Recently I read Yoshida Kenkō’s Essays in Idleness, a collection of aphorisms, anecdotes, and short essays composed by a Buddhist monk in the fourteenth century. Kenkō had been an officer in the imperial court before becoming a monk in his late twenties. Essays in Idleness convey a Buddhist monk’s appreciation of the transience of life and the futility of earthly ambition. But Kenkō remained a worldly man with a fine aesthetic sense. He relates the lonely beauty of a hut in a mountain village where the only sound is “the soft drop of water from a bamboo pipe buried deep in fallen leaves,” but then notices a large mandarin tree encircled by a sturdy fence. “If only that tree weren’t there! I thought.”
He makes especially astute—and sometimes wry and witty—appraisals of people’s conduct. He relates a story he heard of a man who was feeling awkward about not having called on a certain lady for some time. The lady tactfully wrote the man asking if he could give her the use of a servant, thereby giving him an excuse to call on her.
Anecdotes like these call up echoes in my mind of the Analects of Confucius, which also contain all sorts of fine observations of personal conduct. In particular, Book 10 of the Analects consists of a series of short remarks on the Master’s comportment, many of which might seem fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things. Confucius wouldn’t instruct while eating, nor converse once he’d retired to bed. He wouldn’t sit until he had straightened his mat.
Are these examples of good ethical conduct or refined aesthetic taste? I don’t think that question would make sense to the redactor of the Analects, or to Kenkō. I don’t have a deep enough knowledge of East Asian literary and philosophical traditions to make any strong claims here, but there seems to be a thread running from Confucius through Kenkō—you definitely see it in other Confucian philosophers that I’ve read, and in the Tale of Genji—where exemplary conduct is noble precisely in virtue of its delicate refinement.
This refinement isn’t precious. Kenkō writes admiringly of both occasional formality with intimates and candidness with a stranger. Confucius praises a delicate balance between cultural refinement and “native substance.”
The Western tradition of philosophical aesthetics is concerned primarily with works of art and secondarily with nature—Burke, Kant, and others develop a concept of the sublime primarily in reference to the awesomeness of natural forces. You don’t find a lot of sustained reflection on the aesthetics of people’s behaviour. Instead, discussions of how people behave tend to get shunted into ethics.
A lot of the treatments of ethics in the Western tradition are concerned primarily with the good and the right. That is, they ask of actions whether they achieve good ends and whether the actions themselves were undertaken in accordance with the right ethical principles. These questions are usually asked in a way that’s aesthetically tone deaf. You can detect an Anglo-Saxon practicality or a Teutonic brusqueness in the focus on what was done. No room is left for an appraisal of how it was done.
I’m reminded here of a nice anecdote, attributed to Delphine Seyrig, illustrating the difference between politeness and tact (the most I’ve ever profited from reading Žižek!). A man walks into a bathroom and sees a naked woman in the shower. The polite thing to do is to close the door quickly, saying “pardon, Madame!” The tactful thing to do is to close the door quickly, saying “pardon, Monsieur!” thereby implying that you didn’t see enough to realize it was a woman in the shower.
You could spell out why this tactful response is elegant in terms of the good and the right but doing so would miss the aesthetic dimension of tact. Even if the woman knows the man saw her clearly, and even if the man knows she knows, the tactful response allows both of them to act as though he had seen nothing. Likewise, Kenkō’s lady allows her visitor to act as though he’s doing her a favour when in fact both of them know that it’s she that’s done the favour.
We sometimes talk about these measures in terms of “face” but I think there’s more going on here. It may be ethically a good thing that your conduct allows someone to save face. But tact requires creativity—there’s rote politeness but no such thing as rote tact. We can savour the inventiveness or elegance or subtlety of tactful behaviour. There’s an aesthetic dimension to the appreciation of tact.
Tact is just an example. Although I have my misanthropic moods, I mostly really like people, and a significant part of that liking involves aesthetic appreciation. People watching can be as aesthetically rich and engaging as going to an art gallery or a movie. Friendship is beautiful in no small part because of the creative gestures, large and small, by which people show their appreciation for one another and build moments and experiences together. Entire industries are built around cultivating the aesthetics of human interaction. Everyone knows that the excellence of a great restaurant is only partly about the food. Priya Parker wouldn’t have a career if there weren’t an art to getting people together in a good way.
The aesthetics of human interaction is different from other art forms because it involves people. So does the theatre, of course, but there (for the most part) performers are pretending to be someone else. In ordinary life, we play ourselves. But we are, nevertheless, playing. There’s a performative dimension to our dealings with others, and thus an aesthetic dimension.
