Forbes and Fifth

A Personal Consideration on the Intersection of Ethics and Aesthetics

"Without verse man would be nothing; with it, he almost became God."

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

I find the content of Nietzsche’s words troubling. I am continually stricken by the ethical implications of art and aesthetics both on a personal level and in regards to a broader, societal level. For a couple of years now, I have not been able to enjoy music without having this intuition that perhaps something is “off” with music’s presence in my life. What do I use music for? Why do I actively choose to listen to it? Do I “actively choose” to listen to it? Even once the song is over, I am still humming the melody and moving whatever body parts I am induced to move to the rhythm. Sure, I sometimes have a conscious intention to sing, hum, or dance to the music but, for the most part, no conscious intention exists in my thoughts before the action occurs. I am psychologically induced by the music to perform these unconscious actions. It is important to note, though, that when I say “music” I am not speaking of something which merely comes to be out of thin air, but which comes to be by being created through the means of another human’s consciousness.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes, “one perceives a thought to be truer when it has a metrical form and approaches a divine hopping”.i When I am listening to a song, I am giving my consciousness over to the artist, allowing my psychology to be manipulated by not only the tone and rhythm of the song but also the content of the lyrics. And both of these aspects of the song will only combine to bring about a more complex resulting mind-state when the content of the words (as perceived by the listener) and the tone of the music synthesize into one general expression. The artist has power over me. Whether he or she knows that and has an active intention to exploit it does not matter when we are simply talking about the fact that it happens. It happens regardless of the artist’s intentions. It happens regardless of whether the feelings it induces in me are appropriateii for me to have or not and it happens regardless of whether the thoughts it induces me to have are true or not. When I am listening to a song that I perceive myself as connecting with, the place in which everything—including myself—fits just seems to make sense; if I had to describe it in a concrete phrase, my feeling would be one of “sublime contentedness.” If something was bothering my consciousness, all I need to do is turn on some music that touches on subject matter which in any way relates to that which occupies my consciousness—an easy task for art due to the abstract, metaphysical nature of its subjects—and then just like that, I am content because now I “feel like I know.” “Feeling like I know,” however, is very much different from “knowing.” Lev Tolstoy even went so far as to proclaim that music should be a state matter in his Kreutzer Sonata because he held these views:

Music, generally, is a frightening thing. What is it? I don’t understand. What is music? What does it do? And why does it do whatever it does? They say that music elevates our soul. Rubbish, nonsense! It does work, it has a terrible effect (I am talking for myself), but it certainly does not lift the soul. It does not lift the soul, nor does it debase it, but it irritates it. How can I put it? Music makes me oblivious of myself; it makes me forget my true position; it transfers me into another position, not mine, not my own: it seems to me, under the effect of music, that I feel what I don’t feel, that I understand what I actually don’t understand, can’t understand1

One can trace these sentiments of Nietzsche and Tolstoy on rhythm and verse back to Plato, for he too knew the effects that poetry can have on people. In the Republic he is concerned with the effects that poets such as Homer and Hesiod would have on children in his ideal city and maintains—just as Tolstoy prescribes—the need for censorship of the poets. Platonic Socrates states in “Book II” that, because children cannot decipher what is allegorical content in stories from what is not, the gods must always be represented as they actually are in “epic, lyric, or tragedy.”iii Moreover, Socrates finds it necessary to assert that gods and humans disdain “true falsehood”iv because falsehood, when held in ignorance in the soul (thus making it “true falsehood”), is what everyone would least accept because that is the worst place in which to hold a falsehood.

Further, in “Book III,” Socrates goes on to talk about the positive pedagogical use of the stories of gods and heroes in the ideal city. Socrates maintains that “rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace.”v The amount of grace one’s soul exhibits depends on the quality of one’s education in music and poetry. A proper education will provide one with the ability to notice when something is amiss in nature, Socrates says. One will have the right tastes and distastes and so will be pleased by what is fine and good. The child will be able to be fine and good without reason if he is educated right, and once he has proper use of reason, he will then know what is fine and good and will easily recognize it because of his prior aesthetic education.

