The Moral Imperative of Beauty

Our aesthetic evaluations are moral imperatives. Beauty presents itself to us not just as an appearance, but as an appeal, and as an alluring proposal for how we might live, and indeed therefore ought to live. If we had no practical interest in beauty and its reproduction in and by our acts, it would be to us dead, flat, mute. It would be, precisely, uninteresting. We would not find it significant or important. Indeed, we would not even notice it.

And aesthetic evaluations cannot but be moral evaluations.

To find one thing more beautiful than another is to find it better; to find it uglier is to find it worse.

Our interest in the beautiful is our interest in discovering how we might be better.

Ugliness contrariwise presents itself as a caveat. It is repulsive. Disgust is the “ugh” in ugliness. It is an aesthetic evaluation of experience that motivates us to take action. We want to flee from it, and we ought to do so. To find a thing repulsive is to find that avoiding it is proper, morally appropriate – good.

Being eo ipso moral evaluations, aesthetic feelings are a guide to morals.

Beauty and ugliness then are moral imperatives. They tell us how we ought to live – not just we ourselves individually, but we together, communally. To feel that a scene or a tune is beautiful is to feel that it is just and proper for society to be so ordered as to reproduce its sort more often; to feel that it is ugly is to feel that society ought to be so ordered as to prevent it and its ilk.

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The West’s Cultural Continuity: Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne

Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners – Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold – to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term “Dark Ages” to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic tribal self-assertion in the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term “Dark Ages” insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. Yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.

Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are – to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film – ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.

In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them. For one thing, Europeans never lost contact with the Byzantine Greeks, who blithely went on being scholarly classicists until Mehmet II bloodily vanquished Constantinople in 1453, slaughtering the literate elites and forcing the peasantry to submit to Allah. The Eighth-Century English church-chronicler Bede reports in his Ecclesiastical History that one of the first bishops of Canterbury, Theodore, was an educated Greek. The Twelfth-Century Icelandic mythographer Snorri Sturlusson suggests in his Edda that the Norse gods were actually Trojan heroes escaping, like Aeneas, from Agamemnon’s destruction of their city – an interpretation that implies his knowledge of the theory called Euhemerism. Eighth-Century England and twelfth-Century Iceland were remote places, but, in Bede and Snorri, one can attest links to the classical tradition.

Facts like these could easily be multiplied – and a man who multiplies them with muscularity and clear-sightedness is the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim, who documents them in his remarkable book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les raciness grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Seuil, 2008). [Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe.] The book is not as yet translated, but it deserves to be known to Anglophone audiences because it brings important truths to many a contemporary conversation.

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The Proper Terminus of Any Science

Explanations, and the understandings they mediate, must all terminate (at least in principle) upon *some singularity or other* if they are to hang together – if they are to succeed as explanations by satisfying our urge to understand. This is as true for explanations of singular phenomena as it is for explanations of regularities. Science then, of any sort, has no alternative but to adduce some singularity or other as the original fact or truth at the basis of all others. The terminus ad quem of the scientific project must be an account of the terminus a quo of all things: a terminal singularity. This, whether the posited singularity be a historical event such as the Big Bang, or a fundamental equation that can work as a Theory of Everything, or what have you.

But only one sort of terminal singularity can ultimately succeed – not at completing inquiry, for (per Gödel) that completion is not possible to finite beings, but rather at satisfying them that things cohere intelligibly. Only one sort of terminal singularity can set the scientist’s mind finally and fully at ease.

