Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Being versus Acting: The Ethical Dilemma of Morality

Stranded bucket at the shore of a bay

When we hear that so-and-so is a “good” person, we automatically assume that the person in question is a virtuous and moral being. But is it enough to simply "be" a good person? Can we simply equate being good with a moral person?

Plato would probably say yes. We should strive for the Good, and from this state all else would flow naturally. It is a state of spiritual enlightenment where all the "good" qualities would be reunited in the person. As Socrates put it, evil exists only because of people's ignorance; illuminate them with knowledge of the good, and they will act less out of self-interest and more for the common good. Is such a stance valid?

Aristotle disagrees. For him, morality is less a state of being; it is rather action-based. One is, as the existentialists tend to say, the "sum total of one's acts." In such a view, neither intentions nor dreams or wishful thinking are of any practical value. That a person always dreamed and meant to become a humanitarian does not make that person a humanitarian. Actions speak louder than words, whereas dreams may be seen as unfulfilled hopes and promises.

There may be a manner to separate the one from the other by applying different terms to each. Normally, when we talk of morality, we mean the “set of beliefs” influencing the individual from outside, with society, culture and religion as their mediators, whereas the study of individual actions of a person would fall into the category of “ethics.” However, there are still shady parts even in ethics. We might act contrary to moral traditions and beliefs, but what about acting contrary to one's own personal beliefs? What about those instances when our actions contradict our convictions?

Which view is correct? Aristotle may be right by focusing on the concrete actions versus the abstract ideals of an individual. The reason for this is that many people like to portray or pass themselves off as good and moral beings despite a lack of (f)actual evidence for such a claim.

Nonetheless, one should not forget that acts themselves can be deceiving. Many people use this fa├žade to make us see them as moral people, while inside they are driven by ferocious hunger and blind ambition. It is doing good not for its own sake but aimed at furthering one's needs and desires.

Returning to the initial proposition by Plato and Socrates, we might reach a point of consciousness where the self vanishes in and becomes one with the multitude. Then, being cannot be possibly separated from doing, and it would resemble the wu-wei of the Taoist, doing without doing, and being constantly and steadily immersed in a good, balanced moral life. In such a case, the internal would become the external, and the moral body would be whole and complete.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sophistry, Flattery, Art and Philosophy in a Commercial World

Various American hundred dollar bills


In the modern understanding of the word, “sophistry” has a decisively negative connotation. It refers to people who envelop, even purposely trick and deceive you with words. Nonetheless, the original sophists were a group of wandering philosophers; they would charge money for sharing their knowledge and were known for their reasoning skills as well as their manners of persuasion.

The ancient Greek sophists, and often Socrates is mixed up with them, were said to be “corrupters of youth” as their teachings often clashed with the conservative and age-old traditions of the Greek forefathers. By providing youth with a different definition of truth - away from the mindless following of rules and a more sharpened awareness of one's own impact on the world – these philosophers must have caused resentment in a society that preferred the already established morals and values.

In this case, one should, however, point out that Socrates (and his pupil Plato shared this view) did not necessarily like the sophists, not so much because of their teaching, but for the fact that they had the audacity to ask for money for something that everybody is said to already possess. Socrates compared himself to the midwife who brings out the truth in each individual, and he considered it rather immoral to ask anything in return for his work as a truth-seeking philosopher.

However, there are more problems arising from this situation. It is, to put it in modern jargon, making commerce of a profession that ought to be kept pure from monetary influences. If money is allowed to enter the philosophical realm, then the quest for wisdom becomes tarnished.

Why? Because others might be prone to use flattery for profit and popular esteem. When the person is given the truth he or she “wants” to hear, they would be more willing to pay; yet when you tell them unpleasant facts about themselves, your profit margin would tend to decrease.

Compare it to a visit to the local psychic. People who go there have a predominant question on their minds, and they want to hear a certain truth or reassurance to come out the mouth of the psychic to collaborate their own initial beliefs to begin with. The psychic would be tempted to supply this preconceived “truth” so that the client remains satisfied and comes back for more, regardless of the validity of the statements.

