a jolly place, not a Walt Disney world, but one of struggling, sombre beauty. The dying is the shadow side of the flourishing.

The same approach can allow us to see natural order and harmony in all manner of initially ugly things; the existence of cancers and both their fascinatingly complex biology and the medical struggles against them; the human ecology of waste production and reclamation; mistakes and clumsiness as necessary elements of agency and learning.

Another response to ugliness is to understand that it is specifically opposed to beauty, but beauty is only one of many aesthetic values. So it is compatible with its ugliness that an object simultaneously succeeds on some other aesthetic criterion. Indeed, there are many occasions when both artists and other folk deliberately produce or pay attention to ugliness in search of some other value. Humour, for instance, is an important motivator for the Ugliest Dog in the World competition.

Two other categories of positive ugliness are the powerful ugly and the sympathetic ugly. The powerful ugly is exemplified by punk music, gargoyles and other artworks expressive of rage. It can be exactly by defying norms of beauty that an intense thrilling effect is achieved. In nature, the powerful ugly can be discerned in jagged rock faces, a lightning-blasted tree, or the thrashing of a crocodile killing its prey. The sympathetic ugly, meanwhile, is a way in which an ugly appearance can give us a sense of noble inner character. Here ugliness is not deliberately sought out but serves as a signal that the subject has endured vicissitudes. Consider the beat-up face of an old boxer, the scars of surgery, or a pair of old boots. Tragic art in particular often seeks out the sympathetic ugly, because it allows us to more intensely appreciate the rich human qualities of the tragic protagonist.

Overall, the aestheticist response to the problem of ugliness is to emphasise that the aesthetic attitude is not fixated on easy beauties, and it is not uncritical. It is rather about adjusting to the possible ways the object may be valued for its own sake, some ways even trading on an object’s ugliness.

Let us now turn to the external challenge to aestheticism: that it is morally wrong to aesthetically appreciate evil. It seems wrong both to admire bad people and the suffering of victims. Recall that part of the initial motivation for aestheticism was the failure of moral value to give us a positive value for the world. It is thus part of aestheticism to take moral evil seriously. In fact, I think evil forces a significant qualification to aestheticism upon us. So long as we are not sadists, we are, and indeed should be, psychologically constrained from aesthetically appreciating horrific acts in themselves. Nietzsche at various points seems to grasp the nettle and allow that pain and suffering can be directly appreciated, but doing so seems to deny the intrinsic awfulness of suffering. A better approach is to allow that, while suffering is intrinsically bad, it can, like ugliness, be set in a wider context. We need not appreciate suffering to appreciate the person who suffers.

Again, we can turn to the aesthetic version of sympathy. This is the aesthetic value we experience when we enjoy sympathetic characters in a fiction, but it is equally applicable to real-life individuals. It is aesthetic because it does not rely on having a personal relationship with the other person. Rather, it involves enjoying their rich and poignant individual qualities: the complex of both charms and flaws that make up their character. It is an aesthetic version of the basic drive for love – the sense that a person is lovable, though we may not be in a loving relationship with them.

There are plenty of ethically serious yet aesthetically rich depictions of bad people

By way of illustration, think of a documentary made about the victim of an appalling crime, such as the excellent Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father by Kurt Kuenne (2008). The best documentaries do not shy away from the truth of the victim’s suffering. They are ethically appropriate acknowledgements of it. At the same time, they give us the wider context of that person’s life, what made them distinctive, and what impact they had on others. If it is not lurid for us to watch such documentaries and, indeed, to intensely value them, then, similarly, it is not morally inappropriate for us to aesthetically appreciate the victims of crime. On the contrary, it is a way to celebrate that they exist or that they did exist.

But what about bad people? Equally, there are plenty of ethically serious yet aesthetically rich depictions of such people. One example is Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Downfall (2004), which manages to portray Hitler sympathetically (in part due to Bruno Ganz’s magnificent performance) by capturing his mania and his wretchedness. The film enables us to engage aesthetically with this person’s humanity; we can grasp that he too is part of this aesthetically rich world of ours. And if it is possible that even a psychopath like Hitler can be aesthetically engaged with, then so too can anyone.

I must emphasise that our aesthetic sympathy for bad people is entirely compatible with morally condemning them. From an aesthetic perspective, we can curiously explore and be fascinated by evil, while also taking practical steps to minimise it wherever possible. Aesthetic value is distinct from moral value, and there will be times when one ought to act urgently rather than engage in aesthetic contemplation, but aesthetic and moral value are not mutually exclusive. In fact, moral struggle is aesthetically fascinating, and aesthetic action can be morally worthy.

What the aestheticist resists is the notion that moral value has ultimate priority over aesthetic value. Moral catastrophe tempts us to fall into despair, and to condemn this world, but aesthetic value redeems it. Aesthetic value finds the final value of things both in their quintessential characteristics and in their manifestation of deep natural principles. It allows us to place suffering and evil within a wider context. So it is when we turn our attention to the world as a whole that, I claim, aesthetic value has priority.

Beauty and aestheticsValues and beliefsMeaning and the good life

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