Something that's been occupying my time over the last few years is what the Xártus is and what its implications are, particularly regarding ethics. This has gotten tied up with questions about the Good and the True and their relationship, and brought in concepts such as Robert Pirsig's Quality. The result has been a collection of notes, not particularly related. I decided to put them on this site in part to show people some of what the Xártus is about, in part to show how PIE religious concepts can relevant to everyday concerns, but mainly in the hope that it might intrigue some enough to want to tell me where they think I'm wrong and where they think I'm right, and to join in with its development. These are jottings, not developed ideas, simply steps along the way. This is a warts and all presentation that I hope to pretty up some day.
If we transform “why live by the Xártus?” into “why be good?” we continually butt up against: because living good means living well, because in some way it leads to happiness. But this in turn gives rise to two problems. First, in what way are living by the Xártus and being happy connected; that is, how does living good lead to living well? Second, if we are to justify living by the Xártus on purely pragmatic grounds, why do we need the middle term of the Xártus? Why not just start and end with pragmatism?
This kind of pragmatism leaves me cold, however. It’s hard to justify this. It is in part one of personal preference, and a simple and, yes, cynical, morality fails to satisfy. Has all the thought and writing about morality for thousands of years been for nothing, to all boil down to “be good because it means you get good things?”
And this doesn’t actually answer the big question of how we know what is good, that which causes pleasure. How are we to decide between different kinds of good? Is an action which increases mental pleasure at the expense of physical pleasure more , less than, or equal to an action in the other direction? Is the goal the greatest good for the greatest number? Putting aside the question of what kind of good is the “greatest,” we have to ask ourselves why we should be concerned with the greatest number. On what grounds do we base the view that the good is democratic? Might it not be the greatest good (whatever that might be) for the right kind of people? If so, how are we to tell which ones those are? Those of greatest value? But that would mean possessing the greatest amount of goodness, and we are back where we started.
Let us look, then, in the direction directly indicated by the word *Xártus. Its root, *xar- (*H2er-) means “to put together in an appropriate and beautiful manner.” Leaving aside “appropriate,” since that would lead us into the sort of morass that “good” brings us to, let us concentrate on “beautiful.” Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) remarks on a world without Quality are relevant to a world without beauty: a world without beauty would be a very different one from that in which we live, and one that is not living for or in. If we can’t make a distinction between the beautiful and the not, for instance, would we not dress in grey jump suits and eat artificially, less tasty but more nutritious, foods? Beauty seems to be an integral part of Reality, then, which is just what we would expect if there was indeed the Xártus at its root.
The desirability is also clear, since no one would chose to live in a Reality that did not possess it. Even those who live lives that do not seem beautiful to the rest of us are attempting to live beautifully – the difference between us is not whether we live to maximize beauty, but our judgment as to what beauty inheres in. Notice the difference between this and postulating different goods. This allows for the difference between temperaments; in fact, it might even require it, since that would optimize the opportunities for beautiful joinings-together.
The “Good,” on the other hand, is more restrictive; it divides things into the categories of “good” and “not-good.” That which is “not-beautiful” can still be combined in beautiful ways to other things; that which is “not-good” is doomed to its not-goodness. Holding up the beautiful as the goal of morality, then, allows for more possibilities, and describes Reality better than, a morality based on good.
Note that when I speak of “good” here I am speaking of a distinction between right and wrong. The word might be used differently, perhaps with a capital letter, to describe the principle of beauty, or that which possesses beauty; that is to say, that which is of the Xártus.
The question I have been dealing with, then, is “what is Good, the beautiful or the good?” It is in this capitalized sense that we can say that the Good (the principle of beauty or that which possesses beauty) is better than Truth (the principle of that which is (PIE *H1sont- < *H1es- “to be”). Doing is better than being, provided that it is done appropriately and beautifully.
The moral imperative, then, is not “be good,” but “act Good,” which is to say *xar- “act appropriately and beautifully.” Morality is about aesthetics.
To answer the question “what is the moral thing to do” requires knowing whaty is going on. It’s not about knowing the point, the present, the now; it’s about know the process. Or if it is about knowing the point, the part we are interested is not the coordinates, but the derivative: what is changing, in what way, at what rate? Once we know this, we can ask “what is the moral thing to do?” The moral thing is that which *xar-s, that which fits in with the current goings on in the most beautiful way possible. The act that leads to the most beauty is the most moral.
