John B. Spencer (Ph.D. University of Chicago) is Professor of Religion, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49007.
The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 165-180, Vol. 6, Number 3, Fall, 1976. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Bernard Meland’s aesthetic ethic acknowledges the value, though limited, of the moral obligations of continuity and faithfulness to the inherited good from the structure of experience. But it does not need to insist upon any given unchanging structure not itself subject to critical inquiry.
In this essay the term "ethics" will be used in a broad sense, roughly equivalent to "the study of how best to act as a human being." The terms "morals" and "morality" will refer to a definite program of principles or directives enjoined as "the way to live." Thus a moral code is a species of answers to the question of ethics. There are, of course, many systems of morality. There are also a growing number of systems of ethical analysis or theory which seek to generalize beyond particular sets of moral prescriptions, to state how and under what conditions moral principles and directives can be formed and justified. They then set forth the nature of moral obligation in reference to the sets of moral prescriptions, thus laying the groundwork for the judging and improving of systems of moral prescriptions, or even for creating a special morality for each situation.
In Bernard Meland’s writings we find a more radical approach to ethics. He tends to portray morality itself as an inadequate or aborted answer to the ethical question, vastly overrated. "The folly of moral earnestness arises from a lack of proportion, which the sense of beauty would provide, and from the restricted conception of good, which it seeks to make sovereign in society" (HEHS 2). This rejection of morality as the sole, or even primary, content of ethics is prefigured in an early article published in the Personalist in 1942. He does not any longer subscribe to what he now calls the standpoint of "aestheticism" lying behind this statement of contrasts, but it will serve in a preliminary and rather startling way to introduce us to the contrasts to be found more carefully stated in the later position. In the article he distinguished "two paths to the good life: the one moving in the direction of moral perfection; the other leading to an aesthetic greatness of character" (1:53).
This contrast may be stated as the difference between the creative and the controlled way of life; between the good life sought though the ideal of art, and the goodness of life achieved through moral effort. Art is concerned with creating life; morality with controlling it. Art impels men to seek new orders of value and to synthesize them in an expression of unity; morality tends to preserve established orders of value and to resist possible new syntheses that threaten to impair existent values. Morality strives to make the world safe to live in. Art seeks to make it worth living in. Art is experimental. Morality is conservative. Art leads toward a creative and venturesome way of living; morality toward a controlled mode of existence. (1:53)
He closes by identifying himself with Whitehead in supporting the primacy of the aesthetic way of life. "The very character of the world, that is to say, makes the aesthetic measure of things primary and more final. And this is as true when applied to the conduct of life as when made the basis for understanding the nature of the world" (1:61).
In subsequent writings Meland converts this opposition into a contrast, an aesthetic ethic. But what is an aesthetic ethic? And how is it the outcome of Meland’s metaphysical and cultural analysis of the human situation?
I. A Typology of Ethical Systems
We will begin by noting a typology of ethical systems. These will then be related to a Whiteheadian aesthetic analysis of an occasion of choice. It will be discovered that the various types of ethical theory can be reconciled when they are adequately related to the aesthetic structure of choice. Then we will note the distorting effects upon each type when the essential reference to the aesthetic ground is ignored.
H. R. Niebuhr, in The Responsible Self, uses a typology which should help us in this project. He refers to three types of ethical theory: the teleological, the deontological, and the cathekontic:1
purposiveness [teleology] seeks to answer the question: "What shall I do?" by raising as prior the question: "What is my goal, ideal, or telos?" Deontology tries to answer the moral query by asking, first of all: "What is the law and what is the first law of my life?" Responsibility [cathekontic ethics], however, proceeds in every moment of decision and choice to inquire: "What is going on?" If we use value terms then the differences among the three approaches may be indicated by the terms, the good, the right, and the fitting; for teleology is concerned always with the highest good to which it subordinates the right; consistent deontology is concerned with the right, no matter what may happen to our goods; but for the ethics of responsibility the fitting action, the one that fits into a total interaction as response and as anticipation of further response, is alone conducive to the good and alone is right." (RS 60f.)
Ethical obligation is dependent upon aesthetic obligation. It is a specialized form of the metaphysically general obligation which characterizes every actual thing, and thus every act of choosing. Since experience as it occurs concretely is always actually in process, it can best be understood in terms of the following three sets of relationships: the relationship to the past is its inheritance; the relationship to the future is its anticipation and the locus of its influence; and its internal set of relationships in the present constitutes its combined response to that particular inheritance and that particular anticipation whereby that particular occasion is something for itself. In other words, every occasion of experience (and there are for Whitehead no other actual things at all) is responsible to the givenness of its past, imposes its preferences on those other occasions into whose existence it subsequently merges, and creates itself in its own pattern of response to both of the other sets of relationships.
