Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ethics and Poetry

What brings perfection to one’s way of life is to spend each day as if it were the last.

So said the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. On the face of it, the notion is absurd. Our lives consist largely of a complicated bundle of plans and commitments that we nurse lovingly to their completion. We build a deck. We volunteer at the church. We return day after day to our place of employ. We dutifully send in our mortgage payment month after month to the men who have so obligingly financed the purchase of our house.
Marcus Aurelius didn’t have to go to work. He didn’t have to pay the bills. He was the emperor! People worked for him, paid the bills to him.

If today were the last day of my life I wouldn’t go to work. I wouldn’t pay the bills. What I would do is..... What?

When we ask ourselves this question, we begin to expose the value of the emperor’s less-than-profound but nevertheless interesting observation. Aristotle put it better. There are some things we do for the sake of other things. And there are some things that we do just for the sake of doing them. These things give us pleasure. They give us peace. They uplift our spirits. Their value is intrinsic.

It would be worthwhile for us to identify what a few of these things are, and make sure that we actually do them from time to time.

* * *

I once had a heated argument in a bar with a young man—a friend of a friend—who insisted that an ethical system could be established based solely on the individual self. I defended the position that ethics, by nature and definition, deals with the way we relate to others. I certainly would have won the debate, had we followed it to its conclusion, but at a certain point I got the feeling that my interlocutor was about the have a stroke, and since it was clear to me that the gentleman had thought long and hard about these issues (which is rather rare, don’t you think?) and was truly a sensitive fellow, I desisted, hoping that he would perhaps ponder our discussion later, and perhaps suddenly realize that his “ethics” was, in fact, more deeply rooted in interpersonal relations than he had suspected.

* * *

Yes, ethics is, by nature and definition, a matter of our relations with others. However, what we’re talking about here is not ethics. It’s poetry.

The things that we do just for the sake of doing them. The things that give us pleasure. The things that give us peace. That uplift our spirits.

You will notice that the feelings and interests of “others” do not figure prominently in this description. Am I trying to suggest that were it not for the skein of commitments we foolishly entrap ourselves in, each and every one of us would be brazenly selfish? Not at all. I will admit that the word “selfish” is an ugly one, and it usually rears its head very early in life, when some kid down the street starts playing with my toys. Mom tries to convince me that it’s wrong to challenge others who are bent on exploiting my private property. Or perhaps, taking a gentler tack, she tries to convince me that it’s a mark of virtue to share my things. I don’t think she understands what’s at stake here. My things!!!!

Yes, selfishness is both healthy and natural, in my opinion. But that isn’t exactly what I’m talking about. Selfishness may give us pleasure, but it doesn’t give us peace. It may uplift our spirits, but only momentarily, and only at the expense of others. The ones who can no longer play with my toys, because they’re MINE.

I’m talking about the life of poetry. Few philosophers give it much space in their elaborate systems. Yet poetry is an autonomous realm (as Benedetto Croce, for example, well understood). It needs to be highlighted.
When we enter that realm, we aren’t scoring or lording it over others. What we’re doing is luxuriating in experience. Things are being given to us. Life, beauty. The last day. The next day.

I saw some milkweed pods along the roadside. I never realized how fragrant they could be.

These are baby chickadees at the feeder. Their feathers look wet.

Have you considered the difference between the Argyle chardonnay from Oregon and the Louis Latour chardonnay from Macon “Les Charmes”? Same (low) price.

Spinoza smoked. That’s a very bad habit. In our day and age, perhaps unethical.

When I use the word “poetry” I suppose I am conjuring images of butterflies, flowery words, rhyme, and sentimental evasion. That would be too bad. In philosophical terms, “poetry” refers to two things simultaneously, intuition and expression. That means, genuinely seeing the world, and expressing our love of it. But the word “poetry” also refers to the act of “making,” and this would seem to imply that poetry is manufactured. If that is the case, then it is expressing something other than what it sees. In other words, it is some sort of a lie.

Those who follow this line of analysis fail to recognize that that there is an element of creativity in both intuition and expression. We describe the milkweed, or the chickadee, while telling you about ourselves. And this added element of personal glee is what gives this domain of experience its energy.

There may be times when we are struggling to reconnect with our inner glee. We pick up a book or poems (or a book of photographs, or a novel) and suddenly we are reminded of how the whole thing works. And this teaches us that the individual who is selfishly cultivating his or her individual glee, (or cultivating a very private sorrow, for that matter) is also providing a great service to humanity.

Ethics is a part of life, and so is poetry. This is what the philosophers should have told us.

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