The Aesthetic Life

Aesthetic Life    -         Ethical Life
Separate             -         Connected

Although it may not seem so at first glance, there is a sense in which liberalism has facilitated Winnicott’s ideal of creative living. We can see it more clearly if we look through the lens of Schmitt’s critique of the romantic.

Schmitt characterises the romantic (i.e. the artist) as a sort of Peter Pan, someone who evades all determinisms and commitments, and remains untethered at all times. The romantic retains the right to question everything and commit to nothing, and so is in many ways the ideal liberal - the free, atomised, and autonomous individual.

It is the aesthetic life that underlies the norms of therapy.

The breakdown of tradition means a loss of the background ‘narrative unity’ which contains and gives sense and purpose to every act, initiating a movement from the 'ethical life' to the 'aesthetic life'

In the aesthetic life, we need the virtue of constancy in order to hold the narrative together against the kind of dissolutive forces that tradition held at bay. We are now faced with moral dilemmas, or choices, in which ‘good’ choices reinforce unity and ‘bad’ choices damage it.

The subject who is limited to its own experience and who, in spite of this, wants to develop a productivity because it prefers not to give up the pretension of meaning something as a subject attempts to shape its experience in an artistic fashion.

This is the psychic fact that is the basis of an interest that is only aesthetic.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p.103

Every political activity — regardless of whether its content is merely the technique of conquest, the claim or the expansion of political power, or whether it rests on a legal or a moral decision – conflicts with the essentially aesthetic nature of the romantic.

Because the concrete point around which the romantic novel develops is always merely occasional, everything can become romantic. In such a world, all political or religious distinctions are dissolved into an interesting ambiguity.

The king is a romantic figure as well as the anarchist conspirator, and the caliph of Baghdad is no less romantic than the patriarch of Jerusalem. Here everything can be substituted for everything else.

[…] the connection between subjectivism and sensualism that is exhibited in Greek sophistry also nullified all objectivity and made substantive argument into a capricious productivity of the subject. The orator felt no other sense of responsibility than that of speaking well, and he knew no other satisfaction than the pleasure taken in the well-executed, artistic form of his speech.

The essential contradiction of the romantic — which, especially in political romanticism, justifies the impression of inner untruthfulness - is that the romantic, in the organic passivity that belongs to his occasionalist structure, wants to be productive without becoming active.

[…] it is linked with the half lyrical, half intellectualistic accompaniment of the activity of another person […] following political events with marginal character glosses, catch phrases, viewpoints, emphases and antitheses, allusions and permutational comparisons, often agitated and excited, but always without making its own decision and assuming its own responsibility and risk.

Political activity is not possible in this way. But criticism is, which can discuss everything and inflate it ideologically, revolution as well as restoration, war and peace, nationalism and internationalism, imperialism and its renunciation.

Here as well, its method was the occasionalist departure from the domain to which the disputed opposition belongs, from the domain of the political into the higher domain.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p.158-9

Regardless of whether the final and inclusive member of the sequence is called God or the state, the ego or history, the idea or organic development, the result is invariably that all activity of the individual person consists in the fact that he is a “sympathetic fellow traveler.”

Even when Müller and Schlegel call the age evil and juxtapose the good principle to an evil one, this is not to be understood as a moral decision. They do not propose to take sides, which everyone has to do who speaks of good and evil in the moral sense and distinguishes right from wrong.

[…] So how did he arrive at his rejection? The same way he arrives at affirmations. They are accompanying emotional states with which he sympathetically follows historical development, because he is really interested only in feeling and poetry.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p. 122-3

[…] they do not mean that the author wants to make up his mind in the usual sense and set to work in the external world. 

This is something he simply could not do without realizing his unlimited possibilities in a limited reality, without emerging from his subjectivistic creativity and concerning himself with the mechanism of cause and effect or with normative ties.

He could not make up his mind without relinquishing his superior irony; in other words, without giving up his romantic situation. The romantic wants to do nothing except experience and paraphrase his experience in an emotionally impressive fashion.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p.100

James presented this “dramatic,” “gnostic,” “subjectivist,” and “romantic” view of the world so attractively that a careless reader might have mistaken it for his own. He went on to argue, however, that an aesthetic orientation to experience led to “ethical indifference.”

It transformed life “from a tragic reality into an insincere melodramatic exhibition, as foul or as tawdry as any one’s diseased curiosity pleases to carry it out.” It gave rise to the cult of “sensibility” exemplified by “contemporary Parisian literature,” the cynical complacency that saw the world as an experimental novel.