These sets of relationships constitutive of any occasion of experience express categories of obligation. Each set gives rise to a type of obligation; from these in turn are derived the types of ethical theory described in Niebuhr’s typology. The decision of the present moment of experience is obliged to the given structures of the past which constitute its inheritance. These structures causally define its basic character and limits and thus set its task, though this determination always leaves the present moment free with respect to how it will constructively carry out the imperatives in this situation. The fundamental obligation which the concrescence owes the past in the present is faithfulness to the richness of possibility given by the past, thus fulfilling it. The obligation is categorical precisely because it is the ineluctable presence of the past which constitutes the obligation. To be included is to require being taken account of, to present a claim (i.e., to obligate).
Likewise, that this present moment will be included in the future sets up an obligation toward the future. In this future which is coming into being, the imprint of the decision of the present moment of experience is indelible. It will require being taken account of, being completed. The creativity of the occasion becomes a creative influence on the future. The power to shape the future constitutes a claim against the present to consider the consequences of its choice. These consequences for the future are the causal impact of the present occasion upon the world which must receive it. Here, too, there is freedom toward the future as to how the present will exert its influence. But there is no freedom from the obligation of exerting some one particular influence.
Finally, the internal set of relationships which is the becoming of the present occasion is the response of that occasion to the totality of inheritance and the totality of anticipation which present themselves for decision. To become as a fully concrete participant in the creative passage means to respond to this totality in such a way as to emerge as something for oneself. Without unifying the multitude of claims presented by the givens and by the possibilities into one response, there can be no one actual occasion at all. But there are always more ways than one of settling these relationships to the universe as a whole. These various possible patterns of total response and contribution differ in the degree of their adequacy to the full reality of that total situation. Thus they also differ in depth and intensity. The universe in its total unity thus obligates the particular occasion in its total unity.
In other words, every act is constituted: (1) by the obligatory relation to the past, which in its determinacy demands of it relevance and continuity with the basic given structures; (2) by the obligatory relation to the future, which in its indeterminacy lures by visions of the control of the future through influential action taken in the present; and (3) by the obligatory unity of response to what is going on, which requires imaginative creativity with relevance and responsibility for consequences. Thus every occasion is a product, an influence, and a response. And every product, every influence, and every response requires normative decision.
Now it can be seen how these sets of relationships and their corresponding types of obligation suggest four kinds of ethical theory, three of which have been captured in Niebuhr’s typology.
The first interpretation sees the occasion of ethical decision essentially as a product with a general character determined by what is already settled. Its good will consist of accepting the obligation of conformity with the given basic structures, which are presented in the form of natural or other general laws. Some type of deontological ethical theory will result from this emphasis.
The second interpretation sees the occasion of ethical choice essentially as an influence with a future role as shaper, improver, controller. Its good will be to perfect future phases of the presently indeterminate future according to evaluations made in the present but having the character of an ideal. Some kind of teleological ethical theory will result from this emphasis.
The third interpretation sees the occasion of ethical choice essentially as a response to a universe composed of both givens and possibilities. Its good will consist of acting in the manner most fitting to the ultimate character of the situation which holds it in being. Some kind of cathekontic or situational ethic will result from this emphasis.
This would seem to exhaust the ethical alternatives. However, it is here that Meland makes his key suggestion. He pleads in many books and articles for seeing the occasion of ethical choice as essentially a moment in the creative adventure of a spirit in a community of other spirits. Its good consists of appreciating and serving the richest beauty,2 in company with others whose love of beauty holds them all in common gratitude, working together, contending with each other in courageous devotion to the vision of beauty held by each, forgiving one another in trust, celebrating together their common devotion expressed in different ways, thus fed by, contributing to, and fighting for the increasing intensity and significance of their communal life. Meland struggles against the truncating and warping of human existence which occurs when it is understood as essentially a matter of individual solution to existence posed as a moral problem, regardless of whether that problem is seen as how to be faithful to the given structures of human life, or how to be faithful to the vision of the ideal human life, or how to be faithful to the specific facts of the total situation of the present.
The more specialized ethical emphases of obligation to the given past, to the perfectible future, and to the most inclusive reality are caught up and transformed in this aesthetic ethic of the final importance of devotion to beauty. The richest beauty justifies the continuity, orderliness, and fullest expression of the inherited structure stressed by deontological ethics. It also justifies the imaginative dedication to entering the future as a contributor to the kind and degree of beauty possible there. It also justifies discriminating within the matrix of internal relations the actual character of the inclusive meanings and making a fitting response to this character. Thus the key interpretation is the aesthetic one. "Beauty" is the answer we get when we ask the ultimate "why?" The more specialized ethical emphases are themselves fulfilled and interrelated from this standpoint.
