Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

In an address delivered at the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Harvard, James Russell Lowell characterized the aim of the college and the ideal of its education:

Let it be our hope to make a gentleman of every youth who is put under our charge; not a conventional gentleman, but a man of culture, a man of intellectual resource, a man of public spirit, a man of refinement, with that good taste which is the conscience of the mind, and that conscience which is the good taste of the soul.1

Good taste is the conscience of the mind. Lowell’s definition is compact of thought, and is worth dwelling upon. Good taste is a trait we all agree in valuing, though its meaning is as a rule rather vaguely felt; we urge its cultivation and admire its exercise, but the quality itself is generally less analyzed than desired. Such a pithy phrase as Lowell’s, then, is a not unwelcome reminder of a duty that we owe to our self-understanding, especially when it is set up as an important factor in our ideal of educational attainment. What, indeed, is this good taste that we set such store by? And in what degree is its cultivation a proper end of the teacher’s task? These are questions which should be considered before we come to the more practical problems of ways and means.

First, then, what is good taste, precisely defined? The term comes into English, I doubt not, from the French le bon goût, and so rests upon the Latin gustus for its ultimate. The term is, of course, a trope, based upon the physical sensation of a flavor upon the tongue; and at first glance the figure seems not to carry us very far. But metaphors of this sort, especially when deep-seated and long-used, if narrowly examined will usually be found to convey some subtle and exacting truth, and I think the similitude of taste is transferred from the usage of the tongue to that of an ideal sensibility not without its own good reason. To begin with, of the five physical senses that of taste is by far the most unequivocally subjective and idiosyncratic. “I like” and “I dislike,” applied to savors, are as near ultimates as any human judgments; there is no court of appeal from the tongue and no law beyond individual preference. Sensations of taste are lawless and unchallengeable as are no other sensations (as is well enough shown by the small vocabulary we have to express taste discriminations). Now this same subjectivism, this same idiosyncrasy of right, and repugnance to law, is certainly felt to hold, in some measure, in the realm of the more ideal discriminations called by the same name of “taste.” The maxim de gustibus non est disputandum is the perfect expression of this feeling. But would this maxim, think you, carry the same conviction were it framed with reference to vision or hearing, or even to touch or smell, instead of to taste? For we do assuredly dispute much about sights and sounds, touch gives us the primary qualities of physical things, while odors are not even named except with reference to the objects emitting them. Clearly the metaphor of taste conveys a fundamental analogy from the physical to the ideal.

Nor is this analogical freight exhausted by the mere subjective individuality of tastes. The sense of taste is not only the most subjective, it is also the most appetitive of the senses. Of all the senses it is toned by the deepest feelings of desire or antipathy. We hear, see, smell and touch objects that we could not endure to taste, and all in the nature of our daily routine. Language again bears witness to the sense-quality, for when we wish to describe the height of active enjoyment we use the word gusto, while the extreme of dislike is disgust. Is not this quality of emotional determination equally characteristic of those more enduring tastes which express ideal preferences and give color to personality?

Thus the metaphor of taste carries with it the meaning of individual choice, deeply toned with attraction or aversion–a court of appeal at once subjective and passional–which is regarded as in some true sense the core of that other and higher taste, which is expressed in our ideal interests. But it would be to ignore the proper function of metaphor to believe that the whole meaning of this higher type of taste is conveyed by the physical analogy. For one thing, the higher taste differs from the sense of taste in being objectively good or bad–for the phrase “good taste” means objectively good–and in being, therefore, a subject of judgment, and hence, in some measure, of law. We recognize this implicitly when we speak of “a person of taste,” a phrase we should never dream of using with reference to merely gustatory sensations. The higher taste participates in idea as well as in feeling; it belongs to the realm of mind and is therefore, like all true thought, never exclusively individual, but in a degree social.

All this is recognized in Lowell’s definition. “Good taste is the conscience of the mind.” Like conscience, taste is inward and passional, deeply individual and emotional; but it is also an attribute of “mind,” which in Lowell’s intention assuredly refers to the realm of ideas and judgments, to those thoughts about things and actions which make up the domain of truth and right. The other half of Lowell’s description, “that conscience which is the good taste of the soul,” should not escape us here; for, as it were by intonation, it conveys to us this other fact, that good taste is never far removed from good morals; the two are not identical, but they are inseparable at least in the sense that the best morality is harmonized by taste, which best morality is none other than what the Greeks would have it to be, a harmony of the soul. Think for a moment of the qualities which we associate with good taste: are they not quietness and sincerity and propriety, temperance in all things, and beyond these, fineness of sensibility, purity and truth? and are not these moral qualities?

