You’ve probably heard of virtue ethics, but have you heard of virtue aesthetics? Probably not; it’s my own coinage, so far as I know.
Virtue ethics, in the tradition of Aristotle, is essentially an attempt to define the good life, a life well-lived, to show how one can achieve the holy grail of “happiness,” or “eudaimonia” as he called it. This concept means more than just living a life of hedonic pleasure; it also connotes a condition of “virtuous activity in accordance with reason.” In other words, it’s an ongoing project of active integration, in the sense of combining the parts or elements of one’s being into a coherent whole.
I prefer to use the term “flourishing” because I feel it captures the spirit of what everyone wants in life, even though they may differ on the exact particulars. My Apple dictionary defines flourishing as the ability to “grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment,” like a flower that blooms. So to live the good life, one has to incorporate certain experiences, traits or tendencies that dispose one to act in certain ways, just as a flower absorbs light and water, and nutrients from the soil, and then manifests its particular “virtues” of color and form — in other words, it thrives as a flower. The word “incorporate” literally means “to put something into the body or substance of something else,” from Late Latin incorporatus. As the saying goes, one is what one eats. I’m sure Aristotle would approve of that analogy to the virtues, so long as one is eating the right things.
And even today, centuries after Aristotle, recent research of psychologists like Dan McAdams seems to confirm the leitmotif of “growth” in regard to human flourishing. His studies show that many people experience their lives as a dramatic narrative — as a story — and the stories they often tell emphasize themes of growth and development. Anecdotally speaking, it seems that nearly everyone views their life this way. Go see any movie, watch any daytime talk show, or read any biography, and you’ll encounter the same theme: one’s personal story involves interpreting certain past events as instances of significant and formative growth, as well as envisioning some future events as opportunities for even more growth.
In this essay, my idea is that actively engaging with the virtues of art — what I call Virtue Aesthetics — can go a long way in helping one achieve a flourishing life. This isn’t a completely new idea, of course; but I have in mind a specific kind of art, poetry, and so obviously my model artist is going to be the poet. And I’m not talking about merely appreciating art, even poetry; I’d like to convince you that the process of writing poetry, whether or not the poems ever get published, develops and exercises a set of distinct but complementary virtues that are essential to flourishing. I’d like to show that both the poet’s process and her medium, which is language, are key components in this project. The ideal would be to be a poet oneself; but failing that, the best course would be to emulate the poet’s process.
I really like philosopher Owen Flanagan’s conception of flourishing. Building on Aristotle’s work, Flanagan, in his 2007 book The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World, argues for what he calls “eudaimonistic scientia,” which he defines as the “empirical-normative inquiry into the nature, causes, and conditions of human flourishing.” He claims there are six “spaces of meaning” in which every person’s life participates in some significant way. He designates them as art, science, technology, ethics, politics, and spirituality. Flanagan says that by living in these spaces we “make sense of things, orient our lives, find our way, and live meaningfully.” In other words, we flourish.
Aristotle said that we all agree that humans want to flourish, but that there seems to be fairly widespread disagreement about what exactly flourishing consists of. So instead of offering a set of fixed rules or algorithms for how one should live in each and every situation, Aristotle argued that we should strive to cultivate a set of skills, or virtues, that would equip us to respond appropriately to various disparate situations as they arose. As Flanagan says: “virtue consists of the set of dispositions to perceive, feel, think, judge, and act in the right way,” at the right time, and in the appropriate manner for each situation.
As I hope you’ll see, there is a certain approach to poetry that provides a foundation — almost a heuristic — for this type of dispositional orientation, one that directly affects the way we perceive, feel, think, judge — and act. Though Flanagan includes art in his “spaces of meaning,” he doesn’t elaborate too much on the aesthetic realm itself. So I’d like to flesh out this space by examining the poet’s process, and specifically the late poet Denise Levertov, whose life and career embodies the kind of virtue aesthetics I have in mind.
