AN ATHEIST'S VALUES
2.1. PRINCIPLES OF CHOICE
Misery is an evil and happiness is a good. If anyone denies this, there is nothing to say to him. If he contemplates happy children without any satisfaction, if he calls to mind the vast array of miseries in the world such as wounded stags eaten alive by ants, oiled birds battered on the rocks, men and women with arthritis or insane depression, and feels no pity or disturbance, there is nothing to say to him. We choose to lessen misery and he does not. We choose to promote happiness and he does not.
Some men, while not denying that misery is an evil and happiness is a good, doubt whether this is a significant proposition, or whether the words 'happy' and 'miserable' convey clear and applicable notions. But this doubt is an intellectual's selfobfuscation, produced by too much thinking and too little observation. Let anyone take to observing children, in the school yard or elsewhere, and try to recognize those who are miserable and those who are happy. He will find himself doubtful about some of the children, naturally; but he will find himself certain about others. We can usually know when Jack and Jill are miserable and when they are not.
Some men have thought that misery was the only evil, and happiness the only good. But this is clearly false. It is utterly obvious that vice as well as misery is an evil, and that knowledge as well as happiness is a good. The world is full of a great many sorts of bad thing and a great many sorts of good thing.
The notion that happiness is the only good is in part a bad result of the intellectual desire to simplify and summarize. But it is also in part the result of a dim perception of a great truth, namely that happiness and misery provide the most important test of all goodness and badness, as follows.
Any kind of thing is bad if it, or the pursuit of it, increases the misery of living things upon the whole. Nothing is good if it, or the pursuit of it, leads on the whole to very much more misery than contentment. Unease is a criterion. Inquietum est cor nostrum donec....
These sentences express an enormously general choice which I find myself strongly inclined to make. If I ask myself about anything considered good, Would you still call it good if you were convinced that the pursuit of it probably increased misery?, I think I find myself determined to answer: 'No, I should call it bad.'
This principle provides a negative test of goods. It does not determine that anything is good; but it determines that some things are not good, namely those whose pursuit probably increases misery. It is not a standard, by adopting which we can decide in every case whether a thing is good or bad or indifferent; but it is a criterion that applies to any choice or kind of choice, and either condemns the choice or does not condemn it.
The adoption of this principle is a supreme or ultimate choice, not in the strong sense that it entails every other choice, but in the weak sense that it tests all other choices and condemns some of them. It is also ultimate, in me, in the sense that I have no higher choice under which for me it falls, and I defend it only by referring to its consequences, not at all by referring to higher principles. Its consequences concern all that part of the misery of living things which can be caused or prevented by the action of man. This is not the whole of misery; but it is a great ocean of misery nevertheless.
This 'principle of counter-misery', as it might be called, is often rejected, sometimes explicitly but more often by implication. In these days of rabid nationalism it is often rejected on behalf of some State. One can easily imagine Hitler saying: 'I prefer the misery of every living thing, including every German, to the humiliation of the German State.' Resistance movements look like an affirmation that the sovereignty of some State, say France or Greece or Cyprus, is worth any amount of misery. Most of us cherish at least one good which we are strongly inclined to pursue no matter what the consequences in misery to the human race. With many people this reckless good is the reign of certain moral laws which they have adopted. (That is the spirit of 'let justice be done though the heavens fall'.) With me it is the spread of knowledge and truth.
On the other hand, the principle of counter-misery is a hard one to reject when you are explicitly faced with it. Probably very few people feel quite easy about subordinating n to their favourite good. It seems likely that the more it is brought to people's attention the more widely and effectively it will be adopted. Thus it seems to be a principle on which there is some faint hope that the human race may some day agree; and that will recommend it to people who want agreement on practical principles.
This principle of counter-misery has some resemblance to utilitarianism; and people who like 'ism' words may wish to label it 'utilitarianism'. But we should avoid label-thought; and anyhow this principle differs from Mill's in at least four important ways.
