The Arts and Morality

I would like to take as my text a brief passage from a lecture Lionel Trilling gave at Harvard University in 1970. His topic is sincerity and he has this to say about literature and the universality of the messages we receive when we take it seriously:

“Generally our awareness of the differences between the moral assumptions of one culture and those of another is so developed and active that we find it hard to believe there is any such thing as essential human nature; but we all know moments when these differences, as literature attests to them, seem to make no difference, seem scarcely to exist. We read the Iliad or the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare and they come so close to our hearts and minds that they put to rout, or into abeyance, our instructed consciousness of the moral life as it is conditioned by a particular culture — they persuade us that human nature never varies, that the moral life is unitary and its terms perennial, and that only a busy intruding pedantry could ever have suggested otherwise.”

I shall begin by confessing that I have devoted a majority of my life to the defense of both literature and the universality of certain fundamental moral precepts — such precepts as justice and human rights, which I insist are at the core of every civilized (and indeed uncivilized) society and whatever religion they happen to practice. Trilling is suggesting there is a connection and I suspect he is right.

But I would add all of the arts, including dance, painting, music, and poetry to the list of things that demonstrate the universality of what we call “human nature.” The arts, and naturally literature as one of the core elements of the fine arts, prove indubitably that we are all basically alike despite our superficial differences. What this means is that as human beings who share a common nature, we are held to the same ideals regardless of our cultural or historical differences. As Trilling suggests, those differences make no difference. We all espouse justice, fairness and the rights of others as fundamental principles of a common moral code. We may view this code differently or stress different elements at one time or another — shrinking or expanding our grasp of what constitutes justice and allowing or disallowing that some who have been denied also have rights. Moreover, we may espouse those universal principles and yet refuse to act on them. But when push comes to shove, or when we stop and think “what if….?” we realize that we all demand fairness, justice and the recognition of our human rights, though, of late, we may tend ignore the responsibilities that go along with rights..

The fine arts, including literature, attest to the correctness of those demands. They demonstrate as cannot be otherwise demonstrated that we are all fundamentally alike. We share Achilles’ outrage at his treatment by Agamemnon despite the fact that he lived in a different culture ages ago. We commiserate with the seventeenth century French playwright Molière’s character Alceste when he comes to realize that one must play a role to succeed in the real world. We suspect this is a profound truth, even in our day. We can feel the hatred that permeates the soul of Keiko, one of the main characters in Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness, and share Okonkwo’s outrage over the presumption of the Christian missionaries in their attempts to colonize his country in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Moreover, when we view a painting or see our fellow humans dance or hear them sing (despite the fact that we cannot understand the words) we respond, as Trilling says, with our hearts and minds to the same emotions or others very much like those of the artists themselves. We note the presence in symphony orchestras of people of different ethnic backgrounds and from different countries who tap deep into the emotions of the composers of their European music and project it into the audience made up of a heterogeneous grouping of their fellow humans and we share a common experience.

Thus, when we hear that “it is all relative,” and that we shouldn’t be “judgmental” because we are all different, we know this is at best a half-truth, a “busy, intruding pedantry.” We are all different in so many ways as those who would ride the “Identity Politics” horse would insist. But at the core we are all the same and when we do the right thing or the wrong thing we know that this can be seen and recognized by our fellow humans who also seek in their own way to do the right thing or avoid the wrong thing. We all seek the moral high ground — or if we don’t we should.

The fine arts demonstrate in no uncertain terms that we all suffer outrages and seek approval and love in the same way and take delight in the same joys and are repulsed by the same atrocities committed by those who seem very real though they be mere “fictions,” products of an artist’s imagination. This is why we read and why we open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us in whatever form it may take. Because it deepens our sensibilities and makes each of us a little more human.