Since *xar- refers to joining together, we can at least say that that which does not join together also does not *xar-, and is thus unaesthetic. However, there is nothing which does not join together in at least some sense; nothing arises out of context. It would there seem as if that which does not appear to join together is unaesthetic; it cannot join together in an aesthetic way if it does not seem to fit together.
The important word is “seem.” To whom? To an artist things may join together which to a non-artist may not. Who decides?
More important, does this dissolve metaphysics and, along with it, ethics, into idealism? Do things not exist because we are not perceiving them?
I don’t know if the metaphysics problem can be solved. I don’t think things are so bad for ethics, however, because the observer to which things must seem is the moral actor.
All morality asks the question, “What am I to do in this situation?” Xártus morality asks this in a radical way, first requiring an answer to the question, “What is the exact situation taking into account all factors?” It then introduces the belief that, left to itself, the cosmos will continue in an appropriate and aesthetically pleasing manner.
But the cosmos is not left to itself. As conscious beings with free will, we must choose what comes next, so that our actions will contribute to the process of creating an aesthetically pleasing cosmos rather than detracting from it.
The big question, the biggest question of all systems of morality, is why to do this. Why act in a way that will continue the producing of an aesthetically pleasing cosmos?
The first answer is that we are part of the cosmos. To act in an unaesthetically pleasing manner is to deny this; it is to take us out of the way things are. It is deny not only the Good but the True.
The second answer is that not to act in an aesthetically pleasing manner is to create an unaesthetic cosmos. Who would want to live in such a cosmos? As far as this is concerned, in the end I have nothing to say to someone who wouldn’t. In such a case I would have to admit defeat and say that I have reached the end of trying to justify Xártus morality; there is no more to be said if it has not been accepted.
A third answer is that as conscious beings we are co-creators of the Cosmos. We are obligated by our position in the cosmos and our power to modify it, to act so as to maximize the aesthetics of the cosmos. We are both separate from and a part of the workings of the cosmos. To act in such a way as to create an unaesthetic cosmos is to abrogate this responsibility. It is to create a break in the proper functioning of the cosmos. It is to cause violence to all that is.
In these ways, is becomes ought. We are intimately involved in the is, and it is un-True, un-aesthetic, and destructive to ask as if we weren’t.
Further, we are both part of and separate from the Xártus process. We are separate from it because as conscious agents we can and must choose our actions freely. We are part of it because first, it is the Xártus which has brought us to this point and provided the options from which we must choose, and second, our actions become part of the future Xártus, they are “ploughed in,” so that no matter how discordant they are at the moment they are taken , they will become of a future harmony.
I tend to emphasize the “aesthetically pleasing” part of *xar- over the “appropriate” part. This is for several reasons. The whole point of developing a moral system is to determine what is “appropriate,” so my discussion of aesthetics is the most basic part of my morality; the aesthetically pleasing is the appropriate.
Further, there are aspects of the Xártus that exist on a level higher than the moment, and on these levels it is possible to speak of the “appropriate.” I would like to discuss these now.
It may be impossible to know what the Xártus is up to at any given moment and to know therefore what is the appropriate action. This is because the number of factors that go into the momentary Xártus is, while not infinite, large enough to be effectively so. It gets worse; not only do we have to take into account all elements, but every possible interaction among them. To take an example with only four factors, A, B, C, and D, we must not only consider those four, but also AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, CD, ABC, ABD, BCD, and ABCD. From only four factors we have produced fourteen interactions. Imagine how many with a hundred, or a thousand, or the large number that factor into a moment’s Xártus!
From a practical point of view, it is clearly impossible to ever determine the Xártus perfectly, and to thus act in the perfectly moral manner. It is, however, possible to reach a suitable approximation.
This is done by asking what factors are the most relevant. To use an example I will turn to again, we, as human beings, are social creatures. In almost all cases this will be a relevant fact. So will what sort of society we live in. On the other hand, while it is part of the Xártus, the fact that we are made up of cells will only rarely be relevant, such as when we suffer from certain illnesses.