In “Book X,” Socrates returns the topic of stories of human beings that he set aside in “Book III.” Socrates takes issue with the platitude that the poets know all human affairs concerned with virtue and vice and that the finest poets are knowledgeable on which they write or else they would not be able to write at all. Though, having at this point in the Republic established that poets are imitators because they produce products which are third from the truth, Socrates asserts that no imitator can have true knowledge of which he imitates for else he would be more concerned with action than imitation. Socrates says that the imitator has no grasp on the truth but rather goes on imitating “what appears fine or beautiful to the majority of people who know nothing.”vi Socrates takes the most serious charge against imitation to be its ability to corrupt even the finest people. He states that the part of the soul which receives the most enjoyment from poetry is the part that “is forcibly controlled in our private misfortunes and that hungers for the satisfaction of weeping and wailing.” Poetic imitation nurtures human’s desires, pleasures, pains and allows them to rule the soul. Socrates, however, feels this is a mistake, and the part of our soul that is best by nature—the rational part—would do well to rule over those passions rather than standing by and letting the passions rule it “for that way we will become better and happier rather than worse and more wretched.”vii

Now that I have laid out a general sketch of Plato’s views on poetry in his ideal state, I feel as if I need to reveal the true nature of this project and explain the role of my exegesis of Plato’s views in the Republic. In the culminating paper of my spring research, plainly titled “How to Eradicate Homophobia”—with these thoughts of Plato echoing in my brain—I called for indoctrination that I theorized would perform a specific function:

Now, how is this complete conflation of sex with aggression, which is so vital in the eradication of homophobia and the attempt to dismantle the patriarchy, to come about? My answer is quite simple; it is to be inculcated partially through personal action and political consciousness-raising… But where most of the work is to be done, though, is through indoctrination, specifically indoctrinating art and media imagery. Those who wish to put an end to the stereotypical image of woman as feminine, weak, and passive that contributes to her sexual objectification and allows for the “sex is power” narrative to affirm the inequality of women and sexual minorities must fight fire with fire. Outside of social and legal violence, indoctrination is the primary tool by which the heteronormativity and male-domination are upheld in a heteropatriarchal society.

Even though one may deem all art to be fiction in some sense to be “fantasy,” there is no denying the influence it can have on our thoughts and actions. This fantasy represents reality insofar as it depicts universals of the human experience; the characters, the emotions they have, and the situations they are in could translate to a real-world experience. The consumer of this fantasy sees it as reality and internalizes it as such. So, when this fantasy contains racist, sexist, or homophobic undertones, and the consumer has no real-life experience which would negate these undertones as according to reality, then the consumer will come to see and interact with the world from a racist, sexist, or homophobic perspective.viii Surface-level character representations that reinforce stereotypes are hardly the sorts of empathy-engendering representations that could break down the idea of black, woman, or “gay” as essentially different, as Other

I figured that this indoctrination could and should take many different forms. And after I left London, I realized it does exist in some forms already,2 but it is not prevalent enough to counteract the male-benefiting “sex is power” indoctrination which I take to be the essential cause of the existence of homophobia. So, I had intended to come up with the different forms of indoctrination and give some examples of pieces of art or images that might do well to my intentions of inculcating a positive idea of feminine sexual aggression in society.

As I tried to proceed in action, I came to realize that there is a giant void in the way I was approaching this process and now I must try and fill it. I am here working through the ethics of these aesthetic processes as described by Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Plato, and others, and coming to some semblance of a view which ethically permits me to further engage myself in that ongoing project as it currently stands. Is it ethically permissible for me to be “God,” as Nietzsche puts it, and attempt to impose my will on another’s consciousness through aesthetic manipulation? If I cannot come to justify it by any means, then I must abandon endorsing the indoctrination approach on the grounds that it is perhaps unethical. I would like to keep in mind that my concern stems from the way I view art and the intuitions I have about its effects over me, which I take to be legitimized by the writings of the thinkers above. I feel as if my best chance at possibly finding support for my project starts with looking to Oscar Wilde’s dialogue, “The Decay of Lying,” which is Wilde’s response to Plato’s aesthetic arguments in the Republic.

Wilde responds directly to Plato’s concerns through his mouthpiece Vivian. He finds that art is degenerative when artists take to life to find their subject matter, that rather than telling stories which relay how life is and how humans really are, artists should restore the art of “lying” or as Plato would put it, “imitating.” Wilde, ever the individualist, says, “Certainly we are a degraded race, and have sold our birthright for a mess of facts.”ix Wilde maintains that what Aristotle called “the energy of life” is the desire for expression, and that forms of art are means by which this expression can be attained. This explains his reverence for the imagination, which he takes to be “essentially creative,” always seeking “a new form.”x This Platonic emphasis on truth-telling in the arts ultimately leads us to fall into “careless habits of accuracy”xi and “frequenting the society of the aged and well informed,”xii thus dulling our imagination and ultimately threatening the energy of life.

Wilde’s new aesthetics, which he takes as rectifying the decay of lying, is comprised of four doctrines. The first is that art never expresses anything but itself; it is not a creation of time, and the only history it documents is that of art itself. The second doctrine is that bad art is that which finds life and nature to be its subjects and thus elevates them into ideals. It is bad in that it negates the imagination. The only truly beautiful things are those which do not concern us, says Wilde.