The characteristic weaknesses of these other ethical theories are illuminated by considering them as the result of the fragmentation of the aesthetic whole. Each of the fragmented emphases tends to lack a full appreciation of the full nature of obligation. Deontological ethics tends toward the absolutizing of the apodictic authority of the given order. Teleological ethics is threatened with the abstract irrelevance of the ideal to the rich concrete givenness of the conditions. And cathekontic ethics lacks objective direction, lapsing into the unintended absolutizing of the set of conditions which happen to present themselves to that person at that moment as the ultimate character of the situation. Another way of putting this same point is to notice how ethics loses its dialectical character when the aesthetic unity is forgotten. Deontological and teleological ethics absolutize one or another kind of static perfection, given or to be achieved. Cathekontic ethics loses its reliability and prescriptive power because there can be no training in "fittingness," nor is there a stopping point in the analysis of the situation at which one has now discovered how it really is, so that his response may be appropriate. A successful attempt on the part of any one of these types to overcome its characteristic weaknesses will move in the direction of supplementation by the other types of obligation. But no amount of mere supplementation seems to add up to the reconception which is needed.
Since moral obligation is rooted in the aesthetic character of reality, it fragments into competing claims for ultimate ethical authority when divorced from this aesthetic ground. Claims which stress the obligation of the present to the past see moral obligation as imposed by given structures, and thus demand continuity with them (obedience). Those which stress the obligation of the present to the future see moral obligation as the claim of an ideal to direct sacrifice, improvement, and change, and thus demand discontinuity with the past and achievement of a new society. Those which stress the creative responsive role of the present moment see moral obligation as emerging new from each present context of givens and ideals, and thus demand an attitude of "love" indecisive "openness" as the permanent stance, loyalty to the Leader, or complete analysis of the factuality in each situation.
In all of these truncated interpretations the individual is set over against a reality which makes demands on him in the face of which his worth as a person depends upon his individual response. He must accomplish the goodness either by conformity or by achievement or by the fitting response, directed by the demand. He is constantly on trial morally, and every good thing in his life depends upon his sole adequacy in act. In addition, the goodness which is incumbent upon him must be that which he and his fellows can and do readily understand. He is not morally obligated by anything which he does not already accept as obligating him. Finally, the problematic moments of choice tend to be assimilated to the kinds of issues for which there are already principles, projects, and/or attitudes specifying kinds of response and action. Obligations individual are subsumed under obligations general, to which moral answers can be clearly given. Complicated, rich situations are trivialized and contorted into the mere material of the moral conflict and the weighing and reconciling of moral categories. The rich possibilities and actualities of living are reduced for the sake of the harmony that can be readily achieved. In this way moral demands are clearly identified and satisfied -- at the expense of the attenuation of significance.
II. The Formal Character of the Aesthetic Ethic
An aesthetic ethic is a matter of feelings. Its two basic virtues are openness to the universe of interrelated feelings and discrimination of quality. The good is quality of experience, or beauty. It does emerge into human existence, but it is not simply the product of human intention.
The infinite variety in the universe of feelings is graded in degrees of intensity and of harmonization. The actual world is a complex of structured feelings, internally linked into a bewildering maze of social orders, each of which endures by obligating its member entities to transmit its pattern. Also each such member entity of any such society is also a member in other respects of many other such societies. All past entities must be taken into account by present emerging experience in some fashion. (This is merely the recognition of the principle of causality.) And every society likewise presses its own claim. It is these claims of the past actualities and societies which constitute the first and basic aesthetic obligation. They are all felt, not merely as objects to be known, but as values which are of concern to the emerging individual occasion. From this arises the second aesthetic obligation, that of finding one response or act which will acknowledge these many claims in the way of greatest satisfaction. But, in order to receive the greatest satisfaction and participate in the greatest beauty, the future effects of this decision must be taken into account, and this is the third aesthetic obligation.
