September 18, 2014

Art and ethics

Edward Goldsmith explores the themes of knowledge, intuition, aesthetics and the Sacred.

Published in The Structurist magazine Nos. 41-42, 2001-2002: “Art and Altruism”.


It seems increasingly clear that the principal method of acquiring knowledge about the World, is via a mysterious, ill-defined process we call intuition and that is closely related to our emotions and to our sense of aesthetics.

Scientific method is the official way of acquiring knowledge about the world but it seems above all to serve as a means of rationalising, and hence legitimising, the knowledge that we have really acquired by these means. The great philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, fully admitted that “the intuitive powers of the investigator are always dominant and decisive”. [1]

Indeed, a number of enlightened scientists have admitted that only after the scientist has ‘intuited’ the truth of a thesis that he seeks to legitimize his conclusion by seeking recourse to accepted scientific method.

It may well be of course that our conscious intelligence enables us to understand superficial issues – but the deep and really important ones can only be apprehended subconsciously by our intuition, and our closely related emotions. This is the view of Alexander von Humboldt who stated quite explicitly that

“the harmonious unity of nature is beyond the realm of positive knowledge and is accessible only to the vivid and deep emotions.” [2]

Primal people never felt the need to appear rational or scientific and hence to deny the intuitive basis of their knowledge which enabled them to adapt so brilliantly to the environment in which they lived. As Father Placide Tempels wrote,

“For primitive man, the supreme wisdom consists in recognising the unity and order of the living world, a term we must take as including the world of the spirits. What is more, it cannot be acquired in schools or universities.” [3]

Indeed, in spite of the fact that our scientists have become the priests of the industrial world and that their writings are imbued with an aura of sanctity that has previously been reserved for the tenets of religious faiths, we have had to wait until the publication of Jim Lovelock’s seminal book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth [4] to see a scientific justification of this all-important truth.

Even then, it is still strongly contested by much of the scientific community – largely, I am sure, because its implications are so far reaching. Indeed it makes nonsense of many of our most cherished scientific theories, neo-Darwinism among many others, for if the Gaia thesis is correct, it is not the individual, as our neo-Darwinists decree but Gaia herself, of whom the individual is but a differentiated part, that must be the unit of evolution.

Our sense of aesthetics is also closely related to our intuition, which, like it, is also an important means of apprehending and understanding our relationship to the world around us, as it is of attaching us emotionally to what is important, and nothing can be more important to us than the preservation and the stability and integrity or Gaia.

Indeed, it is because we have transformed the chemical composition of its atmospheric environment, of which, with it geological substrate are the essential constituents of Gaia that we are faced today with global climate change, the most daunting problem that humanity has ever faced which could well make our planet largely uninhabitable during the course of this century.

Now it is above all the natural world within which our aesthetic sense, like all our other faculties, evolved and that we find beautiful as we do the human artefacts that successfully mimic it. A Gothic Cathedral, for instance, is beautiful for its vault is that of the forest, its pillars the forest trees; the original cathedral being the sacred grove – the Tenemos of the Greeks and the Temple of the Romans.

On the other hand, we abhor what is foreign to the natural world such as brash and unnatural colours and the straight lines of modern buildings. [5] We abhor too, the uniformity of a conifer plantation that contrasts only too sharply with the mosaic of different greens of a natural forest. For the late Paul Weiss, who was possibly the wisest of the biologists of our era, we see beauty too in the natural pattern and order of nature. For him, nature is

“[not] a random configuration, scattered haphazardly through the universe but rather the outcome of lawful and orderly processes of nature.” [6]

Order implies wholeness and not surprisingly we also see beauty in the wholeness of living things and that of the natural world itself. As the American poet Robinson Jeffers put it,

“A severed hand
is an ugly thing,
and man dissevered from the earth
and stars and his history
for contemplation or in fact
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
The greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things
the divine beauty of the universe,
Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s
pitiful confusions
or drown in despair when his days darken.” [7]

What could not be more significant is the identification by that legendary ecologist Aldo Leopold, between the orderly, the beautiful and the whole and what is right or moral:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” [8]

Though he probably did not know it, this, as I shall show, is precisely the way that Primal people, as well as the members of early archaic societies, saw morality. Of course, no ethic could be further removed from that which is generally accepted in the atomised mass society in which we live today.

