One of my most beloved contemporary Zen practitioners and scholars is Shōhaku Okumura Roshi. One reason is simply the fact that he is in the lineage of Zen that I attempt to practice, namely Dōgen’s. But I also find his approach very human; that is, his approach to Zen is a Zen that a human could practice. This is not always the case, it seems to me, with other Zen practitioners and commentators. But this, of course, does not mean I don’t resist some of the things he says, though I suspect oftentimes that resistance is more a matter of my misunderstanding, or perhaps better, my seeking to understand and falling short. But I am convinced that there is much value in lingering in confusion and talking about it with others. So what follows is that sort of lingering.
What Okumura focuses on in his commentary, and what I want to focus on, is what it means to “hear something as it is.” What I want to suggest by the end is that things are much less clear than Okumura (and othes) make them appear to be. To get there, let’s consider the sound of a barred owl. What could it mean to hear the sound as it is?
A rough sketch, particularly one that exaggerates certain features, can be more useful than a finely proportioned, subtle, and detailed drawing. This may be the case, for example, when one wants to highlight certain features that otherwise may be missed if they are buried in detail and perfect lines. With this in mind, I want to discuss a disturbing aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy in order to foreground an even more disturbing aspect of American culture.
At one point at least, Nietzsche viewed what he considered High Culture—by which I take it he meant the cultural achievements of the likes of Beethoven, Goethe, Wagner (at one time), et al., and perhaps even the work of a Darwin—to justify the enslavement of lower types/classes. While there is the alternative of opting for universal equity, that can only occur with a sacrifice of culture. Safranski writes:
In his notes, Nietzsche sharpened the problem of the link between culture and social justice. When it comes to culture, he contended, a decision must be made as to its essential aim. The two major options are the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, on the one hand, and the success of individual lives, on the other. The moral point of view gives priority to the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, whereas the aesthetic view declares that the meaning of culture lies in the culmination of auspicious forms, the “peak of rapture.” (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, 73.)
“That is beautiful!” is easy to say and easy to ignore, as it has become platitudinous. This is certainly regrettable, for beauty ought not be identified with the trite and such associations can cloud our thinking about beauty. Such clouding can also result from the mistaken association of “beauty” with beauty pageants and fashion models. All of this can make us neglect an important question: What is the role of beauty in human well-being?
Following Daniel M. Haybron’s classification scheme in The Pursuit of Unhappiness, we can distinguish between two different concepts of happiness. The first is the concept of long-term psychological happiness; the second is the evaluative notion of well-being or living well. (I’ll use “well-being” and “living well” interchangeably.) Happiness is a psychological state as is a certain sort of unhappiness, e.g., depression. The concept of well-being concerns what it is that makes a person’s life go well, what benefits a person. One question is to what extent happiness is necessary for well-being. Could you be unhappy but nevertheless live well. The question about the role of beauty in well-being is analogous. By asking what role beauty plays, I’m asking whether experiencing beauty is necessary for living well. What follows is intended to be clarificatory and suggestive. I hope to treat the topic in more detail later.
To begin, let’s ask how we might proceed in figuring out whether beauty is necessary for living well. If Kant and company are right, then judgments of beauty involve pleasure. This might lead us to a quick answer to our question, for surely pleasure is a necessary but not sufficient condition for well-being. But viewed this way, there is nothing particular about beauty that makes it uniquely necessary for well-being, since there are other ways to experienc pleasure. So what might be unique to beauty that would make it a necessary component of living well?