It is said that higher levels of religious faith and immediacy are important achievements made by people since it is faith only that provides the individual an opportunity to attain a situation of true self. Hence human beings have large responsibilities in making choices about life decisions which ultimately lead to the deliverance or damnation of people. To form the same, a combination of religious faith, ethical and aesthetic beliefs are required. For people to achieve religious faith they must first accept the ethical and a pledge has to be made to deviate from the aesthetic because it is the ethical that eventually determines what is evil and what is good. Aesthetic is of the lowest immediacy because it does not have any order which is essential for leading a structured life. The aesthetic is not considered a proper way of life since it refrains from moral sense and conscience. Opponents of aesthetic way of life believe that in implying that one should live in the moment entails egotist and selfish attitudes because one is constantly aiming at transforming the unexciting into something that is exciting and interesting for solely selfish motives. This paper will present the different arguments in favour and against the aesthetic way of life and how an ethical lifestyle can counter the adversities arising from aesthetic life.
According to Kierkegaard, an individual passes through three phases while attaining the status of true self; aesthetic, ethical and religious. All these phases of life represent rival viewpoints about life and per se conflict with each other always. In this context, instead of providing dictating explanations and answers in regard to his theory, Kierkegaard felt that people should decide for themselves in reaching conclusions about the given phases and stages of life.
The aesthetic is considered the area of sensory pleasure and experiences. It is essentially described by the existence of pleasure and in living an aesthetic life to the maximum one has to aim at maximizing the given pleasures. By increasing the amount of aesthetic pleasure one can get rid of boredom and Kierkegaard defined several ways in which this pleasure can be achieved. He suggested that the expectation of an event to happen often gives more pleasure than the event itself. If individuals can draw upon expectations and anticipation, a greater amount of pleasure and happiness can be achieved. Events that are experienced unexpectedly often lead to greater levels of pleasure as compared to planned events which are always in anticipation. The aesthetic individual lives in the moment and has no serious commitment to any thing in particular. Aesthetic people are not entirely impulsive and will act on long term goals only if they appeal to them, and will let go the moment they get bored with them. They get pleasure in terms of the possibilities in life that provide enjoyment and not in terms of following ideals to live life. In being inherently passive the aesthetic has no qualms in seeking pleasure in things over which he may not have control and is much dependent on external factors. The aesthetic person does not have a strong life foundation which makes his life quite meaningless. There may be a feeling of being engaged in a higher form of life, but such people eventually start having feelings of melancholy in viewing sorrow as having a deep meaning in life which they cannot be deprived of.
Aesthetic lifestyles are often associated with free thinking and humanism. According to Kurtz and Dewey every human being should attempt to get involved in positive aesthetics such as creative arts and in becoming humanists. This would enable individuals to attain a deeper, beautiful and meaningful life. Such aesthetic enjoyments tremendously increase the happiness in life for those people who pay attention to such details. Aesthetic enjoyments are entirely not an adornment of life but provide a deviation from our utilitarian and monotonous environment. They commence with the beauty that is offered by nature which is not restricted to mountains, beaches and parks. What is required is to incorporate in one’s life the immense natural beauty that is always present around us. All aspects of nature such as water, earth, plants, animals and the sky have to be included into our environment and one has to think organically while making options about clothing, food and use of energy.
The character of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a typical example of the aesthetic that rises above the dual characteristics of the formal and rational on the one side and the sensual and material on the other. Don Giovanni is very delightful in using plays and trickeries while amusing the audience with his adventurous lifestyle. He is a true example of aesthetic freedom whereby play becomes an activity that is in itself fulfilling in liberating sensuality from materialism. His character is portrayed in a manner so that his conduct is governed by his own aesthetic nature. In this context Don Giovanni symbolizes the ideal of enlightenment in regard to social and political freedom. His aesthetic sense adds to the ideas of his status as a hero in being completely fearless and displaying courage that is super human. Don Giovanni, in being an aesthetic does display lot of commotion by creating confusion in the social hierarchy because of his actions. However it is worth noting that even during the final scenes of the play he is not condemned but is given the opportunity to ask for forgiveness and go to heaven instead of hell.
The significance of the aesthetic sense is certainly recognized but it can also be represented as a stage that is immature. An aesthetic person is essentially anxious only about his or her own enjoyment. Since aesthetic pleasure is momentary, a person who is aesthete does not have a strong basis in making consistent and coherent choices. Ultimately the pleasure experienced by the aesthetic wears out and one has to search for ethical pleasures. An ethical lifestyle provides undeniable pleasures that the aesthetic lifestyle can never provide. A person who is an aesthete will never take any constructive action for the betterment of others, while it is very well known that it is incredibly enjoyable to do something for others without personal motive. Kurtz has rightly said that the humanist believes that the aesthetic dimension in life is one of the most powerful expressions of human creativities. The creative choices that we make are not only a way to surround ourselves with beauty. In essence it is the way in which we refine the beauty around us that becomes the crucial ingredient of artistic creativeness, aesthetic expressions and something that belongs uniquely to us. By controlling our experiences of the world we make a great practical difference in our life.
