Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Aesthetics and Life, and the Effects of Utilitarianism

Tintern Abbey

The faculty of aesthetic reasoning has been practically eliminated from the souls of men in the age of materialistic utilitarianism. Neither the liberal nor the Marxist, nor anybody formed by a bourgeois social milieu, can grasp the significance of activity that is not of straightforward material benefit. “Material benefit” is, of course, variously defined; but the goods valued most highly by bourgeois society - which includes Marxism - never rise above the material. To the degree that immaterial goods are valued by such society, it is always in subordination to material benefit. 

Undoubtedly, modern industrialization has itself destroyed a great many goods, not limited to the immaterial. Not only has it undermined man’s spiritual well-being, but it has deprived him of many of the basic material goods of health and vitality. The quality of food production has radically devolved, the wages of the working class consistently trail downward, and industrial agriculture has decimated and polluted the material environment, making it sometimes inhabitable by human life. All of this has been done for the sake of maximizing utility, usually for the sake of profit. Utilitarianism - technique - is the ethic of modernity.

But modernity is full of contradictions. It contains within its very utilitarianism, not only the tendency to decimate the natural health and vitality of the environment and the human body, but also the forces of resistance to this same process. These forces are no less imbued with the spirit of utilitarianism. These are the puritans, who react to the excesses of an addicted consumerist society with the most severe and legalistic spirit of categorical austerity. Utilitarianism is the ethic of both consumerist hedonism and austere puritanism, and many things that lie between them. 

The values that are principally upheld on the spectrum of utilitarian ethics, from hedonism to puritanism, are limited to material goods - which are characteristically full of contradictions. Physical health and cleanliness, valued by the puritans, is often in violent contradiction to immediate physical pleasures. Both things, nonetheless, are goods only of the body. The contradiction between them cannot be resolved, precisely because they are goods only of the body; materialism offers no criteria by which to measure alternative material goods against each other. 

The activities of religion and art are incomprehensible to the utilitarian materialist. Often these activities involve practices which are incompatible with a purely materialist understanding of the good. The materialist cannot understand that material goods may, and often must, be sacrificed for higher goods of a spiritual order. The task of living an integrated life is to discover the proper balance and measure, in avoiding excess and defect, in making precisely these sacrifices. Goods of merely physical pleasure must, in the right measure, be sometimes given up for goods of health; but goods of the body in general must, in the right measure, be sometimes given up for goods of the soul. Goods of profit must sometimes be given up for goods of beauty. No partial good - be it pleasure, health, or the goods of the soul - can be sought maximally, as if it were an isolated absolute, without severe detriment to the other goods that make up the whole. The common good is not, in any univocal sense, equivalent to the absolute maximization of any partial good; it is rather the order amongst partial goods, the maintenance of each partial good in its proper measure, so that it helps and does not hinder other goods by being sought maximally for itself. Morality and politics largely consist in the discovery of this balance.

Religion requires sacrifice. To the puppets and puppeteers of utilitarian profit-making industries, the uses of public revenues to build a great cathedral or a monastery can only be seen as a waste of resources. To the anti-contemplative activist, the choice of monastic life as a vocation can only be seen as a waste of time - mere "bumming around," as a liberal acquaintance once told me. The monk who secludes himself in his monastery, devoting himself to nothing but prayer and worship, is rendering himself useless to society - to the degree that he recedes from society, he is even deemed harmful. The logic of sacrifice - the sacrifice of time, energy, resources, and all mundane forms of utility for the sake of religion - this logic cannot be grasped by the utilitarian of late modernity. Resources must be devoted only to the establishment of profitable businesses.

Aesthetics too requires sacrifice. Many artists are poor, because they do not partake in utilitarian enterprises that may earn them a profitable living. They have sacrificed utility for beauty. The world will not understand the logic behind such a life-choice, which is unproductive and unprofitable. Conservatives, not without good reason, add to this the fact that no such choice of life can serve as adequate support for the raising of families. (It is noteworthy that the raising of families has itself become so dependent upon purely utilitarian pursuits - creating the illusion that family life itself may never outweigh utility.) This is also the attitude of the nuclear family towards many intellectual and academic pursuits, which, like art, are not lucrative - and often not perceived as useful.