Good taste, then, is partly a matter of conduct and ideals; it is a part of morality. Again, it is partly a matter of judgment and ideas, of learning and wisdom. In both of these particulars it is subject to education and is a proper care of schools and colleges. But the more elementary factor, represented by the term “taste” itself, is inborn, and it is of the nature of an instinct and an appetite. Judgment, wrote Rivarol, “has never sufficed for the fine arts; these noble children of genius have required a lover rather than a judge, and this lover is the taste, for judgment contents itself with approving or condemning, but the taste enjoys and suffers.” Not the educated judgment, but the inspired and fired imagination is the creator of art; and in some degree this inspiration is the endowment of all men. Its nature is that of love, and the object of its love is beauty. Love of beauty gave order to the kingdom of the gods, said Plato, meaning the world of nature; and it is not strange that human nature should respond to the world’s beauty with some spark of the natal divinity. The task of the teacher is first to realize what is this love of beauty, to see that it be not turned nor staled by friendlessness. With this beginning, which nature has made generously ours, we may pass on to that development of the perfected taste which comes with the proper cultivation of character and judgment. For more than any other trait which it falls to the teacher to foster, good taste partakes of the whole circle of human endowment.

In the bit of psychology which I have just undertaken my aim has been to indicate the character and place of taste in the inner organization of life. I have pointed out that it is a trait which touches both the intellectual and the moral sides of character, and that it is developed through intellectual and moral training; but that for its development it demands that predisposing love of beauty which is its vital essence and the sanction of its expression. I would now view the same matter from the more objective angle of what we philosophers call theory of values.

Now values, in the broad sense, are appraisements in terms of “good” and “bad.” The application of these terms varies in intention with the human interest involved, but man is not so hopelessly complex that his interests are beyond classification. As a matter of fact, the classification is fairly simple. There are the practical interests of life, whose values are measured by efficiency, that is, by economic adaptation of energy to end; it is in this sense that we speak of a hammer or an apple as a “good” or a “bad” hammer or apple. There are the moral interests of life, whose values are put in terms of virtue and righteousness; the “good man” is the virtuous man. There are the intellectual interests of life, represented especially by science and love of knowledge, and here the valuations are in terms of truth and error; the good argument or solution is the true argument or solution; science knows no value save true and false. Finally, there are the aesthetic interests of life, whose goodness is beauty and whose badness is ugliness; a sonata, a lyric, a landscape is good or bad according as it is beautiful or ugly, and there is no other measure.

It is not unusual to find the moral, intellectual and aesthetic interests grouped together as “ideal” interests in distinction from the material and practical interests of the economic and bionomic world. But if we examine them carefully we find that a truer classification throws the moral and intellectual interests into a middle group, between the practical and the aesthetic. For it is of the nature of the practical interests that they find their end in employment and the production of change, while it is of the nature of aesthetic interests that they find their end in contemplation and the preservation of beauty; employment and contemplation, work and enjoyment, these are the two poles of man’s experience, each in its place perfectly typified by the practical and aesthetic interests of life. The moral and the intellectual partake of both poles; for morality is both a means and an end–a means in that it is what makes human cooperation and hence the social efficiency of mankind possible, and an end in that it reacts to create human characters which are objects of contemplation, and beautiful or ugly in themselves. Knowledge, too, which is the end of intellectual interest, is also both means and end, touching at once the practical and the aesthetic; we have applied science and theoretic, the one existing for the practice of life, the other for the mind’s contemplation; if we accept the teachings of the pragmatic philosophers (and some of us lean that way), truth itself gets its goodness from its applications to working interests; while, on the other hand, we can hardly differ from Poincare in his judgment that the internal harmony of the world, which it is the slow labor of science to discover, is the sole and veritable reality and the source of all beauty. Each in its way, the perfected human life and the perfected science are works of art, though the path to perfection is for each the path of daily toil.

