Conversations on Morality: Were Our Great Ethical Thinkers All in the Past?

Conversations on Morality

Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics

Were Our Great Ethical Thinkers All in the Past?

    My interest in the performing arts in general is what has led me to take such an interest in the bewildering variety of cultures that this planet offers. Can those cultures enhance each other by their mutual presence or will they end up popping off in conflict like some tinder box? Who can say? They all seem worth preserving, if we go by the art they have all left us.
Eyler Coates
    Is the human race improvable? An interesting question, which we who lean towards optimism tend compulsively to answer in the affirmative. Yet the evidence is spotty, especially considering the state of humanity that has produced the large number of devastating wars that we have experienced in this century.

    I suppose, however devastating some of these conflicts, I am still optimistic enough to cling to the fact that even the worst tyrants of this century have not been quite so ready to actually boast of their worst atrocities as have some of the tyrants of old. ("Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair" and so on. True, Ozymandias isn't necessarily praising his own rapine here, but still, a publicly overt, self-validating dimension to one's preening over the sheer misery one has wrought seems implicit.) Granted, this relatively benign discretion of 20th-century tyrants might dissipate under deteriorating cultural conditions at any time. But even most of the more noxious defenders of Nazism today attempt to *debunk* the holocaust rather than actually defending such raw atrocities as, somehow, glorious validations of some sublime Aryan destiny. In today's climate, such pronouncements would not be a way of winning friends or influencing people. That in itself seems sufficient reason for optimism.
Eyler Coates
    There are two related questions which have always puzzled me, however: (1) Why is it that our great ethical thinkers seem to have been almost entirely from the ancient past? If the human race is truly evolving, why don't we have MORE and GREATER in these latter days than earlier on? One possible explanation was in a related comment I happened upon in Macaulay's essay on John Milton. He seemed to suggest that earlier poets were more profound because they lived in simpler times in which the true dynamics of life on this planet were "laid bare" and uncluttered by the advancements of civilization. As he wrote, "In a rude state of society men are children with a greater variety of ideas. It is therefore in such a state of society that we may expect to find the poetical temperament in its highest perfection. In an enlightened age there will be much intelligence, much science, much philosophy, abundance of just classification and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and eloquence, abundance of verses, and even of good ones; but little poetry. Men will judge and compare; but they will not create. They will talk about the old poets, and comment on them, and to a certain degree enjoy them. But they will scarcely be able to conceive the effect which poetry produced on their ruder ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, the plenitude of belief." .....And later on: "Poetry produces an illusion on the eye of the mind, as a magic lantern produces an illusion on the eye of the body. And, as the magic lantern acts best in a dark room, poetry effects its purpose most completely in a dark age... He who, in an enlightened and literary society, aspires to be a great poet, must first become a little child." And there we have the "little child" making his appearance again.

