At the very end of her brilliant novel Romola — to which I have referred previously — George Eliot shares the following insight:

“There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world that no man can be great — he can hardly keep himself from wickedness — unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards and gets strength to endure what is hard and painfiul.”

There is much food for thought here (as there is in all of Eliot’s novels) and I do wonder in this age in which pleasure sits on a throne  worshipped by so many of us how much we have lost by ignoring those things that once were thought to build character, those things that give us “strength to endure what is hard and painful.”

Eliot was writing toward the end of the nineteenth century when capitalism and the industrial revolution that gave it birth were making it possible for all men and women to pursue those things that made life easier — or at the very least to dream about such things as real possibilities in the not-so-distant future. Surely, humans have always sought pleasure. Some would argue that we all do all the time (more about that later). But there were times when a great many people worried about things that pleasure cannot assure us, such things as what used to be called “the good life,” or the pursuit of “virtue.”

Eliot sees human life as a struggle between pleasure, on the one hand, and our duties to one another, on the other hand. I wrote about this previously because I do think it is true, though I doubted at the time (as I do now) that very many of us worry much about our duties to other humans and to the world at large. In any event, it is worth pondering why it is that we have simply bought into the notion that what we want is invariably what we need, that the purpose of a human life is to pursue pleasure. As the bumper-sticker says: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Indeed, it is all about toys for so many of us. And this at a time when there are “so many things wrong and difficult in the world.”

Those who insist that all human motivation is about pleasure and talk about duty is bogus are referred to as “hedonists.” And there is considerable evidence that we all do, to a degree, pursue pleasure, and seek at all costs to avoid pain. But I do wonder if that’s the end of things when it comes to the question human motivation.

Of all the things I have thought about over the years, the question of what is is that motivates each of us has caused me the most difficulty. To be sure, most of our motivation can be seen to be an attempt to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But what about the starving mother clutching her starving and crying baby who finds a crust of bread and gives it to her baby rather than eat it herself? Is she motivated by pleasure, or is it more accurate to say that giving her baby the bread gives her pleasure but it was not the reason why she gave the bread to the baby? She gave the bread because it was her maternal duty to do so — and probably because of what we are told is the maternal “instinct.” But the motivation is not about pleasure or the reduction of pain. It is more complicated than that: it is about doing the right thing, even if little thought is involved in the decision.

There are other examples one might point to that raise the question of whether the hedonist is correct in her thinking. But we need only read novels by great writers such as George Eliot — who are in many cases great psychologists — to make us think again. As I say, human motivation is terribly complicated. How many of us know why we do what we do most of the time, much less all of the time? But, in then end, I conclude that possible to do a thing because it is the right thing to do — even if it causes us pain to do it.

I think Eliot is on to something.

Revisiting Duty

I was brought to philosophy by means of Immanuel Kant’s ethical philosophy which I first encountered as an undergraduate many years ago.  I was drawn to Kant’s ethical position, I think, because he saw clearly that the heart and soul of ethics is the struggle between duty and desire, the obligations we have to ourself and others as opposed to the pleasure that we naturally prefer. I have had this struggle myself many times over the years.

Later on I found myself drawn to the novels of George Eliot and the reason, I think, is because she, too, saw the importance to human life of the struggle between the urge to find pleasure and the duties we all have as human beings. Kant was convinced that this duty stems from the fact that we are all persons and as such are “ends in ourselves” and never a “means to an  end.” That is, we ought to recognize the obligations we have to ourselves and others as persons and not use others for our own purposes. This thought is the basis for any meaningful discussion of human rights — another area of keen interest for Kant and also for George Eliot.

But in all of Eliot’s major novels we find the central characters wrestling between the sense of duty and the powerful urges of pleasure that motivate us so much of the time — some would say always, that even when we do what we ought to do (that is, do our duty) we do so because it gives us pleasure. I respectfully disagree.

Be that as it may, Kant and Eliot both saw the struggle between duty and pleasure as the major battle that determines what sort of person we are to become and what sort of life we will lead. Both thinkers come down in the end on the side of duty. Nowhere is this more evident than in Eliot’s seldom read but brilliant historical novel Romola — set in fifteenth century Florence and involving many of the major players we connect with that city at that time in Western history. It is a time following immediately upon the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici and the struggle within the city to maintain the stability he had brought to a volatile city at the height of the Renaissance.

