|Speculations on the Xartus
Something that's been occupying my time over the last few years is what the Xártus is and what its implications are, particularly regarding ethics. This has gotten tied up with questions about the Good and the True and their relationship, and brought in concepts such as Robert Pirsig's Quality. The result has been a collection of notes, not particularly related. I decided to put them on this site in part to show people some of what the Xártus is about, in part to show how PIE religious concepts can relevant to everyday concerns, but mainly in the hope that it might intrigue some enough to want to tell me where they think I'm wrong and where they think I'm right, and to join in with the development of my ideas. These are jottings, not developed ideas, simply steps along the way. This is a warts and all presentation that I hope to pretty up some day.
The following is to a large extent based on personal speculation. Like everything Proto-Indo-European, it’s based primarily on linguistics, in this case the etymology of Xártus, and the nature of reflexes, primarily arête, harmonia, aša, and ṛta. I am not a philosopher, and those who are will no doubt find enough flaws to keep them occupied. These flaws are in part based on my own lack of philosophical competence, in part on the vagaries of reconstruction, and in part on the fact that the Proto-Indo-Europeans themselves were only groping towards answers, with no final ones established. How could there have been; who would have declared one or some orthodox and others out of bounds?
As the title of this page says, these are only speculations on the Xártus. They are a record of my attempts at understanding it, and how to live a good life in respect to it. They haven’t been either edited or prettied up in any way beyond arranging them, and may therefore be rambling, incoherent, repetitive, and even contradictory. They are very much a work in progress, one which I hope will assist me, and others, both in understanding the Xártus and how to live in regard to it.
Proto-Indo-European has a verb, *H2ar-, with the meaning “to fit together in an appropriate and aesthetically pleasing manner, to dovetail, to harmonize.” It is, in fact, the origin of the word “harmonize.” Most important, it has a noun derivative, *H2értus (Mallory and Adams, in The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, give it as *H4értus, based on their opinion that there were four PIE laryngeals rather than the more common theory of three), which is the origin of the Vedic ṛta. The ṛta is the pattern by which the universe is ordered, and that seems to have been the likely meaning of *H2/4értus. On this page I will spell it as Xártus; the asterisk doesn’t seem necessary since we all know we’re talking about PIE here, and the “X” represents the Greek letter chi, which stands for the voiceless velar fricative found in the final position of the German pronunciation of “Bach;” this is the most commonly accepted vocalization of H2.
We shouldn’t look for logical arguments when talking about the Xártus. I’m not saying this as an excuse for inconsistencies and incompetencies in my speculation. It’s simply a fact that logic, as a set of rules set forth by the Greek philosophers, didn’t exist in the days of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. It isn’t that they didn’t care about putting their musings into logical forms; they couldn’t because such forms (or at least an awareness of them) didn’t exist yet.
What they did have was poetry.
The Xártus is the most basic concept of Proto-Indo-European ideology. If there is a PIE form of mysticism, it would consist of knowing and acting in accord with one’s Xártus, one’s swạ ́rtus.
You can think of the PIE cosmos as surrounding and incorporated among the branches and roots of the World Tree, the axis mundi. The branches and roots are effectively infinite in fineness, interweaving among all elements of the Cosmos like the capillaries intertwine the cells of the body. These elements are all parts of what is and what happens – every physical thing, every thought, every action, etc. They are all embedded in the Tree, surrounded on all sides by the branches and roots of the Tree.
The Xártus is the pattern formed by the branches and roots. Just as the Tree is always growing and changing, so is the Xártus. It may be the template for the Cosmos, but it isn’t one laid down in some period of time in the past, whether actual or mythical. It is always changing.
It is not, however, completely free. It is constrained by what has gone before. It works with what it’s got. A branch can’t appear in midair; it has to grow from some other branch, and its growth is determined by a number of things – how much water and nutrients it gets, how strong and from what direction the wind blows, the strength of and direction from which the light comes. In the same way the Xártus is shaped by what has gone before.
What has gone before isn’t just the previous form of the Xártus. It’s also the elements embodied in it. Think again of blood vessels. The growth of individual cells will affect the shape the network of the vessels takes. In the same way our actions are taken in by the Xártus and incorporated into it. At any given moment we have a large number of choices as to what to do, but not an infinite number. Our choices are always constrained by what has gone before – our education, our family situation, where we live, our preferences – even the fact that we are human. In the same way the Xártus is constrained by what has gone before. It has a large number of possibilities of growth, but not an infinite one.
What choice will it make (seeing it for the moment as having volition, which it doesn’t)? Here is where they etymology of the word comes in. It is based on the root *H2/4er-, “to fit together in an appropriate and aesthetically pleasing manner; to dovetail; to harmonize.” The Xártus will take the direction that is most appropriate; that fits the context best, the one that is, above all, the prettiest. Remember that “cosmos” is related to “cosmetic.”
But remember as well that our actions affect the growth of the Xártus. These actions might be decidedly unaesthetic, inappropriate. That is part of our freedom, to choose among the alternatives that the constraints of the moment offer us. These include possibilities that will violate the Xártus. The branches of the Tree aren’t stiff; if they become that way they break. We can push against them, turning them along new paths. This may result in our local situation being very unpleasant, ugly even. The actions of others, including those of the natural world, may also be forcing the Xártus into ugly patterns.
The thing is, each time something ugly, something inappropriate, occurs, it is incorporated into the Xártus. It becomes one more element which the Xártus then can harmonize, can turn to beauty. It is the Xártus as a whole that is beautiful; the local Xártus may be very unaesthetic.
But only for a while. It will turn itself back to beauty. This might not be pleasant to us, of course; beauty overall might require ugliness on a local basis.
How can you ensure that this won’t happen to you? By knowing the Xártus and acting in accord with it.