Because this is an aesthetics that involves people “being themselves,” there’s obviously also an ethical dimension. I can behave not just beautifully or clumsily but also well or badly. And often beautifully because well or badly because clumsily. I don’t think you can entirely prise the ethical and the aesthetic apart.
Kenkō gets this. Confucius gets this. Lady Murasaki most definitely gets this. But for the most part, Western philosophy doesn’t seem to get this. Why not?
Well, I’m not sure, but here are two thoughts. First, the subtle appreciation of fine differences in conduct runs counter to a generalizing tendency in a lot of philosophy. How exactly one holds one’s head when offering an invitation, or the tone of voice and speed with which you speak, aren’t readily expressible in general rules, and those who see general rules as the endpoint of their investigations are likely to see such forms of delicacy as trivial or distracting.
The second thought has to do with the performative dimension to our dealings with others that I mentioned a moment ago. That idea sits in uneasy tension with a modern fetishization of authenticity. If I’m playing a role, if I don’t say directly what’s on my mind, I’m not really being me—so this thinking goes. Tact or formality or any other kind of performance would then be a compromise with authenticity.
But I don’t think that’s so. Consider the way that generosity can be beautiful. I don’t mean making donations to charity. I mean acting generously toward others: registering what’s going on with them and finding creative ways to please them. To adapt a phrase from Sartre, that involves being for others, of conducting yourself in a way that’s conducive to their flourishing. It means getting out of yourself and, as the saying goes, “reading the room.” To do that well you have to adapt your behaviour to the needs of the situation. In other words, you have to play a role.
Boorish people will pass off their obtuse behaviour as sincerity (“I’m just sayin’”) but that alleged sincerity is really just a lack of imagination. It takes delicacy and a keen attentiveness to others to navigate a social situation gracefully and some people would prefer not to bother. They can call it authenticity but really it’s selfishness. Any authenticity worth prizing takes account of others and meets them at least halfway.
What interests me about the aestheticization of personal conduct that I’ve found in a number of East Asian sources comes from a combination of these two points—that it invokes attention to ethical particulars and stylish performance. You can care about style without seeing anything distinctively ethical about it—consider Oscar Wilde. And you can attend to ethical particulars without saying anything about the aesthetics of it all—consider Jonathan Dancy.
Martha Nussbaum provides a telling point of contrast from within the Western tradition. Nussbaum turns to literature as a way of training our attention on the ethical importance of the particular. It’s not what the characters in a Henry James novel do that so impresses Nussbaum. It’s how they do it, and more precisely, how James writes about how they do it. You won’t fully appreciate Henry James if you don’t appreciate the moral force of his writing and you won’t fully appreciate that moral force without a delicate aesthetic sensitivity.
You find something like this in Kenkõ, Confucius, and other Asian thinkers. Their texts take the form of anecdote because virtue is to be found in particulars and not in generalities. At several points in the Analects, Confucius gives different answers to the exact same question from different people. These anecdotes show that Confucius tunes his responses to the particular characters and needs of particular interlocutors. Likewise, Kenkō needs stories because the fittingness of a particular moment only makes sense within a particular context.
But Nussbaum is a moralist in a way that I don’t think Kenkō is. Part of what makes James valuable, to her mind, is the way that he performs, and helps to teach us, a fine-grained attention that is essentially ethical. The value of this kind of aesthetic sensitivity is ethical.
It’s telling that Kenkō’s interest in elegant behaviour is one part of a broader aesthetic interest, which includes how people decorate their homes or how a garden is arranged. Nussbaum focuses on literature because literature describes how people behave and her concern is how literature can teach us to behave well in an ethical sense. But for Kenkō, being ethically good and being aesthetically refined are two sides of the same coin. It’s not that tasteful decoration of one’s home is a sign of virtuous character that finds its primary expression in how such a person treats others. The tasteful decoration is itself the expression of good character.
Kenkō is hardly a Wildean aesthete. He’s a Buddhist monk whose ultimate goal is to overcome worldly attachments altogether. But the way to overcome an attachment to the material world isn’t to reject it but to see it clearly as it is. That idea has deep roots in the Buddhist tradition. What I find in Essays in Idleness and some of the other Japanese texts I’ve read—Genji, Bashõ’s travel sketches—is an appreciation of how much a clear understanding of the material world also requires a sensitive aesthetic appreciation of it.