Rebirth of Reason


Contemplation or heightened consciousness: Some Contending Aesthetic Approaches
by Anthony Teets

In Ethica Nicomachea (hereafter EN), Aristotle describes hedone, pleasure, as an activity, or an actuality (energeia). Pleasure supervenes on the end of the achievement of an action. It is not pleasure itself and for itself that is pursued, but pleasure accompanies, and supervenes on the achievement of the action. At EN 1175b24, Aristotle explains: "Now since activities differ in respect of goodness and badness, and some are worthy to be chosen, others to be avoided, and others neutral, so, too, are the pleasures; for to each activity there is a proper pleasure. The pleasure proper to a worthy activity is good and that proper to an unworthy activity bad; just as the appetites for noble objects are laudable, those for base objects culpable."  

Pleasure for Aristotle is not identical with the good, but it is an element of the good and therefore an element of happiness as well. Another concept used by Aristotle to describe the interaction of pleasure and the good is found in the Greek word pathos, which is variously translated as attribute, affection, and feeling. In the latter two senses, it is described as "a mental state involving pleasure or pain (A: 568)." In J.J. Pollitt's celebrated work, The Ancient View of Greek Art, we may see that the analysis of both ethos and pathos had a considerable degree of importance for the general understanding of the role of emotion in art. Whatever concepts of pain and pleasure the Greeks derived in their philosophical analyses of human emotion can also be derived from their works of art. The word ethos is itself often rendered as "habit" or "to be accustomed," and thus by extension "character." In the end, the difference between ethos and "is that the former is a part of man's inner makeup, while the latter is a temporary reaction to external stimuli (AVGA: 188). "

Now at the end of Aristotle's discussion of these various themes, he comes to equate the highest ethical concept with the notion of theoria, or contemplation. Thus at the end of all of our actions we can see that contemplation is the highest virtue. "But if happiness consists in activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be activity in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be the virtue of the best part of us." Rand would certainly agree with this assessment for she said that one of the highest and noble achievements of art is that it allows us the capacity to contemplate man "the ideal." Aristotle goes on to say at NE 1177a 20, that "contemplation is at once the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects with which the intellect deals are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous, for we can reflect more continuously than we can carry on any form of action." This statement does not devalue the role of activity at all; it merely provides the basis for considering unity in a man's life, and the central place for contemplation of the ideal.  

Now in discussing the role of emotion in the aesthetic experience it does us well to maintain these basic distinctions, for in their absence we are left without any instrument with which to gage the varying degrees of emotion present whenever we approach a work of art. In the late nineteenth century, various philosophers and scholars of Greek art debated over the roles of pain and pleasure with regard to the contemplation of works of art. It may be well to mention that the degree of importance attached to such distinctions as were derived from close study of Aristotle's EN, may not be overstated. If Frank Turner was correct in his study of Victorian Hellenism, the EN "became the single most translated Greek philosophical text of the entire century (GHVB: 323)." This statement reconfirms the correct observation Ayn Rand made in her Romantic Manifesto that "the nineteenth century was guided, not by an Aristotelian philosophy, but by an Aristotelian sense of life," she adds parenthetically "like a brilliantly violent adolescent who fails to translate his sense of life into conscious terms, it burned itself out, choked by the blind confusions of its overpowering energy (RM: 68)."  

In studying the various Victorian analyses of Aristotle's EN, one may be struck by the wide range of concepts used to evaluate theoria (contemplation) in the tenth book. Sir Alexander Grant's copious commentary (The "Ethics" of Aristotle Illustrated with Essays and Notes, 1866) added much confusion to the understanding of the Philosopher's discussions of theoria and energeia. Interpreting energeia as "heightened consciousness", those who debated qua hedonists, understood the highest good (Aristotle's theoria) to be the pursuit of pleasure. What ensued was a total conflation of the precise distinctions in the EN as a general epicurean interpretation of contemplation as "heightened consciousness" rather than contemplation as an ideal state.  