In the first place, J. S. Mill regarded his principle as determining all rightness and wrongness. This principle, however, merely determines that certain things are bad. It is a principle for the rejection of goods, not for the adoption of them. It says where we should not lay our treasure up, not where we should. It leaves us free to adopt and proclaim any goods we choose; and it gives us no orders or guidance in doing so, except only that our goods must not increase misery.
In the second place, Mill regarded happiness or pleasure as in an important sense the only good, and may therefore fairly well be called a 'hedonist'. But this principle does not say, or entail, that happiness is any kind of a good at all. It only says that misery or unhappiness is a negative test of goods. Happiness is a good and misery is an evil; but this principle does not say so.
Thirdly and very importantly, this principle substitutes the conception of misery for Mill's conception of pleasure. Instead of setting up pleasure as the sole end, it sets up the non-increase of misery as a requisite of all ends. Instead of saying that the only thing worth aiming at is happiness, it says that nothing is worth aiming at if its pursuit increases unhappiness. It is 'antilypism' rather than 'hedonism'! This is a profound difference, as Dr. Popper points out when he writes:
|There is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pleasure and pain.... Human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway.... Pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not one man's pain by another man's pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all; and further, that unavoidable suffering ... should be distributed as equally as possible. (K. R. Popper, The Open Society, U.S. edition, p. 571.)|
Fourthly and lastly, I put forward this principle as a choice to be made; but Mill was not clear whether he was putting forward utilitarianism as a choice or as a fact, as a proposal or as a proposition. He often seems to be on the brink of saying that it is a proposal, for example when he disputes the Kantian view of morality. His queer chapter on the possible 'sanctions' of the doctrine is really there to avoid the reproach that he is wasting our time by proposing that we should adopt a decision which there is no hope of our adopting. It would be irrelevant if utilitarianism were an assertion of fact; for whether people will believe an assertion of fact is not evidence whether it is true. Yet Mill never becomes quite clear that what he is giving us is really not a proposition but a proposal; and that is the main cause of the unfortunate illogicality of the essay, which has often been gloated over.
To adopt the principle of counter-misery is not to love the human race. Most of us find it impossible to love the human race after we are forty; but we can still adopt this principle.
I am inclined to go further and adopt a second principle concerning misery as follows: No kind of act may be forbidden unless its discontinuance would lessen misery upon the whole.
This is a principle of right and wrong, whereas the other was a principle of good and bad. It is a principle concerning laws, their making, enforcement, and unmaking, whether laws of the State or laws of morality or custom. It entails that every State law is unjustifiable unless its enforcement lessens misery upon the whole, and that nothing is a true moral law unless general obedience to it would lessen misery upon the whole. These consequences are acceptable to me. All laws are limitations of freedom and to that extent bad. What can justify us in imposing limits on freedom? Only, it seems, an important decrease in misery obtainable in that way and that way only. I reject all legislators who claim to impose on us a law for any reason but that it decreases our misery. I reject all preachers who lay down moral laws for any reason but that their reign would decrease our misery.
We have now two very general principles for the guidance of evaluation and legislation, and hence for the guidance of action; (1) Any kind of thing is bad if it, or the pursuit of it, increases the misery of living things upon the whole, and (2) no kind of act may be forbidden unless its discontinuance would lessen misery upon the whole. From the point of view of a search for great goods, each of these principles is negative. The first indicates that certain kinds of thing are not good to pursue, and the second indicates that certain kinds of law are not good to have. Neither indicates that any kind of thing is positively good. Can we find any positive principle for telling what kinds of thing are good?
A positive principle is liable to say or imply that only one kind of thing is good; and any principle that does that must be rejected. It would be foolish to forbid ourselves to value any new kind of thing in the future. In the past we have sometimes come to value a new kind of thing. For example, mountain scenery was not valued before the eighteenth century. It is an obvious point of prudence to leave ourselves free to do the same again. That is why we must not say of pleasure, or of happiness, or of anything else, that it is the only good.
