The moral utility of aesthetic manners

The moral utility of aesthetic manners

Primavera (Botticelli)

The author of the article which appeared in the eleventh number of "The Hours," of 1795, upon "The Danger of Aesthetic Manners," was right to hold as doubtful a morality founded only on a feeling for the beautiful, and which has no other warrant than taste; but it is evident that a strong and pure feeling for the beautiful ought to exercise a salutary influence upon the moral life; and this is the question of which I am about to treat.

When I attribute to taste the merit of contributing to moral progress, it is not in the least my intention to pretend that the interest that good taste takes in an action suffices to make an action moral; morality could never have any other foundation than her own. Taste can be favorable to morality in the conduct, as I hope to point out in the present essay; but alone, and by its unaided influence, it could never produce anything moral.

It is absolutely the same with respect to internal liberty as with external physical liberty. I act freely in a physical sense only when, independently of all external influence, I simply obey my will. But for the possibility of thus obeying without hinderance my own will, it is probable, ultimately, that I am indebted to a principle beyond or distinct from myself immediately it is admitted that this principle would hamper my will. The same also with regard to the possibility of accomplishing such action in conformity with duty—it may be that I owe it, ultimately, to a principle distinct from my reason; that is possible, the moment the idea of this principle is recognized as a force which could have constrained my independence. Thus the same as we can say of a man, that he holds his liberty from another man, although liberty in its proper sense consists in not being forced to be regulated by another—in like manner we can also say that taste here obeys virtue, although virtue herself expressly carries this idea, that in the practice of virtue she makes use of no other foreign help. An action does not in any degree cease to be free, because he who could hamper its accomplishment should fortunately abstain from putting any obstacle in the way; it suffices to know that this agent has been moved by his own will without any consideration of another will. In the same way, an action of the moral order does not lose its right to be qualified as a moral action, because the temptations which might have turned it in another direction did not present themselves; it suffices to admit that the agent obeyed solely the decree of his reason to the exclusion of all foreign springs of action. The liberty of an external act is established as soon as it directly proceeds from the will of a person; the morality of an interior action is established from the moment that the will of the agent is at once determined to it by the laws of reason.

It may be rendered easier or more difficult to act as free men according as we meet or not in our path forces adverse to our will that must be overcome. In this sense liberty is more or less susceptible. It is greater, or at least more visible, when we enable it to prevail over the opposing forces, however energetic their opposition; but it is not suspended because our will should have met with no resistance, or that a foreign succor coming to our aid should have destroyed this resistance, without any help from ourselves.

The same with respect to morality; we might have more or less resistance to offer in order on the instant to obey our reason, according as it awakens or not in us those instincts which struggle against its precepts, and which must be put aside. In this sense morality is susceptible of more or of less. Our morality is greater, or at least more in relief, when we immediately obey reason, however powerful the instincts are which push us in a contrary direction; but it is not suspended because we have had no temptation to disobey, or that this force had been paralyzed by some other force other than our will. We are incited to an action solely because it is moral, without previously asking ourselves if it is the most agreeable. It is enough that such an action is morally good, and it would preserve this character even if there were cause to believe that we should have acted differently if the action had cost us any trouble, or had deprived us of a pleasure.

It can be admitted, for the honor of humanity, that no man could fall so low as to prefer evil solely because it is evil, but rather that every man, without exception, would prefer the good because it is the good, if by some accidental circumstance the good did not exclude the agreeable, or did not entail trouble. Thus in reality all moral action seems to have no other principle than a conflict between the good and the agreeable; or, that which comes to the same thing, between desire and reason; the force of our sensuous instincts on one side, and, on the other side, the feebleness of will, the moral faculty: such apparently is the source of all our faults.

There may be, therefore, two different ways of favoring morality, the same as there are two kinds of obstacles which thwart it: either we must strengthen the side of reason, and the power of the good will, so that no temptation can overcome it; or we must break the force of temptation, in order that the reason and the will, although feebler, should yet be in a state to surmount it.

