Inspired by Cicero’s dialogues and the letters of Seneca, I have sought to compare the ideas of Alasdair MacIntyre, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Friedrich Nietzsche in a speculative chat on the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, and how both relate to the process of judgment in both spheres.
Although this piece is an attempt to be humorous, I treat these very modern thinkers as contemporaries of my ancient interlocutors out of the conviction that the topics of philosophy are of perennial interest and her practitioners are forever in dialogue with the great names of the past, as philosophy’s past (I hope) will remain eternally relevant to its present and future.
With Aristotle, MacIntyre argues that man has a telos or end, an end shaped by our community and its traditions. Wittgenstein makes the claim that art can only be understood within a community, or context, that is trained to understand it. Finally, Nietzsche’s perspectivism helps to bring the two together and points to its use as a criterion of judgment in both morals and art.
Although the speakers reach no definite conclusions, the reader is left with much to consider on the issues, and is invited to continue the inquiry on their own.
The Walk to Kallipolis
My Dear Johannus,
You must forgive so late a reply to your last letter. Yesterday I had the good fortune to encounter Marcus while on the road to town, and instantly we found ourselves on a very different road indeed as we began to discuss the nature of judgment in art and its relation to ethics.
By some odd path of logic we came to the topic of that greatest of poets, Homer. In discussing the beauties of his verse, of which there are more than may be counted, it occurred to Marcus to question the very nature of such judgment itself.
“Surely,” said he, “there must be some criteria for aesthetic judgment.”
At this suggestion I was at once reminded of that scene from the Iliad that has come to be known as "The Judgement of Paris." I remarked upon how difficult such a choice would be for any of us.
To which Marcus replied: “Yes, but few judgments of beauty, that world of abstract forms, have had such influence upon the material world. When man judges beauty for the wrong reasons it always seems to reach a bad end.”
“How so?” I asked. “I sense some ethical connotation in your words, but I fail to grasp it.”
“Ah!” smiled Marcus knowingly. “I had hoped you would catch that. I have been doing much reading of late that has been deeply stimulating on just this matter. Are you perchance familiar with the Caledonian philosopher MacIntyre?”
I declared that I was not.
“Then allow me to illuminate you, as I feel his thought may aid us somewhat in this business. MacIntyre has taken the concept of telos from our old friend Aristotle and given it new life. As you may recall, Aristotle does not separate the domains of ethics and politics, as he sees them as means to the same end: human happiness. Happiness, of course, consisting in the cultivation of virtue. What virtue consists of we may put aside for the moment, but he assumes that our reason, once fully developed, will naturally seek it out.”
“And,” I interjected, “to fully develop our reason and so attain virtue is thus our final purpose or telos?”
“Precisely. And this is exactly what the institutions of the state are for; the state serves merely to help us reach our telos.”
“But,” I questioned, perplexed, “what has this to do with aesthetic judgment?”
“We will get there,” Marcus replied, “but there is much still hidden that must be brought to light. Here perhaps is where MacIntyre and Aristotle appear to part company. Although Aristotle seems to imply that his idea of virtue is the same for all, MacIntyre argues that each polis, or community, will have different concepts of virtue. Every community is guided and held together by the glue of tradition. It is in this context of community and its traditions in which we fulfill our telos as citizens.”
“Ah, I see where you are going, Marcus. If virtue is interpreted through the lens of tradition, then our standards of beauty will be also.”
“Just so. Politics leads to ethics, leads to community, leads to tradition, leads to our judgments about value; as it is only in community, and its standards of traditional concerns, that our telos is fulfilled and our judgment is confirmed.”
I objected, “But this sounds off to me. Does not the isolated individual, like that goatherd over there in the fields, not have a set of values and opinions thereon?”
“Certainly,” returned Marcus, “but one’s virtue can only be fully realized in relation to other human beings, that is, in community. It can matter very little, I should think, how loving you might be if there is no one on whom you might lavish your affection. But to return to the question of aesthetic judgment, I am reminded of some things said by that old recluse, Wittgenstein of Vienna. He has said very little on the subject, and of that cryptically like an oracle but, just like an oracle, worth paying attention to all the same. His comment was upon music specifically, but I feel it has wider implications—”
“Please, Marcus, what did he say?” I prodded rather impatiently, as I was caught up in the current of our discourse.