There is, however, a way of introducing pleasure into a positive principle of choice which does not restrict the number of good things, but on the contrary makes it indefinitely large. That is to say that (3) Anything is good if the pursuit of it pleases somebody and does not increase misery; or, in A. E. Housman's words, that 'whatever is pleasant is good, unless it can be shown that in the long run it is harmful, or, in other words, not pleasant but unpleasant' (Introductory Lecture 1892, p. 33); or, in the words of Plato defending nakedness (Rp. 457 B, cf. 608 E), that 'the useful is fair and the harmful is foul; and this is a most fair saying both now and for ever'.
To adopt this is to acknowledge as so far good whatever anyone values or enjoys, or enjoys the pursuit of, because he does so, provided only that people's valuing it does not on the whole increase misery.
In favour of adopting this principle we may say that it expresses a generous instinct which we wish to realize. Of course a thing is good, we feel inclined to say, if it pleases more than it harms. To be against pleasure is to be against life itself, because successful life is necessarily pleasant, as Aristotle nearly said (N.E. x. 4, §§ 10-11). We may also argue that it is by following this principle that a man becomes an objective critic of beauty, as opposed to an expresser of private feelings. The good critic will sometimes pronounce good a work that never gives him any pleasure; and this will not be insincerity; it will be his declaration that the work does give pleasure to some people, which is what we want to know from him as critic.
Yet there is also something to be said against the principle. We distinguish between good and bad novels, and among the bad ones we include many that have given pleasure to many people and done no harm. We wish to affirm aspirations towards something great and high, and this seems to involve denying the goodness of many commonplace pleasures, at least in matters of art and beauty. 'The best is the enemy of the good', as Voltaire expressed it (Philosophical Dictionary, article on dramatic art).
But, after all, in saying that the best is the enemy of the good, we admit that the good is good. And that is all that this principle claims. It does not say that anything that pleases anyone is a great good. It does not command us to put the novels of Charles Garvice on the same level as those of Tolstoy. It only commands us to recognize that the novels of Charles Garvice are humble goods of a kind. I conclude that the principle is to be adopted.
We need to have room in our hearts for both the best and the merely good. We need both to approve of everybody's petty goods and to seek great goods. The doctrine that the best is the enemy of the good is to be taken as an exhortation to press on from the good to the best. It is not to be taken as a licence to condemn everything but the best. On the contrary, we must allow our fellows to be pleased in their own ways.
I have no fourth general principle of choice to propose as even worth consideration. Quite likely, three such principles are three too many. In the question What things are good? it may be better to proceed like the law, refusing to answer any new question until it becomes practical, and then answering as specifically as possible, though certainly each evaluation should be made in the light of all one's other evaluations.
The word 'life' is often put forward as one of those slogan-words that indicate great goods to which our hearts may thrill.
|How good is man's life, the mere living! how fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses for ever in joy!
Let us consider this.
It may be said that nothing is good unless life itself is good, for goods exist only for living things, not for the inanimate or the dead. 'There is nothing either good or bad, but (living) makes it so!' This reflection, however, is a mistake; for it rests on the false principle that every condition of a good is a good. Not every condition of a good is a good. Suffering is an evil although it is a condition of pity and pity is a good. Life does not have to be itself good because it is a condition of there being any good. It is consistent to say that something is good and yet life is not a good.
On the other hand, it has been believed that, by the test of misery which I have adopted, life is very much more miserable than happy upon the whole, and therefore not a good but an evil. Life involves death, and death is felt to be a very great evil. Some life lives by killing, and all life dies. To give birth to a child is to prepare another death. Some feel that this cancels all the value of life and makes everything futile. A few feel that it makes life intolerable; these find themselves in the absurd position of seeking death because life is intolerable because it ends in death.
We can, however, reasonably urge that at least the fact of death is not a good argument against life. The ending of an individual life, if we distinguish it from the pain and fear that may accompany it, no more a bad thing than the ending of a good play. W. P. Ker died in a moment, on a mountain where he was walking gaily with companions, at the end of a great and happy life. In such a death the only evil is the loss to those who remain. But it would have been far worse never to have had the man they lost. This objection about death seems less likely to be valid than the objection that life is essentially miserable on the whole, a blind willing which by its nature must be unsatisfied, as Schopenhauer thought.
