16. Ethics and Aesthetics Are One

by Culture and Anti Culture

This essay is at the limits of what words can say directly.  It should not be accepted or rejected but entertained as a hypothesis.

When people think of morality they tend to imagine a set of rules, perhaps praiseworthy, hallowed by time and custom, learned mostly in childhood,  expected to govern conduct,  and that violation of these rules ought to be punished.  This view of ethical life is the darling of organized religion, the state, and the monied elites and their shills.  The ruling class claims that human beings are without innate moral impulses, are governed only by their passions and self-interest and are, in sum, infected with an evil will from birth – therefore they must be ruled over.  This view is radically false, both scientifically and upon truly objective introspection.  Healthy human beings inevitably find themselves at odds with any such system of rules, of  ‘thou shalt and shalt not’.

If moral life does not emerge from external laws and strictures, it must arise from within human beings.  But how?

There are three separate functions or faculties in human soul life:  thinking, feeling and willing.  Though they interpenetrate one another, when closely observed they are clearly distinct.  Thinking is aloof, dispassionate, light-filled–it contemplates from a mental distance, freely.  Feeling rises into consciousness out of the depths and moves us to sympathy or hostility, attraction or repulsion.  It is full of colors and texture, but its source and power is hidden from us.  Willing is that which sets us in motion out of even more obscure depths – to move, speak and gesture; or to resist doing so.  It is will that is at the heart of ethics, and of the moral judgment of action and intention.

You have a thought, a judgment that something is the case– “global warming is real and will lead to terrible suffering”- and are not roused to action. You have feelings of profound affection for someone, yet are  unwilling to sacrifice for them. One person sees an injustice and acts, another turns away, yet another abets the crime for a reward– this is the realm of the ethical will, of character.  When we speak of someone’s thinking we speak of intellect.  In referring to emotional tendencies, of temperament.  Moral character is a disposition of will.

A person who seems to act only on rational principles seems to us cold and robotic, inhuman and inorganic. A person dominated by feeling, by passion is more like an animal, a savage or degenerate, a puppet expressing their evolutionary program of behavior. A morally mature  person cultivates  the life of feeling and thinking to, in turn, harmoniously guide and develop the power and direction of their will.

“Ethics and aesthetics are one.”  What does this mean?

In the first place it means that morality is a matter of taste, of  hierarchical preferences. For example, imagine a citizen of a totalitarian state being “invited” to inform (‘rat’) on his neighbors.  The dominant, prescribed ethic supports, encourages and rewards ratting out others.  Your family and friends will endorse and celebrate this behavior.  Yet something in you finds this all deeply disgusting and won’t (and characterologically can’t) conform.  Can you see the fundamental relation between this and what we described in “Walmart and the Woods” ?  http://cultureandanticulture.com/2011/10/11/walmart-and-the-woods/   The aesthetic reaction to Walmart, the inner deadening, exhaustion and disgust is also fundamentally a moral reaction.  Just as a person may reject informing, they may refuse to enter a Walmart to preserve their moral-aesthetic health.  None of this is subject to proof-you either see and feel it or you don’t.

Consider these other examples of morality and taste;

“Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’s got to be a slave, and so I’d better write a letter to Tom Sawyer and tell him to tell Miss Watson where he was. But I soon give up that notion, for two things: she’d be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she’d sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn’t, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they’d make Jim feel it all the time, and so he’d feel ornery and disgraced. And then think of me! It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t agoing to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself, by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you, there, that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie-and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie- I found that out.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter- and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.”

Huckleberry Finn  –   Mark Twain

Need we say more?

The ancient Greeks understood these things, conceiving justice and virtue as “just-so” qualities, aspects of harmony, the participation in an orderly and beautiful universe.  Their moral-aesthetic sensibility, one could call it good taste, is virtually self-evident from the surviving literature, sculpture and architecture.  The point here is not to trivialize ethics, but to deepen the idea of aesthetic taste.



Theater at Epidaurus


Temple at Agrigento, Italy


The purely willful person has no taste, only the desire to dominate (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Dick Cheney).  We will see this later when we look at the art and architecture of evil.  The willful are the sponsors of bad taste, (like the kitsch of totalitarianism).  Unthinking persons of trivial and insincere feeling, of aggressive or servile will, are the prime sources of the ugliness and immorality of postmodern anti-culture.  For this to make sense, one must understand the idea of moral-aesthetic forces as we have described them: of the intimate relationship between beauty and morality, as well as the relationship between evil and the kind of ugliness we have described in earlier posts.

The person of ordinary,  subjective sentiment can be coerced by feelings of tact, being nice, conforming in order to be comfortable.   They can be rule-bound due to uneasiness or outright fear of breaking the dominant moral code, of being hurt or rejected by the others . There are spontaneous moral-aesthetic geniuses but they are rare and rarely recognized. Most people appear to be born with a degree of moral consciousness, especially for reciprocity and ordinary fairness, but this must be built upon if it is to have any real ethical power, and in the post-modern world there is little opportunity for this development and much to discourage it.

Look at these two paintings.


Thomas Moore by Holbein



Thomas Cromwell by Holbein


Both are by Hans Holbein the Younger and depict Thomas More ( in whose household Holbein lived for a time) and Thomas Cromwell, one of More’s judicial murderers.  Holbein has profoundly evoked a moral-aesthetic quality in each case.


John Dryden sublimely depicted this relationship of knowledge, feeling and will in the first stanza of his “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day”:

‘FROM harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
‘Arise, ye more than dead!’
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.’


Saint Cecilia     Guido Reni