(Part 10 of Ten)
(continued from Part 9 of Ten)
The unexamined life is not worth living.
When someone comments about a fine work of art, he is likely to say more about himself than the art he observes. When the artists to whom I refer in Part 9 of this article practice their art, their films say as much about the artists’ personal ethics as the story and characters in their films do. There are writers, directors, actors, and producers of films who, from time to time, are in a position that makes it possible for them to blend stories, real events, and characters that enable them to demonstrate that fine ethical behavior is possible under the worst of circumstances.
Often, a film, e.g., Training Day, depicts life at its ugliest, but the underlying ethic of the film is exquisitely beautiful. Critics who denigrate and ridicule the moral values of a film on the grounds that it doesn’t reflect reality reveal that they know little about ethics, art, and real life.
There are also millions of average people who quietly practice fine ethics. They practice the art of understanding, compassion, and of life itself on a daily basis. Ethics is an art in itself. Its elegant simplicity may be expressed in quiet acts, often wordlessly, and not necessarily acknowledged by others.
Along with film and theater art, literature deals directly with ethics. Advise and Consent and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are works of art that explicitly deal with human behavior. That is why viewers and readers are drawn to make value judgments about both the content and an artist(s) level of achievement. A significant part of their adjudication may be subjective even though the work of art may be objective. For example, a communist may find Advise and Consent ‘non-objective’ because of his subjective fidelity to the concept of communism. A slave owner might have found Uncle Tom’s Cabin ‘non-objective’ because of his subjective belief that some humans were born to serve others. After all, Aristotle and Plato agreed on that point despite their disagreement on just about everything else.
The Hidden Axiom
Before I ever read a word of philosophy I was in love with fine art, especially that of the performing arts. They spoke to me directly, loud and clear. They still do. I hear the tragic sense of life in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony; the intense beauty of romantic love in Puccini’s La Boheme; the breadth of passion in Verdi’s Otello (Italian spelling). It’s all there in great music. It’s all there in Shakespeare. It’s all there in all the fine arts. They are life’s greatest expression.
Even though a symphony has no words, several of my friends define Rachmaninoff’s Second symphony as “a tragic sense of life” just as I do. Our separately discovered but identical description of the wordless symphony is not a coincidence. It is one of my many experiences with the arts that tell me art is at least as objective as E=MC2. I don’t believe that ethics and art require “naturalization papers” to be recognized as equals to Natural Science as a major branch of philosophy. Rising above nature does not disqualify ethics and art from being part of the whole truth about human existence: it enhances it.
Early in life I became aware that the deep issues of life are the same now as they were in antiquity. The forms they’ve taken in any society throughout history may appear different from generation to generation, but the essence of human dilemmas remains constant. That’s why philosophy was invented. Its branches successively sway in the winds of the relative and the absolute; its roots firmly grip the soil of the absolute.
The current dominance of relativism leaves less room for absolutes than ever. As breathtaking technology increasingly reveals the functions of brain matter, region-by-region, synapses-by-synapses, the study of ethics and esthetics are left to celebrities on television talk shows. In place of in-depth philosophic discussions about right and wrong (or good and evil) attention is paid on the conflict between the medial frontal gyrus and the posterior cingulate gyrus. The whole human being is lost to digital analysis.
Ironically, there seems to be greater concern about a cosmological end to humanity because of the death of the sun scheduled to occur about 4 1/2 billion years from now than there is concern about humankind’s potential self-destruction in the not too distant future.
There is more speculation about space travel that might take a sample of humanity to another planet or moon in the solar system to escape the cremation of earth and end of humanity than there is an effort to prevent some wandering meteor to finish the job that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Out of the stars came life. But stars don’t laugh, make music, or love. Humor, art, and love are notas scientists might put it’properties’ of hot stars or cold stones or neurological systems. It takes a sculptor to transform stone into a masterpiece like Michelangelo’s David. And our unrequited love for the stars is in itself testimony that animated stardust fundamentally differs from its physical origin. When I contemplate the origin of the universe and life, life is the greater mystery of the two. I love and am fascinated by cosmology and am in awe of the beauty of the stars, but I don’t look to the stars to understand life.
I have learned to separate what is relative from what is absolute; that free will enables us to shape our unique character whatever our DNA or environment (past or present) might be; that neither poverty nor wealth is what determines character or has a monopoly on what is good and what is evil and what is right or what is wrong; that there is a fundamental difference between arrogance and confidence; that the source of fine ethics and art may be complex, but the reason for them is not, nor are their fundamentals bound to a specific culture, race, ethnicity, and so on; that the development and practice of ethics should not be based on sacrifice to groups but rather on the comfort and peace that honesty and integrity provide an individual who simply and effortlessly lives the Golden Rule; and that the good life is a blend of knowledge, wisdom, and compassion.
I have learned to live life not as it is, but as it should be.