Orders of beauty: In accordance with nature (2)

Let us remind ourselves of what we have said.

1. The best human life is one that is lived in accordance with nature.

2. To live in accordance with nature is to bring into harmony the good, the true, and the beautiful.

3. First metaphysics. Nature (or reality) reveals itself in its three aspects: finitude, totality, and infinity.

4. Now ethics. The salient virtues of an excellent human life can be ‘read off of’ the aspects of reality.

It is time to turn to beauty.

There are two orders of beauty. First-order beauty is adverbial: it is said in the form of ‘-ly’ or in that of the ‘with P.’ Second-order beauty is prepositional: it is the proper ordering of the salient virtues. In both respects, beauty elevates virtue.

Let us return to the finite aspect of reality to inquire: when do the finite things go well? For the finite things can go well, or they can go poorly. When, e.g., does water flow well? Water flows well when it flows smoothly. It is a question of propriety (neither too much nor too little, neither too much nor too little force, neither overly responsive nor underly-responsive) as well as a question of the rate of movement (neither too fast nor too slow). Water may flow adequately (hence, be virtuous), but it may not flow optimally.

So too a human life. A virtue such as patience may be exercised with competence but not yet with ease and grace. It is first-order beauty that makes a virtue optimal by elevating it to its completeness or perfection. Just as one swallow does not make a summer, so one act of patience does not make one patient. Hence, excellence is a disposition. Yet unlike a competently patient man who is patient by exercising restraint, a beautifully patient man is patient by exercising patience with grace and lightness. He is patience personified.

In brief, first-order beauty, following the best tune hummed by the finite things, elevates virtue by adjusting the way that something is done, said, or demeaned. E.g., said carefully, put elegantly, conducted gracefully, given lightly, demeaned gently, performed softly. In the education of the spirit, one needs to perceive as well as cultivate whatever ‘style’ makes humility beautiful (rather than ugly, blasé, or heavy).  This is, we say, beauty ‘in the way of…’

Now, let us consider the second aspect of reality: totality. Totality is all there is of the finite things. What is perceived through the right form of perception is wholeness. Therefore, to live in accordance with this aspect of reality is also to be whole.

Second-order beauty, accordingly, is an ordering of the salient virtues (of humility, patience, temperance, etc.).  Hence, it elevates by ensuring that the salient virtues are in harmony with each other.  Earlier, I said this order of beauty is prepositional and in this sense: this is beauty of character (or soul).

A clumsy soul has not achieved first-order beauty: an act of compassion, e.g., poorly performed. An ugly soul is distorted (cf. propriety of measure) or is full of vices (cf. impatience, cowardice, etc.), or is full of conflicts of virtues (lacking discernment). A beauty soul not only experiences no such ‘frictions’ but goes on naively, chiming with wholeness, in the sense of second nature.

Conjointly, first- and second-order beauty are ways of going along with nature well while at the same time ‘singing true’ with the whole. Perhaps, we call call this elevated way of being quietness, or perhaps we had better not give it a name but simply appreciate it.

Ethics: In accordance with finitude (I)

1. One ‘level’ of reality is finitude. Yesterday, I held that there are three aspects of finitude. I wrote,

The three aspects that are revealed by finitude are (1) movement and rest (mutability, perishability, towardness and away-from-ness), (2) interdependence, and (3) ‘propriety’ (of measure, power, and responsiveness).

2. To live the best sort of life is, partially, to live with and ‘lean on’ reality. (Beauty will also figure in prominently in my overall account of radiance.)

3. Properly understood, ethics just is living according to nature.

5. To live in accordance with finitude is to exercise the salient virtues that can, so to speak, be ‘read off of’ nature’s attributes.

6. The virtues that can be ‘read off of’ perishability and mutability are

(a) humility, patience, courage, and transformation.

(b) From interdependence come generosity, receptivity, and friendships of virtue.

(c) From propriety: temperance, spontaneous action, simplicity, directness, and discernment.

Aspects of reality

What aspects of the way things are reveal themselves to us, provided we are open and provided also that we perceive these features rightly? Recall that we are attuning ourselves to the three-fold nature of reality.

1.) Infinity is absolute stillness.

2.) Totality flows out of infinity. (Or: infinity flows through totality.)

3.) The finite things flow out of totality. (Or: totality courses through the finite things.)

The aspect that is revealed by infinity is the stillness beyond movement and rest and beyond all that is in its totality. To attune oneself to infinity is to be so absolutely still, so enveloped by mystery that the mind becomes nothing but stillness.

The aspect that is revealed by totality is wholeness. Hence, the character of the radiant figure must come also to that same wholeness. Beyond clashing or clamoring, all virtues must be so fully integrated that they are brought into resonant harmony.

The three aspects that are revealed by finitude are (1) movement and rest (mutability, perishability, towardness and away-from-ness), (2) interdependence, and (3) ‘propriety’ (of measure, power, and responsiveness).

Though only dimly at present, we are beginning to come to an ethic of living according to nature. Such an ethic would come to accord with movement and rest, interdependence, and propriety; with wholeness (integritas); and with stillness. Thus would there be room for the active life and the contemplative life; thus would’the higher’ (stillness) be consonant with ‘the lower’ (propriety and the like).

Non-being, being, and beings

One would like to acquaint oneself further with ‘the way things are.’ The chief reason is that if the one who lives best lives in accordance with nature, then it would be good, to begin with, to be able to say some things about what nature is. Next, one would have to investigate what it means to be ‘in accord with.’ The first question is metaphysical (and it will consist of two parts), the second is ethical. Throughout, one should pay mind that both are intimately connected in a non-alienated, good, and beautiful world.

Laozi furnishes us with a three-fold answer to ‘the way things are’ in Daodejing. He claims that

1.) being comes from non-being, and

2.) beings come from being.

‘Comes from’ or ‘comes out of’ needn’t be understood in temporal terms or in causal terms. A’s coming from B need not entail A’s necessarily coming after B or A’s arising because of B. Rather, ‘comes from’ also admits of a logical interpretation. For B to come into being, there must be A. Hence,

1.) non-being is logically necessary for there to be being at all, and

2.) being is logically necessary for there to be beings at all.

To clarify terminology, let us call non-being ‘infinity,’ being ‘totality,’ and ‘beings ‘finitude.’ Then our metaphysic consists of infinity, totality, and finitude, each of which flows out of the other. Thus,

1.) Infinity is absolute stillness or mystery.

2.) Totality flows out of infinity. (Or: infinity flows through totality.)

3.) The finite things flow out of totality. (Or: totality courses through the finite things.)

Next, after inquiring into these ‘different levels’ of reality, one would have to investigate the features of each level. Then, one would have to examine the meaning of ‘being in touch with’ or living ‘in accord with.’ Part of the last answer would be active, the other part would be contemplative, and the two–both being parts of ethical life–would need to be in harmony with each other and, again, with the way things are.

Knowledge, goodness, and beauty

1. To Know is to be in touch with nature, i.e., the way things are.

2. To embody the Good is to follow nature’s course.

3. To manifest Beauty is to follow along the way of things with grace.

4. Radiance brings all three into harmony in the soul. I.e., radiance is the way–the gentle demeanor, the graceful act, the eloquent voice–of manifesting all three at once.

Hence, radiance just is being in touch with, while going along with, nature in the way of lightness and grace.