• Brett
    768
    In her book “Wickedness” Mary Midgley wrote that ‘It is one main function of cultures to accumulate insights on this matter (morality; our motivation, ambivalence, wasted efforts, damage) , to express them in clear ways as far as possible, and so to maintain a rich treasury of past thought and experience which will save us the trouble of continually starting again from scratch. In this work ... an enormously important part is played by what we call the arts ... From the earliest myths to the most recent novels, all writing that is not fundamentally cheap and frivolous is meant to throw light on the difficulties of the human situation ... ‘

    I’m interested in views people out there might have on this, that our morals and human situation are explored and reaffirmed in the arts. Of course this is assuming that morality exists and is not constructed.

    What has just come to mind is that the arts have become so shallow and meaningless that if we continue to look to them for insights we will be misguided by the content.
  • Josh Alfred
    110
    As a writer (Poet, Essayist), I do aspire to and admire Midgley's wise words.

    Art and literalism are always creating something new with something old. This is oft how the mind works too, with old memories being used to reference new objects. So the chair you see is the chair you saw and the chair new as it is at the same time, and that is the most sublime look at the chair, the most artistic perspective one can take, the existential gaze.

    To go even further one need only to use property addition or subtraction, to create the abstract within linguistic or artistic bounds.

    As I have looked and looked at nature, I have come up with less and less to be poetic about. Been there done that. But if you have the existential gaze, as mentioned above that gaze allows one to know that they can always go back to the filled canvas and create a new look from an old look.

    My theory of infinite variation makes the potential creativity one can exhume from the world of phenomena, boundless, and the existential gaze is all that is required for artistic prowess to run over that world.

    Morality is not often like this, as some laws are set in stone. But any person that works in the legal system knows the minor yet profuse changes in laws that takes place all the time.
  • Brett
    768
    What I was looking at primarily was the idea that art once explained and contained an understanding and reinforcement of morality. Very early art was not there for meaningless decoration or entertainment. The bible is an instance of this, the Old Testement anyway. All the myths and legends of different cultures perform the same act. Body decoration, sculpture, stories, all had a purpose. When art became entertainment then its content changed, it become meaningless. It reflected the lose direction of contemporary culture. But because of our way of turning to these art forms for moral sustenance we ingest what is meaningless or shallow and in ignorance take it for the real thing. What is there to replace the real thing, to serve it’s purpose once it was gone? Current art is essentially a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
  • Brett
    768
    I imagine that morality wasn’t explained, or justified, but demonstrated through those ancient art forms. Dance told a story, it explained and instructed. Sometimes these things were kept from youths or the sexes. They carried a special weight in that culture. But these dances weren’t how we perceive dance today.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    5.9k
    In her book “Wickedness” Mary Midgley wrote that ‘It is one main function of cultures to accumulate insights on this matter (morality; our motivation, ambivalence, wasted efforts, damage) , to express them in clear ways as far as possible, and so to maintain a rich treasury of past thought and experience which will save us the trouble of continually starting again from scratch.Brett

    I think, that in morality the need to start again from scratch cannot be dismissed. This is because morality starts from the top, the ideal, and all the moral principles follow from the ideal. So as time passes, the knowledge which human beings have come to possess changes radically, so that the ideal must be approached all over again, and redefined in light of the new knowledge. This is a starting again from scratch, and I think it is also why Plato was so hard on the artists. The artists are prone to repeating over and over the old principles, from the past, which must be erased in order to put forward new ones.
  • TheMadFool
    3.4k
    One thing about art that I think has relevance to morality is its ability to explore, through pure fiction, moral conundrums - a narrative may be constructed around a moral gedanken experiment.
  • Brett
    768
    This is part of my interest; are morals that malleable? Some morals have never changed: the universal taboo in incest, the complicated issue of killing. These morals have made us what we are in that they enabled us to deal with complications. Starting again from scratch is not only questionable but dangerous. It makes morality relative.
  • Brett
    768
    Unless we want to be something different than what we are.
  • Brett
    768
    yes I agree, it’s an explainer.
  • Brett
    768
    yes, I agree, the artists do repeat old principles, and is that not always morality do you think? Morality is not the same as law, though, is it?
  • Brett
    768
    but it’s also true that Plato believed opinions should come from a particular part of society, presumably those who supposedly know what is best for everyone. I’m also reminded of the erasure of the past by The Khmer Rouge and others.
  • andrewk
    2.1k
    ... From the earliest myths to the most recent novels, all writing that is not fundamentally cheap and frivolous is meant to throw light on the difficulties of the human situation ... ‘Mary Midgely
    That sounds a bit grumpy, and highly inaccurate. Writing really good comedy is a high art form, and at its best is timeless. My children love Monty Python as much now as I did forty years ago. It doesn't shed much light on the human condition, but it's certainly not cheap, and has been enormously influential - in a good way, I would say.

