The Ethical Life of Aesthetes
Judge William’s ethical critique of the aesthetic life, in Either/Or, is usually thought to be devastating. But it is rare for interpreters to consider whether the Judge’s characterization of the aesthetic life-view does justice to the writings of aesthete ‘A,’ let alone whether ‘A’ could give a retort to the ethicist. This paper argues that much of the Judge’s criticism misses its mark. Part of the criticism is better directed at Johannes the Seducer, who cannot necessarily be identified with ‘A.’ Furthermore, ‘A’ portrays, in his essay on tragedy, a life centred on unselfish love and attachment to family, albeit without what the Judge calls ‘repentance.’ It is not ethics but the Judge’s distinctly Protestant religiosity that is missing from the account provided by ‘A.’ The Judge accuses ‘A’ of lacking faith, as though this were a character flaw in ‘A,’ or something he could correct through an act of will. But in fact, I argue, faith is based on an immediate feeling, and cannot be acquired. Without religious faith, ‘A’ tries to find other sources of meaning in life. The question whether life is worth living is what guides ‘A’ in his inquiries into aesthetic value, yet that question itself is not aesthetic but ethical.