It may be said that the proposition, 'Life is a great good' is too vague or general to be argued about, for some individual lives are predominantly good and others predominantly bad. Some men are, alas!, born to trouble as the sparks fly upward; but others find their lives very happy and good.
Or it may be said that the proposition, 'Life is a great good', is to be disregarded for another sort of reason, namely that it professes to give a principle of action but does not. Every proposition of the form 'x is a great good', where x is a general term, claims to provide a very general and important principle of action. But, it may be thought, the only question that could be decided by this proposition is whether to stay alive or to kill oneself. Nearly everyone, however, avoids suicide for a reason quite independent of the question whether life is a great good.
Or it may be thought that life as a great good can only be the sum of the various great goods, if any, that may be realized in living, so that the decision that life is (or is not) a great good must come after the examination of all other proposed goods, and will then be merely the sum of our decisions about them. If it seems to be other than this, it may be thought, that must be because we are really referring by the word 'life' not to all life or to life as a whole, but to some aspect of life, some nameless residue left when we have abstracted from life all those goods that have a name. For instance, perhaps we here mean by 'life' just all the less noticeable and less nameable forms of physical well-being and spiritual contentment, just all indefinite 'feeling good'. There are, indeed, wonderful joys to be had on the purely animal side of life, in feelings and satisfactions accompanying moving and resting, working and playing, eating, drinking, making, doing, and congregating. (John Skeaping was probably referring largely to these when he wrote that 'the purpose of life as I see it is to enjoy being alive'.)
We may combine these last two lines of thought, and say that life is a great good in that it realizes many nameable and well known goods, such as beauty and truth, and also in that it realizes many nameless satisfactions and pleasures.
But does not life realize more evils than goods? Is it not on the whole a bad thing? Must we not, when we contemplate the vast array of sorrows, agonies, losses, brutalities, lonelinesses, terrors, hates, envies, frustrations, and dyings, as Schopenhauer, for instance, invites us to do, conclude that it would be better for us all not to be?
This is not a practical question to most people. In some sense no doubt it is true that, once the possibility of suicide has occurred to a living thing, its ultimate choice is to be for or against life. But most people are determined anyhow to go on living as long as they can.
Whether the question is practical or not, I think that we cannot sum and balance all the goods and evils of life so as to come out with any probable answer to it. I think that reason commands us to suspend judgement permanently on the question what has been, or will be, the balance of advantage between goods and evils in life. And this view deprives the proposition that life is a great good of its last chance of representing an important practical choice. Life, then, let us say, is indeed a great good; but to say this is not to commit oneself as, for instance, to say that knowledge is a great good is to commit oneself. It is rather to summarize commitments already made.
To affirm life is not to say that birth-control is always wrong, or that the best population policy is that we should aim at having ever more persons living ever longer.
To affirm life is not to say that killing is always wrong. That simple universal statement leads to the absurdity of Jainism, of hiring a poor man to sleep in your bed and feed the bugs which you are unwilling to have killed. Every time a man eats, his stomach juices kill living things that have come down in his food. We are confronted with many difficult and doubtful choices about when and what to kill and when and what to make live; and this difficulty increases as our knowledge and power increase concerning the conditions of life and death. For instance, it has recently increased through our acquiring the power of artificial insemination. We are coming more and more to have to choose about the survival not merely of individuals but also of species. We know that we have destroyed whole species in the last 400 years, and we are wondering whether we can stop ourselves from doing so in future.
To affirm life is not to say that suicide is always wrong. I will make a digression on suicide. There is such a strong taboo against it in our society that it is very difficult to think well on the matter. Foolish opinions flourish, and frequent among them is the opinion that suicide is wrong because the suicide is a great nuisance to others. Every death is a great nuisance to others; but we all die, and those of us who die by long distressing illnesses are much more of a nuisance to others than those who die quickly by their own hand.
In Kant's statement, that a system of nature could not subsist if it had the principle that 'I shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure', the odd phrase 'a system of nature' means, I suppose, a community of human beings. But, if it means this, we have here another statement so foolish that only where there was a strong taboo on suicide could it be believed. Whether such a community continues will depend on what proportion of its members kill themselves before they have reared children. The ancient Romans' suicides in old age had no effect on the continuance of the community.