When this moment of self-constituting action resolving the claims and consequences of the whole universe is considered in all of its actual complexity, the pretense of moralistic ethics to judge by its handful of principles, or to take responsibility for control of the future of the universe in the name of its one ideal or single pattern of ideal perfection, or to identify the "reality" to which to make the relevant response, seems naively presumptuous, and at the same time a hopeless enterprise. There is mounting evidence that this typically Western mode of approaching the ordering of existence has had a direct bearing upon some of the most hideous injustices of our civilization and of the world. Action which is aware of its responsibility only to one authority -- whether this be a prescriptive principle or set of principles, or a reigning ideal of perfection, or even one God whose will is known -- disconnects action from the fullness of aesthetic reality, from minority claims, from emerging creative novelties, from the richness, ambiguity, and mystery of the present reality. In fact, this is what it is intended to do, for who can consciously weigh, or even become aware of, such a bewildering and disordered and discordant reality? The result of the dominance of this moral way of life tends to be the withering away of sensitivity and the brutalizing of the dominant powers of a given region.
III. Meland’s Form of the Aesthetic Ethic
The preeminent resource for the elaboration of an aesthetic ethic is Bernard Meland, who has for years protested vigorously against the brutalizing, desensitizing, and dehumanizing course of human affairs under the leadership of the moralistic and idealistic ethics of the West. Even Meland, however, is still learning the dimensions of this tragedy. There is an especially striking instance of this recorded in his Roger Williams Fellowship lecture on "Absurdity and Anxiety" in which he speaks of the aesthetic reality of the white man’s burden:
I must say that, in my initial encounter with people of India and the Far East, I strongly resented the charge of imperialism that was continually made against us as Westerners. (I think I reflect this in my Realities of Faith.) On subsequent reflection, I have come to realize that the impact of imperialistic powers on the East and other cultures is the one stubborn fact of our Western history that will not die. And now that it is in the open and made stark and unsettling to every sensitive Western conscience, it tends to put the lie to our pretensions of idealism and moral concern for humanity; or at least to question it. The demonry of the West’s imperialistic history in the East has been matched only by our own enslavement of a whole segment of our people in America; and by the eruptions of massive acts of inhumanity within Western culture in recent history, notably among a nation of people acclaimed to be the principal fashioners of modern idealism and its liberal faith. (4:2)
But in what way can an aesthetic ethic be not only aesthetically adequate to the fullness of actuality, but also ethical, i.e., a guide in some sense for living? The aesthetic ethic must indicate at least general directions for the adequate and selective response upon which it insists, or it is no ethic.
It is clear that an aesthetic ethic must presuppose an aesthetic metaphysic. The inadequacy of moralistic and rationalistic ethics, as we have seen, is intimately related to the inadequacy of the metaphysic presupposed. As the artists have known all along, the situations talked about by the professional moralists are constructed for that very purpose, and do not correspond to "the way things really are." Analyses of such constructions can be counted on to show just those factors which the advocated theory needs for its support. But decisions actually made m passage seem always to reflect the "undue" influence of factors that are not ordinarily thought of as moral at all (IC ch. 1).
The aesthetic ethic rests on an aesthetic metaphysic. This understanding of the ultimate structure of things allows for no sheer irrelevance. It distinguishes between the simplified edition of reality which is the context of conscious decisions and the actual causal efficacy with which in our actions we are actually dealing. There can be no "eternal" principles or ideals which unfailingly define for us the good in each situation. The crude approximations in terms of which conscious moral judgments must be made "have their day" and are refined or superseded as the shifting patterns of good and evil shape our viewpoint on the significance of our inheritance, the total situation, and the ultimacy of our goals. Each situation in its full concreteness has its own structure, not to be adequately judged simply by comparison with some general prescription nor with some perfect ideal; in fact not by any conscious assessment. The more adequate judgment must come from a more adequate sensitivity to the felt importance, beauty, and intensity actually resident in the moment of experience and likely to contribute an increase of such enhancement of life for the future.
The appreciative consciousness is the indispensable guide to understanding any problem, situation, crisis, or impending peril, as well as to dealing constructively with events of scope or of imaginative proportions. For the facts of crucial importance in any such situation are always relational within a dynamic context. The wrong decisions generally proceed from an inadequate grasp of the moving and changing status of facts and relationships. What was unanticipated overwhelms the calculations; and the unexpected happens, often not because the facts gave no hint of the outcome, but because there were no eyes to see or to attend to these relational and transitive factors that formed the pattern of emerging events which generated its movement. . . . Once complexity is acknowledged to be the actual status of any living or dynamic situation, denying the complexity or ignoring it through measures of simplifying the data in order to assure exact scrutiny, can only lead to a false perspective, idealizing the implications. In a world of complex meanings, plagued by forces of incalculable possibilities, and of ambiguous intent, there can be no realism of judgment or of understanding except as facts are seen m their relations and in their condition of becoming, and in terms of the intimations of meaning which these relations and tendencies imply. This is the realism of the appreciative mind. (HEHS 78)
Thus Meland has developed a. metaphysical description which grounds such an aesthetic ethic.