    I once met a professor in graduate school--can't remember his name, I never had him for an actual course--whose conclusions were in fact partly at odds with these thoughts of Macaulay's. For him, humanity's history was forever oscillating between epic peaks and cultural ones. The epic peaks would involve incredible crises for men and women on a grand scale. The cultural peaks would constitute that which would emerge from a new synthesis of civilization, characterized by greater stability and fostering artistic expressions and ideas in turn founded upon keener understandings of what had been endured by the previous--epic--generations. Two clear examples for him were a) the massive social upheavals entailed in the Grecian/Asian wars of the second millennium B.C followed by the poems of Homer and the deeper understandings of that experience reflected in the foundations of Athenian democracy and in the cultural peak of the Greek dramatists' abstracting of the events surrounding the Trojan war and also b) the horrors of Great Britain's War of the Roses coupled with the eventual independence of the Anglican Church and the defeat of the Spanish Armada before the full flowering of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, where the deposition of Richard II and the newer perspectives opened out by religious institutional fragmentation and British imperial hegemony formed such a substantive component of the background for the cultural peak in Marlowe's, Shak(e)speare's, and Ben Jonson's writings. To him, it seemed self-evident that the twentieth century was culturally poverty-struck, and the reason for that, again, seemed perfectly clear. After all, if any period in human history had ever been epic, it had been the twentieth century: two world wars, weapons of mass destruction, instant communication, space travel, gene splicing, et al. In fact, it would amuse him just to speculate on the possibility that future generations might regard the moon landing as merely mythical allegory and not a literal event! These speculations, of course, were predicated on the assumption that there might be some social, technical cataclysm that would actually deprive humanity of much of its current technical capacity. This gent's sole consolation was that if humanity managed to survive World War III at all (at that time, a nuclear Armageddon seemed almost inevitable), the cultural grist provided by today's parlous times would undoubtedly result--eventually--in cultural syntheses of abounding richness and abiding profundity. Just imagine, he thought, how significant such a future culture could be, based, most likely, on the "myths"(?) of humanity's first mechanized flight, the redrawing of kingdoms in World War One, the hideous atrocities of Hitler and Stalin, the generational Sword of Damocles of the Cold War, the discoveries of Einstein and Heisenberg, and, of course, the exploration of space! I did not necessarily subscribe to all of his notions, but they certainly intrigued me, and I suppose some of his notions of alternating "epic" and "cultural" epochs resonate with me still. At the same time, I do not necessarily regard each epoch as having to be either/or. After all, why not both? Certainly, the 20th-century has been a supremely epic period in human history. But, on the other hand, I sincerely believe, for instance, that future centuries (if there are any for humanity) will not sneeze at the cultural landmarks enshrined in the achievements of 20th-century cinema. These achievements have accomplished the considerable task of reorienting humanity's perspective on individual moments within individual lives, much as past generations adopted Homer or Shak(e)speare as reference points for their own emotional crises or special "moments of truth." Nor do I believe that in moving from Shak(e)speare to cinema, we are suddenly adopting fool's gold as a new cultural yardstick. Cinema is a precise and a very distinctive art form, capable of transforming the most critical pivots of the human experience into genuinely illuminating narrative. Of course, a lot of trash has emerged from film. But try reading Gorboduc, a pre-Shak(e)spearean play, without chuckling. Every serious dramatic breakthrough has spawned its own pot- boilers.

Clifford Sharp
    Early in this discussion a basic question is asked: 'Is humanity improvable?' This is a 'value' judgement and surely you cannot begin to answer it until you have established what 'values' you are going to use to judge success or failure. In my perhaps simplistic view you should start there. What are 'values'? what should they be? and for what purpose?

Eyler Coates
    Actually, through a little imprecision with language, we run the risk of diverging from the topic under discussion and introducing a new topic, which indeed may be worthy of discussion of itself, but is not germane to the discussion here. The question, "Is humanity improvable?" is not a value judgment. A question cannot be a judgment. The point of the question was, given a certain level of human morality (the determination of that level, granted, is a value judgment), can that level be improved? Thus we are talking about the capacity to move from one level to another (whatever criteria one uses to assess the value-level from which humanity is moving), not the values by which we judge human morality. Nevertheless, the question, What are values? may be important if someone wishes to propose that there are no such things as values. You cannot improve what does not exist. It may also be important if someone wishes to suggest that we must determine precisely what values are, before we can determine whether they are improvable or not. The last proposition may be embraced perfunctorily, but in the absence of a showing that some values are improvable and some not, it seems doubtful that it has real merit.

    I am commenting on the statement made by Mr. Clifford Sharp about a possible answer to the question posed being a "value" judgement. What is a value? Good old Mr. Webster defines a value as a principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable. Now lets be serious. Can we even put something like humanity into any of these categories. No!
    Your pseudo-intelligence is sickening.

    Is humanity improvable? Yes! We have an unrestricted desire to know, this means a human disposition to seek truth, justice, love and knowledge. Being is learning and learning is an act of love.


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