Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Aesthetic distance

MILL: CULTURE AND THE SATISFIED PIG (From Jorn Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies, Copyright © 2003)"Educating Rita"Bramann
Socrates told the citizens of Athens to be ashamed of spending so much time and energy on making money, instead of caring for such things as truth, goodness, and beauty, which would benefit their souls. Marx, as part of his socialist outlook, took it for granted that workers were cut off from something very essential by being deprived of the knowledge and aesthetic pleasures of classical culture. Thoreau deplored that "the mass of men" wasted the days of their lives on their drudgery jobs, instead of studying philosophy, literature, and "the book of nature," thus by and large missing out on "the finer fruits of life." It has been a persistent complaint throughout the history of Western thought that people ought to, but in fact do not, develop their full human potential--mainly because they do not partake in what could and should be a reasonably sophisticated culture for all.
Liberal Arts colleges require that all their students take courses in history, literature, philosophy, and the fine arts, even if students prefer to be just athletes, business majors, or future doctors and lawyers. And most sufficiently affluent societies are pledged to the support of the arts and humanities in one way or another, even if the majority of citizens has only a very moderate interest in higher education or "high" culture, if any at all. Whence, then, this commitment to the idea of a culture and education which clearly transcend the necessities of everyday life and the more immediate interests of most people? Is the official regard for these matters just a thoughtless tradition? Is it pretentiousness? Is it the snobbish habit of a particular social class which is foisted on the rest of society? It is, after all, quite possible to go through life without ever reading a single serious book, or without giving any thought at all to truth, goodness, and beauty beyond the minimal requirements of economic survival. Cultural “lowbrows,” in fact, often seem to be far better off than the proverbial "eggheads" who spend their time fretting over questions that seem void of any vital practical import. That "philosophy does not bake bread" has been known for a long time.
  • Why then bother with "high" culture, if it does not make any money, and requires a lot of time and effort to boot?
  • Could the entirety of cultural aspirations not be considered a dead weight that had better be jettisoned by people who wish to live unencumbered and enjoyable lives?

Radicals on the far Right as well as the extreme Left have occasionally suggested that all high culture be simply abolished as an insidious deformation of true life, or as so much pretentious bourgeois bombast. “Every time I hear the word ‘culture’ I instinctively reach for my revolver,” a character in some Nazi novel remarks. But such programmatic anti-culture radicalism may not even be necessary to bring about the effective demise of any serious concern with the arts and related matters. What is known as “high culture” may easily die of such natural causes as lack of interest, waning energy, commercialization, or the plain inability of culture enthusiasts to make a good case for their cause. It is, furthermore, far from clear whether genuine culture has not already been replaced by a comprehensive entertainment industry that produces consumer items for the refined bourgeois taste as routinely as for the mass audiences of “pop.” Under present conditions the very idea of “high” culture seems quaint or suspicious, and it has become an established habit among artists to cringe at its mention and deny any connection with it.

Writers and film makers occasionally belabor a stereotype that allegedly reflects the difference between Californians and New Yorkers. (See, for example, the relevant scenes in "Annie Hall" or "California Suite.") New Yorkers, according to this typology, are highly cerebral, seriously committed to culture, well-read, fast thinking and talking, very productive, aggressive to the point of being obnoxious, and hopelessly neurotic. They diligently keep up with what people think around the world, and they endure pain and neglect their physical health in pursuit of understanding and demanding levels of intellectual discourse. Their stereotypical Californian counterparts, by contrast, are deliberate airheads with no taste for the gritty and serious aspects of human existence--easygoing health nuts with a nice tan, and generally satisfied with having no higher aspirations than experiencing a good time near the beach in a perpetually mellow climate.

  • Assuming for a moment that these stereotypes represent two possible ideals of life, is there any good reason for insisting that one is better than the other?
  • Is the high-strung and hardworking intellectual superior to the relaxed and benevolent airhead?
  • Considering that high culture requires so much attention and effort, and that it does not seem to pay off too well in terms of sociability and contentment, is it really worth the price it exacts?

This is the question that John Stuart Mill tries to answer in the second chapter of his book Utilitarianism (1861). In that chapter Mill offers the famous judgment (in favor of the New Yorkers, as it were) that "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." Basically Mill contends that a highly cultured person is a happier person, a person who gets more pleasure out of life than an airhead--even if such a person experiences a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction as a result of being educated and cultured. This calls for some elaboration.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was by far the most influential philosopher in the English speaking world of the nineteenth century, and he was the most convincing defender of Utilitarianism, the philosophy which his father James Mill and his father's friend Jeremy Bentham had launched a few years earlier. As a Utilitarian J. S. Mill defended happiness as the highest principle of morality (opposing Kant, for example, who took rational self-determination to be the highest value).