Not to say that all sophists - or even psychics - behave in such a manner, but in a world where money and popular opinion rule, flattery becomes salient. A good example for this would be the modern obsession with media. Media has become another form of entertainment by feeding people more often than not what they want to hear. The media becomes rather focused on making profit instead of providing objective facts.

The actual truth about the matter will be on the back-burner when it comes to what actually sells; the media often falls into the trap of adjusting or tailoring to people's needs, fears and tastes, thereby becoming empty of value and truth.

This “commercialization” has unfortunately managed to spill even into areas such as art and literature. Many artists find it hard to resist the temptation or rather trap of “pleasing the crowds.” They would become less of an aggressor and critic of social customs and instead serve what people have been wanting to hear anyway.

This need for approval and for money is often so deeply ingrained that we, even as self-respecting artists, mostly do not realize on a conscious level how much we self-censor our own work to fit the paradigm that others consider art (even if we nobly deduct the financial aspect of it, we still want to “please” the ever-present critics). It is a pity, as the real unique voices that need to be expressed become muffled, mired or even drowned in commercial mud, and all we are left with is often a clever, yet meaningless and vacant sophistry of words and thoughts.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An Ancient Greek Sense of Female Beauty: The Platonic Aspirations of an Aesthetic Lover

Beautiful naked woman at the beach
The Wave by William-Adolphe Bouguereau


A true aesthete is concerned and fascinated by beauty itself, by beauty for its own sake. It could be nature, an object of art, a real person or even a life-style. It may have its roots in the eyes of a beholder, yet mostly it manages to transcend the perspective of one unique being and becomes a sample or carnation of its absolute ideal and immaculate (Platonic) form.

It is the answer to the question what is beauty and how it is represented. What makes a face or body appealing or attractive? Although one's personal standards are different, when we agree on and sum up each particle of beauty, we will manage to conceive a picture of the whole, the “big picture”. A perfectly beautiful woman would be the perfect proportions of all beautiful features combined and enmeshed with a beautiful soul.

Beauty by today's standards is less that quest for the ideal, but rather a quick and hasty appropriation and supposed ownership of the object of beauty. A work of art that appeals to our senses, that we perceive as beautiful, we want to own. By buying it and putting a beautiful vase on our table, we have the chance of observing it at our own will and pleasure. We have, in other words, beauty at our hands and disposal.

When we have had our fill of the desired object, we believe that a more complete, more superior and more gratifying beauty can be found somewhere else. An art collector will not be satisfied with a few pieces; they need to have the whole ensemble of artistic works.

So far I do not have any problems with the conception of beauty. Yet it becomes rather complicated when we are talking about a person. The person becomes then the object we would like to possess, and that feeling that drives us is often given its romantic - and euphemistic - name “love”. As Nietzsche, not exactly a romantic but still quite a passionate man, claims love is more often than not a power struggle of possession and ownership between people.

Beauty may walk on the streets, but our desire of owning it will always burn within us. We are not merely satisfied with watching and admiring beautiful people on the street, we want to make them our own. In our modern lingo possession either becomes a quick sexual encounter or an attempt of “everlasting” marriage or commitment. Through either of these options we (falsely) believe that the beautiful object is going to be always there within our reach.

The other day I was admiring two beautiful women on the bus. Usually, from past habit, I would be tempted to talk to them, to try to win them over, to conquer them, to own them. Whenever beauty happened to pass by, I would sigh with sadness and believe I was the one constantly left and missing out from the beautiful game of love.

But now with rather more mature eyes and a shot of Greek, in particular Platonic philosophy, I have learned to appreciate beauty for its own sake. It is also a Buddhist kind of “letting go.” I feel no pressure in observing the beautiful person and enjoying the person's (physical) beauty the same way one enjoys watching a sun disappear on the horizon. It is fleeting yes, but by separating the sense of beauty from all other sensations and desires, one can look at beauty without pressure or pain, yet simply with the eyes of a lover of life and wisdom, namely as beauty for beauty's sake.