My crown is called content

Okay, time to come clean: despite my usually smiling face, I’m not happy all the time. Merely satisfied with my lot, I’m content that, among other things, I am not going bald, or plagued with excessive weight. And, on a day-to-day basis, I have to confess that I am rather at peace with the universe. But maybe most of us are like that, eh? Without a contrast, too frequent happiness would just be background -like white noise: hardly noticeable. Nothing special.

Now that I have earned my years, I think that I am entitled to wear the full regalia of emotions that I have been awarded. And yet, it seems obvious that the worth of some things can be measured in the difficulty of their pursuit, in their resistance to capture, and ultimately in the impossibility of their imprisonment. Happiness is one of those fleeting things; I think that is why it is so valuable. It is not a state of mind, but rather a condition of the moment: the twinkle in an old man’s eye, the giggle of a child with a puppy, or that initial rapture on first seeing your baby, newly born.

So, through the years, I have been content, as well, with the evanescence of happiness, treasuring its arrival, and sighing, not with displeasure but resignation, at its disappearance.

And yet, an essay I came across in Aeon made me wonder if, after all these years, I had misjudged the value of its ephemerality.

There are times when I wonder if the true value of philosophy is not so much in finding truth, but more in the pleasures of pursuit -much like, as with so many  journeys, it’s not as much the destination as the adventures that happen en route. Of course, to admit this outright might encourage a lax methodology and toleration of blurring the objective -of glancing outside the window as you reason your way along the road.

And, as I discovered in a rather lengthy essay by the philosopher Catherine Wilson in Aeon, there is a school of philosophy that actually tolerates stopping and smelling the flowers on the way home: Epicureanism. https://aeon.co/essays/forget-plato-aristotle-and-the-stoics-try-being-epicurean

The Epicureans have acquired a bad rap over the years, it seems: profligate pleasure-seeking. But as Wilson points out, ‘Rather than aiming specifically to maximise pleasure, the Epicureans concentrated on minimising pains, the pains that arise from failures of choice and avoidance… One must sometimes sacrifice appealing food and drink in the short term to avoid the long-term pains of addiction and poor health; and sacrifice sexual opportunity to avoid humiliation, anger or social or economic fallout.’

The morality of Epicureanism has also been a sticking point for some – ‘if life is limited to this life, and if virtues such as wisdom, moderation and justice are only abstract ideas… why be moral?’ Wilson thinks that the Epicureans had two answers to that dilemma: ‘One was that the people around you resent stupidity, cowardice, self-indulgence and injustice – the opposites of the traditional virtues. So, if you habitually engage in them, you will find yourself socially excluded and perhaps even punished by the law. Nonconformity to morality brings pain… The other answer was that it is possible to have an entirely pleasant life without causing injury to others through dishonesty, immoderation or other vices. The sources of innocent pleasure are all around us: in the sensory enjoyment of music, food, landscapes and artworks, and especially, Epicurus thought, in the study of nature and society, and in conversing with friends.’

Wilson also thought that in a society that is success-driven, power-hungry and consumerist, being an Epicurean had a distinct advantage because, ‘Fame and wealth are zero-sum. For some to be wealthy, powerful and famous, others must be poor, obedient and disregarded… the pleasure of being recognised, appreciated and rewarded… is different from the truly intoxicating moments of happiness in which we feel in tune with another individual or become totally absorbed in something outside the self… Real enjoyment arises from activities that activate concentration, that require practice and skill, and that deliver sensory enjoyment… Making things such as pottery, jewellery, knitted, embroidered and stitched items, and fixing things around the house is a profound source of human satisfaction.’

The Epicureans have a cure for excessive consumerism, too: ‘[the] strategy for avoiding being lured into pointless consumption, despite the curiosity most of us have about the material world and its incentives to buy, buy, buy, is to regard shopping trips as a museum experience. You can examine all these objects in their often-decorative packing and muse on the hopes and fears to which they are symbolically and magically attached.’

*

Sometimes children are surprising philosophers who have some things to teach those of us who managed to make it out of our teens unscathed.

“What do you think about Santa Clause, Grampa?” my little grandson once asked me as we plodded along a trail in the woods through the first substantial snowfall of the year.

I assumed he was already thinking about what he wanted for a gift, although Christmas was still over a month away. “You mean, how does he know what presents to bring?” I answered carefully, hoping he didn’t want an explanation of how Santa managed to squiggle down a non-existent chimney.

He glanced up at me for a moment as we walked, and shook his head. “No, I figure he talks to you about that…”

I chuckled, uncertain about whether to set him straight about Santa, or wait for a few more Christmases -he was only six years old, after all. “I…”

But he interrupted before I could organize any words. “I mean, how’s he going to manage with all the climate change that’s coming…?”

“You mean if there’s no snow for his sleigh?”

He actually rolled his eyes -I didn’t think little kids could do that.’ “No, silly -he’ll go electric or something. I mean with all the plastic most of his presents are wrapped in.”

Wow! Grade 1 had really moved on from my day. I was momentarily speechless.

He looked up at me with a twinkle in his eyes, and a face that was mature beyond his years. ‘Will you let him know just to use recycled paper for wrapping and not to give any more plastic to the elves?” Then he smiled and kicked at the snow in a tiny snowdrift on the trail. “Miss Morrow said we should bring the gift paper to school in the New Year so we can make up stories about what it might have been used for the first time.” He looked up at me, his cheeks rosy in the cool wind that was starting to make its way through the trees. “Don’t you think that’d be fun, Grampa?”