In his book On Liberty (1859) J. S. Mill made an important contribution to the theory of democracy by arguing that individuals and social minorities have inalienable rights that not even a democratic majority can abrogate. In 1861, with the collaboration of his wife Harriet Taylor, he wrote the feminist tract The Subjection of Women, a vigorous defense of women's rights in a society that generally ridiculed such thinking. As a social philosopher he was not against Capitalism as an economic system, but he strongly opposed the appalling social conditions that had been brought about by the Industrial Revolution and an unregulated market economy.

In contrast to his contemporary Karl Marx, J. S. Mill was not a revolutionary, but a reformer who achieved much in terms of inspiring progressive legislation and establishing minimal standards for social justice.To make happiness the highest value in a system of morality was a daring and controversial proposition in Mill's days, and he was lambasted for it not only by orthodox churchmen, but also by numerous philosophers and journalists. In the second chapter of Utilitarianism Mill defends himself against such critics, to whom he angrily refers as "the common herd, including the herd of writers." He starts out his defense by defining the basic terms of Utilitarian ethics: The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure ...

Next, Mill turns to the critics of his theory: Now, such a theory of life excites in many minds ...inveterate dislike. To suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure--no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit--they designate as utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously likened; and modern holders of the doctrine are occasionally made the subject of equally polite comparisons by its German, French, and English assailants.

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was the Greek founder of Epicureanism (also called Hedonism, from the Greek word hedones = "pleasures"). It was a very influential philosophy both in ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire. Contrary to what is often assumed, Epicurus did not advocate the reckless pursuit of such pleasures as wild sex, fame, and all the material things that money can buy, but a simple and quiet life that leads to enduring contentment and peace of mind. Interestingly, as Mill points out, it is usually the pious enemies of Hedonism who think of crass debauchery whenever they hear the word "pleasure": When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation; for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for one would be good enough for the other. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading precisely because a beast's pleasures do not satisfy a human being's conception of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness, which does not include their gratification. ...

[T]here is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation. ... It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.

The last remark is a swipe at Mill's predecessor Bentham. For Bentham all pleasures were equal. If some people get their pleasures from reading sophisticated poetry, while others prefer simple-minded board games, there is no reason for maintaining that the one kind of pleasure is better than the other: "Pushpin [the board game] is as good as poetry." The only thing that counts in Bentham's theory of ethics is the amount of pleasure that a person receives, its quantity. It was Bentham's indifference to the quality of pleasure which earned Utilitarianism the reputation of being a philosophy for cultural lowbrows. Because of this J. S. Mill saw a need for re-defining the basic principle of Utilitarian ethics. Talk about more or less valuable pleasures inevitably raises the question of how one can distinguish and evaluate them:

  • What makes one pleasure more valuable than another?
  • Why is appreciating poetry more valuable than enjoying a simple game or a Porterhouse steak?
  • Why is listening to a complex Mahler symphony preferable to happily singing along with some tune in the jukebox?
  • What exactly is the characteristic that distinguishes the more valuable from the less valuable pleasure?

This is how Mill answers the question: If I am asked ... what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, ... there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. In other words, people who are familiar with both kinds of pleasure, the pleasures of the intellect and the pleasures of "mere sensation," are the competent judges who can decide which pleasures are more desirable. Whatever kind of pleasure they prefer is the more valuable kind. And it is the intellectual pleasures which, according to Mill, these knowledgeable individuals invariably prefer:

Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for the promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. …

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they know only their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.This settles the matter for Mill, and it can be assumed that the vast majority of educated people have always been in agreement with his valuation of culture. Philosophers, however, may feel prompted to raise some doubts concerning Mill’s argument. Is it really an unquestionable fact, for example, that all people capable of enjoying both "higher" and "lower" pleasures will give a marked preference to the former? Will the “higher” form of existence, that of human beings, always be considered to be preferable to the life form of animals by people who have thoughtfully considered both options? In the absence of any scientifically conducted poll, it will be worthwhile to take a look at history.

There have, in fact, been notable dissenters to Mill’s view throughout the course of Western philosophy. In the 18th century Jean-Jacques Rousseau made a name for himself as a radical critic of civilization and as an advocate of the virtues of primitive nature, and in classical Greece the so-called Cynics were famous for deriding human culture while praising the beauty of a pure animal existence. The name of this latter school of thought is derived from the Greek word kynos, which means "dog." Dogs were revered by the Cynics as role models, because dogs were seen as more honest than humans, and as being more in touch with the truths of nature than their human brothers and sisters. Virtue, according to the Cynics, consists in rejecting all social conventions and cultural artificiality, and thus to live in harmony with the forces and laws of the physical universe. Cynics deliberately lived in poverty--with torn clothes, unwashed, and sleeping wherever they found a place to rest. Diogenes, a contemporary and humorous critic of Plato, is said to have lived in a barrel, and to have masturbated in public to press home the point that only artificial convention would make such a natural activity appear offensive. The Cynics, although mostly quite familiar with the pleasures of the mind, seemed to have believed that the simplicity of an animal existence is ultimately preferable to the life of civilized and mentally complicated people.

