Bronowski on the Actively Constructed Good (in the Beautiful)

At the conclusion of The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature and Science, Jacob Bronowski writes:

You will have noticed that the aesthetics that I have been developing through these six lectures are in the end rather heavily based on ethics. And you might think that I belong to the school of philosophers who say that the beautiful must be founded on the good. But that traditional formulation in philosophy will not do. My view is that there is a no such thing as a single good, and that ethics consists of a clear and unsentimental register of values which cannot be arranged into a single hierarchy, to be called the “good.” I do not think that anywhere in life we can isolate an ultimate supreme value. The thing about life really is that you make goodness or you make the experience for yourself by constantly balancing the values that you have from moment to moment. And you have to have profound moments like that which Einstein had and you must make profound mistakes, but you must always feel that you exploring the values by which you live and forming them with every step that you take. On that I think the beautiful is founded. That, I think, is what the work of art says.

Some of the confusion about the existence of something called The Good can, of course, be blamed on Aristotles‘ opening line of the Nichomachean Ethics.¹ That is easily cleared up but some traces persist in notions like either the existence of a supreme value among Bronowski’s ‘register of values’ or even the existence of values by themselves, assured of an uncontaminated state of being (the basis of the fact-value distinction, one now discredited by pragmatist and indeed, most post-analytic philosophy).

So Bronowski is right, to reject the notion of a single good or supreme value, but he is still reliant on a problematic notion, that of the autonomous existence of values. But his view is redeemed, partially, by his constructive notion of ‘goodness’: an active manipulation, balancing, and weighing up of (fact-laden) values that informs our lives and conceptions of the good on an ongoing basis. An ethical life is not one measured and evaluated by its deviation from the mean of the Good Life; rather, its very progression along the trajectories made for us by our balancing acts informs us what the Good Life might be for someone like us, in situations like ours. The Good Life is a dynamically contested concept.

The aesthetics of the good, the contours of the Good Life that Bronowski alludes to above are visible in the works of the artist; here, in them, these balancing acts are brought alive for us. They enable the inspection of the values of artist, his highly idiosyncratic judgment of their relationship to each other. The people we interact with on a daily basis provide their lives for such evaluation; the artist does so by means of his hopefully-enduring works. The classic works of art are those that continue to provide such instruction long after their creators are gone.


1. The Nichomachean Ethics begins:

Every art and every kind of inquiry, and likewise every act and purpose, seems to aim at some good: and so it has been well said that the good is that at which everything aims.

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