The Opposition Between the Ethical and the Aesthetic in Human Development

One of the real issues facing humanity stems from natural differences of temperament that each represent a serious aspect of human development.  These two appear to be at odds with one another, and they seem to work at cross purposes, such that we can see large segments of humanity divide along the fault lines of these temperamental differences.  The one side represents the side of mental development that focuses on right living, and develops ethics, law and moral codes as its natural consequence.  The other side represents the side of mental development that focuses on the development, appreciation and creation of beauty and delight.  This artistic temperament frequently finds the rules and laws enacted by the ethical temperament to be unduly restrictive and feels they depress the growth and enhancement of that beauty and delight which is the object of their seeking.  Each of these temperaments appears to be part of the natural human capacity, and humanity continues to focus on one, then the other, without as yet having found a solution that can integrate them both into one harmonious whole.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The aesthetic man tends to be impatient of the ethical rule; he feels it to be a barrier to his aesthetic freedom and an oppression on the play of his artistic sense and his artistic faculty; he is naturally hedonistic, — for beauty and delight are inseparable powers, — and the ethical rule tramples on pleasure, even very often on quite innocent pleasures, and tries to put a strait waistcoat on the human impulse to delight.  He may accept the ethical rule when it makes itself beautiful or even seize on it as one of this instruments for creating beauty, but only when he can subordinate it to the aesthetic principle of his nature, — just as he is often drawn to religion by its side of beauty, pomp, magnificent ritual, emotional satisfaction, repose or poetic ideality and aspiration, — we might almost say, by the hedonistic aspect of religion.  Even when fully accepted, it is not for their own sake that he accepts them.  The ethical man repays this natural repulsion with interest.  He tends to distrust art and the aesthetic sense as something lax and emollient, something in its nature undisciplined and by its attractive appeals to the passions and emotions destructive of a high and strict self-control.  He sees that it is hedonistic and he finds that the hedonistic impulse is non-moral and often immoral.  It is difficult for him to see how the indulgence of the aesthetic impulse beyond a very narrow and carefully guarded limit can be combined with a strict ethical life.  He evolves the puritan who objects to pleasure on principle; not only in his extremes — and a predominant impulse tends to become absorbing and leads towards extremes — but in the core of his temperament he remains fundamentally the puritan.  The misunderstanding between these two sides of our nature is an inevitable circumstance of our human growth which must try them to their fullest separate possibilities and experiment in extremes in order that it may understand the whole range of its capacities.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 10, Aesthetic and Ethical Culture, pp. 95-96

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