He begins with the connectedness of existence, relying here on the doctrine of internal relations as Whitehead has developed it:
Deeper than the self is the creative passage, the creativity, the ongoingness, the space-time continuum, where the event seems indistinguishable from events. All living is contained in this medium and is sustained as a temporal-spatial event by reason of being continuous with it. . . . There is this depth in our nature that brings our subjective life into creatural rapport with all creatures, and with the creative Source of our being. (EC 142f)
This "realm of internal relations" contains everything. Whitehead refers to it as the "Receptacle." It constitutes for man the flow of experience of which he is a part, the inexhaustible river of feeling bearing him along. The metaphysical character of these relations is feeling and even "concern" (AI 226, 232). That is, the ultimate creativity is a matrix of concerns and feelings of valuation out of which grow coordinations of various levels of complex experiences.
Relations are thus seen to suggest not simply the notion of pattern but the interaction of structures in a way which makes for a subtle progression from lower to higher organizations of events. A binding factor, which is at the same time a thrust toward the advancing sensitivity of structures, is thus noted as a persisting horizon of mystery and promise attending each actualized order or structure. (2:92).
Thus the flow of events of feeling is partially ordered and these orders are structures of value; i.e., they embody values which are the modes of synthesis of past values coordinated into fresh intensities, only to pass on themselves to future events for which they are given. Bare creativity ensures that the past will be inherited as an obligation in the present of the values of the past. The present arises as a necessary response to that past with its value, partly compatible and partly not, far too complex and mysterious for conscious sorting or understanding, yet with determinative power in the present. "Depths of actuality, inaccessible to conscious experience, will escape awareness and intelligibility, and thus be beyond demonstration of truth; yet be able to determine or destroy intelligibility itself" (EC 118).
The richness, the mystery, the complexity, the depth of the inheritance into which man is born is beyond comprehension. It is the universe in that moment, with all of its particularities of past events and their interconnections and their meanings and values and possibilities. It is at this point, perhaps, that the question arises as to the very possibility of an aesthetic ethic, for the sensitive awareness of this flux with its bewildering variety of claims would surely tend to incapacitate action altogether. How could there be ethical direction from an appreciative awareness open to this only partly coordinated flood of causal efficacy? It may be that what Fry refers to as "Establishment ethics" does fail to do justice to the "rationally unaccountable, ethically nonnormative, purely evanescent, absolutely local, hence crucial shape of circumstances," (IC 28) but can any ethic? Is it not necessary to posit even inadequate principles to contribute stability and direction, even though they can now be seen for the abstract and insensitive systems that they are? After all they do impose some order and direction. Openness would seem to guarantee only bewilderment.
IV. The Structure of Experience
Meland’s response to this crucial question of an aesthetic ethic is to point out that the past of a particular event is not all that chaotic. The individual is born into a particular tradition. His relationship to the total past is by way of an actual sequence of events within which there has emerged a certain general character. The person making moral choices shares along with the other members this same order of cultural inheritance. Meland’s term for this key concept is the "structure of experience."
When this notion becomes clear in reading Meland’s work, many other things fall into place. For it is the complex relationship between the individual and the depth of his own cultural and natural concrete accumulation that provides the basis for the meaningfulness of an aesthetic ethic. The structure of experience furnishes the definiteness in experience required for individual orientation for any decision. The massive inheritance out of which each individual comes and from which he derives the depths of his own present existence thus already has definite character. This character is the outcome of a long accumulation of former decisions. It gathers itself around a core of significant meanings, with formative images. These images bear the meanings from generation to generation. They also furnish the terms by reference to which modifications of insight can find their places in the living development of a structure of experience. In other words, the problem of making sense out of the bewildering variety of causal inheritance does not present itself in an ultimately disabling way because, as a matter of empirical fact, the past bears in itself the fundamental meanings out of which the individual makes sense of himself and his situation. The claims of the past and the future are already coordinated into mutually reinforcing societies, which are dominant and dominating accumulations of value.
This does not, however, mean that acquaintance with the cumulative environment calculates the single appropriate action to take in a particular moment. It might, but it very likely will not. It does mean that the individual, to the degree that he participates in the structure of experience which is his own depth, is given a general set of valuations which he inherits along with the situation itself, and which will flow into that situation and carry him along with them.
