The second aspect of reality revisited

I am thinking of radiance, thinking radiantly. So far, I have argued that reality consists of beings (finitude), being (totality), and non-being (infinity). I wish to revisit totality today.

Before, I claimed that the feature we perceive in totality is wholeness. In terms of ethics, we would want our souls to be as whole as totality is. This account, however, is incomplete.

After morning meditation, I came to realize that totality is

  1. dilating (or expansive) and
  2. encompassing (making-whole).

To say that this aspect of reality ‘dilates’ is to say that it widens, broadens, stretches, and ‘breathes’. To say that this aspect of reality ‘encompasses’ is to say (so to speak) that it wraps itself around all there is (finitude).

Next, ethics. To live in accordance with the ‘dilating’ and ‘encompassing’ features of totality is thus

  1. to feel oneself widen and stretch outward and upward so that one’s excellences are practiced as widely as possible as well as
  2. to feel that all of one’s salient virtues have reached the second-order beauty of which I have previously written: this being beauty of soul.

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.

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).

Why is Kenko disillusioned?

All around Kenko are signs of late autumn. The flowers, irregularly strewn yet carefully placed, so completely matches Kenko’s  aesthetic ideas of simplicity, irregularity, and incompleteness–not to mention his ascetic notion of the value of exclusion–that he is taken aback. That a man could live like this is… if not wisdom, then at least admirable. But the tangerine tree spoils everything.


The tree is out of place (it represents ever-fullness not final, fallen moments), it is out of season (summer jutting into late fall), and it is incomparably, greedily unwelcoming (a tree behind a closed gate).

‘And how could the tangerine tree have been otherwise so that it was in keeping with Kenko’s aesthetic?’ my love asked.

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The Daoist ethic without principles

‘Now the Taoist ideal,’ writes the ever-quarky Raymond Smullyan in his best Lewis Carroll The Tao is Silent, ‘is not so much to feel that he shouldn’t be moral (which is, of course, a morality all its own), but rather to be independent, free, unentangled from moral “principles”‘ (112). The poem from the first chapter of the book represents, he assures us, the ‘quintessence’ of Taoism:

The Sage falls asleep not

because he ought to

Nor even because he wants to

But because he is sleepy. (3)

At the heart of the poem is the Sage’s reason for falling asleep. His reason seems to be that, as a Sage, he desires the good because it is good and that, in this case, means falling asleep. He does not fall asleep because he has a prior desire to do so nor because he ought, just now, to fall asleep. He feels no strain from the fact of falling asleep because some voice is telling him that he ought not to do so perhaps for no other reason than that he has more work to do. For the Sage, there is no such voice to hear.

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