This is the first level of appropriateness. We can go further to ask what, given the most approximate factors, are the most appropriate parts of them. As an example, a major factor in American culture is democracy, in Arabic culture hospitality, in Japanese culture honor.
From this we get to the next level of appropriateness: what actions do these values (and that the word for them) call upon us to do? In American culture, voting would be a moral act, not voting an immoral one. For an Arab, to offer food and drink is a moral act, to refrain an immoral one. In Japan, to speak respectfully to a superior is moral, to speak disrespectfully immoral.
These actions give us approximations to morality, values which are rough guides to help us approach the perfectly moral even if we don’t reach it. These actions are what most people think of when they think of morality. They are an important part, perhaps the most important part for guiding the coarse level of action we are usually required to act in, but they are not the whole of Xártus morality.
Levels of appropriateness may conflict, for instance. A society’s values may conflict with those required by common humanity. To take the most extreme example, in the society of Nazi Germany it was a value to persecute Jews, even to the point of killing them. Yet most people view that as having acted immorally. Why? Because to do so was to deny Jews’ worth as human beings, and our existence as human beings outranks societal rules. It is therefore incorrect to say, as some have, that all acts seen as moral in one society are as equally valid as those seen in other societies. Genocide is never moral, no matter what a given society might say.
In sum, there are approximations to the Xártus that in most cases are sufficient to guide us in behaving morally. These approximations are found by asking what elements at hand are the most relevant, then what values these elements prescribe, and third, what actions express those values in a given situation. Finally, different elements on each of these different levels have different ranks, and a person must take this into consideration when making moral choices.
Another reason why I will concentrate on aesthetics is that it may be said that “appropriate” means “aesthetically pleasing,” that aesthetics are basic to morality, and, in fact, define appropriateness, so that by concentrating on aesthetics we will be taking care of appropriateness.
Finally, aesthetic judgments, while affected by culture, personal history, and all the other elements which go into the Xártus, are more universal than judgments of appropriateness. Research into standards of beauty, for instance, have shown that even if different people may prefer different colors of eyes, cross-culturally eyes that are large, placed symmetrically on the face, and set a certain distance apart are seen as most beautiful. An investigation into the aesthetics of given cultures and individuals is relevant – thin or fat? red hair or blond? light skin or dark? – is certainly interesting, and these specific preferences are part of the Xártus appropriate to those cultures and individuals, but there are still similarities, certain levels of appropriateness, that are more widely spread. I will focus on those, although with a treatment of variations.
That which is false cannot be Good. Something can be false either internally or externally. An internal falsehood exists when the elements of something contradict each other. An external falsehood is when something presents itself as other than what it is. This is what is usually thought of as a lie.
The false can’t be Good because it isn’t put together well; the parts don’t fit.
It is possible, however, for something to be Good even if it seems to present itself as something it is not, if it contains within that presentation an acknowledgement of its own falsehood. This is what is called fiction or fantasy. Thus a performance of a play is not false, even though the people the actors aren’t really the people they’re claiming to be, because those watching the play have voluntarily accepted the falsehood as true only within the context of the performance. Disney World is true because although its goal is to present the false as if it were true, anyone who isn’t very young knows it isn’t true. Nor does Disney even intend to create a falsehood, because they are willing, almost eager, to allow people behind the scenes to see the literal truth.
The correct moral principle is not “be good,” but “act Good,” which is to say, *xar, “act appropriately and beautifully.” Morality is aesthetics.
Morality is not about being, it is about doing. We have to ask ourselves not, “What is the situation?” but “What is going on?” It is not about knowing the point, the present, the now; it’s about knowing the process. Or, if it is about knowing the point, the part we’re interested in is the derivative, not the coordinates: what is changing, in what way, at what rate. Once this is known we can ask, “What is the moral thing to do?” The moral thing is that which *xar-s, that which fits in with the current goings on in the most beautiful way possible. That act which leads to the most beauty is the most moral.
Living by the Xártus is performing a ritual. That is, at each moment there is a right thing to do, a right thing to say: there is a script. There can be missed cues, dropped props, forgotten lines, or there can be performances which are true to the script. Either of these can be brilliant, awful, indifferent. A life fit just to a script can be dead – nothing is brought to it, and nothing comes from it. A life lived not by a script can explode into chaos – meaning disappears. Best of all is good improvisation – life as jazz. Before becoming good at improvisation, a musician has to learn the scales, has to practice the movements of scripts over and over, until they become second nature. Only then do they gain their ultimate brilliance in their performance.