    Throwing light on the human condition is one of the things literature can do, and a very important one. But it is by no means the only thing that makes literature worthwhile.

    I agree with you that the arts can help us to "explore our morals and human situation", but I don't agree that they have become shallow and meaningless. There is plenty of great art around now. There is also an enormous load of dross. But it has always been thus. I see no cause for pessimism.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.1k
    My children love Monty Python as much now as I did forty years ago.andrewk

    Before I checked in with TPF, I was watching an old BBC interview program in which John Cleese and another Python were defending recently released The Life of Brian against Malcom Muggeridge and some aged Anglican bishop. The two old farts were lamenting the state of western civilization, and how TLOB mocked Christ, and so on and so forth. I thought Muggeridge and this old bishop had probably contributed a lot more to the near death experience of Christianity in England than Monte Python and all their works did.

    Right, I wouldn't recommend anybody watch Monte Python for moral uplift -- that's not what they do. I'm not sure the bishop does that either, frankly. Or Muggeridge. Watch Python for inspired humor and a good laugh.

    As you say, Andrew, literature (and the arts all combined) provide a lot of services for us--intellectually, emotionally, morally, and more.

    Culture does provide time & trouble saving teaching through parents teaching their children how to behave -- that's the first crack that "the culture" gets. School, church, the playground, and so forth add on more later.
  • andrewk
    2.1k
    I was watching an old BBC interview program in which John Cleese and another Python were defending recently released The Life of Brian against Malcom Muggeridge and some aged Anglican bishop.Bitter Crank
    That was a legendary episode. So much so that the BBC made a TV drama about it a few years back. Quite engaging and interesting as I recall. Worth watching if one can find out how.
  • Brett
    768
    I think she was making a destination between the dross that is always there and the work that is created by people serious about what they do. Those who wrote Mony Python are serious about what they do, and you’re right that comedy is a high art form. But my interest is in the work that explains our sense of morality, the difficulty living it, and the consequences of it being ignored.

    I guess I’m trying to focus on two things:

    a: that morality exists as an objective set of guides on our behaviour (I await the howls).

    b: that art, primarily writing, explains it: Homer, Shakespeare, Doestoevsky.

    By art I mean that which carries a weight that has cultural significance. Artists as we think of them now have not always existed. Myths, rituals, ceremonies, legends, those are the sort of thing I’m referring to. Do we have writers like Homer, Shakespeare or Doestoevsky? I don’t think so. And if there was would they be read by many?

    This sort of writing is not what people are reading, even if the number of books sold is increasing. Film can tell these sorts of stories, but they rarely do.
  • Brett
    768
    If, as I’m suggesting, we have traditionally turned to these artists for understanding and interpretation, and we have done it instinctively, and still turn to artist for explanation instinctively, then we are digesting without realising it an idea of morality which is not really there, but we think it is and take it on as real. The dross then carries the influence and explanation, which is no explanation.
  • unenlightened
    3.8k
    'One function', maybe. Death of a Salesman comes to mind as bringing a new insight to the ideology of America, and the world. But it's not just a matter of good and evil, it's far more important than that.
  • Brett
    768
    can you go into that a bit more?
  • andrewk
    2.1k
    Do we have writers like Homer, Shakespeare or Doestoevsky?Brett
    JM Coetzee immediately springs to mind. He's still alive and writing.
    And John Steinbeck, going back a few decades. The Grapes of Wrath changed my life.
    Nick Hornby is not as deep as Coetzee, but I think he matches with Shakespeare, and is still writing.
    Vikram Seth is another. I found An Equal Music profound, beautiful, moving and insightful.
    Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day, An artist of the floating world)
    David Mitchell (not the funny one) - Cloud Atlas and number9dream