In any event, the novel centers around the lives of Romola, a beautiful young woman, and Tito Melelma, a chancer (as the Brits would say) who wins her heart only to break it in the end. Tito, you see, is a man who discovers gradually that his only motivation is pleasure. Initially he struggles with his conscience that demands that he use the jewels his adopted father has given him in trust in order to ransom him from captivity at the hands of the Turks. But in the end he realizes that he doesn’t really want to give up the jewels and the respect and favor they have brought him in Florence; he engages in the most remarkable rationalization I have ever encountered  in order to persuade himself that he really has no duty whatsoever to his adopted father — who saved him from poverty and despair and carefully raised and nurtured him into a scholarly and disarming young man whose brilliance and charming smile easily won over those around him. And this included Romola, as it happens.

Eliot spends en entire chapter describing the remarkable process of rationalization during which Tito persuades himself that he has no duty whatever to his father. In the process he persuades himself that the jewels his father has entrusted to him are really his and there is no reason whatever to think that he must give them up in order to save the life of an elderly man who is nearing the end of his life while Tito its just beginning his own. Indeed, Tito reasons, his father may not even be alive. Why spend the best years of his young in what may well be a pointless endeavor?

In the process of rationalization — during which he (like the rest of us) persuades himself of the strength of reasons that support his desires rather than those reasons that might lead him to do his duty in opposition to those desires — Tito’s conscience dies and he becomes desensitized to the pain and suffering of others while immersed in the river of pleasure he is convinced gives his life meaning.

“. . .but could any philosophy prove to him that he was bound to care for another’s suffering more than for his own?”

A novel such as this will not appeal to many of us today because so few of us would see any reason not to side with Tito who fears only those things that might rob him of pleasure. Can we even begin to understand why there might be a struggle going on within his soul? We tend to think little about the duties we all have to ourselves and to others out of a preoccupation with the here and now and the satisfaction of those desires that tend to motivate us most strongly while the nagging voice of conscience is silenced in the process.

I speak in generalities, of course. And there are those who prove the rule, exceptional people who would side with Kant and with Eliot in insisting that we are persons with obligations that define us. But we might do well to ask ourselves how many of us would agree with Tito that “the end of life is to extract the utmost sum of pleasure”? I do wonder.


Strange to say we do not often hear folks talk about friendship, the relationship between two people which can, in some cases, last a lifetime and makes both people so much happier than they would be otherwise. Clearly it is an important relationship, but since it doesn’t involve sex (as a rule) it doesn’t seem to be of interest to a great many people.

Interestingly enough both Plato and Aristotle discussed friendship at some length. Plato wrote a dialogue about it, called Lysis. Aristotle spoke about friendship at length in the Nicomachean Ethics where he says, in part:

“Friendship is clearly necessary and splendid, but people disagree on its precise nature. Friendship consists of a mutual feeling of goodwill between two people.

“There are three kinds of friendship. The first is friendship based on utility, where both people derive some benefit from each other. The second is friendship based on pleasure, where both people are drawn to the other’s wit, good looks, or other pleasant qualities. The third is friendship based on goodness, where both people admire the other’s goodness and help one another strive for goodness.

“The first two kinds of friendship are only accidental, because in these cases friends are motivated by their own utility and pleasure, not by anything essential to the nature of the friend. Both of these kinds of friendship are short-lived because one’s needs and pleasures are apt to change over time.

“Goodness is an enduring quality, so friendships based on goodness tend to be long-lasting. This friendship encompasses the other two, as good friends are useful to one another and please one another. Such friendship is rare and takes time to develop, but it is the best. Bad people can be friends for reasons of pleasure or utility, but only good people can be friends for each other’s sake.

“On the whole, friendships consist of equal exchanges, whether of utility, pleasantness, or goodness. However, there are some relationships that by their nature exist between two people of unequal standing: father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject. In these relationships, a different kind of love is called for from each party, and the amount of love should be proportional to the merit of each person. For instance, a subject should show more love for a ruler than the reverse. When there is too great a gap between people, friendship is impossible, and often two friends will grow apart if one becomes far more virtuous than the other.

“Most people prefer being loved to loving, since they desire flattery and honor. The true mark of friendship, though, is that it consists more of loving than of being loved. Friendships endure when each friend loves the other according to the other’s merit.”

For Montaigne true friendship consists in a blending of wills. One wills what the other wills, wants only what the other wants. I suppose this is what Aristotle meant when he mentions being friends “for each other’s sake.”  It is the blending of two souls into one. The key for both men is that one must be primarily concerned about another person — not oneself.

