Aesthetics and Ethics…

On the whole, every new aesthetic reality makes man’s ethical reality more precise. For aesthetics is the mother of ethics; The categories of “good” and “bad” are, first and foremost, aesthetic ones, at least etymologically preceding the categories of “good” and “evil”. If in ethics not “all is permitted”, it is precisely because not “all is permitted” in aesthetics, because the number of colors in the spectrum is limited. The tender babe who cries and rejects the stranger or who, on the contrary, reaches out to him, does so instinctively, making an aesthetic choice, not a moral one.

Aesthetic choice is a highly individual matter, and aesthetic experience is always a private one. Every new aesthetic reality makes one’s experience even more private; and this kind of privacy, assuming at times the guise of literary (or some other) taste, can in itself turn out to be, if not as guarantee, then a form of defense against enslavement. For a man with taste, particularly literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy. The point is not so much that virtue does not constitute a guarantee for producing a masterpiece, as that evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist. The more substantial an individual’s aesthetic experience is, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer – though not necessarily the happier – he is.

–From Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel lecture, 1987


Posted on February 1, 2005, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. i’m having a tough time digesting the core argument put forth in this passage. Correct me if i’m wrong, but how can aesthetic sense translate into sharper moral focus? i do agree with this statement: For a man with taste, particularly literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy

    • Aren’t you sort of answering yourself?

      I think Brodsky said what he said, from his context as a Russian exile, and the suppression of Russian literature by the Communists. To quote him again, “I’ll just say that I believe – not empirically, alas, but only theoretically – that, for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens. And I am speaking precisely about reading Dickens, Sterne, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Balzac, Melville, Proust, Musil, and so forth; that is, about literature, not literacy or education. A literate, educated person, to be sure, is fully capable, after reading this or that political treatise or tract, of killing his like, and even of experiencing, in so doing, a rapture of conviction. Lenin was literate, Stalin was literate, so was Hitler; as for Mao Zedong, he even wrote verse.

      Inherent, but unsaid in his argument, is an assumption about “levels of being”, both from an aesthetic and ethical sense. (As an aside, I prefer the word ethical to moral, and I think that is what he means too. Morality is a relative concept today, but ethics, by and large, are thankfully still absolute). From Brodsky’s standpoint, a person who has read Dickens probably stands at a higher level of being. The lower you are on that scale, the greater are the chances that your ethical choices will be questionable. In what it exposes you to, and in that it speaks to you directly, great literature helps you evolve into a higher level of being. And therefore a greater aesthetic sense translates into a sharper ethical focus.

      And oh, btw, personally I don’t think this is always the case. In general though, it is true enough, something to reflect on. Brodsky romanticises, and so he should. 🙂

      You may want to check out “”
      Worth a read, though the first few paragraphs meander.

      • In the language of philosophical discourse and logical analysis, the two statements mean the same:
        This is moral
        This is ethical
        Moral and ethical are synonymous.

        “a person who has read Dickens probably stands at a higher level of being”
        Hmmm doubtful!!Reading again depends on the reader. Just like no experience has any meaning on its own, just reading Dickens wouldn’t mean anything if the reader didn’t absorb the depth of his prose.I know the shallowest of beings who have read the best that literature could offer!

      • They are synonymous. But in common usage, they are not really the same. Anyway, I don’t want to debate that.

        Yeah, you are right. On second thoughts, I think that thing I said about a higher level of being was plain wrong. I know a few shallow people who have read Dickens too.

  2. Will comment on this later. Meanwhile, I think you should change the name of your journal from “What say I” to “What say he”. Bugger – its been ages since you wrote anything detailed!

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