Ascetic aesthetic

by Dominik Tujmer2 min read14th Jan 20208 comments



I have a theory that ethics come from aesthetics. Values come from your view of what is pretty and what is not pretty. Let's say that you value the strong protecting the weak. I don't believe that people thought about this, did a game-theoretical calculation of outcomes, and concluded that "strong protecting the weak" is the best strategy for society. Instead, the strong protecting the weak simply seems right, just like a beautiful view of the mountains and woods looks good, even if you can think of a thousand reasons why living in such an environment is good for your health. We list good-sounding reasons for our values, but instead they are derived from our sense of beautiful. The strong protecting the weak seems right and looks good. It appeals to the same part of our minds as music we like, or beautiful views of nature.

Trying to rationally calculate your actions is good, because "rationality" here means that you actually get to your goals (rational = the way that makes the most sense). But I find that a certain kind of naive view of rationality leads some to ignore their sense of aesthetics. I don't mind people deciding to do the "rational" thing despite their aesthetics, but I think they should at least be aware of their aesthetics before discarding them.

My own aesthetic roughly revolves around asceticism, so I have had the good fortune to call it "ascetic aesthetic". Considering the things I value, most of them check the box for minimalism, independence, resilience, or, more broadly, asceticism. From the type of clothes I like to wear to the type of career I've considered, it always reflects the same… style. It seems silly to compare my plain black shirt and stretchy black jeans with the type of person that I am, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Not to say that my personality is plain, black or stretchy (?) but it values the same underlying attributes as these clothes possess: simple, appropriate for all occasions (= always ready), flexible and so on.

I don't like authority and that is the main reason why I haven't joined the army. But going through training and hardship - that has always been very attractive. Why? Primarily because being calm and ascetic is a key job requirement, and that's the part that appeals to me.

I came to the thought that aesthetics = ethics when I recently talked to a friend. I told him that I stopped regularly drinking coffee because I didn't want to depend on it - I felt ashamed when I got headaches after not having coffee, and thought to myself: "Really man? You've sunk so low that you're experiencing withdrawal, like a junkie?" He was perplexed as to why I seemed disgusted by the idea of being addicted to something - in his view, being addicted to coffee was not much different than having to eat. He didn't mind his own coffee addiction - coffee was not harmful and he enjoyed having it a couple of times every day. And that's when I realized that we were looking at the same "painting" but with different aesthetics, and the painting was actually values. He's not wrong - being addicted to coffee is not that different from having to eat. But eating is kinda indulgent as well, you know. My aesthetics would prefer fasting.

There's preference ordering in systems of aesthetics, and if you're a capitalist, probably untapped markets for under-served aesthetics. For example, one preference ordering in my aesthetics would be: drinking water is better than alcohol beverages (because the water is somehow… purer? I don't know), but if drinking alcohol, then drinking dry gin is better than sweet cocktails. And I don't think that there is a consistent framework under which this works, it's just a loose notion of indulgence = bad, spread over values, clothes, political opinions, advice given, cars driven, books read and so on.

In practical terms, it's good to get acquainted with your aesthetics. Whether you decide to go with or against them is your decision, but it's good, I think, to first have an understanding of what you find intuitively pleasing, before jumping to a "rational" calculation.

The important question though is where do aesthetics come from? And is there even a generalized aesthetic that manifests itself, or am I trying to tie together completely unrelated phenomena? I don't know yet, and don't know how I'd test it. But, fortunately, my ascetic aesthetic values the search for understanding, so at least I'm on the right path.