Actually, I wondered if his teacher subscribed to Aeon, too…

Does Beauty live with Kindness?

I don’t know how many times I’ve written about beauty, but it continues to intrigue me. Not so much about what it is -its constituent parts, its definitions, or even its historical and sociological roots- but more its ability to morph -mutate, if you will- from something that is to something that isn’t. How, in other words, can beauty -or its antonym, ugliness- change to its opposite without materially altering anything about its appearance?

To be sure, the duality has not gone unnoticed in historical philosophy (the appearance vs the charisma of Socrates), literature (think of the handsome Dorian Grey and his increasingly ugly portrait), or even in fairy tales (Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling), but its seeming capriciousness only adds to the mystique, I think.

For years, centuries, indeed millennia, we have sought to decipher beauty, and yet apart from vague generalizations like youthfulness, proportionality, or perhaps, symmetry, it has eluded our grasp, and slipped through our fingers like slowly moving mist. The most apt description for me, comes from Koine Greek, where beauty was associated with being of one’s hour -not trying to appear older or younger: authentic, I suppose. And yet even here, beauty remains a moving target, doesn’t it?

Amongst the many attempts to pigeonhole the concept, I am always on the lookout for seemingly unique approaches -although I fully recognize that over the centuries, pretty well every perspective has likely been canvassed. At any rate, I found myself drawn to an article in Aeon by the British philosopher Panos Paris: https://aeon.co/essays/how-virtue-morphs-into-beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder

His opening sentence certainly captured my interest: ‘Have you ever thought that someone is far from attractive – perhaps even ugly – only to later come to find that person beautiful?’ For sure this would not be a unique experience for any of us, and yet it made me wonder how such a perceptual change could happen -was it merely that we had come to know that person better and so ignored their outward appearance, or was there an actual phase-change somehow?

Paris links our perceptions to moral qualities: ‘[B]eauty and morality, and ugliness and immorality, are intrinsically linked. Specifically, the moral virtues – honesty, kindness, fairness, empathy, etc – are beautiful character traits, and the moral vices – their contraries – are ugly.’

That seemed a little too simplistic a view, but it was enough to make me read further. He qualifies it almost immediately: ‘Of course, the kind of beauty or ugliness in question is independent of physical appearances – it belongs to characters and actions.’ He calls it the ‘moral beauty’ view, and further qualifies it by saying ‘This view is rather unfashionable today. Contemporary philosophical and lay orthodoxy construes the realms of aesthetics and morality as distinct. It regards theories such as the moral-beauty view as signs of past conceptual immaturity that we have since thankfully shaken off our intellectual shoulders.’

But then he points to diverse historical languages and how many of these (admittedly cherry-picked examples) conflated beauty and morality. ‘In Ancient Greek, kalon meant both beautiful and good, while the [African] Yoruba word ewa normally translated as ‘beauty’, is primarily used to refer to human moral qualities.’ Or, more recently, ‘Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that ‘benevolence bestows upon those actions which proceed from it, a beauty superior to all others, [while] the want of it, and much more the contrary inclination, communicates a peculiar deformity to whatever evidences such a disposition’.

And, Paris explains, this conflation was not because of linguistic poverty. ‘[T]he Enlightenment philosophers did have the terminology to distinguish not only between beauty and goodness, but also between natural and artistic beauty, inner and outer beauty, and so on. Thus, their acknowledgement of an aesthetic dimension in morality, far from evincing confusion, seems to me to have reflected ordinary experience.’ This seemed a bit of a stretch to me -a mistaking of metaphor for prose, perhaps- but I pressed on nevertheless.

‘[W]hen people encountered others who were morally virtuous or vicious in their everyday life or in art… they felt, respectively, the sort of pleasure and displeasure evoked by other beautiful and ugly objects, and this phenomenon found its way into their language and thought.’ But with time, this view of beauty began to fade, and various detractors criticized the old approach -people like ‘Edmund Burke, who in 1757 considered it a ‘loose and inaccurate manner of speaking, [that] misled us both in the theory of taste and of morals’.

So, ‘beauty was thought to be mostly a matter of pleasure in the form of an object, and ugliness of displeasure in deformity; and form was limited to the visible or aural properties of an object. By contrast, goodness, and traits such as honesty and kindness, or selfishness and cowardice, are not like that; they are imperceptible, psychological traits, the goodness or badness of which stems from adherence to or violation of rational principles… Moreover, while the good is, or should be, desirable for its own sake, the beautiful is desirable because it’s pleasurable. So linking beauty and goodness might lead to a corruption or degeneration of moral motivation by encouraging the pursuit of goodness for its beauty.’

I began to lose interest at this point in his sign-wave and ultimately reductionist type of historical approach to beauty. I mean, let us suppose that beauty is largely subjective whereas, morality, because of the duties and obligations associated with being moral, is more objective… What does that mean? Is it an important distinction…?

Or… are we merely throwing everything into the pot in our frantic need for definition? Are we so desperate for a word, for a concept, that describes the pleasurable sensation of encounter, and engagement, that we flounder in the stew ourselves? Could it be that all the while, beauty was simply a metaphor -a way of saying we are pleased, and that what we are really struggling with is a way of expressing this?

And could it be why the word metaphor is so apt? Not to over-emphasize the need of delving into etymological derivations whenever we are stuck for something to say, its component morphemes are instructive: phore meaning ‘bearer of’ and meta designating an analysis at a higher, more abstract level. Personally, I think the famous 18th century French writer, Stendhal defined beauty the best: he called it la promesse de bonheur (the promise of happiness).

Do we really need more than that…?