It might be said, without doubt, that true morality gains little by this second proceeding, because it happens without any modification of the will, and yet that it is the nature of the will that alone give to actions their moral character. But I say also, in the case in question, a change of will is not at all necessary; because we do not suppose a bad will which should require to be changed, but only a will turned to good, but which is feeble. Therefore, this will, inclined to good, but too feeble, does not fail to attain by this route to good actions, which might not have happened if a stronger impulsion had drawn it in a contrary sense. But every time that a strong will towards good becomes the principle of an action, we are really in presence of a moral action. I have therefore no scruple in advancing this proposition—that all which neutralizes the resistance offered to the law of duty really favors morality.

Morality has within us a natural enemy, the sensuous instinct; this, as soon as some object solicits its desires, aspires at once to gratify it, and, as soon as reason requires from it anything repugnant, it does not fail to rebel against its precepts. This sensuous instinct is constantly occupied in gaining the will on its side. The will is nevertheless under the jurisdiction of the moral law, and it is under an obligation never to be in contradiction with that which reason demands.

But the sensuous instinct does not recognize the moral law; it wishes to enjoy its object and to induce the will to realize it also, notwithstanding what the reason may advance. This tendency of the faculty of our appetites, of immediately directing the will without troubling itself about superior laws, is perpetually in conflict with our moral destination, and it is the most powerful adversary that man has to combat in his moral conduct. The coarse soul, without either moral or aesthetic education, receives directly the law of appetite, and acts only according to the good pleasure of the senses. The moral soul, but which wants aesthetic culture, receives in a direct manner the law of reason, and it is only out of respect for duty that it triumphs over temptation. In the purified aesthetic soul, there is moreover another motive, another force, which frequently takes the place of virtue when virtue is absent, and which renders it easier when it is present—that is, taste.

Taste demands of us moderation and dignity; it has a horror of everything sharp, hard and violent; it likes all that shapes itself with ease and harmony. To listen to the voice of reason amidst the tempest of the senses, and to know where to place a limit to nature in its most brutified explosions, is, as we are aware, required by good breeding, which is no other than an aesthetic law; this is required of every civilized man. Well, then, this constraint imposed upon civilized man in the expression of his feelings, confers upon him already a certain degree of authority over them, or at least develops in him a certain aptitude to rise above the purely passive state of the soul, to interrupt this state by an initiative act, and to stop by reflection the petulance of the feelings, ever ready to pass from affections to acts. Therefore everything that interrupts the blind impetuosity of these movements of the affections does not as yet, however, produce, I own, a virtue (for virtue ought never to have any other active principle than itself), but that at least opens the road to the will, in order to turn it on the side of virtue. Still, this victory of taste over brutish affections is by no means a moral action, and the freedom which the will acquires by the intervention of taste is as yet in no way a moral liberty. Taste delivers the soul from the yoke of instinct, only to impose upon it chains of its own; and in discerning the first enemy, the declared enemy of moral liberty, it remains itself, too often, as a second enemy, perhaps even the more dangerous as it assumes the aspect of a friend. Taste effectively governs the soul itself only by the attraction of pleasure; it is true of a nobler type, because its principle is reason, but still as long as the will is determined by pleasure there is not yet morality.

Notwithstanding this, a great point is gained already by the intervention of taste in the operations of the will. All those material inclinations and brutal appetites, which oppose with so much obstinacy and vehemence the practice of good, the soul is freed from through the aesthetic taste; and in their place, it implants in us nobler and gentler inclinations, which draw nearer to order, to harmony, and to perfection; and although these inclinations are not by themselves virtues, they have at least something in common with virtue; it is their object. Thenceforth, if it is the appetite that speaks, it will have to undergo a rigorous control before the sense of the beautiful; if it is the reason which speaks, and which commands in its acts conformity with order, harmony, and perfection, not only will it no longer meet with an adversary on the side of inclination, but it will find the most active competition. If we survey all the forms under which morality can be produced, we shall see that all these forms can be reduced to two; either it is sensuous nature which moves the soul either to do this thing or not to do the other, and the will finally decides after the law of the reason; or it is the reason itself which impels the motion, and the will obeys it without seeking counsel of the senses.