Within any nation’s or community’s history, then, the present moment of time is laden with qualitative meaning so complex in character, being the living distillation of decisions and resolutions of ages, so profound in implication for all existence and for all present events, that no single center of consciousness is equal to discerning its burden and its opportunity. Each new generation comes into an organized inheritance greater in depth and range than the perceptions of any living person who is a member of it. Thus people live in a context of feeling and awareness that is always beyond their grasp emotionally or cognitively. They are not automatically bound by this heritage or by these relationships; for they, too, are creative of its emerging structure in the way that all concrete events have influenced it. Nevertheless, all living persons carry within their nature something of the hidden drives and aspirations that rise from this accumulative structure of experience. (RF 195f).
That is, every moment starts out equipped with an inherited general character already operative with the energies of the past valuations fashioned by past decisions into a fairly well-integrated pattern of valuation.
In our bodies, as evidenced by the turn of the head, the look, the stance, the way we receive other people, and more hiddenly still, the probabilities of response, the apprehensions, the concerns, yea the sensibilities -- in all that gives character to the person -- we carry the fund of valuations that give the total, existential meaning of ourselves as persons. (FC 37).
This inheritance of a basal character as a member of a culture, with its valuations as my valuations, and with my meaning fundamentally given to me, is one side of the structured freedom of the aesthetic ethic. Freedom is expressed by a structured reality; the richer the structure, the greater the possibilities for creative decision. But there is on the other hand the work of the critical intellect of the individual in deciding the role which this inheritance will play in the actual events of the course of his particular life. The passage of events compels the present moment to transmit the past through this particular existence, picking up its additional increments of qualitative meaning. Acts of conscious perception and apprehension, and critical intellection, involve decisions about the kind of effect which the inherited meanings and values will have in specific situations. The human consciousness abstracts from the fullness of meaning borne by the structure of experience. Its primary function is to select and heighten experience by emphasis. It can even become the means of actual dissociation of the conscious awareness from the structure of experience. One of the main warnings Meland makes everywhere in his writings is against the excessive reliance upon the abstractions of the moral and rational consciousness (cf. e.g., HEHS ch. 13). An overly moral and rational conscious world is separated from the depth of human existence and is therefore a poverty-stricken one, even involving demonic illusion.
However, consciousness in its various functions can also provide the structure of experience with appropriate focus and power. In so doing significance is heightened by attention to the objective goodness discovered in the values presented for choice in the immediate and future situation. This capacity for emphasis within the flow and the tension of the structure of experience modifies the inherited structure to some extent. However, the modification is never as simple and direct as moral and rational exhortations assume.
Our understanding of the life-process as a structure of experience in which formative elements of great depth and antiquity continue to cradle and nurture the human spirit leads us to grasp more readily the way in which faith as a cultural energy operates to fulfill human life and culture. In part we are subconsciously molded as persons and as a society in the way that a mythos invariably imposes a distinctive character upon any people. In part, however, we are shaped by whatever decisions we may make to self-consciously appropriate the valuations that are thus transmitted. (FC 131).
This power of discrimination for emphasis which is the power to affect the structure of experience and the institutions which arise from it in human civilization is the fateful power. It generates new forms of experience. These new forms are eventually absorbed into the accumulated experience, transforming it in significant (but not always better) ways.
The saint and mystic, as well as the creative artist, have always been enigmas to the common life and have generally been considered as people apart from the accepted mores and customs of society, sometimes persecuted, but usually tolerated until circumstances favored their being revered. Then the special mode of experience which had been exclusively and narrowly cherished became the course of a new communal experience at a level at which it could be assimilated into the common experience. (RF 212).
The process of individuation, which centers a personal life through the particularity of his situation and exercises the powers of discriminatory response, enables the person to extend the intensity of his existence through the interplay of persons.
Out of [this] emerges the various patterned existences which we recognize as companionship, the family, the gang, the club, the religious fellowship, the community; all of which widen into a well-defined culture, the bounds of which are usually geographically, economically, and politically determined. . . . It is literally true that human nature, like creature life at every level, is defined by this interdependence and mutuality of existence. (FC 136) .
Interpersonal existence greatly enhances the intentional power of the individual through the development of symbolization in language. The conceptualizing power of language conveys comparatively greater freedom by widening the range of recognizable alternatives. At the same time, however, it makes more specific, and thus limits, the access of that person to the fullness of his own depths.