Levertov was born in England in 1923 and died in America in 1997. Her life was a paradigm example of the ethos of “no boundaries between life and art,” and it is this outlook that proves propitious for my project. From as early as the age of eight, she claimed she knew she would be an artist; and what’s more, that her life would not be dull — it would be an adventure. Levertov wanted to be a “poet in the world” whose mission was to “awaken sleepers.” She clearly saw her life as a dramatic narrative, full of opportunities for growth and development — in a word, a flourishing life.
In addition to a prodigious lifetime oeuvre, she was politically and socially active her entire life. She was intensely involved in the peace movement of the 1960s, vehemently opposing the Vietnam war, so much so that she and her husband at the time, Mitch Goodman, were frequently arrested, garnering notice by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Later in life she would work to combat the horror of the nuclear threat precipitated by the Cold War, all the while giving voice, through her poetry and her prose, to the socially and politically oppressed wherever they suffered. She is quoted as saying “You write about what you live. If one is what one eats, one’s poems are what one does.” No boundaries between life and art.
Though Levertov never had formal schooling, being educated at home, she read widely throughout her life, and lived deeply, in the manner of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rainer Maria Rilke, who was her adopted mentor. She saw the combination of a reverence for life and an internalization of life’s experiences as essential for art, and she realized that this also bridged the gap between art and life. In other words, she incorporated her experiences to such an extent that the poems that emerged out of her character grew as organically as petals from a flower. As her mentor Rilke once wrote, regarding experiences and memories:
“Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves — not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”
Being passionately engaged with life is the necessary but not sufficient condition for producing art — in our case poetry. Levertov coined the term “organic poetry” to describe her process, and I believe it is this process that applies equally well to the broader project of human flourishing — though here she describes it rather Platonically:
“For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and reveal. There are no doubt temperamental differences between poets who use prescribed forms and those who look for new ones — people who need a tight schedule to get anything done, and people who have to have a free hand — but the difference in their conception of “content” or “reality” is functionally more important. On the one hand is the idea that content, reality, experience, is essentially fluid and must be given form; on the other, this sense of seeking out inherent, though not immediately apparent, form.”
For our purposes, it’s not so much about discovering and revealing “form” as it is about composing oneself properly, of cultivating a specific orientation to life and to experience. In further describing her process, she writes that
“First there must be an experience, a sequence or constellation of perceptions of sufficient interest, felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him their equivalence in words: he is brought to speech… But the condition of being a poet is that periodically such a cross section, or constellation, of experiences demands, or wakes in him this demand: the poem.”
What happens next, in Levertov’s practice, is that she begins to meditate on the elements of the experience while “the heat of feeling warms the intellect.” This state implies an integration of the the manifold aspects of the writer’s character. As she puts it: “the various elements of the poet’s being are in communion with each other, and heightened. Ear and eye, intellect and passion, interrelate more subtly than at other times.” It’s this fortuitous synthesis of reason and emotion, the involvement of the poet’s whole being, that is the way in which one needs to compose oneself in order to obtain the auspicious foundation for a flourishing life. But as we’ve already said, not everyone agrees on what the flourishing life consists of. Let’s look at some examples of life-pursuits from Aristotle.
Aristotle believed there were three kinds of life that held a significant amount of attraction for human beings: one devoted to pleasure, one devoted to politics, and one devoted to philosophy — or the three P’s. He famously gaveled down on the life of philosophy as being the best life.
I think everyone is agreed that pleasure is a necessary but not sufficient condition of flourishing, but not everyone is in agreement about which pleasures should be included. We can safely put pleasures into two categories, simple and complex. An example of a simple pleasure is the coffee I’m enjoying while writing this essay. A complex pleasure would be something that appeals to more than one aspect of our being, and is more enduring — or even mixed with a little pain — like the raising of children.
I think politics can also be divided into two categories: formal and informal. Very few people seem to be interested in formal politics these days; indeed, it is a rare breed that devotes his life to it as a career. But almost everyone is interested in informal politics to some extent, whether by staying abreast of salient issues and voting, or by engaging in discussions (online or in person) with friends and strangers, or by being actively involved in political demonstrations and other events, or any combination thereof.