The chief argument for the legitimacy of suicide is that life is a trap. We have not asked for it, and it can be terrible.
But, since I am speaking to an audience of undergraduates, it is important for me to add that the suicide rate is far too high among undergraduates, and that nearly all undergraduate suicides are thoroughly injudicious and undesirable. They arise through the young person's terror or horror at finding himself alone and facing some unimagined and very miserable situation, such as a nervous breakdown, an inability to obtain the honours expected of him, a grave depression, the commission of a shameful crime or what he thinks a shameful crime. None of these justifies suicide in youth. The emotional illnesses can be cured. The imaginary crimes can be disproved. The real crimes can be expiated and forgiven. A long, happy, and useful life can be lived in spite of them. The thing to do, if you are ever inclined to kill yourself during your youth, is at once to communicate your miseries to some discreet and sympathetic elder person and to put yourself in his hands. Here at Oxford you are very lucky in this respect, because each of you lives in a community headed by a score of superior elder persons well disposed towards you. You can certainly find among them someone absolutely safe and unshockable, competent, and determined to help you. Here ends my digression on suicide.
2.31. The word 'Beauty'
I wish to celebrate two great contemplative goods, namely Beauty and Truth. And first Beauty.
By the word 'Beauty' I mean that which is good in its sensuous aspects, that which is good to the eye or ear or nose or tongue or skin, that which gives us pleasure of sense.
In the pleasures of sense I include the pleasures of imagination. Both when you see rowanberries red against the blue sky, and when you afterwards imagine what you saw, the goodness that you apprehend comes under the head of Beauty. By 'imagination' here I mean that image-maker in the soul of whom Plato speaks an his Philebus 39 B. Imagination in this use of the word is conditioned by the experience of the senses, which it in semblance either merely reproduces or remoulds and extends.
I do not include in the beautiful anything non-sensuous, as is often done. That paradoxical eternal Beauty of Plato and his followers, which is described as if sensible and yet said not to be sensible, would be no part of what I am talking about here, even if I believed that it existed. The recommendation that I am here making places me among those whom Plato depreciates as loving the many perishable imitations of Beauty instead of the One Beauty itself.
Plato's language draws some of its persuasiveness from the fact that there are many borderline cases where it is difficult to say whether the goodness that we are enjoying is sensuous or not. The so called elegance of mathematical proofs is an example. We are in doubt whether they are literally or only metaphorically beautiful, because we are in doubt whether or not there is something sensuous in our delight in them. The pleasures of emotion form another kind that is very difficult to classify; for is emotion sensuous or not, or is it partly sensuous and partly not? There is no doubt that the perception of a high degree of sensuous Beauty gives a pleasant emotion, other things being equal; but there is doubt whether feeling an emotion is always a sensuous affair. Certainly one cannot be a good critic of Beauty without distinguishing to some extent between the pleasures of emotion and the pleasures of sense.