Another common Indo-European image for the Cosmos is that of the web. Most correctly, it’s woven fabric, or the thread(s) from which it’s woven, as in the Greek image of the Fates, who spin, measure, and cut the thread of each individual’s life. This thread is then woven into the fabric of the Cosmos, creating a pattern which is the Xártus.
Rather than a woven pattern, though, I prefer to think of it as a net. (The two can be reconciled, as I will show later.) This is a very special net, however. The physical nets we’re used to are essentially two-dimensional objects, in which knots are connected to a small number of other knots by cords. The Xártus web consists of an almost infinite number of knots, each connected by a cord to all the other knots through a space of an almost infinite number of dimensions. The knots are the elements of the cosmos (objects, actions, ideas, etc.), the cords are what connect them, and the pattern formed by the knots and the cords is the Xártus. In this way all the elements in the cosmos are interconnected.
Because each element is connected to each other element, a change in any one will affect every other one. Motion of one knot will cause the other knots to move. The extent to which they move will vary based on the distance from the initially moving knot; some will move more, some less. What happens in my backyard is more strongly linked to me than what happens in a distant galaxy. It’s not always distance, of course; an accident at the nuclear power plant 30 miles away would have a greater effect on me than almost anything that happened in my backyard.
This moving in a pattern results in changes in the Xártus. Each change of an element causing a change in the other elements means that the pattern of elements changes each time an element changes.
We can see from this that each element has freedom to change, but not an unlimited freedom. It is held in place by the cords which connect it to the other knots, and though these cords are to an extent elastic, they are also an extent confining.
The weaving analogy can be equated if we see each thread as representing the life span of an element, and the fabric as representing one of the contexts in which it is found. We could then require a cloth for each element, in which the thread exists in differing lengths.
The Xártus does not reside in things, it resides between things.
It is extremely important to understand that the Xártus isn’t about everything being One. It’s about the many being in relationship. Without the many, without distinct elements, there can be no relationship, there can be no pattern. So an experience of the Xártus doesn’t result in a loss of identity, or in seeing the elements of the Cosmos as an illusion, or as illusive in their separateness. So we aren’t talking about the Tao or Brahman here.
Nor are we talking about inexorable Fate. As I’ve already said, it is possible to act outside of the Xártus. It is true that most of the descendant traditions developed an idea of Fate. But that idea can’t go back to PIE days because it would be impossible to express in PIE, because the language didn’t have a future tense, using the subjunctive instead. It was impossible to say, “I will go there tomorrow,” if what is meant is that I will definitely do that. Instead one would say something like, “I may go there tomorrow.” It is therefore clear that the concept of Fate can’t even be expressed in PIE.
The Xártus is not about the One. It is about unifying and unification – the action and the pattern formed by the acting. This requires there to be more than one; individual events are real, and give rise to the Xártus, by their relationships. And by the reflexivity of context, it could also be said that the real Xártus gives rise to the individual events.
The Xártus tends toward the beautiful. This means that its pressure on us will always be to turn us toward the beautiful. If we cooperate with this tendency, then we will be working with the Xártus, and beauty will be increased more than the Xártus could have accomplished on its own. The Cosmos will then become even more beautiful than it would have been otherwise.
The Xártus tends towards the beautiful, but it can only work with what it has. It tries to make beauty out of ugliness, but that can be very difficult to do. It can take a long time, and it can require a lot of suffering. By acting in accord with the Xártus, and by acting towards beauty ourselves, we help reduce the time and suffering required to bring beauty out of ugliness.
It is not that we look at the Xártus and evaluate it with our principles of aesthetics to see if it measures up, if xar-ing is what is really going on in the working of the universe; that is, whether the universe is really putting itself together in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The Xártus is where our aesthetic principles come from, it precedes them.
This is like Pirsig’s experiments with Quality, related in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where he asked his students to judge which of two essays was better. They almost all agreed. Even though they couldn’t say why, they knew which possessed the greater quality. He was then able to teach the methods, such as balance, that would allow them to produce essays with Quality.
The important thing is that the perception of Quality came first, and the principles by which it might be attained and expressed were secondary, they were determined by it rather than determining it. The principles showed how Quality might be made obvious, not how it might be judged to be Quality.
And so it is with the Xártus. The xar-ing is going on already. We do not make lists of principles – balance, completeness, etc. – and set them up as judges to see whether it is in fact true that the principles behind the universe is aesthetics. It’s the other way round these principles exist because they agree with the Xártus. An essay written according to them has Quality because it xars.
Ṛta, as per Mahoney, precedes all that is, including the gods, in both a causal and a temporal sense. But the Xártus, arising as it does from inter-relations, cannot exist before there are two things, and therefore cannot exist before anything in a temporal sense.
How can you know the Xártus and act in accord with it?
First are techniques of knowing the Xártus. These include the mystical and the practical, which may overlap. Meditation intended to see things as they really are are good. Exercises such as yoga and tai chi, which lead to ease of movement, awareness of body position, and acting in a beautiful manner are good. Dance and gymnastics teach how to act with beauty. Exercising for flexibility is an obvious method, but exercising for strength and aerobic ability are as well, since they will increase the possibilities open to you, and the ease with which you perform your actions.
Intellectual work is also value. Learning science teaches you how the world works, history teaches trends, which are patterns, math teaches other kinds of patterns. Learning how to think clearly will keep you from distraction. In philosophy, aesthetics and ethics are particularly valuable, since they will help you analyze a situation for the most beautiful action.
In fact, development of any skills is useful. This is especially true of the arts, which teach appreciation for and evaluation of beauty; they can be seen as applied aesthetics.
Acting ethically is a big deal. In fact, it could even be said that that which accords with the Xártus is ethical, and vice versa. At any given moment, of all the possibilities open to you, one, or perhaps a few, will result in the most ethically preferable action to take. That one, or those some, will be the ones which result in the greatest aesthetic value, the ones that contribute to the Xártus.
