Sunday, January 31, 2016

Virtue Aims at The Beautiful, but What IS The Beautiful?

In the Nicomachian Ethics, Aristotle makes the famous argument that virtue aims at the good. The word translated as "the good" is to kalon, which is more accurately translated as "the beautiful," though "the good" is certainly a not unreasonable translation. The Greek language thus makes a certain equation between "the good" and "the beautiful." If we then also take Keats' equation that "beauty is truth, truth beauty" (said, perhaps not surprisingly, by the ode on the Grecian urn), when we find that the trinity of the good, the true, and the beautiful are in fact one.To which we can add justice as well, since the just is the fair, and "fair" in English is another word for "beautiful."

Since virtue aims at the beautiful, the good, the true and the just, it perhaps behooves us to come to understand what "the beautiful" is. A good place to start, I think, is with the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, who argues that something is beautiful if it demonstrates unity in variety and variety in unity. We see this equation of balance throughout philosophy, in a variety of forms. We can begin, again, with Aristotle, who argues that virtuous actions exist in the golden mean between unvirtuous actions. The virtue of courage, for example, exists between the vices of cowardice and rashness.

Aristotle also argues that the virtues exist in the golden mean between the two vices. The golden mean, known in his time, is the ratio 0.618:1, which is the same as the ratio of 1: 1.6.18 (the only ratio that exhibits this balance). Beautiful architecture typically exhibits this ratio. The great buildings of ancient Greece certainly did. The aim was of course to achieve this ideal ratio, and only by aiming at achieving it could one create an actually good building.

As in architecture and the other arts, so too in nature. The golden mean ratio is found everywhere in nature, from the spirals of galaxies, the spirals of sea shells, limb ratios in animals, leaf ratios in plants, etc. Beautiful faces exhibit the golden mean ratio in a variety of ways, from length and width of the face, to eye placement, etc. For the Greeks, the virtues of nature should be emulated in human societies -- to put it in Greek terms, nomos ought to map well onto physis. The virtuous society would find its true nature in emulating nature -- if, perhaps, at a higher degree of complexity. Thus, the arts, human actions of all kinds, social structures, etc. found their true natures in coming as close to the golden mean ratio as possible.

The balance between two extremes is found throughout nature. We have found that nature is neither orderly nor disorderly, but more typically on the edge of both, known as "criticality." Certainly when nature is at its most creative, it is necessarily in this realm of orderly chaos/chaotic order. Creativity, virtue, justice are not in the realms of either order nor, certainly complete disorder, but rather within the realm of balance between the two. In the realm of justice, pure orderly justice would grind us all to dust, while forgiveness of everything would result in criminal chaos -- rather, we need justice tempered with mercy, and mercy tempered with justice, so the wronged are made right, and yet we have the freedom to make mistakes and correct them ourselves. One is not creative by sticking with what has been always done, but neither is one creative by doing what nobody could possibly understand -- the golden mean is in that realm between the two, where one is rooted in what was, while one places a blaze with one's work, that opens the future.

But I will not argue that living on this knife's edge is anything but difficult at times. Vice is easier than virtue. Doing what everyone else has done (or arguing that you just don't understand my brilliance when you don't understand the strange thing I've made or done) is easier than creativity. Iron fists and libertinism are easier than justice and liberty. This is why so many seek order, seek someone who will create order, and go with whatever is easiest. Virtue is difficult. Creativity is difficult. Being just is difficult. But things which are difficult are the things worth doing. This doesn't mean that the best of us don't slip into the easy, as they all, we all, do. But not every aim is true.

Given the definition of beauty as unity in variety and variety in unity, we can come to another conclusion about beauty. Knowledge is always various in form. Knowledge is fragmented, pursued by different people in different fields, often in isolation from each other. These Modern times (including these post-modern times) are the Age of Knowledge. Wisdom, on the other hand, exhibits unity of form. Wisdom is holistic, unified, seeks to see how everything comes together as a whole. The Ancient World was the Age of Wisdom. And yet, if beauty is the unity of variety and unity, we must conclude from this that beauty is the unity of wisdom and knowledge. Are we open to an Age of Beauty? To have an Age of Truth, Goodness, and Justice, I think we must. For if virtue aims at the beautiful, it must aim at both wisdom and knowledge. We cannot do with either without the other. Not if we wish to act in a virtuous manner in all things.

From this, we can see that there are various vices with golden mean virtues in the world:

order -- criticality -- disorder
cowardice -- courage -- rashness
copying -- creativity -- confusion
known -- discovery --lost
unforgiving -- justice -- license
collectivism -- social -- atomistic individualism
homogeneity -- society -- heterogeneity
control -- liberty --chaos
legislation -- law -- libertinism
certainty -- truth -- unknowability
cooperation only -- cooperative competition as a discovery process -- zero sum competition
fundamentalism -- knowledge -- lies
monism -- wisdom -- fragmentism
unity -- beauty -- variety
wisdom -- beauty -- knowledge

What? Wisdom and knowledge as vices? Relative to the virtue of beauty, yes.

One may also note that we have on one side many of the elements of religious funamentalism, and on the other side many of the elements of postmodernism. The former may be wisdom taken to its religious conclusion, and the latter may be knowledge taken to its religious conclusion.

Now that I have brought up religion, one might also then wonder about the nature of the divine. If the divine is (and ought to be) our model for living, and virtue aims at the beautiful, one must surmise that the divine exhibits unity in variety and variety in unity -- if God is indeed beautiful (and if God is Good, then God is beautiful).

Further, these elements must also be the case for every element of every spontaneous order, and of spontaneous orders themselves. There must be order and disorder at the same time, giving rise to criticality. There must be scale-free networks and hierarchical networks (as we find in nature, in cells in their regulatory apparatus within the scale-free networks of the cells proper). There must be unity and variety. There must be the elements of creativity and discovery and justice. They must be exhibited in the natural unfolding of these processes. And if we fail to find them, we discover an unbeautiful, injust, vicious order (or disorder).

To take an example perhaps no one would think of (which is why I choose it), the monetary/financial order would be healthiest, best, most beautiful if it exhibited these balances within it. Central planning of the monetary order to create a more rigid order in fact creates vicious circles -- boom-bust cycles, for example. Something more like free banking, in which there is a monetary network of co-discoverers of what constitutes good money, would give rise to the kind of monetary order that would smooth out many economic cycles. On the other hand, ensuring that there was only competition among the banks and that there could be no cooperating among them would cause fragmentation and prevent economic coordination across large areas.

The same is true of artistic creation, technological invention, scientific discovery, scholarly production, economic activity, democratic governance, etc. If we are going to be the best within each of these realms, or even across the realms (civil society is the unity of the variety of spontaneous orders), we must aim at the beautiful within and across each. We must work well within each realm, and not mistake one for the other. What is a virtue in one realm may well be a vice in another. Part of what we must do is make these discoveries of what constitutes the beautiful within each spontaneous order so we can exhibit virtue in each one. As we each do so, the orders themselves will discover their highest beauty, and they will in turn interact to create a beautiful civil society as well.
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