I seem to be on a roll here, so I’ll say, echoing Aristotle, that philosophical activity can be put into two categories as well, the practical and the contemplative. I would say that everyone is engaged in practical philosophy, whether they realize it or not; and the main goal of such philosophizing is precisely what we’re talking about here: the desire to flourish in life. Contemplative philosophy, on the other hand, can be considered as an end in itself, worthy of pursuit for its own sake, as Aristotle believed. In contrast to the more pragmatic subject matter of practical philosophy, contemplative philosophy contemplates (pun intended) the “eternal questions” that Ibsen spoke of when he wrote that the “task of the poet is to make clear to himself, and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions.”
I believe that the Levertovian poet can synthesize all three P’s by the addition of the fourth P of poetry. Possessed of the four P’s, the individual is then positioned to effectively engage with all areas of life that matter, to move fluently within all six spaces of meaning that Flanagan identified. Then, the individual is set up to flourish. Let’s look again at Levertov’s formula:
“The progression seems clear to me: from Reverence for Life to Attention to Life, from Attention to Life to a highly developed Seeing and Hearing, from Seeing and Hearing… to the Discovery and Revelation of Form, from Form to Song.”
Ignoring the Platonic Form-talk again, we can say this: this attitude toward life and the expertise with language are two of the “poetic virtues” that are necessary to flourish. But since these two aren’t sufficient, I need to talk about a few more.
In addition to the “faithful attention” to experience that Levertov describes, the other basic poetic virtues, as I see them, are: openness to experience; sensitivity to the nuances of experience; and creativity.
Openness to experience is a derivative of one’s attention to experience, to the possibilities of life itself. One takes the time to attend to the details of life, not just stopping to smell the roses but to examine them from all perspectives. In addition to admiring the grandeur of the forest, one needs to enter it, observe and appreciate the intricacies of leaf and bark, all the while becoming aware of the communities of flora and fauna that call the forest their home. One discovers new things.
Sensitivity to the nuances of experience is a further derivative of the openness to experience that a faithful attention to it engenders. One needs to be a high-definition receiver for life’s signal, not just the old standard-definition that no longer does justice to the vividness and multiplicity of life. Or, to use another analogy, one needs to transition from using a light microscope to using an electron microscope.
Creativity is a bit harder to define. With regard to poetry, I prefer the term “creative imagination.” I further distinguish between the creative imagination and the “re-creative” imagination, where the latter is a more or less faithful reconstruction of reality in one’s mind, while the former has to do with transfiguring reality in one’s mind. I assume everyone uses the re-creative imagination, without even thinking to call it that. In fact, I think it’s probably unavoidable, automatic even, the sine qua non of perception.
The creative imagination, instead, is more of a volitional act, though I suspect in some people it might operate reflexively (maybe those are the people, like Levertov, who go on to be “professional” poets). To me, the creative imagination is about shaping and reshaping one’s experience, handling it, molding it, turning it over and over in one’s mind. The creative imagination is to life what heat is to cooking: it brings out or enhances all the flavors that are inherent in the food, flavors we don’t taste unless the heat is there. Our food is still the same food, but it is transfigured. Thus the power of the creative imagination lies in its ability to alter our senses, as if we could suddenly see more of the electromagnetic spectrum, or hear a wider range of frequencies. Again, the world is still the world, the world we inhabit, but it becomes enlarged for us.
Also, I think that a bit of healthy skepticism (one might call it an “intellectual conscience”) is needed in order not to let one’s imagination get away with one, so to speak. When one is in that kind of dreamy, contemplative state of Levertovian poetic practice, all sorts of images and impressions may arise in one’s consciousness, from the fantastical to the absurd. The goal is to stay away from mere “fancy” and instead stick with “imagination” proper. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s distinction is instructive here. He said that the imagination builds on what has gone before, whereas fancy denotes “an arbitrary relation or capricious departure” from reality. Or as Levertov puts it, if one’s poetry is
“weak or an operation of mere fancy, it does not ‘increase our sense of living, of being alive,’ which Wallace Stevens said was an essential function of poetry, but instead removes us from reality in a lapse of perception, taking us not deeper into but farther away from the world.”