If you assent to my analysis you will see that it reinforces, from the philosophical side, what has been indicated by the psychological analysis of taste. There the love of beauty was made the source of taste; here the experience of beauty is made its end, and it is an end which gathers into itself the ends of all the other interests of life–the practical, intellectual and moral, for each of them serves its end only in so far as it makes possible the creation and contemplation of beauty.

Volumes might be written in illustration of what I have said, for the whole history and genius of mankind set it forth. Here I must be content with a few hints, drawn from man’s long experience. First I would speak of philosophy, which represents man’s maturest reflection upon his own condition. No student of its history can fail to be impressed by the constant recurrence of the conception of the contemplation of beauty as the final good and the sufficient reason of all things: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Bruno, Spinoza, Berkeley, all these bear witness to that truth which Poincare has so nobly expressed, that the harmony of the world is the sole objective reality and the source of all beauty. To the philosophers I should add the testimony of the philosophic poets, above all Dante and Milton, for whom again reverent contemplation is the essence of beatitude. But it is not necessary to draw evidence alone from men’s written expression. What human fact is more poignantly indicative of the values that endure than the price we set upon the potsherds of antiquity? A broken alabaster from Egypt, a shattered urn from Greece cast in the dump in its own day, treasure-trove in ours. What care is to us that Egypt of old was the world’s granary, that Babylon ruled the world’s commerce, Rome its politics, save that these facts made possible for us the carven stone, the modeled tile, the inscribed parchment which bear to us out of the past some record of human idealization, some image of humanly created beauty? There is a steatite vase found in Phrestos in Crete carved in relief with a procession of moving men, all vibrant with life. Originally the vase was covered with gold leaf, stripped from its surface by some barbarian who cast the stone to the refuse heap. To-day not thrice its weight in gold could buy the rejected stone, with its eternal image of human genius. In the alembic of the centuries the real goods of human life are refined out, and they are not found to be the economic and political goods which loom so big to the near attention; rather, they are the idealizations of human genius, dearer than life itself, for they express all that is nobly enduring in life. In every generation there are barbarians, quick to destroy; but the shudder of horror which caught the civilized world with the mutilation of Rheims reveals to us, I trust, the final judgment which time will set upon all men who see only the near advantage, never the world’s good.

In what has preceded I have tried to show something of the psychological character of taste and something of its philosophical object. Psychologically, it is a form of valuation, at once intellectual and emotional–a conscience of the mind, as Lowell phrases it. Philosophically, it is a judgment of value which measures other values, for the reason that of all types of valuation its ends are more purely ends, complete in themselves. If this analysis is correct, it is plain that good taste is essential to the highest sanity and the mark of true cultivation. It is also plain that it is the first duty of the teacher to train the taste, in so far as may be, for the reason that no other form of judgment can be proportionate without a cultivated taste. We must ask, then, how far taste is inborn, a natural endowment, and how far it is subject to development through education.

Certain facts are at once clear. If good taste has the qualities which I mentioned a while back, namely, quietness and sincerity and propriety, temperance, purity and truth, it is evident that a moral training of these traits will also be conducive to the development of taste, while a want of such moral training will hinder the development of taste. Lowell’s antithetical phrase, “conscience is the good taste of the soul,” is the summary of this truth. Moral training of some sort there always is in human society, yet I cannot but think that in our own day the teaching of morals is on a rather low plane of mind; we seem to fear the stiff structure of its general principles, seeking to shape conduct by easy persuasion rather than by rigor of reason. In so far, the result is mere flabbiness, for it tends to make our morality unconscious rather than controlled and deliberate; and it is ruinous to the taste, since here the moral quality shows itself in connection with mind, illumined with the light of reason.

Again in the field of the practical life. Educational propagandas nowadays are forever emphasizing the importance of the vocation, the calling. But no aim beyond the vocation is given and no measure of values save the empty enumeration of dollars and cents. Unquestionably the ability and willingness to work effectively are essential to the well-ordered life; therefore to excellence of judgment and soundness of taste. But we shall never in this world become as a people possessors of a cultivated sense of beauty until our youth is taught that work is but a means to an end, that gold unaccompanied by taste is but the advertisement of vulgarity, and that dollars have no good meaning save as symbols of the energy that can be devoted to the beautification of the world. Education is always a cost borne by an elder generation for the sake of the younger, and what the elder generation is willing to pay for, in the way of education, is the fair measure of what it really believes in; all other faiths are lip-service. Judged by this standard dollar-knowledge is the beau ideal of the parents of this generation, to their own spiritual damnation and the grievous hurt of their children.