It will help to remember this historical precedent in reading the following poem by the contemporary American poet Duane Locke. The speaker in "Circe, I on Sanibel, Think of My Former Life as a Pig" is one of Odysseus' sailors in a 20th century embodiment. This sailor talks about the modern island of Sanibel in Florida, as well as the mythical island of the sorceress Circe from Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus, during his long voyage home after the Trojan War, was marooned with his crew on Circe's shores. As Circe wished to keep Odysseus on her island, she changed his men into pigs. Through his cunning Odysseus eventually managed to make her change the sailors back into men, and thus to escape from a form of existence that most Greeks would have considered inferior. This episode from Homer's Odyssey is usually read as a triumph of human civilization over animal lust and the dark forces of nature. In his poem Duane Locke proposes a different reading:

Duane Locke sketches an unfavorable picture of human culture, to say the least: Unhealthy shoes, desk jobs and hemorrhoids, fast food joints and robberies, pollution and wholesale destruction through real estate development, sex as a commodity, the knowledge of one's inevitable death--and all of this buttressed by the presumption that human beings are somehow more important than animals. The life of a pig, by contrast, emerges as one of innocence, warmth, lack of unnecessary restraints, simplicity, and harmony with nature. The wholesome world of the pig is said to be a "paradise," and in connection with the magic and godly descend of Circe, the pig's existence is outright divine. There have, as mentioned, always been critics of civilization, and the general counter-vision invoked by these critics has always been a more or less romantic vision of nature. In light of the enormous wastelands which relentless industrial expansion, unfettered financial greed, and an out-of-control population expansion have created on this planet, however, Mill's high esteem for culture and the human form of existence look particularly problematic, and the idea of somehow minimizing the distance between humans and the animal kingdom would be particularly appealing.

Considering the relevant details of human history, and the over-all conduct of the human race on this planet, one does not have to be much of a Cynic to be at least intrigued by the question whether the whole of human evolution may not have been something like an aberration--a cosmic wrong turn. It is more than mere whim if the thoughts of contemporary science fiction writers have time and again moved in the direction of describing the whole of human civilization as a failed experiment that might as well be abandoned. A plausible rejoinder by Mill's followers would be to point out that the undeniable perversions of our particular civilization cannot be equated with civilization as such. Mill obviously cannot be taken to advocate a littering, polluting, bulldozing, and greed-driven consumer economy as the epitome of human achievement. Humanity may move in this direction, and to all appearances seems to be doing just that, but there is no reason for saying that it has to travel down that road. Thoughtless greed and environmental destruction could be controlled like deadly floods or ravaging diseases. It is not the mindless and bulldozing developer, but thinkers like Socrates or poets like Duane Locke, whom Mill considers preferable to satisfied pigs.

Still, why bother to be human? Why emphasize and develop all those faculties that set human beings so dramatically apart from the rest of the animal kingdom—highly developed intelligence and knowledge, complex communication skills, reasoned predictions of the future and evidence-based reconstruction of the past, self-reflection and voluntary restraints, irony and disinterested contemplation, and so forth? Why create an inevitably fragile human civilization and maintain an often exasperating and frustrating life of the mind--rather than emulate (as much as is humanly possible) the natural minimalism of an animal existence? Why spend all the time and energy on something for the existence of which there does not seem to be any compelling reason? Why all the exertions, discomforts, and frustrations that accompany advanced schooling if there are only questionable benefits and results? Did not even Socrates recommend at one point in Plato's Republic (at 372 d-e) the "minimal city" as a better alternative to the "inflamed" economy and highly developed culture of Athens--until his friends denounced it as a community worthy only of swine? Why not give up all strenuous culture efforts and let things and people go where they naturally want to go—the way of the satisfied pig? Educators have always had a hard time defending the demands of higher education and culture. Traditionally it has often been attempted by simply invoking the seemingly self-evident virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty. Because this triad has become a somewhat hackneyed and tired clich√©, it is not often mentioned anymore, except with a derisive sneer. Yet, it still pinpoints much of what a liberal education tries to achieve, and it explains to some extent the inherent attraction that Mill attributes to culture and the specifically human form of existence. Truth, goodness, and beauty, if understood in the right way, do define a way of being in the world the virtue of which comes close to being self-evident.