    I am currently reading Le Liseur du 6h27, a short but moving and perplexing book. Apparently it was a bestseller in France, which says something about the French, as it is much too perplexing and strange to ever be popular in the Anglophone world. I have noticed there's a lot more reading on trains in France than where I live.

    I find the authors above to have significantly greater moral depth than Shakespeare or Homer, who were primarily entertainers rather than artists. Dostoevsky is a different kettle of fish.
    I would put JK Rowling on a par with Shakespeare, for her inventiveness, clever use of language, mixture of drama and comedy, and the strong memorability of the characters she creates.

    And, picking up the Death of a Salesman ref - Arthur Miller. I believe that play plus The Crucible to be amongst the greatest plays ever written.
  • andrewk
    2.1k
    that art, primarily writing, explains [morality]: Homer, Shakespeare, Doestoevsky.Brett
    This doesn't sit well with the notion that morality is objective, because Dostoevsky's morality - which is essentially deontological and divine-command-based - is a thousand miles from that of Homer, which is that of an honour society where bravery meant everything and compassion nothing. And neither of them would agree with the secular, compassion-based morality that we see in Steinbeck, and that imbues most of Western culture, when it can be bothered to be moral.
  • unenlightened
    3.8k
    can you go into that a bit more?Brett

    I can say more words... Those ones were stolen and adapted from...

    Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that. — Bill Shankly

    Science merely reflects the world, and reaches its zenith in truth and utility. But Art does much more, and it can be seen in cave paintings, and modern works mentioned by others. It operates by invocation, calling into being. It makes possible what was impossible, thinkable what was unthinkable, moral what was immoral and vice versa.
  • Terrapin Station
    11.6k
    As someone who loves "art for art's sake," I'm not at all fond of people more or less demanding that the arts (at least if they're to be good, worthwhile, etc.) serve some other function, whether moral, political, practical, illustrative, etc. And I also strongly dislike what I call the "realism fetish."

    I like music, for example, because I like the art of sound. I'm attracted to certain combinations of melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, phrasing, etc. That's what moves me with music.

    I like paintings because I like certain combinations of forms and colors and textures, etc.

    Not that I dislike representationalism in the arts, but with that, I like fantasy, "fancy," etc. Show me what you can imagine, for its own sake.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    5.9k
    I guess I’m trying to focus on two things:

    a: that morality exists as an objective set of guides on our behaviour (I await the howls).

    b: that art, primarily writing, explains it: Homer, Shakespeare, Doestoevsky.
    Brett

    I do not think it is correct to say that art explains morality. That's why Plato worked to build a separation between philosophy and art. Art may express different forms of morality, but philosophy explains morality. There is a metaphysical distinction between "beauty" and "good", although these two get tied up with each other as the inspiration for philosophy. If we seek what Is "good", we find that each particular good, is only objectified in relation to a further end. What makes it "good", is that it is useful for some further purpose. On the other hand, "beauty" (and this is what art gives us), is sought simply for the sake of itself. This places "beauty" as the thing with highest value (sought for the sake of itself), necessarily higher than ethical goods (which are sought for the sake of something else). Plato seems to have been perplexed by this, especially since pleasure gets placed in the category of "beauty", as sought for the sake of itself. Thinking that "good" ought to be higher than "beauty" he sought the philosophical principles to reverse that hierarchy.

