Thursday, November 6, 2014

Marcus Aurelius and Everyday Aesthetics

Stoic philosophers are not generally known for their views on aesthetics.  In my book I briefly discuss one passage in which Marcus Aurelius talks about appreciation of a loaf of bread, and more recently, one of my students, Max Goldberg, posted a comment on this in this blog.   More, I think can be said, and in a way that breaks down some of the artificial boundaries between ethics and aesthetics.  But before I start I should say that there is a reason for a disconnect between Stoic philosophy and aesthetics, an this should not be downplayed.  When, for example Marcus talks about death (here I will be using the Gregory Hays translation, Modern Library, 2003) he defines it as "the end of sense perception, of being controlled by our emotions, of mental activity, of enslavement to our bodies" (75), implying that "in death, we are through with that!" This attitude of negativity towards sense perception and the body seems to allow little room for the aesthetic.  At the same time, some of the moral qualities that Marcus describes can be seen as having an aesthetic dimension.  There is a certain aesthetic of moral character.  For example, when, on the same page, he describes the moral qualities of his adoptive father Emperor Antoninus, he describes his "calm expression."  This is surely something that can be seen, and "calm" here seems an aesthetic quality.  Similarly, he observes that "nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us." (80)  One might even say that there is an aesthetic of the ascetic lifestyle advocated by Marcus.  There is also the general attitude towards nature, a theodicy in which the things that may appear ugly are actually beautiful in the eyes of God:  "Everything derives from it - that universal mind - either as effect or consequence.  The lion's jaws, the poisonous substances and every harmful thing - from thorns to mud ....are by-products of the good and beautiful."  (77)  If all things spring from the universal mind then they can be seen as by-products of the good and beautiful.  There is moreover something lovely about the following vision of the interconnectedness of all things:  "Keep reminding yourself of the way things are connected, of their relatedness.  All things are implicated in one another and in sympathy with each other.  This event is the consequence of some other one.  Things push and pull on each other, and breath together, and are one."  (77)   And, again, "Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy, none of its parts are unconnected.  They are composed harmoniously, and together they compose the world."  (86) This same claim could be made by a Buddhist like Thich Nhat Hanh, and it has the same kind aesthetic implication for everyday life. 

The aesthetic approach of Marcus is hardly sympathetic to one aspect of everyday aesthetics, i.e. popular entertainment.  He writes, for example, "Pointless bustling of processions, opera arias, herds of sheep and cattle, military exercises.  A bone flung to pet poodles, a little food in the fish tank.  The miserable servitude of ants, scampering of frightened mice, puppets jerked on strings." (85) This seems at least in part a criticism of human concerns for everyday pleasures. 

Mental tranquility plays and important role in Stoic ethics:  but isn't this aesthetic as well?  "the mind's requirements are satisfied by doing what we should, and by the clam it brings us."  (90).  Kant would just mention doing what we should...but Marcus adds "calm."  

At the beginning of this note I stressed the difficulty to using Marcus Aurelius to think about everyday aesthetics, and I suggested that we need to think of his aesthetic as an austere and minimalist one that stresses inner calmness over external sensation.  He tells us to "resist our body's urges.  because things driven by impulses and sensations, both of which are merely corporeal.  Thought seeks to be their master, not their subject.  And so it should:  they were created for its use."  (94)  But perhaps if thought does control them then they can please us?  Perhaps the Stoic aesthetic is what happens after thought has controlled the bodily. When this is achieved you get this:  "What the body needs is stability.  To be impervious to jolts in all it is and does.  The cohesiveness and beauty that intelligence lends to the fact - that's what the body needs.  But it should come without effort."  (95) 

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