Of these two schools of commentators, we may easily divide the followers of Grant from those of John Ruskin. The former vanguard, led by Walter Pater, author of a famous work, The Renaissance, placed primary importance on the role of the hedonistic concept energeia. In the "Conclusion" of his work, which he at first suppressed due to its dangerous epicurean suggestiveness, he gave full voice to the interpretation of energeia as "heightened consciousness." Pater claimed, "Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end (ELA: 40)."  

Now when we speak of pain and pleasure in the Aristotelian sense, as supervening the ends or achievements of our actions, we are saying something quite different from the alternative notion that consciousness itself is equated with pain and pleasure, the epicurean delight. This latter interpretation gives a precise meaning to the contemplation of art. We must decide if art is as Rand asserts, with no practical or material end, or does it serve only the immediate purpose of heightened consciousness, pain and pleasure? Rand observed that "one of the distinguishing characteristics of art (including literature) is that it serves no practical, material end, but is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation- and the pleasure of that contemplation is so intense, so deeply personal that a man experiences it as a self-sufficient, self-justifying primary and, often resists or resents any suggestion to analyze it: the suggestion to him, has the quality of an attack on his identity, on his deepest, essential self (RM: 16)." 

This often overlooked passage of Rand's aesthetic credo has led some to misunderstand her stance as an embrace of aestheticism and art for art's sake. It certainly sounds like the various critical assessments made by the late Victorian aesthetes. In my own thesis, I hold firmly that Rand was in fact very much an artist who held views similar to those of Oscar Wilde. Wilde embraced the second alternative interpretation of Aristotle's EN as embodied in the concept of theoria or contemplation. For Wilde, and for his teacher John Ruskin, contemplation is "spiritually informed perception (OWON: 15)." This "exulting, reverent, and grateful perception" is an unmistakably important element for "the full comprehension and contemplation of the Beautiful (ibid)." By placing vital importance on these concepts, Wilde would avoid the pitfall of the worst hedonist reductionism of the art for art's sake movement. Countering the utilitarian notion of use, both Ruskin and Wilde would insist that the object of aesthetic appreciation lies in its contemplative purpose. This distinction is also crucial in our understanding of Rand's aesthetics. 

Among the Austrian School of economists (the Misesians), a movement is attempting an aesthetic appreciation from a utilitarian point of view. In Paul Cantor's essays on Oscar Wilde, he focuses on Wilde's role as a capitalist entrepreneur emphasizing the monetary value of artistic products. This is in my opinion the philosophical parallel of a purely hedonist approach to aesthetics. In the end, it cannot explain Wilde's embrace of the Aristotelian theoria that leads one to assert that art serves no other purpose than contemplation. It runs dangerously close to the Marxist exclusive emphasis on politics and markets as well. In fact, it may be asserted that Rand would have dismissed this approach to aesthetics as topical and ultimately banal. To dismiss the inner coherency and unity of a work of art is symptomatic of a mind devoid of philosophical content and systematic approach. Again, if we can maintain the importance of contemplation in our appreciation of art we may rise above the utilitarian stance that gages aesthetic value exclusively from the point of view of its "use." In accordance with the Aristotelian analysis, "the ability to contemplate, that is, to have true knowledge of human power and human worth is simultaneously the means and the end of the good life (OXON: 16)." In the act of simultaneously rejecting both the hedonist approach and the utilitarian stance, Rand placed herself squarely in the Greek tradition and perhaps unconsciously embraced the thesis of two great Victorian Hellenists, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde. 


Works Cited 

EN: Ethica Nicomachea, Aristotle, ed. Barnes, Jonathon, volume II, The Complete Works of Aristotle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) 

A: Aristotle: Selections, Terence Irwin and Gail Fine (Hackett Publishing: Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1995) 

AVGA: The Ancient View of Greek Art, Pollitt, J.J. (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1974) 

GHVB: The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain, Turner, Frank (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1981) 

ELA: Essays on Literature and Art, Pater Walter, ed. Jennifer Uglow (Rowman and Littlefield: Totowa, NJ, 1973) 

OWON: Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making, ed. with a commentary by Philip E. Smith and Michael S. Helfand (Oxford University Press: New York and London, 1989) 

RM: The Romantic Manifesto, Rand, Ayn (Signet: New York, 1971)

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