The metaphor of the net suggests a number of ways to achieve a knowledge of the Xártus.
As with the Tree analogy, knowledge of anything is helpful. It is especially useful to learn about relationships rather than facts, theories rather than data. Fields like ecology, physics, taxonomy, and history are particularly useful.
A certain kind of meditation is helpful. What you need to do is be aware of the elements that surround you and their relationships. Sit comfortably and observe the space about you. Close your eyes and imaging it. Open your eyes and check how accurate your image is, then close them and try again. Do this several times, till you are satisfied with your image. Now contemplate the relationships among the elements in your image. How do they exist in space in relation to each other? Do they interact otherwise, such as a light throwing a shadow when blocked by an object? How are you situated in relation to them? It’s best to do this in a room with a minimal number of significant objects, and then progress to more. You should also start with higher levels of groupings of elements. Start with an image which has a bed, and when you are adept at that you can switch to one that has not just the bed as a whole, but the mattress, pillows, blankets, and linens.
You can also go to what is behind the elements. You can contemplate the wiring and the plumbing, and the patterns they make both on their own and in relationship to other elements.
As you continue to progress, include moving objects, such as living things, elements which have their own effects on the pattern.
One great thing about this is that after a while you’ll be able to do it in free moments, without having to block out time for it. You’ll be able to take just a few seconds, eyes open or closed, to take an inventory of nearby elements and their relationships.
Meditation designed to increase awareness of things just as they are can improve your ability to perform this exercise. Zen “just sitting” is good. You’re not trying to block out the world, or concentrate on a single object or thought, you’re trying to perceive this world as it really is, so you can perceive the patterns it forms.
Another possible exercise is to use points and their relationships. Draw three points in an equilateral triangle. Then connect them with lines. Go in both directions, since the cords and elements are composed of reciprocal relationships. Then make four dots, and connect them all. You’ll have the edges of a square, but you’ll also have the diagonals, and you’ll have the groups of three, and you’ll have all four. Now make five, and so on. Do this with as many geometric figures as you can.
Although having knowledge of the Xártus can be a good thing, it is not the essence of Proto-Indo-European mysticism. Even being able to directly perceive the Xártus wouldn’t be.
Paganism is about orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. It isn’t about right belief. Nor is it about right perception. It’s about right action, right practice.
This leads to the conclusion that a Proto-Indo-European mysticism and, in fact, a proper Proto-Indo-European of life, lies not in perceiving the Xártus, but in living in accord with it. It lies in performing those actions – and only those actions – which add to the aesthetic value of a given situation.
It’s still important to know as much as possible about a situation, and about the influence or results of actions in it. How could we know which action leads to the greatest aesthetic value without knowing the likely results of each of our choices? It is in this sense that a knowledge of the Xártus is useful.
Nonetheless, such knowledge isn’t the goal of Proto-Indo-European mysticism, or of a proper Proto-Indo-European way of life. The goal is to act with excellence, with arête, with Quality. It is such a life that is the goal. It is practice, in action, that true knowledge of the Xártus lies. Seen this way, the translation of arête as “virtue” isn’t such a bad one after all, provided it’s remembered that the this doesn’t refer to sexual morality (and least not primarily), but to all the actions of a vir, a *wiros, an adult person. To act by the Xártus is to act the way a grown-up, a mature and responsible, person acts. That is the goal of the Proto-Indo-European way of life, and to do so is the height of Proto-Indo-European mysticism. It is not to perceive the Xártus, but to embody it.
Connections exist not just between the events of the physical world, but those between the events in the supernatural world. And not only that, but those between the physical and the supernatural world. It is the latter connections that are exploited in ritual, when actual events are mapped onto Ideal ones (and vice versa). Ritual therefore teaches those connections and is therefore one of the ways of learning the Xártus, and, since one embodies these connections when performing ritual, ritual is one of the ways of acting in accord with the Xártus in a deliberate manner. A well-composed ritual is nothing less than a way of making the otherwise imperceptible Xártus manifest for one to experience.
Such connections are found expressly recognized in the Vedic ritual commentaries, the brāhmaṇas, and in the correspondence charts of Ceremonial Magic. We read things in the former like “X is five because the year is five,” and in the latter that green is the color and copper the metal associated with the planet Venus. These correspondences are not absolute, even though they may be presented as such by their respective systems. Rather, they are appropriate within their respective systems. Within those systems, however, they are absolute; the consistency of the system relies on this. This relative absoluteness should be clear from the contextual nature of the Xártus. Just as each individual has their own Xártus, their swā́rtus, so does each system. Thus, in Vedism X really is the year, but green and copper might not be associated with Venus, and the reverse is true in Ceremonial Magic. As long as one operates within a system, whether spiritual or otherwise, that system’s set of connections are to be recognized as “true;” this is required by the xar-ing that goes on in systems.
In the currents of the Xártus in which one finds oneself, there might be eddies that were created by ill deeds, which then bring misfortune on you. This may happen even though your own deeds are appropriate and aesthetic. On the other hand, there may be eddies that bring good fortune into the lives of those who perform ill deeds, because deeds of previous actors have allowed the Xártus to operate fully in its quest for beauty, and have even contributed to and strengthened its tendency towards beauty. In the end, this tendency will win out. That may be too late for the good of those doers of good who are caught up in the unfortunate eddies, however, or to allow justice to act upon those who, despite being doers of ill, find themselves in fortunate eddies. It is nonetheless noble, it is good, for all, even those caught in unfortunate eddies to act in aesthetic ways, to act morally. It increases the likelihood of good for those who come after us, our children, our grandchildren, our descendants. It makes us worthy of their veneration. And if souls are reincarnated (something I don’t think the Proto-Indo-Europeans believed in), then it makes it more likely that the new life will be in fortunate circumstances.
