What Kind of Ethics Do We Need Today?

January 15th, 2013 5:46 pm

Anna Abram

Insights from Czeslaw Milosz’s poem Campo dei Fiori

Moral learning through poetry

Ethics as an academic discourse is a rational, normative, enquiry into what makes an act right or wrong and the human being good or bad. Concepts of creativity, improvisation and imagination do not always fit easily into ethics. In the last three decades, however, thanks to the revival of Aristotelian philosophy with its emphasis on virtue and good character, many moral thinkers have embarked on the project of expanding the boundaries of ethics. Even if the majority of ethics handbooks continue to favour the act-centred (deontological and utilitarian) approaches, more creative ways of doing ethics are constantly emerging. For example, as the title of one of the key texts on religious ethics Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative Approach suggests, one creative method to explore religious ethics is through the study of narrative. Christian ethicists such as Vigen Guroian, Vincent MacNamara, Philip Keane and William Spohn draw from the works of literature and stress the importance of imagination in fostering moral growth. In this article, I will attempt to show what kind of moral lesson one can learn by turning to a poem such as Campo dei Fiori by Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1980).[1]

There are two key pictures in this poem: the execution of Giordano Bruno in 1600 in Campo dei Fiori (one of the loveliest market squares in Rome)and the burning of the inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto in 1943 in Warsaw. Bruno was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher and astronomer. He was burned at the stake by civil authorities after the Roman Inquisition found him guilty of heresy. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War. Over 400,000 Jews were crammed into an area of 1.3 square miles. The Nazis were systematically ‘liquidating’ the ghetto by burning its buildings and murdering its inhabitants.

The poem captures the deaths of both Bruno and the Jews and describes the bystanders’ reactions to these two tragedies. Do ‘the people of Rome or Warsaw’ in the two scenarios have anything in common? Milosz does not seem to be interested in cultural similarities but in the common human condition which, according to him, remains unchanged. Although the images evoked in this poem portray events differentiated in time and space, they are profoundly linked.


Milosz thinks that humanity does not learn from the atrocities of the past. He observes that human beings do not find it easy to pay attention to the suffering of others, especially those who are different (different worldviews, different religion and different race). Paying proper attention to the suffering other would involve going against the stream (crowd’s behaviour), making an effort to see what is really going on around and within oneself. Our natural tendency is to escape from uncomfortable realities that life brings on us. The poem, nevertheless, does offer the possibility of taking a less common stance by remaining at the scene. This is the option that the poet himself chooses to follow:

But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying,
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.

The choice is conscious and involves a careful exercise of the poet’s imagination. I call this exercise a ‘training of moral imagination’. What does this training entail? The poet decides to engage and to think only of one thing: ‘of the loneliness of the dying’. The training of the moral imagination entails making a choice to connect: he consciously connects in his imagination with those who are victims, both Bruno and the Warsaw Jews. The poet attempts to feel in his inner being what it is like to climb, as Bruno did, ‘to his burning’.

The training of the moral imagination also entails an emotional engagement: the poet wants to feel and understand what it is like to be alone, misunderstood and marginalized. Unlike the people with ‘baskets of olives and lemons’ who turn to their daily routine soon after the tragic ‘spectacles’ are over, the poet engages both rationally and emotionally with the reality of the ‘loneliness of the dying’:

Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.

The result of this engagement is the poet’s discovery that there are no words left ‘in any human tongue’ which could adequately express the moral climate of what he sees:

Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
our tongue becomes for them
the language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
and many years have passed,
on a new Campo dei Fiori
rage will kindle at a poet’s word.

The poet also accepts that one has to live with the aftermath because ‘mankind lives on’. The poem seems to suggest that ‘the loneliness of the dying’ is the moral failure of the living. The poem pierces our imagination with the same picture of baskets of olives and lemons which like a refrain reminds us of what we human beings are like, how little we change, how little we allow ourselves to stretch our imagination.

He predicts a new Campo dei Fiori. He expects that we cultured people will read his poem with interest, will analyze it as I am doing in this article. We will learn the Campo dei Fiori legend, will even be able to spot a new Campo dei Fiori, but we will continue to go in circles like the figures of the carousel to which he alludes in the poem. Milosz predicts that we will experience rage at a poet’s word because the kind of analogy he is giving us is too uncomfortable. This is how he presents our human condition.