Activities deemed worthy of pursuit simply for their own sake, and not for any material advantages which they offer (indeed they are often materially disadvantageous), are systematically condemned by a society whose values only rise so high as material advantage. Rarely is it ever considered that the mere fact that such activity is spiritually advantageous is reason enough to admit the possibility of its worthiness, notwithstanding material disadvantages. Of course, neither should it be conceded that just because such an act is spiritually beneficial, it may therefore be pursued indiscriminately without regard for material goods. Rather, it is a question of balance: how much of a lesser good may be sacrificed for a higher good, without excessive sacrifice, before an imbalance is created which throws a whole life into disarray?

Activities that were once deemed conducive to a life of spiritual and intellectual well-being are now condemned by modernity as positively immoral, precisely on account of their lack of utilitarian value. "Lack of utilitarian value" includes activities which are, by a purely materialistic standard, even positively harmful to the body. Under such a worldview, not even moderation is considered a virtue: one must either indulge to the maximum, or abstain entirely. Modern morality is characteristically Protestant, and Kantian, in its proclivity to invent absolutes and categorical imperatives.

Consequently, modern American culture is quite evenly divided between the hedonist whose highest good is sensual pleasure - e.g. the pleasure of alcohol - and the puritan whose highest good is physical health and purity - e.g. the teetotaling health aficionado. The drinker - not even a drunkard! - is a threat to himself and his own health; so must the priest be, who every day imbibes what is physically wine in the liturgy of the mass. The tobacco smoker is likewise a threat, not merely to his own health, but to that of society; so also must the priest be, who routinely fills a church with the smoke of incense, in far greater quantities than the "second hand smoke" of a pipe or a cigarette. The purely aesthetic, symbolic, and religious value of these activities - their contribution to a mode of existence that is spiritual, contemplative, and prayerful - is disregarded by the utilitarian. Such value is purely relativistic, therefore subordinate to the only objective values esteemed by him: utility, profit, pleasure, health.


The utilitarian mind, when it attempts to conceive how the goods of religion, aesthetics, and intellectualism contribute to a life of contemplation, cannot conceive of this contribution in anything but utilitarian terms. E.g. music, that noblest of the fine arts, is but a means to an external end, be it peace of soul, or relaxation, or any analogous good. As such, it may be substituted by - or act as a substitute for - any other means to the same ends. A purely utilitarian means to an end is considered exchangeable for any other equivalent means. Notice the prevalence here of the ideology of transaction and markets. A means to an end is exchangeable with any other means to that end, because every means is conceived as purely external to that end.

But this is to entirely misconceive the nature of aesthetic and religious activity. The artist does not paint, nor enjoy to look upon art, as a means to the end of apprehending something beautiful. To speak of the activity in this way is to render the act itself, the painting or contemplation of a particular scenery, an indifferent activity with no internal value. The end, which is aesthetic experience, is not something attained by the use of a particular artwork, as by a tool or a technology. On the contrary, the experience is fully embodied in the act of painting, or gazing upon, the particular artwork in question. Similarly, the act of playing the piano or listening to piano music is not a means to an end, such as peace of mind, or a certain emotional state. It is no use to tell the pianist that he might as well cultivate the same peace of mind, or the same emotional state, by practicing the art of yoga rather than the art of music. This would be to view piano playing and yoga as exchangeable utilitarian means to the same end. On the contrary, the end is embodied in each act in a unique and inseparable way that cannot be replicated. The aesthetic experience, or the peace of mind, that is gained by playing the piano cannot be replicated by practicing yoga. Nor can the meditation or the aesthetic experience, of smoking a pipe, with all its symbolism and romance, be replicated by any other activity. These acts are not simply exchangeable for one another as different tools for a useful project.


