Does the thoughtful person incline to a life of aestheticism? We are inevitably beings of our senses as much as our minds, and aesthetic criteria is derived from the senses. But this does not isolate sense-objects as our only context in life. The implication otherwise is that the senses will always overrun us. We are more complex: the organs symbolize a variety of complex interactions. Thus we are senses but also mind, heart, and strength.
Aesthetics does not equate to a life of decadence and vice but a life of simple pleasures according to the original proposals of Epicurus. Not the pursuit of active pleasures from specific activities but what Epicurus called “katastematic” pleasure, or the absence of pain, fear, and distress, the state of balance and equanimity. As mentioned here before, Freud saw this reality principle overriding the pleasure principle. And should it be surprising that the loftiest philosophical and spiritual concerns are for such a state, not for euphoria, mystical excitation, or engagement.
Aesthetics, not pleasure, becomes an avenue for attaining this state. Aesthetics falls into the third of Plato’s triumvirate: Truth, Goodness, Beauty. Undertood in this sense, beauty is a psychological consideration that avoids the necessity of asserting beliefs, tenets, or opinions — or, rather, finds them to be human contrivances that do not bring equanimity.
This is a necessary irony, that a belief or maintenance of an aesthetic life signifies the absence or suspension of belief or opinion. But it does not. Such a life defines values without insisting that they are entirely available to anyone else. Thus, a religious person may well rest in the aesthetic comfort of ritual, music, readings, recitations, etc., all within an inviolable solitude. Another person, lacking any such beliefs, will nevertheless find an active pleasure in the same music and readings, but will use them only as a complement to a larger psychological state of equanimity and solitude.
Solitude is a useful bridge for bringing many tastes and techniques into unexpected compatibility. Thus does the solitary learn tolerance, by carefully perceiving what each solitary needs, regardless of personal beliefs.
But the person engaged with the world will only make aesthetics a vehicle for furthering the wrong attitude, the wrong sentiments, the wrong psychology. For such a person, aesthetics becomes a source of active pleasure and distraction from worldly avocations that already lead down wrong paths. From the inevitable corners of conscience comes not a cautionary remorse but a loud egotism, indifference, and decadence.
Aestheticism when derived from a creed but expressed as a beauty of its own stands separate from the creed in providing a distinct psychological function. This inverts Plato’s order but does so without assumptions or prejudice. Wisdom becomes available not from notions of Truth or even Good but from the silence that observation, contemplation, and appreciation engender.
Simplicity can then work to strengthen the positive feelings that come from our soft and gentle experiencing of solitude and silence or our earned lull from worldliness. Simple things like long walks, the crafting of diet, our work in a garden, the selecting of poetry to read or music to prefer — let alone artistic creation and meditative reflection — all become constructive aids to our solitude. Others would call them aesthetic pursuits, but they are more than that when consciously guiding our self-awareness, when more than mere entertainments.
Schopenhauer views aesthetics as entangled with the will, wherein the will strives for fulfillment of desire, and aesthetics dampens desire, redirects the will, and rescues the self from despair and pessimism. And aestheticism for Schopenhauer is as far as the self will get, culminating in the insights to be had from music (and the younger Nietzsche also saw music as the highest aesthetic expression). However, the important insight is in terms of not a philosophical system or tenet but, rather, the whole state of mind, heart, and being. Otherwise, we fall back on a creed or belief to define our intuition, our experience of the world, of nature, of people and society.
Aesthetics can contribute to the crafting of life, to right conduct, to an identification with the beautiful (in Plato’s sense, regardless of posited ideal forms). Aesthetics is an imitation of ways and harmonies, that make us part of nature. When we derive the form of our lives from what is beautiful, we must distinguish what our emotions alone call beauty if it is mere excitation. For beauty is in the quiet harmony of nature and the universe, not in the contrivances of society or the desires of the human animal. Schopenhauer saw this but failed to offer a formula of transcendence. And perhaps there is none. But rather, we must make one.
Kierkegaard at last points out the necessary understanding about aesthetics. He argues that aesthetics only calls up the sensual and emotional in us (as already suggested above) but that our affirmation of these sense-desires is not a choice of a path at all. He argues that by choosing we are essentially becoming conscious (with mind and heart and will) and thus capable of more than a passive enjoyment. And choosing our goal is to be, as he puts it,
at the crossroads in such a way that there is no way out except to choose, and choosing, one will choose the right thing.
Thus conscious living engenders the insight to choose the right thing, the right way of living, the ethical life (in Kierkegaard’s sense). By choosing, we use the will to assert a character to our lives. The simple things that contribute to our sense of solitude and insight are actually ethical acts — not so much a choosing between good and evil, as most creeds will want to portray things, but a choosing to live deliberately.
Thus , there is a continuity between aesthetics rightly understood and used, and ethics. For Kierkegaard, what distinguishes sensual pleasure from “katastematic” aesthetics — though he never uses the word — is clearly the will. At that point of choosing, aesthetics returns in full the beauty of existence. It brings us the insight that permits us to use the world and not to misuse it, as Kierkegaard puts it. Thus he sums it well:
The aesthetic in a person is that by which he spontaneously and immediately is what he is.
No more, no less. Nothing further: neither potential nor actualization. And yet, there is a further:
The ethical is that by which the person becomes what he becomes.