It is easy to exaggerate the connexion between Beauty and art. Most
art is aimed wholly at utility, not Beauty; for example, the arts of medicine,
money-making, and mass production. Even so called fine art is often aimed
wholly or largely at utility; for example, architecture, pottery, and the
paintings in caves. Fine art is frequently aimed at Truth as much as at
Beauty, especially in painting and in serious literature. Sophisticated
artists are often annoyed to be told they are aiming at Beauty. It would
be less wrong to go to the other extreme, and say that there is no particular
connexion between art and Beauty. To Plato it seems never to have occurred
that artists aimed at Beauty or that their products were the place to look
for it. The majority of beautiful things are not made by art but by nature,
and nature is the chief realm in which to look for Beauty. Beauty is not
a quality shared among a number of things. There is no common quality,
such as proportionality, or significant form, or organic unity, that makes
the Beauty of every beautiful thing. What makes an animal beautiful is
not what makes a symphony beautiful. If they are both beautiful it is because
each of them, when sensuously contemplated, can give us pleasure; but each
does so in virtue of its own peculiar qualities. As Sir David Ross has
put it, what is common to all beautiful things is only their power to arouse
the aesthetic pleasure. Theorists are always trying to find some objective
identity in them all; but this leads to empty formalities, or else to a
refusal to see and enjoy the infinite variety of Beauty. So much for the
meaning of the word 'Beauty'
2.32. Beauty is a great good
There is a strong tradition against Beauty. Though the Greeks were generally in favour of it, their greatest writer had ascetic tendencies which worked powerfully against it, and in his Phaedo he condemned all the interests of the body. Among the Christians there has long been a powerful tradition against Beauty, though it has not been unopposed. I doubt whether it occurs already in the New Testament. When James wrote that love of the cosmos is hatred of God, he was probably not thinking of Beauty. But certainly no special enthusiasm for Beauty occurs in the New Testament; and the Christians soon came to be suspicious of it. Augustine assumed that the love of the cosmos forbidden by John (1 John ii. 15-17) included the love of Beauty; and he struggled to weaken his delight in sex, in food and drink, in smell, in sound, and in sight (Confessions x. 30-34). He puts sex first among these forbidden delights. Sex and Beauty are, indeed, closely related, and many Christians have come to be enemies of Beauty from being enemies of sex. In Anglo-Saxon countries today one great threat to Beauty is its connexion with sex and the Anglo-Saxon's adolescent fear of sex.
Certainly Beauty is dangerous. So are all great goods. In every case the dangers ought to be weighed and guarded against. There is no great good, either Beauty or any other, about which it is wise to take the reckless line of insisting on it at all times at any cost to other goods. Art for art's sake, or Beauty for Beauty's sake, are stupid or detestable doctrines if they mean that bad consequences for other interests do not matter, or that there are no bad consequences. Of course the love of Beauty conflicts sometimes with morality; and of course morality matters.
But, equally certainly, danger is not always to be avoided, or we should avoid all great goods. Furthermore, it is not Beauty so much as art that the moralist has to fear. Enjoying the products of nature has bad consequences far less often than enjoying the products of artists. Furthermore, the products of bad art are more dangerous to morality than the products of good art. The good artist's representation of evil prevents rather than encourages evil activity.
I believe that Beauty is a very great good. I believe that all who seek to enjoy it will be rewarded. The contemplation of Beauty, and especially the Beauty of nature, is an immense solace and joy, calming and cheering. It is shareable by all. If you stare at the yellow elmtrees in the autumn sun you hinder nobody else from doing so too. The contemplation of Beauty is a form of living that involves no competition, interference, consumption, or destruction. In it we are released for a while from our treadmill of production and consumption, that is, of earning our living. There are always at hand a thousand forms of Beauty (the stars at night, for example) that cost nothing except the petty courage to stand and look at them. And the cultivation of Beauty encourages, and is closely allied to, the cultivation of another great good, namely Truth.
The contemplation of Beauty sometimes induces ecstasy, and ecstasy is the happiest state, a humming perfection of the whole person. The greatest artcritic of the earlier twentieth century, Bernard Berenson, writes in his Sketch for a Selfportrait that at the age of five or six he experienced an ecstasy when out of doors. He continues:
|It has remained for seven decades the goal of my yearning, my longing,
my desire. Not always alas! but often enough in moments when passion, or
ambition, or selfrighteousness would have had their way with me, the feeling
of that moment at the dawn of my conscious life would present itself and
like a guardian angel remind me that it was my goal and that it was my
only real happiness.... It means taking things as they come ... with grateful
recognition of what they offer and an almost holy joy in their being....
From childhood up I have had the dream of a life lived as a sacrament.
With the years it merged into the wish that it could be
lived with the significance of a work of art: not imitating any visual,
musical or literary masterpieces but an art as independent, as autonomous,
as each of the arts should be and like them flowing from the same source
in the human spirit.