Ethics refer to the social tenets that control how people ought to take action in life. Although ethics does not imply an altogether opposing viewpoint of aesthetic lifestyle, it does take priority over it when there is a conflict amongst the two. Ethical life is built on a coherent and consistent group of rules that are created for the betterment of society. The aesthetic way of life is usually subordinate to ethical life but a person can nevertheless experience pleasure whilst existing under an ethical code of conduct. Ethical life enables people of diverse backgrounds to exist together in good accord which further facilitates and encourages individuals to work for the betterment of society.
An ethical person will consider the effect that his or her actions entail for other people and will give more importance to promote social benefit and happiness than to achieve personal reward. In fact ethical life enables people to experience pleasures that are far from being felt in an aesthetic life. Aesthetics makes people to deviate from a consistent behavioural pattern since they believe that repeating the same pattern leads to monotony. The ethical person enjoys all the things in the world in considering them to be novel and also makes choices in this regard because they induce higher levels of principles. A typical example in this regard is the institution of marriage. The excitement of infatuation and obsession quickly fades away in marriage, which could lead to monotony and a reduction in the aesthetic pleasure. But in acting for the betterment of the partner on a consistent basis, one can get an immense amount of learning in understanding that there is much more enjoyment than the initial obsessive excitement. However ethical life does not do much in nurturing the spiritual self. An ethical life deflects a person from doing self exploration because it makes a person to follow certain rules and norms that are socially accepted. But it is necessary to explore the self which is a major requirement of a proper and religious life.
Vicomte de Valmont is a powerful character in Dangerous Liaisons who exhibits qualities of living both aesthetic and ethical lifestyles. He displays ethical qualities in winning over the Marquise de Merteuil and becomes her lover and close ally. He also uses his ethical charms in seducing Cecile Volanges and later becomes very intimate with the Presidente de Tourvel during the course of the novel. However his escapades are eventually indicative of an aesthetic life whereby he sought pleasure for the moment and did not develop long term intimacy with any one. While he is in the process of seducing the Presidente de Tourvel he gets influenced by her ethical way of life and begins to write to her in the same tone. But this was adopted by him only to influence her and he is essentially portrayed as a player who does not believe and trust in love. Just as people who lead aesthetic lives cannot always remain happy, Valmont too does not find a true source of happiness. He is overconfident in regard to his romantic escapades and despite winning the love of the Presidente de Tourvel, he is not satisfied. He sacrifices the Presidente to the rigors of the prevailing intrigues and loses his love and happiness. Like other players he too meets his end and is killed by Chevalier Danceny in a duel. He ruined himself just as he ruined the lives of a number of women. This was the result of his aesthetic lifestyle and had he continued with practicing the ethics that he learnt while winning over the women in his life, he would have been a happier man.
It is mostly construed that ethics centres on what we do and what we do not do. We normally make comparison about our actions being right or wrong based on the given ethical standards. On the face of it this may appear to be quite simple but there is lot of uncertainty and tension created while discussing ethics since every person places every kind of circumstances on the table in regard to his or her principles, values, experiences and personal feelings. People have varying ethical interpretations and standards; hence for the common man it is better to instead think of adopting a disciplined life. Rather than talk about ethics in regard to what should be done, it is better to think of it in terms of the results that one gets in leading a disciplined life, which is as good as achieving good ethics.
The pleasures as sought by aesthetics are momentary and immediate, and in always seeking moments of pleasure they lose themselves in multiplicity. Hence every moment for the aesthetic becomes a moment that is uncertain and although experienced, it does not give much satisfaction and thus the aesthetic becomes prone to a life of despair and boredom. Consequently the aesthete remains of very less value to society and to himself, and his only remaining option is to adopt the higher sphere of subsistence, which is the ethical. However this move must be adopted by way of his own wilful actions.
An ethical life provides consistency and a purpose of life to a person and the eventual conclusion of ethical life is Christian marriage as opined by Kierkegaard. Such unions make the individual to adapt to standards that are not ascertained by the whims and of the given moments as found in the aesthete’s life. The lack of sexual relations as viewed by the aesthete will be covered by the sensuality and romance that is part of the marriage. According to Gallagher, marriage implies the highest levels of human subsistence and the peak situation in life as provided in the ethical sphere. The ethical way of life incorporates the best of aesthetical life and ads further to its strengths in bringing it towards a higher plane. This further leads to the individual actions of people in being devoted to duty and in maintaining the highest ethical standards. Kierkegaard saw the ethical sphere of life as placing God in a space that was considered subordinate. It is ethically required that a shift from the aesthetic to the ethical and then on to the religious sphere has to be achieved wilfully by way of one’s own actions.
Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons, 2007, Penguin Classics.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, 1985, Dover Publications.