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Value is Conserved

I have long been intrigued by the conservation laws. Conservation of energy, momentum, charge, and so forth all seem to point to a more basic conservation, of which they are all instances. I was therefore interested to read in Bill Dembski’s latest book, Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information, his discussion of Conservation of Information in search routines. He has apparently demonstrated (I have not read the demonstrations, which appear in the technical literature he cites in the book) that increasing the likelihood of a successful search – i.e., a search that has an object and finds it – over and above the walk of a blind drunkard who is not looking for anything in particular may be accomplished only through additional investment of information in the search routine. This can be done in a number of ways: by a more comprehensive specification of the configuration of the object, or by adding a feedback circuit to the algorithm, or by adding strange attractors to the configuration space (so that the environment of the search itself embodies more information) or some other similar measure. But any such improvements of search efficiency – of the likelihood of success – come at a cost of their own: it takes information to inform the search. At best, then, informed search will cost just as much as blind search, and cannot cost less. But then also if the information added to the routine is not essentially perfect – free of noise and error – then the addition will cost more information than it saves: the overall cost of the search, plus the cost of the search for the improvements to that search, will exceed the cost of random wandering about the configuration space.

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Philosophy versus Tradition

Many reactionaries complain that capitalism is eo ipso inimical to tradition. I disagree about that: it is liberal or deranged capitalism that is the problem; so that the problem is not with capitalism per se – which is really nothing other than the natural and basic form of human economic coordination, rooted at bottom in the exchange of gifts and favors, in the love we bear for each other as friends, neighbours and relatives, and so is the default to which all societies recur (and must recur, or else falter and dwindle) – but with its derangement. Latter day capitalism is sick, to be sure. But so is our whole society, beset in all her members and organs by the maladies and diseases by which we infect and corrupt her, a wounded animal struggling ever to heal herself, again and again deformed and crippled by our manifold political foolishness and iterated moral and intellectual insanities.

It’s not economics that is intrinsically inimical to tradition, but philosophy. In a traditional society, there would be no such thing. In a traditional society, no one would wonder how to be a good man, or what the meaning and purpose of life might be, or how and by what agencies the world is ordered. In a healthy traditional society, such questions would not even occur to anyone, because from earliest childhood everyone would have understood the ancient answers handed down by their forefathers from the very beginnings of time. No other answers would be even conceivable. Contrary doctrines would be greeted with outrage, horror and disgust.

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The Medium Actually Is the Message

Meaning is not epiphenomenal to anything. It is not just some superfluity added to physical causation, or riding it, like scum on the surface of a river. By the same token, physical causation is not some raw medium suitable for the occasional, adventitious carriage of information, but dumb in itself. All being is somehow cooked – i.e., formed. And formation is always an outcome of some act, that is ordered toward, and so intends, some end. The formation of every actuality is thus teleological, an intelligence and the product of some intelligence – even if only the intelligence inherent in even simple things like electrons.[1] In no other way could things be the least bit intelligible. You can’t grasp the intelligence of a thing, can’t coherently tie it to other things, if it is not truly intelligent in the first place.[2]

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Immergence

When a complex orderly phenomenon such as consciousness arises in matter, it is these days often ascribed to a mysterious emergence of properties implicit in those of its material substrates. But really it goes the other way. Consciousness – ordered form in general – does not emerge from the material substrate of our world. It rather immerges thereto, from elsewhere. Novelty of all sorts is added to history from without.

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Sins are Crippled Virtues

Satan tempts us with true goods. In proper measure and fit proportion, in meet circumstance and due season, they would be really good for us.

Sinful acts are expressions of desires that are disordered either with respect to ends or to means, that if properly ordered would serve the Good, and would leave us satisfied in a way that sin cannot, even as they nourished the fullest flourish of our being that our circumstances permit.

For example, God provided us with desires for food and sex. These are true goods, even in the event that they are good adaptations to a fallen world, which we would never have felt were wanting but for the sin of Adam. But when they are perverted from their proper ends or unduly emphasized – whether too much or too little – then they frustrate our proper orientation even to this fallen world, and reduce the beauty it might otherwise produce.

So our desire for sins is due to the fact that they produce results for us that we are engineered to seek. Sex and food are natural and proper to men, and both lust and gluttony produce some of what we are organically designed to need of them. That’s why we engage in them. But perverted acts can’t quite provide to us all the goods that properly ordered acts would, or that we are therefore engineered to feel is sufficient. This is one of the reasons that sinful desires are insatiable. As a restless night of fitful sleep leaves us desperate for true rest, so perverted sex or a poor diet leave us weak, vaguely uncomfortable and desiring more.

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