In morality, the scales are the virtues – learn and practice courage, and wisdom, and hospitality. Then jam away.
This doesn’t mean that you have to wait until you’re perfect to improvise. Just don’t expect that it will be very good, and don’t impose your doodling on others. Work at it by yourself until you tell your ready to try things out on others.
When a scientist is looking for an explanation of their data, they are not asking which explanation is true. They are asking which is most parsimonious, or, in more colorful language, the most elegant. They are, that is, asking which is most aesthetically pleasing. They aren’t looking for Truth. They are looking for the Good.
A difficulty arises when science sees the Good as an approximation, the best given under the circumstances of the True. They imagine that by succeeding good explanations they are coming close and closer to the True. The Good becomes a method.
But the Good refuses to be a method. It is an end. Each stage, each explanatory phase, is, if done parsimoniously, the most Good possible at that moment. The Good never leaves; if it were possible to attain the Ultimate Truth some scientists claim to be seeking, it would only be found in the Ultimate Good. That is, it would turn out that the True was the most parsimonious explanation of everything, the most elegant, the most Good.
Philosophy has been on its own quest for the True. Unfortunately, unlike scientists, philosophers long ago overthrew the Good. Instead of looking for the most parsimonious explanations of things, they’ve looked for that which can be explained in the most absolute terms.
This is one cause of the growing irrelevance of philosophy. More and more it is the Good that people are looking for rather than the True. This is as it should be because the ultimate goal is the Good. By seeking the Good they are seeking that which is beyond things.
When a scientist or mathematician says that a theory or an equation is “elegant,” or when a sports announcer says that a play is “beautiful,” they are not engaging in hyperbole. The shudder one feels when reading something that is expressed beautifully, or when contemplating a great work of art, is an act of recognition of the basis of reality. We say the beauty has cut us to our soul, and we mean it. The aesthetic experience is the most authentic one possible, because it is a direct apprehension of what lies behind the cosmos, what is within it, what is continually operating to make it what it is.
But what about ugliness? If the universe is based on beauty, how can something ugly exist? And, even more important, what should be our reaction when we encounter it?
The first thing to consider is that what we are encountering might not be ugly at all. The ugliness might be in us, in our reaction to something unfamiliar.
There are widespread aesthetic principles, but they aren’t universal. If one of them is symmetry, what are we to make of a Japanese tea bowl which is undeniably beautiful but also undeniably unsymmetric? There are in fact different aesthetics, and when one doesn’t understand them something might seem ugly which in fact possesses great beauty within its own aesthetic. There really is such a thing as an acquired trait.
But some things are ugly by any reasonable aesthetic. Murder, torture, slavery – any form of suffering strikes us as ugly. What’s up with that?
Remember first that there is a tendencynow.
I am not stating the happy platitude that “everything happens for a purpose.” It doesn’t; some things are just random, not in the sense of not having a cause, but in not having a purpose. And even those things that happen for a purpose can happen for one that we won’t like, one that would appear ugly to us.
There are always ways in which something ugly can result in beauty now. Sometimes this may be because there is a greater, higher order of beauty, if we can see what it is. Death, something ugly, in the cause of liberty can be beautiful. The Stoic attitude that suffering is a result of our own perception rather than of outside stimuli can turn the ugliness of personal experience into the beauty of the working out of the Logos and of our freedom to make a choice.
These may simply be the thoughts of the privileged. I have had difficulties and suffering, but when those are compared with those of someone in southern Sudan, or a Jew under the Nazis, or a slave anywhere, I have no right to teach the transcendence of suffering or tell those who suffer that there is somehow a beauty in what they are undergoing. It is incumbent on me to act so as to decrease ugliness as it appears to me. Not only must I increase beauty by learning to act with beauty, I must decrease ugliness by acting charitably and responsibly. My mystical involvement with the cosmos will increase the need for me to increase beauty; my actions will become part of the tendency towards beauty. Conversely, acting to increase beauty will increase my mystical connection with the cosmos. Because I act to increase beauty, I will be acting according to the way the cosmos works, I will be establishing the connections which I can then increase.