Today the dominant ethic which colours all others, is undoubtedly the Ethic of Progress whose underlying assumption is that in creating the world, God did a bad job and that it is incumbent on man, armed as he is with all his science, technology, industry and free trade, to transform it in accordance with his vastly superior design.

For religious people there can be no greater blasphemy than the ethic of Progress, while for anyone (religious or not) with any serious knowledge of the world we live in, no greater absurdity. Perhaps the second most important ethical principle of our modern society is the Ethic of Individualism. It is closely related to the Ethic of Progress since the more individualistic a society the more it is seen to have progressed.

One of the great Gurus of Neo-Darwinism, George Gaylord Simpson, tells us, that

“even if we wished to derive an ethic from nature (as does Primal man) it would still be individualistic, for evolution tends towards individualization as opposed to higher integration as ecologists once maintained.” [9]

And individualisation promotes “the integrity and dignity of the individual”.

For our neo-Darwinists and sociobiologists for whom man’s overriding goal is gene proliferation, the idea that individualization should be subordinated to the needs of the community, the species, the natural world, let alone the cosmos as a whole, which, for primal man, includes the world of the Gods, is seen as both unscientific and as ethically intolerable.

Aldo Leopold’s ethological ethic has been seriously criticised on that score, even by many of today’s environmentalists. However those scholars who, on the contrary, have actually studied the cultural pattern of traditional peoples, show that Leopold’s ecological ethic has always been the norm. Thus Ananda Coomaraswamy tells us that in traditional societies:

“aesthetic means beauty and moral goodness. It expresses truth in terms of what is proper in thought (philosophy), action (ethics) and design (art). What is considered proper and right . . . the sanction of beauty or of aesthetics, derives from the principle of order deemed inherent in the nature of gods or of the universe as well as some expression of that order in rules or canons of form and design, prescribed by tradition and authority.” [10]

The anthropologist, Frederick Errington says much the same thing. To view and experience “morality and reality, aesthetic and ethics as being inseparable” leads people to regard their society “and the judgement and interpretation on which it is based as right and proper”. In other words, it provides a veritable justification for, and hence the requisite legitimisation of, their society and its religio-cultural pattern. [11]

Soyyed Hossein Nasr, the most eminent of the surviving proponents of the Perennial Philosophy school, tells us that

“the order and harmony of the natural world was identified with its beauty as it was with law and morality”. For him, this connection was among the chief characteristics of Shintoism and revealed itself, as does Zen “in forms of art of unparalleled, natural and, at the same time, spiritual beauty”. [12]

In African cultures, in which dancing is perhaps the principal art form, some of the dances, as Chernoff tells us, play so important a role, that the tribal chief must be able to perform them himself with great skill and elegance, for his

“command of aesthetics connotes his command of the moral order the social order and the cosmological order and hence of his capacity for proper rule.” [13]

Now how do we explain this age-old relationship – one that still subsists among some of us, even though it is made out to be so unscientific and so irrational?

One reason is that today the arts play but a small part in our lives. They have become increasingly secularized, commercialized and practised by but a few specialists. In a primal society, everyone was an artist. Gregory Cajete in his great book on education in North American Indian Society, [14]makes this quite clear.

“Whether in songs, ceremonies, dances pottery, baskets, dwellings, boats or bows Indigenous people were one and all engaged in creating the utilities of their lives. Art was an integral expression of life, not something separate: it rarely had a specialised name [but rather was just part of] becoming fully human.” [15]

Of course, to say that art, in a primal society, was part of life, meant that it was, by the same token part of social and hence religio-cultural life, which invariably found expression in a host of different rituals and ceremonies in which artists have a very important role to play. It is only, in fact, in terms of their role within the ritual life of a traditional society, that it is possible to understand a primal society’s dances, songs and artefacts.

What is true of the arts is true of morality. It plays an exceedingly small part in our lives today. The so-called emotivist school of moral philosophy goes so far as to tell us that moral statements “being non-factual” are neither true nor false, but merely reflect someone’s non-rational emotions. This is clearly the view that best fits in with the paradigm of science with which we have been imbued. In a primal society, on the other hand, morality was everything. For the great anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe Brown,

“For primitive man, the universe as a whole is a moral or social order, governed not by what we call natural law, but rather by what we might call moral or ritual law.” [16]

The goal of life was not just egoistic self-indulgence but to contribute to what was everywhere the ultimate goal of human society; to assist in maintaining the continuity and integrity of the cosmos itself, on which human welfare and indeed human survival ultimately depends.