As I look back on my life I realize that, aside from my wife who is my best friend, I had only one or two “good” friends in the sense that Aristotle mentions. I feel myself very lucky to have had those few since some people never have any at all. And in an age in which friendships are often superficial and made and broken by way of social media we may lose the notion of good friends altogether. That would be very sad indeed. For as Aristotle insists, friendship is essential for human happiness.  But it requires that we come out of ourselves and “admire the other’s goodness and help [that person] strive for goodness.” In a word, we must care about another and want that person’s happiness in order to find happiness ourselves. And please note that love plays an important role in friendship. It cannot be found on an electronic toy or in the casual relationships most of us form with the others with whom we work or play — unless we get to the point where we think more about them than we do ourselves.

I have found the friendships I have formed on these blogs to be very important to me and to my own happiness. I am delighted when I hear from my blogging buddies, worry about them when they are silent, and wish them well in whatever they undertake. I realize this is not the highest form of friendship, but, while it may be based on utility to a degree, it is none the less a type that Aristotle could never have imagined and I suspect he would have been only too happy to discuss it at some length!

True Happiness

In my recent post on Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book about Victorian virtues I was a bit surprised by the lack of response because Himmelfarb’s take on the Victorian era is so out of step with the take of many other historians who have studied that same era. Most have concluded it was a sexist age reeking with poverty and squalor on the part of the majority of unhappy and exploited people in Victorian England; this view is echoed in most of Charles Dickens’ novels and the writings of Karl Marx who saw capitalism in England as the devil’s work.

Himmelfarb bases her conclusions on thorough research including, but not restricted to, the reading of countless diaries written at the time and the summaries later written down of oral histories spoken by members of the poor and middle classes. She concluded that if you take a closer look the people themselves regarded their lot as a happy one. And who are we to say they are not? Indeed, she insists that they were happier than we are. This is an astonishing claim and it raises an interesting philosophical question (if you will bear with me). Can we judge of another era that they were happier or less happy than we are? If they insist they are happy can we reasonably argue with them? We look back from the perspective of our era where happiness is identified with pleasure and possessions. Feminists look at the “plight” of the women who were little better off than slaves in their view. We read Sigmund Freud and are allowed to peek into the private lives of a handful of Victorian women and men with neuroses that make us shudder, hang-ups about sex that we laugh at with our more sophisticated outlook on sexual activity.

The question I raise is very hard to answer, perhaps impossible to answer. We cannot judge another era looking at it through 21st-century lenses. But we can look at Third World countries today and we can see the same sort of poverty and squalor, the huge divide between the very rich and the very poor, the tin houses and the lack of drinking water or mosquitoes nets. And we shudder at how unhappy those folks must be. But those who take a closer look, those who actually move among those people are struck by the fact that they have nothing but they seem happy, for the most part. They are generous to a fault and accept their lot and delight in what little they do have that in a manner that strikes many of us as simply unfathomable.

For example, our blogging buddy Lisa lives and writes about Ecuador where she has chosen to live and create her beautiful works of art. Her posts are filled with news about and pictures of the happy people she lives among. They seem to delight in what they have rather than to worry about what they do not have. They live in the moment and find joy in the fullness of their existence, their friends, and their families. Are we to say that they are not as happy as we are? Is it possible that they are happier than we are?

The point is that we might be better off looking at our own era and our own view of sexual permissiveness and happiness as pleasure from the perspective of Victorian England or even the Third World countries. It is quite possible that those folks would scratch their heads and wonder what the hell we are talking about. Our notion of happiness is so shallow, so many of us identify it with material possessions that no one seems ever to have enough of; and our sexual “revolution” doesn’t seem to have made families any stronger or time in bed spent by countless couples as a sure sign of close, loving relationships. Our happiness resembles in important respects that of the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World.

In a word, if folks insist they are happy can anyone else reasonably insist they are not? Himmelfarb insists that the family was central to the people of the Victorian era and that it provided a firm basis for solid relationships — among the poor perhaps even more than among the rich. It made it possible for them to appreciate the small things that comprise true happiness while we are lost in dreams about second homes, large cars, vacations at the seashore, and more money than we can possibly spend in our lifetime. And rabid feminists today find demons in every action taken by the male of the species and insist that Victorian women were miserable even though they themselves swear they were not.

