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.



Other Cultures

I have been rereading Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness and came across the following description which made me think. It comes early in the story about a middle-aged man, Oki Toshio, who has been sitting by the window reflecting on his first love from whom he separated 20 years since:

“He looked out of the small French window of his study. At the base of the hill behind the house a high mound of earth, dug out during the war in making an air raid shelter, was already hidden by weeds so modest one barely noticed them. Among the weeds bloomed a mass of flowers the color of lapis lazuli. The flowers too were extremely small, but they were a bright, strong blue. Except for the sweet daphne, these flowers bloomed earlier than any in their garden. And they stayed in bloom a long time. Whatever they were, they could hardly be familiar harbingers of spring, but they were so close to the window that he often thought he would like to take one in his hand and study it. He had never yet gone to pick one, but that only seemed to increase his love for these tiny lapis-blue flowers.”

This passage, like so many in this novel, reflect the main theme of beauty and sadness. The description of the beautiful flowers almost hides the reference to the air-raid shelter that harkens back to the Second World War and makes the reader recall the terrible effects of the fire bombings that destroyed an estimated 40% of the population of the 64 major cities in Japan toward the end of the war, coupled by the dropping of the Atom Bombs that killed another 129,000 men, women, and children. The end of the war was followed by a seven year allied occupation by 300,000 men that brought about the Westernization of Japan, with its sports, music, movies, clothing, fast-food restaurants, and love of money. The older Japanese, like Kawabata himself, struggled with the loss of pride coupled with transmogrification of their culture from the old ways to the faster, more frenetic new ways. His novels are filled with references to this struggle within himself and in the hearts of his countrymen.

But what struck me powerfully was the fact that we can read passages like this in a novel written by  a man in another culture and “relate” to it, because we share a common humanity. We have lost  sight of this fact in our preoccupation with  the differences in cultures stressed by anthropologists and social scientists like Margaret Mead who started the movement toward cultural relativism that lead us, wrongly I insist, to the conclusion that we are not in a position to judge what folks do in other cultures. From the undeniable truth that we can never fully understand what people in other cultures feel and think we draw the unwarranted conclusion that we can not sympathize with them at all. But this flies in the face of the human sympathy that the moral sense theorists in the eighteenth century brought to our attention that allows each of us to sympathize with other human beings, all other human beings. In stressing difference we have lost sight of our fundamental similarities.

We can read passages like that above, read poetry, hear the music, watch their dances, view their art, and we can feel many of the same things those people feel — not all, but many to be sure. We are not all that different. And, as a result, when we read about Suttee in India, or the stoning of adulteresses in the Middle East, or clitoridectomies forced upon young women in Africa, or the denial of fundamental rights to women around the world, we can judge these things to be wrong because we do know better. Values are relative to cultures to a point, but that point is reached when a violation of fundamental human rights are in question. We know this because we feel it deeply and because our reasoning capacity tells us that if it were us we would not stand for it.

In a word, there its such a thing as “human nature” and it is something we share with the world at large and which, even though many of those in power and those who posses great wealth seem to have denied, defines all of us as human. But why is this discussion significant? Or even of interest? I can do no better than end with a quote by one of the finest minds I have ever encountered, Hannah Arendt, who tells this in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“If the idea of humanity, of which the most conclusive symbol is the common origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then nothing is more plausible than a theory according to which brown, yellow, or black races are descended from some other species of apes than the white race, and all together they are predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth.”

Could This Be It?

I think I am finally beginning to understand why so many people have been drawn to Donald Trump, and it is not all about the economy. It has baffled me and I have worked through several possibilities, because I do think it important to know why so many people are willing to follow someone who is obviously a seriously flawed personality. Accordingly, I have enlisted the help of an unlikely source, Arthur Schopenhauer, a nineteenth century philosopher whose book The World As Will And Idea influenced, among others, Joseph Conrad and Sigmund Freud.

