10 July 2006

Aesthetics and Ethics

Noah Webster: illicitly borrowing the Spot.The final point of discontinuity between myself and my commenters was the connection between aesthetics and ethics. I did assume the connection in my argument before, so I'll elaborate it a little more now.
Our goal here is to begin with God in all of our thinking, making him and his revelation the foundation for our thought so as to avoid foolishness. So we are not altogether methodologically sound when we start with a (standard but) secular dictionary's definition of aesthetics. We must simply remember that Merriam-Webster cannot be neutral in their discussion, and by ignoring God in the definition of beauty, they evidence not only a bankrupt definition of beauty but also a hatred for true beauty. However, despite their bankruptcy, I believe that M-W makes a(n illicitly borrowed but nonetheless) helpful predication about beauty. Namely, they associate aesthetics with pleasure. See for yourself.

1 plural but singular or plural in construction : a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty
2 : a particular theory or conception of beauty or art : a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight
3 plural : a pleasing appearance or effect :BEAUTY

The M-W definition of beauty is similarly associated with pleasure:

1 : the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit : LOVELINESS

But there is still something missing from the discussion. If we stopped here I think we would only have a foolish understanding of beauty. I think T. Robert Baylor has added the all-important missing ingredient to this understanding of aesthetics (emphasis mine):

I don't think that the use of aesthetic language necessarily implies a philosophical connection between morality and aesthetics; it seems more likely to me that the authors are borrowing aesthetic language to describe God's pleasure in proper ethical living.

Baylor notes that the authors of the Scriptures use "aesthetic language" because of "God's pleasure in ethical living." So I ask, what else could beauty be? Beauty, objectively considered, is what God takes pleasure in. In other words, God's affections define beauty. And because God is highest in his own affections, God is what Beauty is. The immense overlap between aesthetics and ethics should be becoming clear. Righteous actions please God because they conform to his nature which is the standard of beauty and highest in his affections. Beauty and good are united in him because his affections and character provide definition to both.


T. Baylor said...

I couldn't agree more with that quote from Baylor . . . he hit the nail on the head . . . however, I believe the intent of his quotation was to say that the Scripture is silent on certain matters of aesthetics but rather it uses the language of aesthetics to express God's pleasure in human morality almost exclusively. In terms of defining what we traditionally consider the field of aesthetics, the fine arts, the Bible is remarkably silent. While the Bible does describe moral/ethical rectitude as pleasing to God, we have moral absolutes defining what is pleasurable to him in regards to creaturely morality, we do not have such statements regarding the fine arts . . . thus how can we possibly know what is aesthetically acceptable to God, except the scripture say it? Furthermore, I think it would be remise for us to say that everything touching aesthetics in the general sense is moral, because some things the Bible associates with aesthetics, in the moral particular sense, are moral. I think this may be category confusion.

Jeremy Pittsley said...

I have written a response which is too long for a comment. I'm going to make it into a post for later.

For now, I do want to note that I have appreciated the tone of commenting here. It's a lot funner when nobody flies off the handle.

I also want to ask two questions. (1) What, in your view, is the foundation for evaluating whether something is beautiful or not? (2) How ought Christians relate to the fine arts?

The impression I get is that evaluating beauty and cultivating the fine arts is irrelevant for the Christian in your view. Is this an accurate impression?

I find that proposition distasteful because I have assumed the relevance of beauty and fine arts for a long time. But, if you really think it is irrelevant, I'll have to think through more specifically why I disagree with you.

T. Baylor said...

I too appreciate the tone . . . very amicable. The discussion has been helpful in shoring up my own thoughts, thanks for the posts.

I wouldn't necessarily claim that it is irrelevant. The appreciation of beauty is a means through which we enjoy and exult in God (1 Tim. 4:4). However, I would say that it is impossible for the Christian to make any claims to know what is, and what is not beautiful, where Scripture is silent on the matter.

Some circles define some music as licit and others as illicit on the basis of the excellency principle, and then proceed to define excellency on the basis of secular understandings of musical theory. My point is not that we ought to redefine excellent . . . my point is, in matters of what is pleasurable/pleasing, can we define a less pleasurable song as less excellent, and [in those same circles] less moral? To attach moral significance to having more or less pleasure from the fine arts seems irrelevant to me. Sure, we can all speak of songs which are more or less enjoyable [culture being an obvious, yet silent factor], however, I think we would be remiss in thinking that more or less pleasure from a song, is an issue of morality since the Bible is so remarkably silent on the issue.

Jeremy Pittsley said...

So you would say, there is no prescriptive beauty, then. Beauty is a term used only to describe what the observer likes, what appeals to her tastes, or what pleases her.

Do I understand you correctly?

T. Baylor said...

If you asking if the word beauty universally only refer to the experience of the observer, then I am not sure, though i would suspect that it is.