The perniciousness of the money-standard, which is strictly a purely arithmetical standard, in fields not primarily economic is illustrated in the credit-system, with its numbered grades, hours and courses, which is made the measure of education in our high schools and colleges. Instead of an ideal of mental attainment, there is set up to our youth an ideal of numerical balances. The manner of securing these becomes of slight importance; branches of learning are measured quantitatively–so many hours of “chem.” equal to so many hours of “policon.,” etc.; and all standards are blown to the winds. The consequence is that we have the quite absurd spectacle of young people “sliding through courses,” as they put it, in naive unconsciousness of the fact that they are cheating themselves, their parents and the state, when they think that they are cheating their instructors! Obviously, such an educational method is ruinous to sincerity and reason alike, and so is ruinous to the development of all true taste.

But, you will be asking, what of the direct cultivation of the taste? what of instruction in art? Since I am in a querulous mood, pointing hindrances rather than helps, I would indicate a certain defect of this instruction, as we have it today, before proceeding to what I regard as its truer form. I do not know that I can better characterize this defect than by naming it a preference for the artificial rather than the artistic. My meaning is that we take our pleasure in artifice, and hence in appearance, rather than in the essence of beauty. Illustrations are numerous enough–any film theater will supply them (though I do not wish you to understand me as condemning the moving picture as a device; good taste can reform even that). A still more dangerous and subtle form is the prevalence of the notion that knowledge of art is a sort of high-toned gossip. This appears in polite chat, in journalistic reports of artist’s doings, in lectures, and worst of all in college and grade school teaching. The impression is conveyed that one is “up on art” when one is able to speak cursorily of this musician’s engagements or that one’s bad temper, or knowingly in a picture gallery of this as a “Childe Hassam” or that as “a Blashfield.” I know of no worse bore in the world than the person who is “up on art,” and I know of no more pathetic waste of effort than the process of “getting one’s self up” in this accomplishment–excepting only those school courses which teach the youth everything about literature excepting the ideas expressed in it. The truth is that this type of sham learning is born of pure laziness; for like all other things that are worth while, knowledge of beauty comes only as a consequence of hard work. If we prized the thing, we should not begrudge the work; but it is not the knowledge we care for, but only the reputation of knowledge, and so it is that we pursue the short cut that leads only to sham and fatuity.

Am I not already, in describing the defects of our education, intimating the true cultivation of taste? “Familiarity with the best that has been thought and said” is Matthew Arnold’s description of the road to culture. Familiarity implies an intimacy that is beyond verbal expression, an intimacy that is a part of life, as family relations are a part of life, and that is founded on love, as family relations should be founded on love. Familiarity with beauty means that its form and expression are absorbed into character itself, becoming an inward and indiscerptible trait. A truly cultivated taste must be based upon such familiarity–at once a love and a labor of love–with the beauties of the world, of nature and of human nature.

How is it to be attained? Guidance and encouragement are surely all that are necessary. All mankind, I have said, are endowed with the love of beauty; it is as much a part of us as are eyes and ears. If this spontaneous love be met with intelligent sympathy, it will inevitably find its goal; if it be ignored or rebuffed, it will suffer death or perversion. The teacher who would inspire the love of beauty must be possessed of the love of beauty and must be also the familiar of its truest expression. In addition such a teacher must also have a philosophy of life that sets the values of our various activities in their proper perspective, and that is susceptible of clear expression. In a day such as ours, when the best in literature, in music and in pictures is everywhere available, there is small excuse for lack of familiarity with the artistic expression of beauty-and I mean by this, familiarity through the whole mind and soul, intellect and conscience alike.

Further, there is the beauty of nature, God-given to all men. Each human being is an instrument capable of many and delicate adjustments to the environing universe. No more subtle task falls to the teacher than the seeing that these instruments be brought into proper focus with nature, for the perfect definition of her beauties. The task is not a difficult one if we start with children–always eager of the grand adventure–and its magic is to be found in suggestion, which, springing from a spontaneous insight into beauty, arouses its response as spontaneously as love calls to love.