Let us therefore cultivate our appetite for Beauty, and our habit of attending to it, and our power to see it where it is. Let us not eat good food without tasting it, nor pass a rosemary hedge without drawing a hand through it and sniffing. Let us make our own persons and possessions beautiful rather than ugly, as surely it is our duty to do; our dress, our gestures, the way we keep our hair, the house we build, the word we coin, the sentence we write, the way we write it. Let us try to judge who are the good critics, and to see Beauty where they say it is; but at the same time always sincerely to ask whether we ourselves are actually perceiving it. Let us learn to distinguish Beauty from emotion, from sentiment, from antiquity, from modernity, and from whatever else we may tend to confuse it with. When our little opportunity comes to influence the young, let us spread the view that the contemplation of simple, obvious Beauties is a reasonable and civilized thing to do. Let us avoid whatever may bring ridicule or suspicion on the love of Beauty.
2.33. Art and sex
In appendix to this recommendation of Beauty I wish to add a few remarks on art and sex.
Although Beauty is not identical with the product of art, and should be clearly distinguished therefrom, because art aims at much else besides Beauty, yet art is closely related to Beauty, and some of its products are extremely beautiful. The lover of Beauty will seek it among artefacts as well as in nature, even if like Berenson he wonders 'whether art has a higher function than to make us feel, appreciate and enjoy natural objects for their art value'.
The activity of art or making, when successful, is itself one of the great goods of life, whether what is made is Beauty or something else. It is perhaps the greatest good that is almost universally available. It is almost universally available, for nearly every human being can learn to make or do something well, and can have daily opportunities for exercising some of his art. It is not, however, available to most young children. The great handicap of the human child is that he can do little or nothing well; and one of the advantages of children's play is probably that it manufactures an opportunity of doing something successfully or seeming to. It is important to give children frequent opportunities for doing something well, and to equip them with powers of art and craft.
Representative art in its higher reaches can be a rich and valuable 'expression of the imaginative life', because it 'is separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action, and hence freed from moral responsibility and the binding necessities of our actual existence'. 'When freed from these necessities we can clarify and cultivate our perceptions. In the imaginative life our emotions are weaker but much more clearly realized; and we can give them a new valuation.' This point was made by Roger Fry, and I have been quoting his words.
Whether representative or not, all art can be an absorbing and glorious occupation for its own sake, well worthy of being pursued without ulterior reference to wealth or honour or other goods. This absorption in art as such is the good meaning of the phrase 'art for art's sake'. And the finest affirmation of it known to me is Gustave Flaubert's letter of 1852 to Maxime du Camp beginning 'Mon cher ami, tu me parais avoir à mon endroit un tic ou vice rédhibitoire'.
One great hindrance to the love of Beauty in Anglo-Saxon countries is that Beauty is closely connected with sex and Anglo-Saxons are afraid of sex. Is sex a good thing? We are not prepared to say no. We are not ascetics with the courage of their ascetic convictions. On the other hand, we are certainly not prepared to say yes. Some of us feel it as just a revolting necessity, like killing animals in order to have food -- necessary in order to continue the race, but disgusting because, as Yeats has put it, 'love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement', and because such a surrender of the person is intolerable anyhow to our pride. Some of us feel it a shameful pleasure, keenly attractive but necessarily furtive. Most of us are in doubt what value to put upon it, and we recline this way and that as the momentary influences move us, never reaching a confident evaluation that we are prepared to defend.
In this atmosphere of vacillation and uncertainty, of shame and desire and disgust and fear to think, we become the prey to various horrors. We behave towards the enemies of sex as pusillanimously as the Germans behaved towards the Nazis. That is, we do not believe them; but we will not fight them; and, whenever they make a move against sex, we submit and pretend we agree. It only takes one citizen to say a book is obscene, and ninety-nine other Anglo-Saxons will bow their heads although they disagree, will withdraw the book from circulation and prosecute the publisher. We display in sex the cowardice which we accuse the Germans of in politics. The cause in both cases is the same, lack of open and thorough contemplation of the issue. The tyranny, against which we are sensitive and vigilant in politics, flourishes unrebuked among us in matters of sex. We cannot think of any piece of sexual behaviour as improper without instantly thinking that there ought to be a law against it. We see nothing odd in invoking the law against a book that encourages the enjoyment of sex, though we never invoke the law against a book that encourages hatred of the Jews. Yet hatred of Jews is bad and enjoyment of sex is good.