The third doctrine is that art does not imitate life, but rather that life imitates art. This is due, not only to life’s imitative instinct, but also the fact that we realize the energy of life through the beautiful forms which art provides us. He says, “The Nihilist… is a purely literary product. He was invented by Turgenev, and completed by Dostoevsky… Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose.”xiii Wilde even goes so far as to say that nature imitates art, rather than art imitating nature. As a statement in itself, it seems quite ridiculous. Wilde, however, offers a sound argument from a metaphysical point of view to support his claim. He says our perceptions of nature are mind-dependent. We do not experience nature as it is in itself, but rather we see what it is for us. And our way of seeing things—what we see and how we see them—depends on the art that has influenced us.

Wilde’s concluding doctrine is that “lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.” There are certainly other views of art out there but I have always been drawn to Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy. It is in this view and in the fact that I hold this view that I see a glimmer of hope in the permissibility of my proposed indoctrination. I must not lie down and take the existence of homophobia as fact. I think Wilde would commend me for finding a fault in reality and wanting to use my imagination as a vehicle to substantively affect the reality of life. Though I have specific criteria for what content is suitable for my imagined end, this criteria is not a rule that comes from without to direct the construction of my art. Rather, to express this imagined state of the world is a self-conscious desire of mine, and what criteria constitutes suitable content simply follows from the makeup of this imagined state of the world. I am imagining a world in which homophobia and misogyny do not exist. Conceptually, I imagine this world to differ from the real one insofar as the women and sexual minorities in it are free to be as sexually aggressive as they want (once consent is given), and thus it follows that the general content of any art that would contribute to bringing this imagined world into reality will have to be focused in empowering feminine sexual aggression. The form of this imagined world and the stylization of it are free to be expressed however my consciousness is disposed to in the spontaneity of creation. And thus, I find my project to be a permissible one from an aesthetic viewpoint.

The resulting art that I would produce with the function of indoctrination in mind is justifiable from an aesthetic viewpoint. And implicit in this conclusion is that, unlike Plato, I see nothing unethical in expressing myself through creating or contemplating art that does not cohere with the truth of the world because by this I am merely finding the energy of life. The other ethical consideration of art that I see to remain in regards to the justification of my proposed indoctrination is that of the way in which, through the art, I would be imposing my will on a consciousness that contemplates my art. Whether the concepts I am impressing upon someone’s mind with the images and sounds that would make up the aesthetic indoctrination is the truth or imaginary is irrelevant; I am concerned with the possibility of personal moral deprivation that may come from intentionally willing into existence art for the purpose of manipulating unknowing aesthetic appreciators into negating their current notions on the normativity of feminine sexual aggression and replacing them with my own. Working through this will require more knowledge than I have at present. I intend to look next to Kant’s deontology for the structure of how I will think about this issue. From what little I already know of and sympathize with Kant on the issue, I am not optimistic that my proposition is an ethical one.


1 It would be too much of a digression for me to sketch out exactly what constitutes an “appropriate feeling.” Though, it would be wrong of me to not say anything about what I would take such a feeling to be constituted by. If I had to give an intuitive version of what an “appropriate feeling” is, it would be that the feeling must be perceived as rational in regards to the context in which the listener places it.

2 If I had to drop one name in pop culture who I find to be currently spreading messages which I find to be most consistent with the content I would call for—that being a woman who proudly expresses sexual aggression and is empowered by it—would be Nicki Minaj. There are other female pop stars who present similar images but I find hers to be the only one whose aggression is explicit as most male artists with misogynistic lyrics.


i Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2008. The Gay Science, translated by Thomas Common. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 73.

ii Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich. 1971. The Psychology of Art. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The M.I.T. Press, 251.

iii Plato. 1992. Republic, translated by G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 379a.

iv Ibid., 382a.

v Ibid., 401e.

vi Ibid., 602b.

vii Ibid., 606d.

viii Dill, Karen E. 2009. How Fantasy Becomes Reality: Seeing through Media Influence. New York: Oxford University Press, 12-13.

ix Wilde, Oscar. 1999. De Profundis, the Ballad of Reading Gaol & Other Writings. Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Classics, 150.

x Ibid., 159.

xi Ibid., 145.

xii Ibid.

xiii Ibid., 159.


Dill, Karen E. 2009. How Fantasy Becomes Reality: Seeing through Media Influence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2008. The Gay Science, translated by Thomas Common. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc.

Plato. 1992. Republic, translated by G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich. 1971. The Psychology of Art. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The M.I.T. Press.

Wilde, Oscar. 1999. De Profundis, the Ballad of Reading Gaol & Other Writings. Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Classics.

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Volume 6, Fall 2014