It is worth a second or two of thought. It is wise to step back and take a look at ourselves form time to time and ask where we are going and if we really want to get there — and whether it makes sense to turn a blind eye to another era that just might have been better off, in important respects, than is our own. A culture that may well be able to teach us something important about ourselves.

Christmas Time


Hark the Herald Tribune sings

advertising wondrous things….

(Tom Lehrer)

It is that time again when we all wonder what those bright packages under the tree hold in store for us. Because, let’s face it, Christmas has become an orgy of gifts and greed, and it all starts at Halloween. The fiction that it is about giving and not about receiving is exposed in the TV advertisements showing the kids exploding with delight as they open the largest and most promising of packages or shrieking ecstatically as they discover the latest in electronic toys. Thus, it would appear, it is time to think about industrial capitalism and what it has meant to the growth, or diminution, of the human spirit.

To begin with, there’s no question that capitalism has improved the lot of the average human in capitalistic countries, if we measure in terms of “things” and allow that happiness is equated with standard of living. The average Westerner lives better than a medieval king. But if we take a deeper look, together with Robert Heilbroner, who wrote the book on capitalism (well, Karl Marx wrote THE book, but Heilbroner’s book The Nature and Logic of Capitalism is worthy of serious thought) we find this:

“. . .the accumulation of wealth fulfills two functions: the realization of prestige, with its freight of unconscious sexual and emotional needs, and the expression of power, with its own constellation of unconscious requirements and origins.”

More to the point, however, is this observation about the possible costs of judging all success and happiness by how many toys we can accumulate in our lifetime, a cost that involves replacing of moral values with commercial values:

“The de-moralization of economic activity removed any need to justify the logic of capitalism, provided that it did not directly violate the law or outrage the deepest moral convictions of society, but it made meaningless such questions as: Which of two equally profitable undertakings is the better? Can one call wasteful any undertaking that returns a satisfactory profit? Is it possible to condemn on moral grounds legal and profitable actions, such as the decision to relocate a plant at the cost of community disruption? . . .

[Capitalist ideology] succeeds in offering definitions of right and wrong that exonerate the activities and results of market activity. This is accomplished in part because the motives of acquisitiveness are reclassified as interests and not passions; in part because the benefits of material gain are judged to outweigh any deterioration in the moral quality of society; and last and most important because the term ‘goodness’ is equated to private happiness, absolving all licit activity from any need to justify itself on moral grounds.”

Note the displacement here of moral virtues with what we might call “practical” values. Ethics is displaced by civil law, for one thing; “goodness” is equivalent to private happiness. If an action breaks no laws, makes someone happy, and results in profit, there is no need of further inquiry. The end of profit does, in fact, justify any means to that end. This is the new ethic which has displaced the old ethic that demanded justification and moral grounding for any action involving other persons, especially possible harm to others. An anecdote might help illustrate this point.

I was in charge of bringing speakers to campus at the university where I taught as a part of a lecture series that dealt with ethics in business. We invited the “ethics officer” at a large and successful company in Minneapolis to address the issue; she turned out to be a lawyer whose job was to see to it that her company did nothing that might end them up in court. “Ethical” became equivalent to “legal.” But, as Heilbroner suggests, they are not the same.

Again, some years ago I recall teaching a graduate course in Business Ethics and reading a book by a sociologist who examined in great detail the behavior of a number of employees who worked for several large corporations on the East Coast. What he found in common was the tendency to separate their actions on the job from their actions off the job. In the former case they could “live with anything” required of them to do their jobs — even to the point of burying toxic waste. In the latter case they insisted that they needed to look themselves in the mirror every morning and treat their families and friends with respect. In a word, they lived two lives. One life was centered around a loose grasp of traditional ethical and Christian values, the other centered around expediency, what was necessary to keep their job and please their bosses. Now, given that the workaday world has become the center of a great many lives in our nation, there would appear to be less and less concern about what one sees in the looking-glass while shaving or brushing one’s teeth, sad to say.

This has a direct bearing with today’s topic, of course, because it suggests that, in fact, we have become a society that has, as Heilbroner suggests, replaced traditional ethical concepts with commercial values and avoids altogether asking tough questions about our everyday activities if they might border on the unethical. Material gain has indeed placed itself at the center of so many of our lives as the most important thing. When we no longer seek the moral high ground because we seek instead the promotion, the new car, or are busily reaching for the package under the tree with our name on it, it is a sure sign that the human spirit has shrunk; as a nation we are at risk of losing our collective soul. Thomas Jefferson worried about this in 1788:

“What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.”