Poetry and the imagination (both creative and re-creative) are also inherently social, and can fulfill the other-directed aspect of ethics that some have claimed traditional virtue ethics is missing. At its most basic, the act of transmuting inner experience into a work of art, like a poem, is an act of communication. Levertov was aware that Heidegger thought that to be human was to be a conversation; and since she believed that the poet “develops the basic human need for dialogue in concretions that are audible to others,” then others, by listening to or reading poems, will be “stimulated into awareness of their own needs and capacities, stirred into taking up their own dialogues, which are so often neglected.”
Additionally, Levertov expands on Ibsen’s proclamation that the poet is to address the “eternal questions” when she writes that “what the poet is called on to clarify is not answers but the existence and nature of questions; and his likelihood of so clarifying them for others is made possible only through dialogue with himself.” This process of elucidating life’s questions — a very philosophical undertaking, by the way — benefits others in their own respective projects of flourishing, so long as they’re tuned into it.
Lastly, Levertov believed that it was only when the “bitter truths” of our human nature and history are mediated through art that our “conscience and resolve” can be activated. When the bare facts are presented to us, we tend to recoil and reject them. It’s only because art engenders that synthesis of reason and emotion that we can both acknowledge the reality of it while being able to “muster the will to transcend it.”
You may be thinking that this is all well and good, but doesn’t one have to be born with the talent for writing poetry? Yes and no. What I mean by that is, to be a professional, published poet, yes, one probably needs a modicum of natural talent, an almost instinctual employment of the creative imagination. But that’s why I said that, for the project of flourishing, the ideal would be to be a poet oneself; nevertheless, I believe one can certainly succeed at emulating the poet’s process. The poet’s medium, language, is common to all of us; and as former poet laureate Robert Pinsky writes:
“Because we have learned to deal with the sound patterns organically, for practical goals, from before we can remember, without reflection or instruction or conscious analysis, we all produce the sounds, and understand them, with great efficiency and subtle nuance. Because of that skill, acquired like the ability to walk and run, we already have finely developed powers.”
One’s expertise with language can certainly be improved. And as Levertov says, “a close attention to things and people, to the passing moments filled to the brim with past, present, and future, to the Great Possessions that are our real life, is inseparable from attention to language.” Furthermore, one’s contemplative orientation can be practiced and strengthened in a way similar to the way one would practice something like vipassanā meditation. It’s more a matter of willingness or willpower rather than talent.
It’s my contention that the poetic virtues make one more fully human (and likely more humane). The poet’s attention to language, her continuous search for the proper words for her experience, open her up to nuances of thinking and feeling she wouldn’t otherwise have — she is able to name and differentiate the cognitive and affective elements of her experience. In this way she fills out her being, procuring the resources to live a flourishing life. And writing, especially poetry, is an end in itself, and is thus constitutive of well-being, according to neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics. But it is also a means to an end, namely the wider, enlarged life of flourishing. So some of the most practical things we can do are to live deeply, read widely, keep a journal, engage with language, make time for solitude, and meditate.
Finally, I’ll give Levertov the last word:
“What many people don’t recognize is that poets write poems from the same impulse that others read them. People turn to poems (if they are aware poetry exists) for some kind of illumination, for revelations that help them to survive, to survive in spirit not only in body. These revelations are usually not of the unheard-of but of what lies around us unseen or forgotten. Or they illuminate what we feel but don’t know we feel until it is articulated.”
Steve Neumann is a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor by day and a Philosopher-Poet by night, who believes there should be only one Continental Divide: the Rockies in America, not the Analytic/Continental one in academic philosophy.