    What Plato didn't quite grasp, and what Aristotle brought out later in his Nichomachean Ethics, is the importance of "activity", in defining human nature. So when Aristotle looks for the highest good, what puts an end to the chain of "some further purpose", he posits "happiness", and happiness takes the place of "beauty". But happiness still seems to be missing something in relation to human existence because it is natural for human beings to be active. So he proceeds to look for a highest activity. And this is how "good" may supersedes "beauty" as the pinnacle in the hierarchy. By designating human activity as higher than passivity, "good" is now of a higher importance than "beauty" as the inspiration for activity. No longer is activity apprehended as necessarily the means to an end, but the activity, as good, becomes the end in itself.

    So back to your quote above, what morality gives us is the inspiration to act well. Therefore a) is a misrepresentation of morality, as it describes more of a statement of ethics (rules for behaviour), whereas morality involves the inspiration to act properly. And your question seems to be whether or not art can give us that inspiration to act. Referring back to the distinction between "beauty" and "good", art seems to give us beauty, but it may not give us the inspiration to act, which is the good.
  • Bitter Crank
    8.1k
    Do we have writers like Homer, Shakespeare or Doestoevsky?Brett

    We do not, and we do not have Homer's and Shakespeare's time, either. Dostoyevsky is obviously much closer to us.

    Question: Are you an active reader of Homer, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky, or are they placeholders for an idealized literature?

    I have read Homer and I can't say I came away with much satisfaction. Shakespeare is more accessible, closer to us, but I'd take Dostoyevsky over the other two, any day.

    I quit focusing on "great literature" a while back. 19th/20th century history and essays on the contemporary world have taken their place; biography, letters, etc. Short stories, some of which are great literature, are more appealing.

    I read fiction, certainly -- but I'm looking for engrossing story lines and interesting characters at this point. Great moral messages, not much.
  • Mww
    864


    Well said. Especially Aristotle’s contributions.
  • Brett
    768
    As usual with these discussions things start firing of in all directions. What also happens is that I can be drawn away from my original thoughts, which is fine because it helps clarify things for me.

    Using the word art is a bit unhelpful, because we generally turn to current or more recent forms of art, which is not what it once was. When I talk about art I’m talking about what was used to communicate with people throughout time and different cultures: myths, legends, rituals, plays, writing, sculpture, the spoken word.

    These ‘art’ forms explained, replayed, or reinforced contemporary ideas on morality, among other things. There is no doubt they were entertainment as well. They held things together and aided in addressing contemporary conflicts or doubts. Those morals are consistent throughout our own history. Not much has really changed.

    Philosophy may explain morals, but art is how they are transmitted to the people. And it is not there to instruct, (rules for behaviour as someone has said), but to help address and overcome the dilemma they are faced with, instead of starting from scratch every time a problem arises. Otherwise we would not have evolved so successfully and so rapidly.

    Nor am I saying art must serve a function. It has no desire to do so because this ‘art’ springs from the people. It does not instruct them, it aids in solving problems and dilemmas, which as I said, saves a lot of time instead of addressing a problem from scratch every time it arises.

    Writers like Homer, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky are relevant to their time. I’m not suggesting that we should have people who write like them. But the morality in their stories is not that much different from where we stand today.

    When I refer to Homer I'm referring to The Odyssey, which is a tale of morality, so was King Lear. The Brothers Karamazov is a complex story about faith and doubt in God and a world without a God and consequently without God’s moral order, a world of moral freedom; everything is permitted. I’m not an expert on these writers, I’ve chosen them because of their different periods and despite that the stories about morality are not dissimilar. How could they be?
  • Brett
    768
    [
    So back to your quote above, what morality gives us is the inspiration to act well. Therefore a) is a misrepresentation of morality, as it describes more of a statement of ethics (rules for behaviour), whereas morality involves the inspiration to act properly. And your question seems to be whether or not art can give us that inspiration to act. Referring back to the distinction between "beauty" and "good", art seems to give us beauty, but it may not give us the inspiration to act, which is the good.Metaphysician Undercover

