On the Aesthetics of Moral Ambiguity

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On the Aesthetics of Moral Ambiguity

An essay by Dustin Pickering.

for Stuti Shree

In the spirit of Christianity, one does battle with the principalities. They are personified with the figure of Satan and Jesus Christ with Christ as the Shepherd tending his flock. This image is beautiful and kind to human nature. I consider myself a Christian humanist and view this battle of good and evil as an analogy. Historically, people have truly believed that such figures exist in an invisible world beyond our sight. God, being everything, must also exist in Satan. This concept confounds the duality of good and evil.

The concept of spiritual warfare is embedded in world religions. In Islam, it is called jihad. You wage war against peer pressure, against self-deception, and in defence of your territory. St. Paul spoke of spiritual warfare as well. In Ephesians 6:10-13, St. Paul writes, "Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armour of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armour of God that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm." In the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior Arjuna is troubled by having to wage war; Krishna advises him. In Part III: Karma Yoga, Krishna tells Arjuna, the conqueror of sloth, “Aspirants may find enlightenment by two different paths. For the contemplative is the path of knowledge; for the active is the path of selfless action.” Arjuna is confused by Krishna’s moral ambiguities. Krishna speaks again of duty, “In the beginning / The Lord of all beings / Created all men, / To each his duty.” This resonates with a traditional Protestant belief in purpose. Each person has a specific purpose in life granted by God. When we find that purpose, we must do it with every ounce of our being.

We like to think morality is clear-cut and absolute, but I find it to be riddled with ambiguity myself. What Buddhists call "dust on the mirror of self" or what Christ himself spoke of when saying, "Take the mote from your eye before visiting your neighbour's" is the stubborn tendency for us to rationalize our failings or allow personal desires to settle over the self. The human is a morally ambiguous animal. As Nietzsche observed, we often use morality to oppress others or condemn their actions because we find them unappealing. Dostoevsky is known to have coined the phrase, "All is permitted." The concept of permission is strange. What we feel it means is that if something happens then it was destined to be. John Calvin conceded that in predestination God already has decided upon the elect. Most people are condemned to hell and poverty. Only the chosen are allowed in Heaven. In Revelations, specific numbers are given as to who will ascend to God’s throne. Jesus even admits to obscuring his teachings because most would not understand it.

Einstein said, “I have always believed that Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God the small group scattered all through time of intellectually and ethically valuable people.” Science, he often chimed, was the pursuit of objective knowledge. He disregarded dogma for such a pursuit. However, he was not a full-on ethical relativist and greatly respected his background in Judaism. Such lofty thinking is for the few.


Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment...” According to Wikipedia, “Transhumanism is a  philosophical movement  that advocates for the transformation of the  human condition  by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly  enhance human  intellect and physiology.” The existentialists beginning with Kierkegaard laid a foundation for a science of the human condition.

A truly virtuous person will not be understood. It is a lonely, winding road. However, in your heart you must know what you are is more powerful than how people view you. Again, that is samsara or the land of appearance. Because the land of appearance is continuous flux, it is also an illusion. Beauty is not something glamorous. It is something profoundly moral and unscrupulous. Jesus Christ appeared to the world as unassuming in appearance, but with a great grasp of intellectual matters. Enough that as such he could teach learned men at age 12 in matters of importance to them. His challenges to authority were intended to uproot moral hypocrisy. He did not view the kingdom of heaven as a place. He said it was not something of this world, but rather “within you.” Perhaps what he indicated in this statement is that a person desiring the philosophical value of virtue can enter heaven with an internal struggle. This teaching of the archetypal shepherd is spiritually profound.

The Stoics taught the four virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Cicero said, “The man who has a virtue is in need of nothing whatever for the purpose of living well." Stoicism is part of the root of Christianity so its concept of virtue meshes with the New Testament as spoken by Paul, the Apostle.

The keynote of philosophy and religion is to instruct the mind and body in moral matters. My readings in philosophy have kept me alive. Studying the perplexing depth of religious teachings without the aid of an institution led me to improve my understanding of things. Heraclitus once taught that "character is fate." One must be open to beauty and resolution to find it. Is this what Jesus meant by the kingdom of heaven?

Even beauty is beyond our general understanding. Philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke said, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Burke regarded the sublime as instrumental in human survival. Beauty is morally negative; that is, art is not moral, rather it is sustained reflection. Schopenhauer notes the power of art when he teaches that it silences the restless will and is a prime source of happiness for moral creatures.

These moral ambiguities are inherent in our nature. As restless and chaotic energies stir within us, the sublime is part of what tames them and gives us peace. Scientists are now questioning if beauty is essential to the survival of species. Years ago, as I tried relentlessly to understand why human beings were at the top of the “food chain”; my first assumption was the ability to create culture. However, my research into the topic uncovered that other animals are also expressive artistically. For instance, birds decorate their nests with colourful things. It seems beauty is entrenched in our moral nature as a living, evolving species. The current age is at war with beauty in its myriad forms. From Marilyn Manson's assault on cultural standards of beauty that oppress the public at large, to the destruction of majestic historical statues, to the unflinching rejection of standards, to the attempts to censor offensive expression, to the revolt against tradition, beauty is not present. Clarity comes in moments of tranquillity after strenuous conflict. One's vision is cleared of the motes and the mirror of self shines brightly.

Moral ambiguity is tedious to navigate. We cannot trust our best intuition at times. The heart lies; it deceives with its phantom graces. What we desire now we expunge ourselves of later. Samsara defeats continuity in our world. Beauty strike permanence into gold. The revolt against beauty is beautiful in itself—something terrible and frightening.

The mind is its place and where God resides, you will find eternity.


Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and founding editor of Harbinger Asylum. He has published with Hawakal Publishers in Kolkata and has an upcoming book with SETU Press. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post and his essays can be found at Countercurrents, Borderless, and Modern Literature. He is the recipient of an honorable mention in 2019 by The Friends of Guido Gozzano and placed as a finalist in Adelaide Books' short story contest in 2018. He lives in Houston, Texas.

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