And what a dreadful set of laws they are that we invoke against sex! We make male homosexuality illegal and we fix no age of consent for males. Our hypocrisy and timidity allow hateful arguments to be used in court. For example, it is sometimes suggested that a homosexual must be a liar, much as it used to be suggested that an atheist must be a liar. It is sometimes suggested that coition is a filthy business. The disgusting belief that the erotic is necessarily obscene flourishes in our courts, and that is a great shame upon our lawyers.
One effect of our fear and shame is that gross ignorance and gross error about sex are very common. Sexuality is a field where everyone begins by being bewilderingly in the dark; and in our culture his own shame and other people's repression tend to keep him so. The opinion prevails, and is fostered by our horrible lawcourts, that only scientists and medical men have a right to know about sex. But these very doctors themselves have often been afraid to know. When asked by a newly married couple for advice about sexual intercourse, which in my opinion it is eminently their duty to give, some of them have replied that there is nothing to be said. A few have even repulsed their patients with abuse.
Sex is dangerous. Let us begin by admitting and realizing that. There is the obvious danger of producing a child that is not wanted or cannot be cared for. There are several less obvious but grave dangers, including emotional fixations that make for misery, uncontrollable and brutal desires, frustration or starvation leading to emotional illnesses and vulgarization. An hour of sexual intoxication can make a lifetime of misery for more than one person, much as an hour of alcoholic intoxication can make a murder. Hence, indeed we must all say with the Prayer Book that coition 'is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly ... but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly ... duly considering' the consequences thereof, and the obligations which they involve. And we must say that to invite another person to sexual activity, and especially to initiate a person into it, is an act involving very great responsibilities.
Next we must say that sex is a great good. The sexual act is the source of every new life. It can be a glorious experience in itself. Its imaginative reverberations can spread joy and energy and beauty far and wide through marriage and life and art. That is a large part of the goodness of sex, the fertility and pleasure of its reverberations through life and art. Because of the vivifying and beautifying effect of these long reverberations, we must reject the idea that sexual thoughts and feelings are to be entirely repressed except where they can at once lead to married coition. Here is the main division of opinion about the censorship of art. Much art contains and arouses these sexual reverberations. Some think that is so dangerous that it should be suppressed. I say it is not very dangerous and it is very good. While the sexual act itself is so consequential that it must be severely limited and controlled, imaginative extensions of it and its accompaniments in life and art are neither dangerous nor criminal and are often very good. The dangerous persons are those who have not read books, not those who have.
Every human being has a perfect right to know all that is known about sex, and our culture would be a lot better than it is if most people knew a lot more about sex than they do. This right belongs entire to children as well as to adults, and children in particular have sometimes a grave need to know about sex to help them in understanding and controlling the bewildering things that are happening to them. It is our duty to help them, both by answering their questions informatively and unemotionally, and by leaving informative books where they can read them without embarrassment, and by making such books available in libraries. We must not, however, be angry with librarians who keep these books off the shelves and look searchingly at borrowers who ask for them. We must remember that the poor librarians are at the mercy of Mrs. Grundy (who has no mercy). Mrs. Grundy is waiting to pounce and take away their livelihood if she can. The librarian wants to lend us the books. That is his aim in life. But we must help him by being very discreet in our requests, and letting him see that we are on his side and are not borrowing the book in order to prosecute him.
For the ideal sexual behaviour there exist the words 'purity' and 'chastity'. But on the question what kinds of behaviour deserve these virtue labels, there is probably less agreement than on the question what social arrangements deserve the label 'justice'. In the matter of drink the ideal behaviour is temperance, and there is a strong tendency to the bad idea that temperance is abstinence. Similarly, in sex there is a tendency to the bad idea that chastity and purity consist in total abstinence or virginity. Thus the S.O.E.D. defines 'violate' as to destroy a person's chastity by force. But you cannot destroy a person's chastity by force, because chastity being a virtue is a matter of free will. What you can destroy by force is only her virginity. A violated girl is not an unchaste girl.