Christmas is merely the reductio ad absurdum of the displacement of ethical values, replacing the true meaning of a Holy Day with out-and-out greed. Peace On Earth and love of our fellow humans have been replaced by pleasure and self-indulgence. Right and wrong have been replaced by what feels good.

 Christmas time is here by golly

Disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly

Fill the cups and don’t say when……

(Tom Lehrer)

Dostoevsky Redux

I am reposting a previous piece of mine that received little or no response — not because of the lack of response but because (a) it’s one of my favorites  (b) Dostoevsky has always seemed to me to be one of the deepest minds I have ever sought to fathom, and (c) I have nothing new to say at this point!

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming to earth. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom. As the Inquisitor says, “Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary precisely because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no adequate answer for the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we sophisticated modern folk cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of pervasive corruption within the Church, volcanic eruptions, plagues, and warfare — and the benefits accruing from the scientific and industrial revolutions. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted during their longer lives to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices.

Ivan Karamazov would understand — though, in the end, he went mad.

What About Me?

I mentioned in one of my very early blogs that at one point while I was teaching we had a required Freshman course in which the students were required to read Huxley’s Brave New World. I also mentioned one of the comments made by one of those students in the evaluations we asked them to write at the end of the semester. He said, in a comment echoed by a number of other students, “What does this have to do with me?” In a nutshell he told us a great deal abut what is wrong with his generation. For anyone who has half a brain and has read the book (which may exclude that student on both counts), the answer is obvious. Huxley’s world is one in which pleasure is the only recognizable value, much as it is in our world.

Toward the end of the novel John the savage has a remarkable dialogue with the Director about the strengths and weaknesses of Brave New World. The director, who goes by the name of Mustapha Mond, defends his world against the criticisms of the savage. After all, in Mond’s world everyone does what he wants to do and no one suffers needlessly. What’s not to like? As Mond says in a rather lengthy speech:

“. . .The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what [we think] you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears — that’s what soma is.”

In response to this and other similar comments, the savage retorts: “Nothing costs enough here.” And that says it all.

Bearing in mind that soma is the Brave New World’s all-purpose tranquilizer and that while the parallel is not exact it is striking, since we have pills now for every malady — even some we merely imagine; the goal of constant pleasure is found both in Huxley’s and in our world, along with a type of Christianity that is designed (counter to its Founder’s intentions as I read the New Testament) to make things as delightful as possible and guarantee that everyone feels good about himself or herself no matter how low on the human scale they stand or crawl.

In a word, the book was written in the 1930s and still has the ring of truth which while loud and clear apparently falls on many a deaf ear. What does the book have to do with us? In both worlds, nothing costs enough. We seem to have traded a human world of struggle and suffering compensated by unexpected love, pleasure and delight for a world of satisfied ants in an ant-hill where there is no suffering or struggle — and no real love or delight in the world around us. “What does this have to do with me?” Everything.

Eliot’s Lessons In Morality

In her first major novel, The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot created a situation between Maggie Tulliver and Stephen Guest that brings to the fore the conflict between love and duty — a strangely Victorian struggle that might be alien to most of us in the twenty-first century. For Eliot, it is the struggle within the heart of a young woman between her love of a man (Stephen Guest), including the financial security marriage to Stephen would bring, and her duty to those who love her and whom she loves in return – her cousin Lucy Deane (who is engaged to Stephen) and Philip Makem, who would like to be Maggie’s lover. After arranging to take Maggie on a boat ride down the Floss, Stephen allows the boat to drift past their destination and eventually draws Maggie’s attention to the fact that they are destined, in his view, to be together. Though the event seems to have been accidental, it is, of course, what he wants and has perhaps even allowed; it is what Maggie wants but fears. Stephen puts his case forcefully:

 “See, Maggie, how everything has come without our seeking – in spite of all our efforts. We never thought of being alone together again: it has all been done by others.  . . . . It is the only right thing, dearest: it is the only way of escaping from the wretched entanglement. Everything has concurred to point it out to us. We have contrived nothing, we have thought of nothing ourselves.”