The way I’ve written about the Xártus sometimes makes it seem as if I think it has personality. But that’s just a result of the way English works; it requires that sentences have subjects, and makes it seem as if those subjects have volition. The Xártus can be seen as both subject (it has tendencies which impel events in a certain direction) and as object (it arises as a result of events). It is not, however, personal.
The gods don’t follow the Xártus perfectly. If they did, they wouldn’t be individuals, since to be an individual is to have at least the possibility of making mistakes. They do, however, see the Xártus more clearly than we do, and because they are wiser than us, are more likely to choose the best among the alternatives it offers. The degree to which they observe the Xártus, pay attention to it, and choose the best alternative varies from deity to deity. Dyẹ ́us Ptẹ ́r, for instance, sees the clearest among them, and Xáryomēn sees it most clearly when it involves human society. The Diwós Sunú are apt to ignore it based on the needs of the individual humans who pray to them, and Perkʷụ ́nos tends to act impulsively without even checking the Xártus at all. It is the wiggle room allowed by this variation that allows for prayers to be answered; the actions of the gods are not automatic according to the Xártus. Since the Xártus doesn’t present us with only one choice in accord with it, they also are presented with alternatives, any of which they can choose from, based on their wisdom their personalities, and our prayers.
Since orthopraxy is the heart of Paganism, and the preferred path to incorporating the Xártus in one’s life, and since ritual is the most powerful mode of practice for a Pagan life, it follows that ritual is the most powerful way to incorporate the Xártus. A good ritual expresses the Xártus; by practicing it one is participating in the Xártus, one’s actions are in accord with the Xártus.
If we transform “why live by the Xártus?” into “why be good?”, we continually butt up against pragmatism, because living the good means living well, because in some way it leads to happiness. But this gives rise to two problems. First, in what way are living by the Xártus and being happy; how does living good leave to living well?
The second problem is that if we are to justify living by the Xártus on purely pragmatic grounds, why do we need the middle term of the Xártus? Why not just start and end with pragmatism?
This kind of pragmatism leaves me cold, however. It’s hard to justify this. In part it’s personal preference. So simple and, yes, cynical a morality fails to satisfy. Has the thinking and writing about morality for thousands of years been for nothing, does it all boil down to “be good because it means you get good things?”
And this doesn’t actually answer the big question of how we know what is good. That which causes pleasure? How are we to decide between different kinds of good? Is an action which increases mental pleasure at the expense of physical pleasure more, than, less than, or equal to an action in the other direction? Is the goal the greatest good for the greatest number? Putting aside the question of how we determine what kind of good is the “greatest,” we have to ask ourselves how we determine what kind of good is the greatest. We have to ask ourselves why we should be concerned with the greatest number. On what grounds do we base the view that good is democratic? Might it not be the greatest good (whatever that might be) for the right kind of people? If so, how do we tell which ones those are? Those of the greatest value? But that would mean those possessing the greatest amount of goodness, and we are back where we started.
Let us look, then, in the direction directly indicated by the word *xártus. Its root, *xar-, means “to put together in an appropriate and beautiful manner.” Leaving aside the “appropriate” part, since that would lead us into the sort of morass “good” has, let us concentrate on “beautiful.” Pirsig’s remarks on a world without Quality are relevant here: a world without beauty would be very different from that in which we live, and one not worth living in. If we can make no distinction between the beautiful and the not, for instance, would we not dress in gray jumpsuits and eat artificially created, tasteless food which provides perfect nutrition? Beauty seems to be an integral part of Reality, then, which is just what we would expect if there was indeed the Xártus at its root.
The desirability of beauty is also clear, since no one would choose to live in a Reality that did not possess it. Even those who live lives that do not seem beautiful to the rest of the world are attempting to live beautifully – the difference between us is not whether we live to maximize beauty, but our judgments as to what this beauty inheres in. Note the difference between this and postulating different goods. This allows for the differences between temperaments; in fact, it might even require it, since that would optimize the opportunities for beautiful joinings-together.
The “Good,” on the other hand, is more restrictive; it divides things into categories of “good” and “not-good.” That which is “not-beautiful” can still be combined in beautiful ways with other things; that which is “not-good” is doomed to its non-goodness. Holding up the beautiful as the goal of morality, then, allows for more possibilities, and describes Reality better than a morality based on good.
Note that when I speak of “good” here I am speaking of a distinction between right and wrong. The word might be used differently, perhaps with a capital letter, to describe the principle of beauty, or that which possesses beauty; that is to say, that which is of the Xártus. In this case, the Good is that which is to be sought after. The question I have been dealing with, then , is “what is Good, the beautiful or the good?” It is in this capitalized sense that we can say that the Good (the principle of beauty or that which possesses beauty) is better than Truth (the principle of that which is). Doing is better than being, provided it be done appropriately and beautifully.
The correct moral principle, then, is not “be good” but “act Good,” which is to say *xar: “act appropriately and beautifully. Morality is aesthetics.
Morality is not about being, it is about doing. We have to ask ourselves not, “what is the situation?” but “what’s going on?” It is not about knowing the point, the present, the now; it’s about knowing the process. Or, if it is about knowing the point, the part we are interested is, in terms of calculus, the derivative: what is changing, in what way, at what rate? Once this is known we can ask, “what is the moral thing to do?” The moral thing is that which *xar-s, that which fits in with the current goings on in the most beautiful way possible. The act that leads to the most beauty is the most beautiful.
One of my biggest problems regarding the Xártus at present is how to justify the idea of aesthetics when it comes to excellence in fields other than the arts, science, and math. An oil platform which does exactly what it is meant to do and nothing more, and which does so efficiently and completely, may be excellent (may have high Quality),but it can hardly be said to have high aesthetics. It’s possible that an engineer might see aesthetics in it; is the question whether someone can see its aesthetics? But that would give high aesthetics to lots of things most of us would consider aesthetically low, such as velvet Elvises. It can’t be majority vote, however, as that would require that we deny the existence of experts who may see aesthetics in something most cannot. And does the aesthetics exist in the observer, rather than the observed or perhaps in the relationship between the observer and the observed?