“Well, he asks how one might demonstrate one’s understanding of a piece of music. From this he asserts that it would require ‘a culture,’ that is, a set of practices or traditions shared by a community. Specifically, he calls this understanding a ‘form of life,’ but I prefer the less ostentatious term 'context.' Thus, all aesthetic judgment must occur within a context. Those who have been educated or lived within that context are best able to understand it. For instance, I have often been a witness to the generational gap in humor. A younger generation finds terribly funny what the older can barely comprehend. Or, to be more concrete, many of the conventions of opera appear alien and artificial to those who have yet to be educated in its history.”
Marcus stopped for a moment as if an odd thought had just struck him.
“In a way this tallies well with something else MacIntyre relates. Among the South Sea islanders, a large part of their ethical traditions consists of a concept they call 'taboo.' These taboos forbid certain actions, or the entry into special areas set aside for the gods. As the context of those societies changed, one by one the taboos were removed, but this incited little resistance, as the context or ‘form of life’ had been so altered that the taboos had long before been stripped of their spiritual or didactic purpose. Perhaps one might compare this ‘stripping away’ of context as it were, to the work of art turned into a mere commodity?”
“It seems plausible, Marcus, but you have yet to explain how one might assess the merits of art. I can see how you relate ethics to aesthetics, but I have yet to find the connection to judgment. If anything, I fear, you have merely added to the cause of relativism.”
“Yes, that does appear to be the case at first glance. But, remember the concept of telos. I think it uncontroversial to argue that, although we are uncertain if human beings have an innate telos, it seems perfectly defensible to assume that art does. After all, every work of art, if consciously made, has an intended purpose, and that is to invoke in its audience whatever thoughts or feelings the artist intends. And this leads me to the last piece of this puzzle, the question of judgment. In an age such as ours of nihilistic indifference to value, how might we choose? As you know I am very fond of Nietzsche, whom I jokingly refer to as The Philosopher since his concerns are still so overwhelmingly our own. Well, somewhere or other he puts forward something he calls 'perspectivism,' and with it perhaps we can find a means of egress from this blind alley we have encountered. Nietzsche was speaking more of morality but, as I believe we have already demonstrated, moral judgment and aesthetic judgment are two sides of the same coin, so there should be little objection if we just flip the coin over in this case. Nietzsche considered truth and knowledge as eternally unattainable, for we can only view the world as it is reflected back to us through the lens of human thought and experience. Whatever we think or do is always seen in this all-too-human light. This is not to say that all views are equally true, however. Rather, some intellectual products have a greater value—are more true, as it were—than others, based upon their perceived utility for life. Not just for life in general but for a specific form: social life. Here we can see Wittgenstein’s idea of a ‘form of life’ in aesthetic terms echoing Nietzsche’s moral terms.”
“So, you are saying that we can make aesthetic judgments in the same terms that we make moral judgments, the criterion being that both can be valued in how much or how well they support life.”
“Not just any life, remember, but social life; that is, community. If our telos can reach its end or goal only in community, then the judgment we might make of the validity of any ethic or aesthetic would be in its promotion of this telos. In other words, we may make a judgment upon an action or work of art upon how much it ultimately supports and encourages the telos of community. The very word 'ethics' derives from 'ethos,' after all. If we reflect upon those lines of Homer regarding Paris and the contest now, we can see more clearly I think, how his judgment was poor. What were those lines again?
Yet Hera would not grudge one inch to Troy,
Could not forgive the slight of Priam’s boy
Who chose the gift of lust.
O choice unwise!
Brought Hector to the dust and Troy’s demise.
At this Marcus stopped as if to await my own judgment.
“Yes, but,” I stammered, “Nietzsche’s choice of perspective is still only a choice, not a universal.”
“True, but then Nietzsche did not see his perspective as applicable to all, only the rare and lonely few.”
Shortly after this we at last arrived and, after the traditional formulations of bidding each other good day, went our separate ways; he to his business, and I to mine but now with the stream of thoughts I have just related still flowing through my head.