What is the definitive value of a religious or an aesthetic experience, one that transcends and even negates the values of utility and practicality? (In fact it would be wrong to say that such experiences negate values of utility - they merely negate the absolutist conception of them.) The liturgical act of worship is, perhaps, the clearest example - the archetype - of all such experiences, yet it too has been grossly attacked by the spirit of utilitarianism. Religion is a highly aesthetic affair; the tragedy of modern religiosity is that it has attempted to empty religion of its aesthetic quality. The values of utility, practicality, and rationality have subverted the aesthetics of religion. Religious services in the modern era - those of evangelical Protestantism or Novus Ordo Catholicism - have been reduced to the status of glorified pep-talks and group-therapy sessions for bourgeois professionals or the ordinary middle class. These services do not aspire to metaphysical heights; they do not embody the Romantic dream that animated the cults of antiquity and the middle ages. On the contrary, they affirm bourgeois society in its ordinariness, its mundanity, its wordliness. In modern religion one finds the extremes of both hedonism and puritanism: sentimentalist entertainment culture, and the blank tedium of puritan austerity. The terrifying glory and mythic drama of antiquity is nowhere found in such an experience.

This is undoubtedly a feature of modern man's unwillingness to strain himself, to rise beyond the confines of an earthly existence in which he seeks only the maximum achievement of earthly goods such as health, profit, or sensual pleasure - all authentic goods, to be sure, but nonetheless earthly and therefore partial. Valuing such earthly goods as his highest goods, he fears to rise to new and unfamiliar heights because he fears losing his earthly goods. Relative to such goods, even the aesthetic - the sublime and the beautiful - are a threat to him, a danger, a veritable assault. Heedless of the misery and the closed-spiritedness in which he lingers, he thinks himself comfortable, cheerfully living a "normal" life - where "normal" is variously defined as productive, healthy, pleasure-filled, carefree, etc. T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland paints a dismal picture of what life really is for people who live without a care for the goods that transcend physical existence. But even the less dismal portrayals of such a life, the portrayals of glamour, gaiety, and all forms of physical (and even emotional and mental) well-being under such a condition of life, manifest a deep and fundamental absence of interiority and transcendence. Aside from the Epicurean philosophers of old, who seem to be the precursors of bourgeois society, the ancients understood that what gives meaning and purpose to earthly human life is something beyond that life, which must be sought before all else; and the seeking of it sometimes requires that one give up, or at least rein in, the search for goods that are immanent within earthly life itself. This is not a comfortable truth, either for the hedonistic relativist seeking after his own pleasure, without regard to objective science, or the austere objectivist seeking after physical health or functionality, as knowable by objective measures. Both are seeking merely earthly goods - legitimate goods, but only in proportion to their limitedness in comparison to greater goods which may demand their obeisance. On the contrary, the primitive religious men of antiquity understood that utility, pleasure, health, profit, honor, practicality, efficiency, cleanliness, etc., must eventually bow before Beauty who is their Queen.

In the folds of this philosophy, many will perceive what appears to be nothing more than a defense of romantic nostalgia, an escapist yearning for an age in which men could indulge in fruitless flights of fancy, carelessly ingest clouds of poisonous tobacco smoke, and be nothing more than generally useless members of society. Such men are the Don Quixote's of the world, fools and freaks who think that life is, or ought to be, a utopian fairy-tale. The denizens of modern practical society will no doubt accuse these dreamers of a fanciful disregard for the hic et nunc, with all of its demands. Among the many figures disdained by the modernist is the tweed-wearing traditionalist, pipe in mouth, whiskey in hand, book in another hand; who would rather sit with other similar characters and share tobacco, whiskey, and a highly abstract intellectual dialogue, than go about the ordinary business of waking early, going to work for 8 hours, doing his daily exercise, looking after his practical affairs, going to bed, and repeating the process in the morning. This is a despicable inversion of the values of the modernist.