Does the oil platform possess high aesthetics because it functions with beauty? Can beauty reside in both form and function? Or is it in the connection between the two, a case where form following function gives high aesthetics? But that would deny high aesthetic value to anything which has anything unnecessary, which would leave out an awful lot of fine art.
Perhaps we are looking at a Wittgensteinian definition based on family resemblances. Possible characteristics of high aesthetics may include:
1. Simplicity. This doesn’t mean possessing a small number of attributes or elements, but rather the smallest necessary to do what needs to be done, or what it is intended to be. But what of rococo art? It can hardly be said to be simple. It would destroy the definition of “simplicity” if we were to say that it counts as simple because it possesses the minimum number of attributes to count as “rococo.”
2. Balance. But this can’t be a pure balance, a one to one correspondence across a significant axis; otherwise Rorschach blots would be fine art and antique Chinese pen and ink drawing would not, nor would most of Western art. Still, there is a sense of balance that is felt when looking at certain works of art that are technically unbalanced. Perhaps it’s possible that even an empty space can be something which balances, so that a Chinese drawing with all the elements in one corner is balancing them against the rest of the drawing, the undrawn portion, telling is that the drawn element are equivalent to emptiness. Or it could be like entropy, where what matters isn’t the local but the total, so that elements that are locally unbalanced may be globally balanced.
3. Effectiveness. Does it perform what it sets about to do? Can a velvet Elvis intended to do homage to him be said to do so?
4. Efficiency. Does it accomplish its goal easily? This is very similar to simplicity, except that efficient concentrates on the function rather than the form.
5. Grace. This is mainly a characteristic of motion, but may be used metaphorically of still objects. Something is graceful if it moves smoothly from one state to another.
6. Harmony. “Harmony” comes from *H2/4ar-. If elements fit together without clashing, they are harmonious. In items where color is important, we ask if they clash. But what cases where clashing is intended, where the point of the work is to express or create a dissonance? In many cases, such as with some forms of music, dissonance is created simply so it can be resolved into harmony, but sometimes the expressing of dissonance is the point. Perhaps the harmony arises from the correlation between the dissonance and some aspect of reality, like a storm. But his may be just a judgment of effectiveness.
7. Unity. This means that the event doesn’t have any extraneous elements, and/or that its elements are arrange in such a way as to all contribute to the event’s goal. This is a reason why an oil platform can be aesthetically pleasing, provided that it has nothing extraneous, and that is elements interact with each other and are situated in respect to each other in the most effective and efficient way possible – no gauges measuring irrelevant factors, no pipes or wires taking circuitous routes. Perhaps appreciation of this kind of aesthetics – perhaps of all aesthetics – is only possible for an expert. Your average person may find an oil platform ugly, but would an engineer? Someone not schooled in the history of art might think a clown painted on velvet is great art, but an art historian would disagree. And I think the art historian would be right; I don’t think that it’s just a matter of opinion. One thing can be inherently of a higher aesthetic quality than another, no matter what some people say.
But who decides who is an expert? Is it people as a whole? Is it the relevantly knowledgeable community, like sportswriters voting on who gets into the Baseball Hall of Fame? But how do you become a member of that community?
Or do people have an innate knowledge of aesthetics, like they do of Pirsig’s Quality? How then would cultural differences be explained?
All important questions which require much further thought.
If we transform “why live by the Xártus?” into “why be good?” we continually butt up against: because living good means living well, because in some way it leads to happiness. But this in turn gives rise to two problems. First, in what way are living by the Xártus and being happy connected; that is, how does living good lead to living well? Second, if we are to justify living by the Xártus on purely pragmatic grounds, why do we need the middle term of the Xártus? Why not just start and end with pragmatism?
This kind of pragmatism leaves me cold, however. It’s hard to justify this. It is in part one of personal preference, and a simple and, yes, cynical, morality fails to satisfy. Has all the thought and writing about morality for thousands of years been for nothing, to all boil down to “be good because it means you get good things?”
And this doesn’t actually answer the big question of how we know what is good, that which causes pleasure. How are we to decide between different kinds of good? Is an action which increases mental pleasure at the expense of physical pleasure more , less than, or equal to an action in the other direction? Is the goal the greatest good for the greatest number? Putting aside the question of what kind of good is the “greatest,” we have to ask ourselves why we should be concerned with the greatest number. On what grounds do we base the view that the good is democratic? Might it not be the greatest good (whatever that might be) for the right kind of people? If so, how are we to tell which ones those are? Those of greatest value? But that would mean possessing the greatest amount of goodness, and we are back where we started.
Let us look, then, in the direction directly indicated by the word *Xártus. Its root, *xar- (*H2er-) means “to put together in an appropriate and beautiful manner.” Leaving aside “appropriate,” since that would lead us into the sort of morass that “good” brings us to, let us concentrate on “beautiful.” Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) remarks on a world without Quality are relevant to a world without beauty: a world without beauty would be a very different one from that in which we live, and one that is not living for or in. If we can’t make a distinction between the beautiful and the not, for instance, would we not dress in grey jump suits and eat artificially, less tasty but more nutritious, foods? Beauty seems to be an integral part of Reality, then, which is just what we would expect if there was indeed the Xártus at its root.
The desirability is also clear, since no one would chose to live in a Reality that did not possess it. Even those who live lives that do not seem beautiful to the rest of us are attempting to live beautifully – the difference between us is not whether we live to maximize beauty, but our judgment as to what beauty inheres in. Notice the difference between this and postulating different goods. This allows for the difference between temperaments; in fact, it might even require it, since that would optimize the opportunities for beautiful joinings-together.