What is more, the early archaic societies all had a word for the path that had to be taken or the law that had to be observed for this supreme moral goal to be achieved. The word was also used to refer to a constellation of associated qualities that such a path must also display. Thus in China the Tao as defined by David S Nivison [17] meant “the correct way which something is done”. It therefore means “moral truth”. It also meant “the way the whole universe operates, both actually and ideally”.

For J. J. M. de Groot the Tao “represents all that is correct, normal, and right in the universe”, all the correct and righteous dealings of men and spirits, which alone promote universal happiness and life. It was also held to mean “that which is natural – for the Tao represents the natural course of things”. [18]

Wing-Tsit writes:

“When all things behave according to the laws of the Tao, they will form a harmonious whole and the universe will become an integrated organism.” [19]

The R’ta of Vedic India is described by William K. Mahony as “a universal truth that gives effective strength to Vedic ritual practices and serves as a foundation for proper social organisation”. [20] Significantly the term of R’Ta has the same root as the Greek harmos, and the Latin Ars which meant skill or craft, hence art and artists. [21]

The Dharma, which later replaced the R’ta, according to Mahony signifies truth, that which is customary and proper, right virtuous, ethical. [22] Thus one has a moral obligation to follow it. It is also used in the Rigveda to signify “cosmic ordinance” and “natural or divine law”.

Dike, among the Hellenes, according to the great classical scholar, F. M. Cornford, meant justice, law and morality. It was identified with Moyra, which meant fate and which was also seen as a moral decree. [23]

Hesiod also stated quite clearly that the course of nature is governed by a moral law. This moral law was also a practical one, for when “men do justice”, he said,

“and do not go aside from the straight path of right, it flourishes and they are free from war and famine. For them, the earth brings forth food in plenty and on the hill, the oak tree bears acorns at the top and bees in the middle, the sheep have heavy fleeces, their wives bear children that are like their parents.” [24]

On the other hand, if a man does not do justice, if he diverts from “the straight path of right” and hence violates the moral laws of the cosmos, then, taking the form of Nemesis, the Cosmos will strike back. Cornford considers that for the ancient Greeks, this was “an obvious unchallengeable truth”. [25] And indeed, “a most important truth about the world”. This could probably be said for all primal people and members of early archaic societies.

How then does a society help maintain the continuity and integrity of the cosmos? Perhaps the most important way is to sanctify it. But how does one do this?

One of the most important and most neglected elements in the world of primal peoples is the belief in what is usually referred to as ‘vital force’. Every primal society had its word for it – the Melanesians called it Mana, the Sioux Indians of North America called it Orenda and every African tribe had a name for it.

Marett, in his famous book The Threshold of Religion insisted that it provided the basis of mankind’s original religion and thereby actually preceded animism itself. Emile Durkheim, the great French anthropologist and sociologist, regards the Gods of animistic religion as but “the concrete forms taken by this energy”. [26] Indeed, it is probably above all because the gods are endowed with vital force that they are sacred and have become objects of religious cults.

But whatever is endowed with vital force must be treated with great respect, indeed with trepidation, for this vital force, or sacred power, is not only the source of all benefits but also of all disasters. Cornford observed that in the classical world, a place was seen as sacred because of the presence there of a dangerous power, which forbade it “from being set foot in by the profane”. [27]

Success in whatever field of activity, for the individual, depended on the vital force with which he was endowed and by performing the appropriate rituals, and by observing the cosmic law, he could increase his stock of vital force, whereas by failing to do so, or worse still, by violating this law, i.e. by breaking a taboo, it could be correspondingly reduced.

Leopold Senghor, the poet, philosopher and former President of Senegal, tells us that the role of all religious ceremonies, all rituals and indeed all artistic endeavour in Africa is but “to increase the stock of vital force”. [28]

But vital force is not just accumulated by individuals. It is seen as flowing through the cosmos, concentrating in cosmically important things and beings and in so doing, forming a pattern of power and hence of sacredness that not only reflects a people’s social structure, but also the structure of the natural world and that of the Gods – hence the structure of the cosmos itself.

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