J.R.R. Tolkien
The modernist would be quite right in his observation of the condition of such a traditionalist: he would prefer to indulge in romantic fancy than put himself to work. But the modernist is by no means right that such a desire is in itself shameful or a sign of failure. The man who thinks this has probably never witnessed the beauty of a slow whirling cloud of fragrant smoke, exuding from the sacred flame housed in a thurible or a tobacco-pipe; nor allowed his spirit to float with this smoke towards the heavens; nor gazed upon a summer sunset after two or three glasses of red wine; nor felt his body shiver in holy terror at the reverberating sound of Gregorian Chant, announcing the coming of Christ in the form of the Eucharist. The sweet leisure, the pure aestheticism, the religious romanticism of life, the freedom from earthly cares, are but silliness to the modernist - "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles." Yet Aristotle noted that work is for the sake of leisure - not vice versa; the goods of the body are for the sake of the goods of the spirit. Activity, productivity, wealth, health, and pleasure are for the sake of contemplation - the religious and the aesthetic experiences. While no man should disdain mundane labor or the forms of physical pleasure and health which sustain it, nonetheless these things are properly at the service of nobler goods: beauty, contemplation, religion. A society that requires activity, productivity, health, or any partial good in such a degree that no time, energy, or attention is left for the ecstatic pursuit of contemplation is an oppressive and unnatural society. As Tolkien so eloquently illustrates in On Fairy Stories, the Romantic is not wrong to long to escape from such a society (as a prisoner is not wrong to long to escape prison) by engaging in activities of a contemplative nature where he need not worry about lesser goods. Christ himself cautioned his apostles not to seek so anxiously after their material well-being, whether it was what they should eat, where they should sleep, etc; not that concern with these goods is illegitimate, but that there are nobler goods to be sought first.

Of course, a man would be a failure who simply refused to work for his family, or maintain his health and vitality so that he could do so effectively. And it is true, especially in modern utilitarian society, that traditionalist values of an aesthetic, religious, or romantic nature will put a man under immense pressure of conflict with the desperate material needs of working-class existence. In the proletariat condition, a condition created by utilitarianism itself, even useful values and the goods of health are denied to a man and his family, by a strange and tragic paradox. It is no wonder that the pursuit of beauty, romance, and religion, are so often perceived as a threat; not only do they threaten to disrupt the self-righteous comfortableness of the bourgeoisie, but they also threaten to undermine the ability of the proletariat to look after itself. Beauty is a distraction from the needs of the working-class, a mere luxury at best - and at least, a mere respite for tired souls. It has nothing truly advantageous to offer for the working condition. Where the physical means of subsistence are so unjustly denied to working families by the ravages of late capitalism - witness the profound damage done by the food industry to the health of the average American - it is no wonder that those who wish to reverse this injustice are repelled by any activity, aesthetic or otherwise, which negates the primacy of a good such as physical health. The traditionalist father of an average family certainly has a duty to secure the material well-being of his family, especially in a society where they have been so deprived of it. But in such a society, his duty towards his family's material well-being may very easily come to be seen as at odds with his desire to pursue traditional aesthetic and romantic experiences. The mere fact that they are so at odds is a telling signal of the oppressive condition to which utilitarianism has reduced modern society. Utilitarianism sets real goods at odds with each other precisely by denying the subordination of some goods to others, making the prospects of moderation, balance, integrity, and transcendence seem desperately impossible.


Modernity lacks all sense of the priority of transcendence; even where it is affirmed, by those among the bourgeois or the middle class who wish to conserve some semblance of religion in their lives, utilitarianism still cruelly smothers the desire to escape, to fly on the wings of fancy to a place free of earthly cares. Utilitarianism, the spirit of capitalism, holds secure the chains that bind the prisoners in Plato's cave (Republic), preventing them from even peeking above the clouds where divine forms linger in eternity (Phaedrus). When will the powers of modernity have mercy on the souls of men, which long for nothing more than to become one with the sublime and beautiful? 

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