“Every man is born with aptitudes which give him access to
vital and formative knowledge by one of these roads; either by the road of studying man and his works, or by the
road of studying nature and her works. The business of instruction is to seize and develop these
aptitudes. The great and complete spirits which have all the aptitudes for both roads of knowledge are
Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social
Criticism, Matthew Arnold (1869)
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that explores the nature of
art, beauty, and taste. It is the study of subjective and sensori-emotional values, also known as judgments of
sentiment and taste – “the faculty of discerning and appreciating what is excellent”.
Does ‘nature and nurture’ play a role in the development of
aesthetic tastes? Are aesthetic tastes fundamentally individual or universal and teachable? The
reasonable reply says that the most famous and enduring works of art appeal to both the innate aesthetic sense and
the acquired taste that comes with education, much like the long poems of Matthew Arnold.
The Aesthetic Movement
The great promise of the Enlightenment was that social problems would admit a
scientific solution. In the heady days of the “Age of Reason”, it was genuinely thought that, armed with
right methods and tools, societal problems could be solved. The problem, as recognized by the Romantic Movement,
was that science’s understanding of nature was incomplete – it’s narrow. While providing rich descriptions
and correlations of things, science’s Achilles heel is that it didn’t give the reasons for things.
The Aesthetic Movement’s thrust was to live life as a rational
being (rather than a life as a reviewer of books), and it’s theme ranged from removing obstacles to progress;
saving people from oppression; to enacting humanitarian reforms to help those in society who were the least able to
care for themselves and who suffered from the heaviest burdens of discrimination.
A few of the leaders of the Aesthetic Movement (~1850-1900), a
continuum of the Romantic Movement (~1800-1850), include Walter Pater, Matthew Arnold, Anthony Trollope, John
Ruskin and Oscar Wilde. All these European writers, critics and poets held that the possession of an idea of
culture, in which the arts had a guaranteed place, was crucial to the flourishing of the individual and the
progress of society.
19th century America’s corollary to the European Aesthetic
Movement, the crucible of its political experiment – the progress of all to achieve wealth and power – resulted in
the heroic rhetoric of the anti-slavery movement. After issuing the Emancipation Proclamation executive order
(January 1, 1863), President Abraham Lincoln’s later remark had a Kantian ring to it, “I am naturally anti-slavery.
If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel”.
Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way
that the maxim of your choices would be instituted as a universal law of nature.”