The Greek princess, Anna Comnena, speaks of a rebel prisoner, whom her father Alexis, then a simple general of his predecessor, had been charged to conduct to Constantinople. During the journey, as they were riding side by side, Alexis desired to halt under the shade of a tree to refresh himself during the great heat of the day. It was not long before he fell asleep, whilst his companion, who felt no inclination to repose with the fear of death awaiting him before his eyes, remained awake. Alexis slumbered profoundly, with his sword hanging upon a branch above his head; the prisoner perceived the sword, and immediately conceived the idea of killing his guardian and thus of regaining his freedom. Anna Comnena gives us to understand that she knows not what might have been the result had not Alexis fortunately awoke at that instant. In this there is a moral of the highest kind, in which the sensuous instinct first raised its voice, and of which the reason had only afterwards taken cognizance in quality of judge. But suppose that the prisoner had triumphed over the temptation only out of respect for justice, there could be no doubt the action would have been a moral action.

When the late Duke Leopold of Brunswick, standing upon the banks of the raging waters of the Oder, asked himself if at the peril of his life he ought to venture into the impetuous flood in order to save some unfortunates who without his aid were sure to perish; and when—I suppose a case—simply under the influence of duty, he throws himself into the boat into which none other dares to enter, no one will contest doubtless that he acted morally. The duke was here in a contrary position to that of the preceding one. The idea of duty, in this circumstance, was the first which presented itself, and afterwards only the instinct of self-preservation was roused to oppose itself to that prescribed by reason, But in both cases the will acted in the same way; it obeyed unhesitatingly the reason, yet both of them are moral actions.

But would the action have continued moral in both cases, if we suppose the aesthetic taste to have taken part in it? For example, suppose that the first, who was tempted to commit a bad action, and who gave it up from respect for justice, had the taste sufficiently cultivated to feel an invincible horror aroused in him against all disgraceful or violent action, the aesthetic sense alone will suffice to turn him from it; there is no longer any deliberation before the moral tribunal, before the conscience; another motive, another jurisdiction has already pronounced. But the aesthetic sense governs the will by the feeling and not by laws. Thus this man refuses to enjoy the agreeable sensation of a life saved, because he cannot support his odious feelings of having committed a baseness. Therefore all, in this, took place before the feelings alone, and the conduct of this man, although in conformity with the law, is morally indifferent; it is simply a fine effect of nature.

Now let us suppose that the second, he to whom his reason prescribed to do a thing against which natural instinct protested; suppose that this man had to the same extent a susceptibility for the beautiful, so that all which is great and perfect enraptured him; at the same moment, when reason gave the order, the feelings would place themselves on the same side, and he would do willingly that which without the inclination for the beautiful he would have had to do contrary to inclination. But would this be a reason for us to find it less perfect? Assuredly not, because in principle it acts out of pure respect for the prescriptions of reason; and if it follows these injunctions with joy, that can take nothing away from the moral purity of the act. Thus, this man will be quite as perfect in the moral sense; and, on the contrary, he will be incomparably more perfect in the physical sense, because he is infinitely more capable of making a virtuous subject.

Thus, taste gives a direction to the soul which disposes it to virtue, in keeping away such inclinations as are contrary to it, and in rousing those which are favorable. Taste could not injure true virtue, although in every case where natural instinct speaks first, taste commences by deciding for its chief that which conscience otherwise ought to have known; in consequence it is the cause that, amongst the actions of those whom it governs, there are many more actions morally indifferent than actions truly moral. It thus happens that the excellency of the man does not consist in the least degree in producing a larger sum of vigorously moral particular actions, but by evincing as a whole a greater conformity of all his natural dispositions with the moral law; and it is not a thing to give people a very high idea of their country or of their age to hear morality so often spoken of and particular acts boasted of as traits of virtue. Let us hope that the day when civilization shall have consummated its work (if we can realize this term in the mind) there will no longer be any question of this. But, on the other side, taste can become of possible utility to true virtue, in all cases when, the first instigations issuing from reason, its voice incurs the risk of being stifled by the more powerful solicitations of natural instinct. Thus, taste determines our feelings to take the part of duty, and in this manner renders a mediocre moral force of will sufficient for the practice of virtue.