It was therefore with a sense of relief that one awoke from the “feverish dream” of sensibility into a renewed appreciation of the “unsophisticated moral sense,” which wanted the world to be better than it was and resolved to act, instead of merely drinking in the spectacle, so as to reduce the sum of evil in the world.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p. 288-9

"Democracy" came to refer to the "thoughtways of a knowledgeable society," in Lane's words—a capacity for abstraction, tolerance of ambiguity, rejection of "philosophical idealism" and "theological and metaphysical modes of thought," acceptance of “mathematical modes of expression."

These habits of thought defined an intellectual ideal of open-mindedness and an ethical ideal of tolerance, mutual respect, and suspended judgment. 

If the "moral perspectives" typical of authoritarianism rested on "crude and mechanical assumptions about human behavior," as Robert Endleman argued in a “composite portrait” of blue-collar workers, then a more enlightened morality had to rest on the academic and therapeutic virtues.

It had to rest on a respect for human potential, an aversion to pain and suffering, a critical attitude toward authority, a refusal to be governed by traditional precepts, and a belief that most conflicts could be resolved by submitting them to the arbitration of knowledgeable experts.

By reformulating these values as psychological norms, the professional-managerial class made it possible to dismiss dissent from the educated consensus as evidence of emotional and cultural backwardness. Members of the educated elite upheld open-mindedness as the supreme political virtue but refused to debate their own idea of the good life, perhaps because they suspected that it could not withstand exposure to more vigorous ideas.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.467-8

When Kierkegaard contrasted the ethical and the aesthetic ways of life in Enten-Eller, he argued that the aesthetic life is one in which a human life is dissolved into a series of separate present moments, in which the unity of a human life disappears from view.

By contrast in the ethical life the commitments and responsibilities to the future springing from past episodes in which obligations were conceived and debts assumed unite the present to past and to future in such a way as to make of a human life a unity. The unity to which Kierkegaard refers is that narrative unity whose central place in the life of the virtues I identified in the preceding chapter.

By the time Jane Austen writes that unity can no longer be treated as a mere presupposition or context for a virtuous life. It has itself to be continually reaffirmed and its reaffirmation in deed rather than in word is the virtue which Jane Austen calls constancy.

[...] constancy requires a recognition of a particular kind of threat to the integrity of the personality in the peculiarly modern social world [...]

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.280-1

[...] it is quite clear that the poet or the saga writer claims for himself a kind of understanding which is denied to the characters about whom he writes. The poet does not suffer from the limitations which define the essential condition of his characters. Consider especially the Iliad.

[...] defeat is not the Homeric poet's moral horizon, and it is precisely by reason of this difference that the Homer of the Iliad transcends the limitations of the society which he portrays.

The poet is not a theorist; he offers no general formulas. His own knowledge is indeed at a more general and abstract level than that even of his most insightful characters.

Thus the Iliad puts in question what neither Achilles nor Hector can put in question; the poem lay claim to a form of understanding which it denies to those whose actions it describes.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.146, 149

Both of these urges are existentialist. They give rise to isolated acts that have no significant context.

Thus an act of loving or helping has no sequence of causes leading up to it or of consequences flowing from it. It stands alone as an isolated experience of togetherness and of brief human sharing. This failure or lack of context for each experience means a failure or lack of meaning, for meaning and significance arise from context; that is, from the relationship of the particular experience to the whole picture.

But today’s youth has no concern for the whole picture; they have rejected the past and have very little faith in the future. Their rejection of intellect and their lack of faith in human reason gives them no hope that any meaning can be found for any experience, so each experience becomes an end in itself, isolated from every other experience.

This skepticism about meaning, closely allied with their rejection of organizations and of abstractions, is also closely related with a failure of responsibility. Since consequences are divorced from the act or experience itself, the youth is not bound by any relationship between the two. The result is a large-scale irresponsibility.

We need a culture that will produce people eager to do things, but we need even more a culture that will make it possible to decide what to do. This is the old division of means and goals. Decisions about goals require values, meaning, context, perspective. They can be set, even tentatively and approximately, only by people who have some inkling of the whole picture.

The middle-class culture of our past ignored the whole picture and destroyed our ability to see it by its emphasis on specialization. Just as mass production came to be based on specialization, so human preparation for making decisions about goals also became based on specialization.

[Carroll Quigley]
Tragedy and Hope, ‘The Future in Perspective,’ p.804-5, 808

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