The “Good,” on the other hand, is more restrictive; it divides things into the categories of “good” and “not-good.” That which is “not-beautiful” can still be combined in beautiful ways to other things; that which is “not-good” is doomed to its not-goodness. Holding up the beautiful as the goal of morality, then, allows for more possibilities, and describes Reality better than, a morality based on good.
Note that when I speak of “good” here I am speaking of a distinction between right and wrong. The word might be used differently, perhaps with a capital letter, to describe the principle of beauty, or that which possesses beauty; that is to say, that which is of the Xártus.
The question I have been dealing with, then, is “what is Good, the beautiful or the good?” It is in this capitalized sense that we can say that the Good (the principle of beauty or that which possesses beauty) is better than Truth (the principle of that which is (PIE *H1sont- < *H1es- “to be”). Doing is better than being, provided that it is done appropriately and beautifully.
The moral imperative, then, is not “be good,” but “act Good,” which is to say *xar- “act appropriately and beautifully.” Morality is about aesthetics.
To answer the question “what is the moral thing to do” requires knowing whaty is going on. It’s not about knowing the point, the present, the now; it’s about know the process. Or if it is about knowing the point, the part we are interested is not the coordinates, but the derivative: what is changing, in what way, at what rate? Once we know this, we can ask “what is the moral thing to do?” The moral thing is that which *xar-s, that which fits in with the current goings on in the most beautiful way possible. The act that leads to the most beauty is the most moral.
Since *xar- refers to joining together, we can at least say that that which does not join together also does not *xar-, and is thus unaesthetic. However, there is nothing which does not join together in at least some sense; nothing arises out of context. It would there seem as if that which does not appear to join together is unaesthetic; it cannot join together in an aesthetic way if it does not seem to fit together.
The important word is “seem.” To whom? To an artist things may join together which to a non-artist may not. Who decides?
More important, does this dissolve metaphysics and, along with it, ethics, into idealism? Do things not exist because we are not perceiving them?
I don’t know if the metaphysics problem can be solved. I don’t think things are so bad for ethics, however, because the observer to which things must seem is the moral actor.
All morality asks the question, “What am I to do in this situation?” Xártus morality asks this in a radical way, first requiring an answer to the question, “What is the exact situation taking into account all factors?” It then introduces the belief that, left to itself, the cosmos will continue in an appropriate and aesthetically pleasing manner.
But the cosmos is not left to itself. As conscious beings with free will, we must choose what comes next, so that our actions will contribute to the process of creating an aesthetically pleasing cosmos rather than detracting from it.
The big question, the biggest question of all systems of morality, is why to do this. Why act in a way that will continue the producing of an aesthetically pleasing cosmos?
The first answer is that we are part of the cosmos. To act in an unaesthetically pleasing manner is to deny this; it is to take us out of the way things are. It is deny not only the Good but the True.
The second answer is that not to act in an aesthetically pleasing manner is to create an unaesthetic cosmos. Who would want to live in such a cosmos? As far as this is concerned, in the end I have nothing to say to someone who wouldn’t. In such a case I would have to admit defeat and say that I have reached the end of trying to justify Xártus morality; there is no more to be said if it has not been accepted.
A third answer is that as conscious beings we are co-creators of the Cosmos. We are obligated by our position in the cosmos and our power to modify it, to act so as to maximize the aesthetics of the cosmos. We are both separate from and a part of the workings of the cosmos. To act in such a way as to create an unaesthetic cosmos is to abrogate this responsibility. It is to create a break in the proper functioning of the cosmos. It is to cause violence to all that is.
In these ways, is becomes ought. We are intimately involved in the is, and it is un-True, un-aesthetic, and destructive to ask as if we weren’t.
Further, we are both part of and separate from the Xártus process. We are separate from it because as conscious agents we can and must choose our actions freely. We are part of it because first, it is the Xártus which has brought us to this point and provided the options from which we must choose, and second, our actions become part of the future Xártus, they are “ploughed in,” so that no matter how discordant they are at the moment they are taken , they will become of a future harmony.
I tend to emphasize the “aesthetically pleasing” part of *xar- over the “appropriate” part. This is for several reasons. The whole point of developing a moral system is to determine what is “appropriate,” so my discussion of aesthetics is the most basic part of my morality; the aesthetically pleasing is the appropriate.
Further, there are aspects of the Xártus that exist on a level higher than the moment, and on these levels it is possible to speak of the “appropriate.” I would like to discuss these now.
It may be impossible to know what the Xártus is up to at any given moment and to know therefore what is the appropriate action. This is because the number of factors that go into the momentary Xártus is, while not infinite, large enough to be effectively so. It gets worse; not only do we have to take into account all elements, but every possible interaction among them. To take an example with only four factors, A, B, C, and D, we must not only consider those four, but also AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, CD, ABC, ABD, BCD, and ABCD. From only four factors we have produced fourteen interactions. Imagine how many with a hundred, or a thousand, or the large number that factor into a moment’s Xártus!
From a practical point of view, it is clearly impossible to ever determine the Xártus perfectly, and to thus act in the perfectly moral manner. It is, however, possible to reach a suitable approximation.
This is done by asking what factors are the most relevant. To use an example I will turn to again, we, as human beings, are social creatures. In almost all cases this will be a relevant fact. So will what sort of society we live in. On the other hand, while it is part of the Xártus, the fact that we are made up of cells will only rarely be relevant, such as when we suffer from certain illnesses.
This is the first level of appropriateness. We can go further to ask what, given the most approximate factors, are the most appropriate parts of them. As an example, a major factor in American culture is democracy, in Arabic culture hospitality, in Japanese culture honor.
From this we get to the next level of appropriateness: what actions do these values (and that the word for them) call upon us to do? In American culture, voting would be a moral act, not voting an immoral one. For an Arab, to offer food and drink is a moral act, to refrain an immoral one. In Japan, to speak respectfully to a superior is moral, to speak disrespectfully immoral.