Maggie is torn and engages in a dialogue with Stephen that progresses for several hours and many pages,. Stephen equates “the only right thing” with what he and Maggie most dearly want. Maggie, on the other hand sees things differently: “I will not begin any future, even with you. . . with a deliberate consent to what ought not to have been. What I told you [previously] I feel now: I would rather have died than fall into this temptation. It would have been better if we had parted for ever then. But we must part now.”
Note that even at this point, because of the time spent alone with this engaged man, Maggie’s reputation in those Victorian days, will have been ruined – as was Mary Ann Evan’s reputation when she ran off with the married George Lewes. That is of no concern to Maggie – though as things play out, it becomes a burden with tragic consequences. Instead, she experiences the pangs of an active conscience:

 “I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . .  Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”

We are told these days that guilt is a terrible thing, a burden we ought never be forced to bear and Maggie’s speech may seem like the most blatant romantic nonsense to the modern ear that knows without doubt that “love conquers all.” Yet, in Eliot’s mind the guilty conscience is what leads people like Maggie toward the right course of action, her duty to others to whom she is bound by ties of friendship and love —  despite the fact that it is directly opposed to what she so dearly wants.  Indeed, throughout her writings, Eliot is consistent in attacking those who, like so many of us today, regard “what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves” as the highest good. In Eliot’s world doing the right thing is sometimes terribly difficult and frequently directly opposite to what “is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves.” But always giving in to what we want to do is often a sign of weak character and lack of moral fiber, ignoring “whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.” One abandons principles and duty to others at great risk. Strange lessons from bygone days.

Hidden Pleasures

Aristotle tells us that it is impossible for any of us to know what another’s pleasure feels like. This is a comment made almost as an aside in the Ethics, but it has fascinating implications if you think about it.

The mathematician who makes a mathematical discovery cannot possibly describe what it feels like — even to another mathematician. The feeling is unique. If we are standing with another person in an art gallery or sitting next to her at a concert and she tells us the work she is seeing or hearing is beautiful, we cannot possibly know what she is experiencing. This is especially true if she has much greater experience with fine art and brings to the painting or performance a wealth of that experience and this is our first time in a gallery or concert hall.

Indeed, unless we are poets, we can’t really describe our own pleasures to someone else anyway. Poets do it better than the rest of us, but even they can do it only up to a point. Given that value judgments involve an element of pleasure (some would say that’s all they are), the implications of this insight are considerable. For one thing, it explains why there’s so much heated disagreement in the arena of ethics and aesthetics, where discussion tends to focus almost exclusively on the feelings involved. Such discussion is pointless. But if it rises to the level of an examination of the elements in the work that generate the feelings, it may lead to agreement.

There are elements other than pleasure involved in value judgments. For instance, in painting there is technique, color, composition, theme, mood, expression, originality, all of which can be seen by the attentive spectator. But once these have been pointed out — and they should ground any judgment we might make about the value of the painting — the spectator may or may not feel pleasure in viewing the painting. It’s impossible to say. One must be able to come into contact with art on an emotional level in order to know its beauty. And no matter how hard we think about a work of art, knowing what makes it great cannot guarantee that we will feel anything, even though we might like to think it should. The important thing to note here, however, is that whereas the pleasure we experience is clearly subjective, the elements in the work itself that generate the feelings are out there in the world. They are objective and they anchor our value judgments. Once again, if the discussion circles around our feelings it will lead us nowhere. But if we concentrate on the features of the works we are experiencing, we might come to an agreement about the things we like or dislike. At least, we can come part way toward an agreement. Ultimately it depends on whether or not the things we see and hear give us pleasure.

Thus, to focus entirely on the pleasure that great works of art and literature do or do not engender in ourselves and others is pointless, as Aristotle’s comment implies. We must agree that we will never know if someone else feels the same way we do about anything. But there is more to art and literature than simply the feelings it engenders. And only by asking why we feel the way we do about a painting, a musical performance, or a novel can we ever get out of the quagmire of subjective feelings and begin to examine the grounds for that subjectivity: what is it that engenders the pleasure we feel — or perhaps should feel but don’t?

Art is not purely subjective. The feelings of each spectator are subjective, to be sure. But, we can learn about art, just as we can learn to be more astute in our ethical judgments, by opening our minds and listening to what others have to say — especially those who have more experience than we have, or a higher level of expertise. Not that they are necessarily correct in what they say, but they probably know more than we do. The key is to ask what it is that gives pleasure to others if we are to begin to feel something like that pleasure ourselves. To turn away with a shrug and say it’s just subjective is to close ourselves off to a part of our shared world, and deny ourselves pleasure that might just be out there waiting for us.