In conclusion, I would speak once more of the philosophy of life–where, indeed, is the crux of the whole matter. The late Nathaniel Shaler pointed out that in the biological world there are whole evolutions that have no other explanations save the aesthetic. Forms of life arise and develop through eons toward some type of perfection which serves no end except the expression of beauty. The crinoids, the lilies of the sea, are such a form, he says; for millions of years they flourished and developed, and finally died, crowned with perfect beauty. Shaler might also have mentioned the cephalopods, which, starting with the cigar-shaped orthoceratite, far back in the Silurian, culminate in the fairy-like “chambered nautilus,” surely. the most beautiful of shell-life forms. Indeed, does not every flower or beautiful bird illustrate the same truth–no utility, no mere life-preservation value, is sufficient to account for such loveliness–any more than utility can account for the loveliness of a sunset. It is nature herself bent upon the creation of beauty, as her own sufficient end

And is this anywhere more wonderfully shown than in the creation and fostering of the love of beauty in human nature? Nature has created beauty, and she has created us with the love of beauty; this is one of the ultimate facts of the universe; and I, for one, am heartily in sympathy with those philosophers who have found in this fact a reason for reverencing nature and in having faith that her revelation of beauty is of deep and material significance for us. It is nobly expressed by Longinus:2

Nature determined man to be no low or ignoble animal; but introducing us into life and this entire universe as into some vast assemblage, to be spectators, in a sort, of her contests, and most ardent competitors therein, did then implant in our souls an invincible and eternal love of that which is great and, by our own standards, more divine. Therefore it is, that for the speculation and thought which are within the scope of human endeavor not all the universe together is sufficient, our conceptions often pass beyond the bounds which limit it; and if one were to look upon life all round, and see how in all things the extraordinary, the great, the beautiful, stand supreme, he will at once know for what ends we have been born.

In the order of creation beauty is in nature before it is in art. In the order of education love of beauty in art grows with love of beauty in nature. This is no argument for a shallow realism; for the true color of nature is deep and abiding and of the kinship of truth. But it is an argument for a certain simple and frank reverence for the charm that the seeker will always find about him, in daily things–in flowers and bees and birds, in the tum of a child’s cheek or the smile on its mother’s lips, in the magic of the summer’s green, the austerity of winter’s snows, in the heroic deaths of men who love justice and temperance and truth. It is an argument for a value that is at once elemental and supreme in human affairs, which God has placed freely within the hands of all and made difficult only to those who will not seek it. In praise of the love of beauty I have quoted from great philosophers, sages of the historic world; but lest you think that to them only can be given this treasure which is above all treasures, I would quote at the last a prayer of the Navaho3–dwellers in hogans, readers of no book save Nature’s, but men who have read Nature’s book even to her essential truth.

In Tsegihi,
In the house made of dawn,
In the house made of evening twilight,
In the house made of dark cloud,
In the house made of rain and mist and pollen,
Where the dark mist curtains the doorway
The path to which is on the rainbow,
Where the zigzag lightning stands high on top…
Oh, male divinity! With your moccasins of dark cloud, come to us,
With your leggings and shirt and head-dress of dark cloud, come to us,
With your mind enveloped in dark cloud, come to us,
With the dark thunder above you, come to us soaring,
With the shapen cloud at your feet, come to us soaring,…
With the far darkness made of the rain and the mist over
your head, come to us soaring,
With the zigzag lightning flung out on high over your head,
With the rainbow hanging high over your head, come to us soaring,
With the far darkness made of the dark cloud on the ends of your wings, come to us soaring!…
Happily may fair white corn, to the ends of the earth, come with you,
Happily may fair yellow corn, fair blue corn, fair corn of all kinds, goods of all kinds, jewels of all kinds, come with you…
Happily the old men will regard you,
Happily the old women will regard you,
The young men and the young women will regard you,
The children will regard you,
The chiefs will regard you,
Happily, as they approach their homes, they will regard you:
May their roads home be on the trail of peace!
In beauty I walk,
With beauty before me I walk,
With beauty behind me I walk,
With beauty above and about me I walk.
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty!

  1. For an interesting discussion of the sources of Lowell’s conception see Wm. Guild Howard, “Good Taste and Conscience,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, XXV., 3. 

  2. Prickard’s translation 

  3. Abridged from the version published by Washington Matthews, “Navaho Legends,” Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society, Vol. V. (1897).