These actions give us approximations to morality, values which are rough guides to help us approach the perfectly moral even if we don’t reach it. These actions are what most people think of when they think of morality. They are an important part, perhaps the most important part for guiding the coarse level of action we are usually required to act in, but they are not the whole of Xártus morality.
Levels of appropriateness may conflict, for instance. A society’s values may conflict with those required by common humanity. To take the most extreme example, in the society of Nazi Germany it was a value to persecute Jews, even to the point of killing them. Yet most people view that as having acted immorally. Why? Because to do so was to deny Jews’ worth as human beings, and our existence as human beings outranks societal rules. It is therefore incorrect to say, as some have, that all acts seen as moral in one society are as equally valid as those seen in other societies. Genocide is never moral, no matter what a given society might say.
In sum, there are approximations to the Xártus that in most cases are sufficient to guide us in behaving morally. These approximations are found by asking what elements at hand are the most relevant, then what values these elements prescribe, and third, what actions express those values in a given situation. Finally, different elements on each of these different levels have different ranks, and a person must take this into consideration when making moral choices.
Another reason why I will concentrate on aesthetics is that it may be said that “appropriate” means “aesthetically pleasing,” that aesthetics are basic to morality, and, in fact, define appropriateness, so that by concentrating on aesthetics we will be taking care of appropriateness.
Finally, aesthetic judgments, while affected by culture, personal history, and all the other elements which go into the Xártus, are more universal than judgments of appropriateness. Research into standards of beauty, for instance, have shown that even if different people may prefer different colors of eyes, cross-culturally eyes that are large, placed symmetrically on the face, and set a certain distance apart are seen as most beautiful. An investigation into the aesthetics of given cultures and individuals is relevant – thin or fat? red hair or blond? light skin or dark? – is certainly interesting, and these specific preferences are part of the Xártus appropriate to those cultures and individuals, but there are still similarities, certain levels of appropriateness, that are more widely spread. I will focus on those, although with a treatment of variations.
That which is false cannot be Good. Something can be false either internally or externally. An internal falsehood exists when the elements of something contradict each other. An external falsehood is when something presents itself as other than what it is. This is what is usually thought of as a lie.
The false can’t be Good because it isn’t put together well; the parts don’t fit.
It is possible, however, for something to be Good even if it seems to present itself as something it is not, if it contains within that presentation an acknowledgement of its own falsehood. This is what is called fiction or fantasy. Thus a performance of a play is not false, even though the people the actors aren’t really the people they’re claiming to be, because those watching the play have voluntarily accepted the falsehood as true only within the context of the performance. Disney World is true because although its goal is to present the false as if it were true, anyone who isn’t very young knows it isn’t true. Nor does Disney even intend to create a falsehood, because they are willing, almost eager, to allow people behind the scenes to see the literal truth.
The correct moral principle is not “be good,” but “act Good,” which is to say, *xar, “act appropriately and beautifully.” Morality is aesthetics.
Morality is not about being, it is about doing. We have to ask ourselves not, “What is the situation?” but “What is going on?” It is not about knowing the point, the present, the now; it’s about knowing the process. Or, if it is about knowing the point, the part we’re interested in is the derivative, not the coordinates: what is changing, in what way, at what rate. Once this is known we can ask, “What is the moral thing to do?” The moral thing is that which *xar-s, that which fits in with the current goings on in the most beautiful way possible. That act which leads to the most beauty is the most moral.
Living by the Xártus is performing a ritual. That is, at each moment there is a right thing to do, a right thing to say: there is a script. There can be missed cues, dropped props, forgotten lines, or there can be performances which are true to the script. Either of these can be brilliant, awful, indifferent. A life fit just to a script can be dead – nothing is brought to it, and nothing comes from it. A life lived not by a script can explode into chaos – meaning disappears. Best of all is good improvisation – life as jazz. Before becoming good at improvisation, a musician has to learn the scales, has to practice the movements of scripts over and over, until they become second nature. Only then do they gain their ultimate brilliance in their performance.
In morality, the scales are the virtues – learn and practice courage, and wisdom, and hospitality. Then jam away.
This doesn’t mean that you have to wait until you’re perfect to improvise. Just don’t expect that it will be very good, and don’t impose your doodling on others. Work at it by yourself until you tell your ready to try things out on others.
When a scientist is looking for an explanation of their data, they are not asking which explanation is true. They are asking which is most parsimonious, or, in more colorful language, the most elegant. They are, that is, asking which is most aesthetically pleasing. They aren’t looking for Truth. They are looking for the Good.
A difficulty arises when science sees the Good as an approximation, the best given under the circumstances of the True. They imagine that by succeeding good explanations they are coming close and closer to the True. The Good becomes a method.
But the Good refuses to be a method. It is an end. Each stage, each explanatory phase, is, if done parsimoniously, the most Good possible at that moment. The Good never leaves; if it were possible to attain the Ultimate Truth some scientists claim to be seeking, it would only be found in the Ultimate Good. That is, it would turn out that the True was the most parsimonious explanation of everything, the most elegant, the most Good.
Philosophy has been on its own quest for the True. Unfortunately, unlike scientists, philosophers long ago overthrew the Good. Instead of looking for the most parsimonious explanations of things, they’ve looked for that which can be explained in the most absolute terms.
This is one cause of the growing irrelevance of philosophy. More and more it is the Good that people are looking for rather than the True. This is as it should be because the ultimate goal is the Good. By seeking the Good they are seeking that which is beyond things.
When a scientist or mathematician says that a theory or an equation is “elegant,” or when a sports announcer says that a play is “beautiful,” they are not engaging in hyperbole. The shudder one feels when reading something that is expressed beautifully, or when contemplating a great work of art, is an act of recognition of the basis of reality. We say the beauty has cut us to our soul, and we mean it. The aesthetic experience is the most authentic one possible, because it is a direct apprehension of what lies behind the cosmos, what is within it, what is continually operating to make it what it is.