So, what is the moral lesson that Milosz wants us to learn? Does he want us to agree with his scepticism about the human condition? Or, does he want us to prove him wrong? Can we be different? In the end he himself shows us what being different may entail by attending to the situation of the victim. Perhaps by attending to the past atrocities, considering the victim’s perspective, making a choice to pay attention to what is uncomfortable, we can eventually break the cycle of Campo-dei-Fiori-violence. It seems that moral transformation starts at the level of imagination by – doing what the poet did – stepping into the uncomfortable shoes of the other, seeing things from their perspective, going against the natural instinct to escape. For the poet it was stepping into Giordano’s shoes, taking an imaginative step behind the walls of the ghetto in order to hear the screaming of the oppressed, to see children cuddling-up to their mothers, and lovers departing from their beloved.

Stretching the imagination seems to be a condition of moral progress. True moral conversion is a conversion of imagination. The action that springs out of this converted place is a true moral action. It comes from the centre of one’s being and not from a code of ethics presented in a document. This kind of inner action to which the poem alludes involves deliberate looking for what is not visible, trying to notice the background but also looking for finer detail. This stress on moral attentiveness, this invitation to stretch the imagination and see the whole picture (or to see the two pictures as one) is what Milosz as a poet is perhaps trying to awake in us.

If we accept that imagination is important for morality then, having looked at Milosz’s poem, we can conclude that poetry can help us mobilize and shape our imagination. Zoe Bennett in her paper ‘Creation Made Image and Image Made Word’[2] makes a very useful distinction between ‘eye-sight’ and ‘heart-sight’ (or ‘sight’ and ‘insight’). To understand thehuman condition, Bennett implies, one has to have both: ‘providing the eyesight is “clear” there is a correlation between what is seen and what is the truth’.[3]

Milosz seems to suggest that we tend to operate at the level of eye-sight and lack heart-sight. Until these two ways of seeing (eye-sight and heart-sight) merge and become what I call a ‘moral seeing’, the openness to goodness or transformation cannot take place. The leap from mind to heart; from mental recognition to heart acceptance and then from heart acceptance to decision-making and action is a process which, at each stage, involves imagination.

So, what kind of ethics do we need today?

Standard ethical theories are useful. However, in order to deal constructively with our current moral climate, in order to deeply embrace life’s ambiguities and uncertainties, successes and failures, we need an ethics that is capable of stretching rationality and including the emotions; we need ethics that uses imagination as one of its key concepts and fosters a proper training of moral imagination.

At its most basic level, imagination is the ability to form mental images. We think all the time through images, whether we are asleep or awake. From a philosophical perspective, the role of imagination has been variously evaluated. For Aristotle, imagination was afforded a central role in how humans piece together their world.[4]In the history of Western philosophy, up until Kant, many philosophers held that the imagination was a secondary movement following upon perception; its role was deemed to be essentially reproductive, in the service of memory and reason. As a consequence, imagination was often regarded as an inappropriate faculty to rely on for knowledge; as a subjective ‘sense’ it was viewed as incapable of contributing toobjective moral claims. Admittedly, there could be problems of distortion when it comes to making moral judgments on the basis of imagination but imagination doesn’t have to be either dangerously misleading or subjective, for we share appreciation of imaginative works, such as works of art.

Milosz’s poem helps us appreciate that the imagination is a key human faculty that can foster ‘moral seeing’. Campo dei Fiori facilitates a recognition that only when we imagine ourselves to be incapable of being distracted by ‘the baskets of lemons and olives’, of being unable to think of the loneliness of today’s Giordano Brunos and today’s ghettos, of being capable of truly accepting the other, that we can really change.

Much that we value depends on what we notice through imagination. Evil conditions often persist because we lack imagination, because we are not able to let go of certain familiar images. Conversely, human beings flourish when they can see beyond what is externally visible. Although moral rules and norms may guide our responses, it is the images that help us ‘see’: what we ‘see’ and not ‘see’ gives the direction to what we choose to do and what, in a moral sense, we choose to be.

Further Readings:

Simon Blackburn, Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics, (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2002).

Zoe Bennett, “Creation Made Image and Image Made World: John Ruskin on J.M.W Turner’s Snow Storm’”, in Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati and Christopher Rowland, Approaches to the Visual in Religion (Research in Contemporary Religion), (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011).

DJ Fasching and Dechant, Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative Approach, (Oxford: Blackwells Publishing, 2001).

V. Guroian, Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

B.M. Guevin, “The Moral Imagination and the Shaping Power of the Parables,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 17(1989), 63-18.

M. Johnson, Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Phillip S. Keane, Christian Ethics and Imagination, (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).

Bernard Williams, Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, (Cambridge: CUP, 1993).

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[1] This poem can be downloaded here.

[2] Zoe Bennett, “Creation Made Image and Image Made World: John Ruskin on J.M.W Turner’s Snow Storm”, Approaches to the Visual in Religion, Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati and Christopher Rowland (eds), (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), p.249-260.

[3] Ibid, page 255.

[4]  Aristotle, De Anima, (20 October 2011), Part III.

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