Schopenhauer is convinced that the will is the fundamental feature of the human animal, indeed of all animals. As he says in this regard:

“Rather it [the Will] retains everywhere its identical nature and shows itself in the form of great attachment to life, care for the individual of the species, egoism, and regardlessness of all others, together with the emotions that spring from these. Even in the smallest insect the will is present, complete and entire; it wills what it wills as decidedly and completely as a man. The difference lies merely in what it wills, i.e., the motives, which, however, are the affair of the intellect.”

The intellect seeks to control will (which is primary) and sits, according to Schopenhauer, like a lame man on the shoulders of a strong blind man whose direction the lame man seeks to point out — with differing degrees of success. The success of the lame man’s direction depends in large measure on education. As Schopenhauer tells us:

“Knowing. . . has multifarious functions, and never takes place without effort, which is required to fix the attention and make clear the object, and at a higher stage is certainly needed for thinking and deliberation; therefore it is also capable of great improvement through exercise and education.”

It follows from this that if a person fails to educate the intellect he is willful but blind.  He becomes, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “all body and no mind” (referencing Kings). It’s not so much that he will not think; he cannot think. There is clinical evidence in this regard that kids who play with electronic toys these days lose the ability to grasp a hypothetical sentence, among other things: they simply don’t see the connections. Seeing logical connections is central to analysis and synthesis, the basic elements in human thought.

And this is where we can begin to understand the success of a man like Donald Trump who is all will and weak intellect. His minions sense their kinship with this man and they ignore completely the warnings of those who know better, because they cannot grasp what the critics are pointing out; moreover, they fear and suspect anyone who is unlike themselves, especially those who use their minds and can grasp such fundamental distinctions as that between truth and falsity. Those distinctions do not exist for those who are simply the embodiment of pure will. Thus, Trump’s cavalier dismissal of “educated people.”

This may sound harsh and even a little bit self-serving. But consider the strange fascination this man holds for thousands. And consider how easily they dismiss the claims that the man is untrustworthy and a liar — since for them truth is defined by the will, it is whatever the will is drawn to instinctively. Thus, this man appears to them to be “honest,” in that his emotions are on the surface and available to all: he is embodied will.  Observations about the man’s shortcomings do not translate into words that can be comprehended by those who share those same shortcomings.

I have said all along that Trump’s success is an indictment of our educational system, but this goes even deeper. It goes to the fact that thousands of people in this country not only lack an education (and I am not speaking about schooling), but also have felt themselves excluded from the table of those whose reason directs them to goals the uneducated  simply cannot possibly be expected to understand, much less achieve.

Schopenhauer seems to be describing perfectly the man who is our president-elect:

“. . . we find in many men a strong, i.e., decided, resolute, persistent, unbending, wayward, and vehement will, combined with a very weak and incapable understanding, so that every one who has to do with them is thrown into despair, for their will remains inaccessible to all reason and ideas, and is not to be got at, so that it is hidden, as it were, in a sack, out of which it wills blindly.”

Those who “have to do with him” are those who would offer the man advice, not his mindless minions who also follow him (from a distance) “blindly.” We are talking about two distinct types of humans here, though this may sound harsh. There are those who have developed intellect to varying degrees, depending on “experience and education.” And there are those who are more or less the embodiment of will, undirected and filled with anger, hatred, and fear — the emotions that help define will for Schopenhauer. The two types are almost certainly incapable of fully understanding or communicating with one another: reasoning is lost on those with diminished  intellect,  just as those who can reason find it incomprehensible that so many could follow a man like Donald Trump.

Now, to be sure, this analysis leans heavily on the authority of a nineteenth century philosopher whom very few have read or even heard of. But if we take his deliberations as  a starting point we can begin to form a hypothesis that helps us to grasp the nature of human nature and the manifold differences there are among us all — and the fact that a great many people in this country do indeed follow blindly one of their kind who seems to them to be offering them hope and direction.