The deepening of life and the reaping of goodness are not, however, to be recovered by avoiding individuation, reducing human existence to the nonindividuated or nonrational "lethargic dependence upon the habitual routine judgments and valuations persisting as duration," for this, if possible at all, would be a "domesticated animality breathing the bovine contentment of the pastorale." (HEHS 3). Rather, human creativity and fulfillment depend upon combining disciplined inquiry and appreciative awareness. Disciplined inquiry acquaints one with the facts with precision; appreciative awareness is a heightened and disciplined sensitivity to the richness of concrete human existence. The effectiveness and honesty of human existence in its endeavors require precise factual knowledge. Wisdom and relevance require the openness and sensitivity of appreciative awareness. Appreciative awareness, because it encounters actual objective goodness at work in the depths of existence, discovers redemptive end, aim, and ultimate meaning for the lives that serve that goodness.
In this paper, I have chosen to introduce the concept of actual objective goodness at work blessing sensitive human endeavor rather abruptly as an empirical fact of human existence. Meland treats it as such, usually in the context of Christian interpretation. However, it is not only the Christian who participates in the goodness upon which our human fulfillment depends. This goodness he often describes empirically in general terms:
It is this abundance of concrete good in the tenuous relationships between people, in the depths of men’s dedications where they have envisaged good beyond themselves, in the beauty that unsuspectedly crowns our path, in memories of one life or of one people that gathers ‘the greatness incarnate’ of a culture into an acknowledged and cherished tradition -- it is this abundance of goodness that saves man from his frustrations, his failures, and from tragic loss which every life, in some measure, encounters. These abstract goods which we call relationships, dedications, beauty, memory, always meet us in vividly concrete form; in our love for some person, or in our oneness with friends, in our feelings for the Christ, or in some clear glimpse of ultimate truth; in the curve of a hill or a certain path that has become as a shrine in our thoughts; in particular events in history or some moment in our lifetime when life’s meaning was illumined -- experiences such as these are for every man the means of access to this redemptive good that hovers about him daily. In grief, in times of desolation, these are the structures through which the grace of God is mediated as a healing force. (FC 196).
Meland’s approach to the analysis of ethics is similar to that of Richard Niebuhr: "The object of the inquiry is not, as in the case of Christian ethics, simply the Christian life but rather human moral life in general. . . . My concern here is with the understanding of our human. life from a Christian point of view" (RS 45). This statement serves to describe Meland’s aim, too. The description of human existence is a metaphysical one, and the affirmation of the goodness borne along by the structure of experience is empirical. The Christian faith is the myth which in fact conveys "the feeling tone of [Western] culture with regard to its ultimate dimensions" (FC 87). However, the aesthetic ethic itself, as an ethic, also calls for the education of the sensitivities so that there can be the reorientation of the way of life toward the goodness not our own, where the myth of the Christian faith does not, for whatever reason, perform this illumination. Sensitive persons in non-Christian cultures participate knowingly in this grace of the structures of goodness not of our own devising or controlling.
The freedom of God would argue that God has to do with all men, all cultures, all stages of human history, in His way, in His time. The depth and scope of this Infinite dealing with men of all ages and all races is a mystery which no one human mind can apprehend, and no one culture may engineer or supervise. God creates them, and redeems them as the sensitivity and ripeness of occasions permit and demand (RF 354).
As an ethic, the aesthetic ethic requires faith in the goodness not our own and seems clearly to imply a creative Source of such goodness. However, it does not itself presuppose a particular religion as its ground. Meland uses many forms of neutral phrases to emphasize the empirical character of the experience of a source of goodness not our own: "the encounter with Spirit," "the matrix of sensitivity," "the realm of spirit" "stratum of sensitive meanings," "the creative activity which constantly presses [upon] the human organism," "the sensitive nature, structure of sensitivity," "transcendent life of spirit," "order of transcendent good," "matrix of sensitive relations," "order of sensitivity, sensitive, communal ground," "sensitive order of spirit," etc. The interpretation of the faith in objective Goodness can be various; but without this faith in some form there can be no aesthetic ethic. The interpretation of the faith is not, strictly speaking, a part of the ethic.
We have looked at four kinds of ethical theory: deontological, teleological, cathekontic, and aesthetic. The superiority of the aesthetic type of ethic lies in its adequacy to the peculiar concerns of each of the others, without collapsing into any or all of them. Each such special concern emerges in the aesthetic ethic as properly moral, but not the final ethic. The aesthetic ethic acknowledges the value, though limited, of the moral obligations of continuity and faithfulness to the inherited good from the structure of experience (deontological concern). But it does not need to insist upon any given unchanging structure not itself subject to critical inquiry (i.e., apodictic).
The aesthetic ethic acknowledges the legitimate but limited values of the moral obligations of influencing the future toward a better form of existence (teleological concern). But it does not find any final perfection which evaluates the elements of the given situation solely and ruthlessly in terms of its role in bringing this ideal to actualization. Therefore it does not tend to blind the devotee to other kinds and depths of goodness with which such an ideal may well be in severe tension. It can therefore recognize genuine tragedy in the human situation and be open to a real creative transcendence of any particular impasse.