In this light, if the taste never injures true morality, and if in many cases it is of evident use—and this circumstance is very important—then it is supremely favorable to the legality of our conduct. Suppose that aesthetic education contributes in no degree to the improvement of our feelings, at least it renders us better able to act, although without true moral disposition, as we should have acted if our soul had been truly moral. Therefore, it is quite true that, before the tribunal of the conscience, our acts have absolutely no importance but as the expression of our feelings: but it is precisely the contrary in the physical order and in the plan of nature: there it is no longer our sentiments that are of importance; they are only important so far as they give occasion to acts which conduce to the aims of nature. But the physical order which is governed by forces, and the moral order which governs itself by laws, are so exactly made one for the other, and are so intimately blended, that the actions which are by their form morally suitable, necessarily contain also a physical suitability; and as the entire edifice of nature seems to exist only to render possible the highest of all aims, which is the good, in the same manner the good can in its turn be employed as the means of preserving the edifice. Thus, the natural order has been rendered dependent upon the morality of our souls, and we cannot go against the moral laws of the world without at the same time provoking a perturbation in the physical world.

If, then, it is impossible to expect that human nature, as long as it is only human nature, should act without interruption or feebleness, uniformly and constantly as pure reason, and that it never offend the laws of moral order; if fully persuaded, as we are, both of the necessity and the possibility of pure virtue, we are forced to avow how subject to accident is the exercise of it, and how little we ought to reckon upon the steadfastness of our best principles; if with this conviction of human fragility we bear in mind that each of the infractions of the moral law attacks the edifice of nature, if we recall all these considerations to our memory, it would be assuredly the most criminal boldness to place the interests of the entire world at the mercy of the uncertainty of our virtue. Let us rather draw from it the following conclusion, that it is for us an obligation to satisfy at the very least the physical order by the object of our acts, even when we do not satisfy the exigencies of the moral order by the form of these acts; to pay, at least, as perfect instruments the aims of nature, that which we owe as imperfect persons to reason, in order not to appear shamefaced before both tribunals. For if we refused to make any effort to conform our acts to it because simple legality is without moral merit, the order of the world might in the meanwhile be dissolved, and before we had succeeded in establishing our principles all the links of society might be broken. No, the more our morality is subjected to chance, the more is it necessary to take measures in order to assure its legality; to neglect, either from levity or pride, this legality is a fault for which we shall have to answer before morality. When a maniac believes himself threatened with a fit of madness, he leaves no knife within reach of his hands, and he puts himself under constraint, in order to avoid responsibility in a state of sanity for the crimes which his troubled brain might lead him to commit. In a similar manner it is an obligation for us to seek the salutary bonds which religion and the aesthetic laws present to us, in order that during the crisis when our passion is dominant it shall not injure the physical order.

It is not unintentionally that I have placed religion and taste in one and the same class; the reason is that both one and the other have the merit, similar in effect, although dissimilar in principle and in value, to take the place of virtue properly so called, and to assure legality where there is no possibility to hope for morality. Doubtless that would hold an incontestably higher rank in the order of pure spirits, as they would need neither the attraction of the beautiful nor the perspective of eternal life, to conform on every occasion to the demands of reason; but we know man is short-sighted, and his feebleness forces the most rigid moralist to temper in some degree the rigidity of his system in practice, although he will yield nothing in theory; it obliges him, in order to insure the welfare of the human race, which would be ill protected by a virtue subjected to chance, to have further recourse to two strong anchors—those of religion and taste.