    I need to think about this for a bit.
  • Terrapin Station
    11.6k
    Using the word art is a bit unhelpful, because we generally turn to current or more recent forms of art,Brett

    Music is at least as old as any other sort of art, by the way. Art wasn't always for "communicating" in the practical sense of that term.
  • Brett
    768
    Music is not really my field. But I don’t know if music would be as old as carving. However singing, chanting, the human voice would be. Which is of course how stories, morals, are passed on down to the next generation.
  • Brett
    768
    So back to your quote above, what morality gives us is the inspiration to act well. Therefore a) is a misrepresentation of morality, as it describes more of a statement of ethics (rules for behaviour), whereas morality involves the inspiration to act properly. And your question seems to be whether or not art can give us that inspiration to act. Referring back to the distinction between "beauty" and "good", art seems to give us beauty, but it may not give us the inspiration to act, which is the good.Metaphysician Undercover

    Yes, I agree that morality gives us the inspiration to act well, not a set of rules for behaviour. It can do that because the sense of morality is already inherent in people. The ‘art’ I talk about might be considered a meditation on morality and everything it covers, a story for each dilemma. So by using ‘explain’ I’m being a bit careless.

    Just on beauty in art, which I’m not talking about at all; Greek philosophy and as a consequence art was when beauty became a subject, I imagine Plato would not have considered anything other than Greek art actually art, nor would he have known very little about other far flung cultures and their ‘art’. So the distinction between ‘beauty’ and ‘good’ is really a Greek dilemma. For those far flung cultures art is not about beauty, but purpose and inspiration.
  • Metaphysician Undercover
    5.9k
    Just on beauty in art, which I’m not talking about at all; Greek philosophy and as a consequence art was when beauty became a subject, I imagine Plato would not have considered anything other than Greek art actually art, nor would he have known very little about other far flung cultures and their ‘art’. So the distinction between ‘beauty’ and ‘good’ is really a Greek dilemma. For those far flung cultures art is not about beauty, but purpose and inspiration.Brett

    I think you're somewhat wrong about Plato here. He was quite exposed to foreign cultures, and that he noticed the differences between them is evident in his moral philosophy. For him, "beauty" was attributable to all things artificial. The fact that they are created is what makes them beautiful. So art, no matter what culture it comes from is beautiful.

    However, the issue has not been removed from us today. When we look at "good", or "virtue", there is an opposite to it, "bad", or "vice". In morality therefore, we distinguish human acts by the opposing principles of good and bad. But it's not proper to hand such negativity to art.; to say that art, which is not your favourite art, is ugly or some such negative thing. By the very fact that it is art, it has beauty.

    So in the case of "art" we have totally removed the negative things from the category. Art is creativity, and generation, while the negative of this, destruction and corruption, do not even get into the class of "art". But in "morality" we haven't progressed to that point of removing the negative, "immoral" from the category of "moral". We think that judging human acts according to the opposing principles of good and bad somehow gives that judgement objectivity. But this is false, it's an illusion. That's the illusion of sophistry which Plato tried to expose.

    In reality, "good" and "bad", being used as opposing principles, only obtain objectivity in relation to some further principles. As Plato demonstrated, this may be the opposing principles of pleasure and pain. But he demonstrated that we cannot get to satisfactory moral principles through this method of opposition, as "good" by its very nature, cannot have such an opposition. So we need to look to art and creativity as the exemplar of "good" human activity. Then we see that every human act, to the extent that it is intentional and therefore aims at some "good", is itself good. The very nature of being an active human, is good. And in this way we can remove "bad", and "evil", right out of the category of "moral being", as all acts of the moral being are carried out for some good, and we can produce a more truly objective judgement of morality.
bold
italic
underline
strike
code
quote
ulist
image
url
mention
reveal
youtube
tweet
Add a Comment

Welcome to The Philosophy Forum!

Get involved in philosophical discussions about knowledge, truth, language, consciousness, science, politics, religion, logic and mathematics, art, history, and lots more. No ads, no clutter, and very little agreement — just fascinating conversations.