The aesthetic ethic acknowledges the limited value of the moral obligations of loyalty to the reality of the present ultimate context. But it is not required to see itself as the focus of active solutions to this situation. The person whose way of life could be described as an aesthetic ethic searches first for the active, objective goodness which is there in the situation. He serves this active goodness in both its immediate and its general indications. This service is not mere obedience or dedicated viceregency, but creative, zestful contribution to the communal experience.
Beyond the virtue of including and transcending other kinds of ethical theory the aesthetic ethic encourages wonder, growth, appreciative awareness, imaginative understanding of emerging novelty, and the critical refining of the accepted moral regularities which do provide the minimum of cooperative order basic to the exercise of man’s spiritual calling -- devotion to beauty and goodness not our own.
Moral and legal codes are the human formulations through which we tentatively define the manageable bounds of behavior. They are clearly limited in vision and concern to the human community that formulates them. To elevate these formulations to the status of an ultimate measure is to do precisely what theologians and churchmen have often done with doctrines and other theological statements; namely, to confuse the realities of faith with human formulations about these realities. Legal and moral judgments are protective measures undertaken in behalf of associated living; but they are subject to the judgment of a good not our own, which comes as a new creation out of the possibilities of the immediacies of existence as they are made open and transparent to what is ultimately involved in the spontaneous occasion. Moral codes cannot anticipate these spontaneous openings of goodness beyond their own good, or make binding rules to cover them; but they can provide for our human response to them by holding law and the moral judgment subject to their occurrence. To some extent this is accomplished in the act of interpreting the law or in exercising moral judgment in any given situation. Where law and moral measure are made so inflexible or unyielding as to tolerate no good other than what appears to be literally implied in the formulations of their own making, they are no longer simply protective measures against disorder, dissoluteness, and tyranny; they have themselves then become obstructive to the new creation as a work of grace and judgment in relationships.
The temptation among those who are awakened to the power of the new creation is to depreciate law and morals and to see them solely as being insensitive and obstructive toward the work of the spirit. I see the same problem here of relating our human formulations to the depth of realities that exceed our human measure. These human formulations are to be simultaneously affirmed and held under judgment of that which is more than human. Clearly they are occasions of closure for purposes of decision and direction in human action, and as such they both protect the good that is discerned within our human vision and define it. Living faithfully within the human measure is simply living responsibly within our human structure. But this faithful existence can be responsive to the new creation only as it can be open to the demands or opportunities of the spontaneities of existence, which come to us as a work of grace or judgment out of novel and creative possibilities in relationships, in the crises of history, or even in more commonplace circumstances of new occasions (3:26f).
FC -- Bernard Meland. Faith and Culture. New York: Oxford, 1953. Paperback: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1972.
HEHS -- Bernard Meland. Higher Education and the Human Spirit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953. Paperback: Seminary Cooperative Bookstore, 1965.
IC -- John R. Fry. The Immobilized Christian. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963.
RF -- Bernard Meland. The Realities of Faith. New York: Oxford, 1962. Paperback: Seminary Cooperative Bookstore, 1970.
RS -- H. Richard Niebuhr. The Responsible Self. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
1. Bernard Meland, "Two Paths to the Good Life," Personalist, 23/1 (Winter, 1942), 53-61.
2. Bernard Meland, "Interpreting the Christian Faith within a Philosophical Framework," The Journal of Religion, 33/2 (April, 1953), 87-102.
3. Bernard Meland, "A Voice of Candor," Religion in Life, 33/1 (Winter, 1963-4), 19-27.
4. Bernard Meland, "Narrow Is the Way beyond Absurdity and Anxiety," Criterion, 5/2 (Winter, 1966) 3-9.
1A similar typology, or list of "motifs" ("deliberative," "prescriptive," and "relational"), is used by Edward Long, Jr., in A Survey of Christian Ethics (New York, Oxford 1967). Long compares his motifs with the typology of Niebuhr in an appreciative critique on pages 75f and 118-23.
2The beauty which justifies ethical judgments for Meland is not to be confused with the aesthete’s "mere qualitative harmony" (AI 339). As we shall see, Meland has in mind that kind of beauty which Whitehead calls "truthful beauty" in part IV of Adventures of Ideas, and to which he refers in "The Human Soul" of the same book as "provocative of a noble discontent" and the "critical discontent which is the gadfly of civilization" (AI 12f).