But what about ugliness? If the universe is based on beauty, how can something ugly exist? And, even more important, what should be our reaction when we encounter it?
The first thing to consider is that what we are encountering might not be ugly at all. The ugliness might be in us, in our reaction to something unfamiliar.
There are widespread aesthetic principles, but they aren’t universal. If one of them is symmetry, what are we to make of a Japanese tea bowl which is undeniably beautiful but also undeniably unsymmetric? There are in fact different aesthetics, and when one doesn’t understand them something might seem ugly which in fact possesses great beauty within its own aesthetic. There really is such a thing as an acquired trait.
But some things are ugly by any reasonable aesthetic. Murder, torture, slavery – any form of suffering strikes us as ugly. What’s up with that?
Remember first that there is a tendency towards beautiful order in the cosmos. The tendency towards order is just that, a tendency. It is not a compulsion. The Xártus impels, it doesn’t compel. All living things (and some non-living) have the potential to act in ways that don’t accord with the Xártus, that aren’t beautiful. This is at least in a part the result of there being always some Chaos in Cosmos. As a result of the way the aspects of Chaos are incorporated into the Cosmos, and the way it is modified by the Xártus, there will always be a way in which the ugliness will eventually be transformed into something beautiful, but that doesn’t make them any less ugly right now.
I am not stating the happy platitude that “everything happens for a purpose.” It doesn’t; some things are just random, not in the sense of not having a cause, but in not having a purpose. And even those things that happen for a purpose can happen for one that we won’t like, one that would appear ugly to us.
There are always ways in which something ugly can result in beauty now. Sometimes this may be because there is a greater, higher order of beauty, if we can see what it is. Death, something ugly, in the cause of liberty can be beautiful. The Stoic attitude that suffering is a result of our own perception rather than of outside stimuli can turn the ugliness of personal experience into the beauty of the working out of the Logos and of our freedom to make a choice.
These may simply be the thoughts of the privileged. I have had difficulties and suffering, but when those are compared with those of someone in southern Sudan, or a Jew under the Nazis, or a slave anywhere, I have no right to teach the transcendence of suffering or tell those who suffer that there is somehow a beauty in what they are undergoing. It is incumbent on me to act so as to decrease ugliness as it appears to me. Not only must I increase beauty by learning to act with beauty, I must decrease ugliness by acting charitably and responsibly. My mystical involvement with the cosmos will increase the need for me to increase beauty; my actions will become part of the tendency towards beauty. Conversely, acting to increase beauty will increase my mystical connection with the cosmos. Because I act to increase beauty, I will be acting according to the way the cosmos works, I will be establishing the connections which I can then increase.
That which is pure Order is complete, is finished, is dead. It is only by the influx of disorder that it can live. It is through the xar-ing of the unordered that it grows.
The nature of each new growth depends on the branch from which it grows and the situation in which it finds itself. Since this growth is made possible only by an influx of chaos, its result will be in some way unexpected. And yet, since it must grow from that which already is, its result is in some way constrained. The unexpected and the constrained are reconciled through the xar-ing.
The ṇxṛtóm contains ordered aspects because otherwise it would not be disordered; it order to exclude order there would have to be structure.
In any purely random infinite string of numbers, seemingly non-random strings must occur. If each location can be filled with equal probability by any digit, there will be, somewhere in the infinite string, a string of the number, from 1-10, from 1-100, from 1-1000, from 1-∞. If this were not so, the string would not be random.
In the same way, the ṇxṛtóm must contain within it pieces of xṛtós. But in this case we can actually tell where they come from – from the Tree.
All actions performed are part of the Xártus. This does not mean that it is impossible to violate the Xártus of the moment, only that whatever you do will be absorbed into it, incorporated into the Xártus from that moment.
How much better, thought, to act in accord with the Xártus? How much better to act in a way which fits neatly, easily, beautifully into the moment and into its Xártus? I don’t know what to say to the one who doesn’t want that. I know no way to argue its desirability to them. I simply stand dismayed.
At any given moment there are a large number of possibilities. Some will violate the Xártus of the moment. Others will fit into it, some better, some worse. Rarely there is one perfect action, one that will fit perfectly into the moment. This is to be treasured. It shows that preceding actions have fit well into the Xártus; the Xártus is not just continually proceeding but recursive; it feeds itself. Therefore any action in accord with the Xártus will make future according actions easier to perceive and perform, and any not in accordance will make future according actions more difficult to perceive and perform.
The Xártus is not the same as the Tao. The Tao “gives birth to the ten thousand things.” But the ten thousand things give birth to the Xártus by being in relationship with each other. The Xártus may precede the particular ten thousand things of this moment, but it is not ontologically prior to the ten thousand things at any moment.
To know the Xártus, to perceive it, even in the most intimate, mystical way, is nowhere near as important as acing in accordance to it, as doing the Xártus. For it is in the doing that the Xártus springs into being, it is in the doing that the Xártus finds its dynamic stricture. And the paradox is that when you do the Xártus, it is then, and only then, that you are the Xártus.
But how do you do the Xártus without knowing what it is? Remember that the Xártus is Excellent. So act with Excellence, act with Quality, act with elegance, act with grace, act with arête. If you sell stocks, make sure they are the right ones for your client to buy. If you are a plumber, link the right pipes together in the most effective and beautiful way, even if they will be hidden in a wall. If you are a scientist, devise the most elegant theories, all the while following all the formal and informal rules of science, collaborating with others in fellowship. If you make burgers all day, make the best, the most delicious, the most attractive burgers possible. In other words, be Excellent, do Excellence, and you will be doing the Xártus.
The Xártus is something I’ll still exploring, and none of this should be taken as carved in stone. I continue to learn, and to try to act as excellently as possible. I know I fail all the time. It’s a work in progress.