Truth is pursued in higher education in the sense of developing a rational and comprehensive picture of the world in which we live. Truth is, of course, crucially important in numerous practical ways. Physicians need to know what exactly causes certain diseases, agronomists need to know how much water is carried by certain aquifers, and city planners need accurate demographic data to provide for schools, roads, hospitals, and other infra-structure needs. But the Truth at which a liberal education aims goes beyond such practical concerns, and it is not necessarily motivated by any special needs. Human beings become absorbed in questions like "What caused the collapse of the civilization of the Mayas?" or "Is the universe contracting or expanding?" They try to find out regardless of whether such knowledge is useful or not. They pursue knowledge and understanding for the sake of knowledge and understanding--because that is part of realizing of their human potential, and because that is what it means to exist as a human being. In light of the human potential, a mere animal existence appears to be confining and dull.Human interest and learning is certainly not as limited as that of other animals with their specific survival needs. It is “universal” in that it transcends the needs of any particular individual or species. Its ability to acquire knowledge beyond special needs justifies the description of human comprehension as “objective.” Understanding often starts with partial perceptions and slanted opinions, but human beings can learn how to correct one-sidedness and bias.

The human species is endowed with the faculty of detached and impersonal analysis, and with the ability to distinguish between the perception of things as they appear and as they are. The recognition of things independently of need, desire, or the lust of appropriation is part of a freedom that locates a human existence within dimensions that are significantly wider than those of other creatures.In his book Theaetetus Plato waxes enthusiastic about the broad horizons of a person who has emancipated himself from the limitations of merely practical knowledge: His mind, disdaining the littleness and nothingness of ordinary human affairs, is 'flying all abroad,' as Pindar says, measuring earth and heaven and the things that are above and below heaven and earth, investigating the unabridged nature of each and all in their entirety, but not condescending to the things close at hand (174c). Acquiring only narrowly practical knowledge is, according to Plato, like being a prisoner in a dark cave, while acquiring the liberal knowledge that transcends practical utility is like seeing a wide world spread out in broad daylight. It is, one could argue, Plato’s and Pindar’s “flying all abroad” into unlimited spaces that makes being educated and cultured inherently attractive.The potential of universality and freedom that characterizes human knowledge also comes into play with respect to morality and law--with respect to goodness.

While pigs, satisfied or otherwise, are mostly driven by their instincts of self-preservation and the survival of their species, humans are capable of taking into detailed consideration the needs and desires of other and different beings. The instinctual egotism of animals asserts itself, of course, in human behavior as well. Throughout most of their history human beings certainly have not risen very far above the level of other animals in this respect (which is why some thinkers consider the present age still part of the "pre-history" of the human race). But human beings are not by necessity limited to being only concerned with what is good for this or that individual or group; their natural constitution enables them to understand what is good for all beings--what is good “as such.” They do not have to behave, either as individuals or as collectives, like the proverbial pigs around the trough--competitive, greedy, and desperately out for just themselves. They can assert their humanity by taking a step back from their immediate natural instincts and arrange for the satisfaction of their needs with consideration of what is good for others as well.

With respect to goodness, too, it is being free that is inherently attractive for human beings. Whoever is familiar with the difference between being in the grip of self-righteousness, moral tunnel vision, and fanatic dogmatism on the one hand, and being capable of a liberal contemplation of options on the other, will hardly agree to be committed to the former. "Aesthetic distance" is the basis for the perception of beauty. A certain distance to everything characterizes the ability of human beings to enjoy things and people without bringing into play their practical needs or personal desires. A person who can see in a tree nothing else than so much lumber, in a naked body nothing more than an object for sexual stimulation, or in a landscape nothing but a location for a business venture or an artillery site, is someone who has not developed the aesthetic dimension of his or her life. To perceive things as unrelated to practical uses or personal desires, to see them as fascinating in themselves, to have a "disinterested interest" in things (as Kant called it), is a sign of a person's emancipation from the limiting necessities and pressures of an animal-like existence, and his or her transformation into a free being. It is this freedom at which a liberal education aims.

Considering once more the assertion that nobody who has become familiar with culture and the life of the mind would ever knowingly and voluntarily regress to a form of existence that is typical for animals, we can see now why Mill thought that a fully developed human life is more attractive and inherently superior to anything an animal existence can offer. It is the fact of the larger dimensions that the life of the mind provides, and the freer movements within these wide spaces, that cannot fail to appeal to beings that have the natural constitution and capabilities of humans. As no person who has ever been free and living in the light of day would voluntarily agree to become a prisoner in a cave, nobody who has ever been a free spirit would seriously consider becoming a poorly informed, one-sidedly indoctrinated, and utility-driven humanoid. Someone who knows both kinds of life would find it grotesque to choose an existence of unnecessary restrictions and limitations. In spite of the many dissatisfactions and occasional hardships that a life of the mind will inevitably bring, Mill has excellent reasons for saying that a dissatisfied Socrates is a happier being than a satisfied pig.

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