Mormonism and an Aesthetic Sense of Life

By Robert C. Hunsaker

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Galen Dara


HOW TO LIVE—and live well—is a perennial problem. Our personal style of living—our sense of life—corresponds directly to general life satisfaction, or the lack thereof. As Carlisle Hunsaker puts it:


A sense of life is either one of our most precious possessions, or the source of our private hell. It is the emotional corollary of our personal philosophy of life, or the emotional form in which we experience our deepest view of existence. . . . A sense of life is an emotional sum—a derivative of the thinking we have done or failed to do in providing ourselves with a symbolic map or model of the context within which we live and of our place within it. With the help of such a conceptual map, we understand who we are and what we can do, and we project and plan how we are going to live and what we shall try to achieve.1

Jesus taught much about styles of living. One might even say that his entire mission was focused on teaching a style of living that works both here on earth and in the hereafter. One of his key teachings in this vein was, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39). Although enigmatic, the statement is generally understood to be an indictment of self-centeredness. To use a clinical term, we’d say that Jesus is warning against narcissism. According to the myth, a beautiful young man, Narcissus, falls in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Echo, a nymph who loves him, calls to Narcissus but can’t capture his attention because he is too enamored with his own image.

Narcissists think they love and value themselves but, as Richard Sennett argues:


. . . narcissism is the very opposite of strong self-love. Self-absorption does not produce gratification, it produces injury to the self; erasing the line between self and other means that nothing new, nothing “other,” ever enters the self; it is devoured and transformed until one thinks one can see oneself in the other—and then it becomes meaningless. This is why the clinical profile of narcissism is not of a state of activity, but of a state of being. . . . The narcissist is not hungry for experiences, he is hungry for Experience. Looking for an expression or reflection of himself in Experience, he devalues each particular interaction or scene, because it is never enough to encompass who he is. The myth of Narcissus neatly captures this: one drowns in the self—it is an entropic state.2

Narcissism thus imprisons one in a style of relating to others and to the world as if they are parts of the self rather than distinct realities. The function of the world is to echo or mirror back what one wishes. When the mirroring doesn’t occur as wished, a narcissistically oriented person is apt to feel, as Alice Miller puts it, “almost as if an arm [has] ceased to obey us.”3

All of us have to come to terms with the fact that life never does reliably echo back what we want. But this kind of acceptance requires practice. Instead, most of us prefer to focus on what we don’t have: what isn’t going well, how poor our health is, and so on. In our own ways, we identify with d’Albert’s lament in Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin:


I am waiting, and for what? I do not know, but I am waiting. It is a tremulous waiting, full of impatience, broken by starts and nervous movements. . . . Nothing comes; I grow furious, or begin to weep. I wait for the heavens to open, and an angel to descend with a revelation to me, for a revolution to break out and a throne to be given me, for one of Raphael’s virgins to leave the canvas and come to embrace me, for relations, whom I do not possess, to die and leave me what will enable me to sail my fancy on a river of gold, for a hippogriff to take me and carry me into regions unknown.4


To count the number of Is and mes in this short excerpt is to see self-absorption at work. But d’Albert’s fantasies are universal and, when they fail to be realized in our own lives we too “grow furious, or begin to weep,” and our “tremulous waiting” easily turns to pessimism or its worse cousin, depressive cynicism.


If recognizing the extent to which we individually succumb to narcissistic tendencies is discouraging, some consolation can be taken in recognizing that some of the world’s most famous thinkers have been in the same boat. In fact, some illustrious figures are so singular in depicting life in the bleakest of terms that they can sometimes sound like deadpan humorists. In the domain of philosophy, for instance, Schopenhauer is simultaneously at his funniest and most misanthropic when he claims that:


Human life must be some kind of mistake. The truth of this will be sufficiently obvious if we only remember that man is a compound of needs and necessities hard to satisfy; and that even when they are satisfied, all he obtains is a state of painlessness, where nothing remains to him but abandonment to boredom. This is direct proof that existence has no real value in itself; for what is boredom but the feeling of the emptiness of life?5


Great thinkers not only influence us but one another as well. Schopenhauer’s shadow casts itself quite clearly over another world luminary—Freud. Schopenhauer’s conception of life is reflected in Freud’s late formulation of the death drive theory—“the aim of all life is death”6—which states that the object of the human organism is to return to a kind of zero state in which there is ultimate respite, because there is no possibility of stimulation. Death drive theory thus becomes a remedy for Schopenhauer’s diagnosis of life as boredom and emptiness, for Freud eliminates the root problem—life—altogether.

The wish to dispense with life’s troubles by means of death is quite common. Suicide is an obvious and ever-ready method. As Graham Robb says, “few people go through life without at least a glance at the emergency exit.”7 The ordinariness of suicidal thinking has been expressed by many: there is George Sand’s “We cannot tear out a single page of our life, but we can throw the whole book in the fire;”8 H. P. Lovecraft’s “It is good to be a cynic—it is better to be a contented cat—and it is best not to exist at all;”9 and Nietzsche’s “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”10 Nor should we forget Job’s wife, who recommended that her besieged husband “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Death wishes are so common that they even show up in comedy. In The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde presents Sir Simon, a ghost who, hilariously, can’t haunt. Weary from having not slept for 300 years and considering himself a vocational failure, Sir Simon, though already physically dead, longs for some kind of ultimate death: “Yes, death. Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace.”11

A narcissistic sense of life pervades the preceding quotations because the focus on life’s difficulties and disappointments has overshadowed everything else, even shutting down the basic instinct to survive. Jesus, of course, was right: preoccupation with the self means a loss of the self. As our examples of overwrought self-concern show, loss of self occurs when we wallow in the status of our lives. Reveries of the past, present, or future can consume us as we over-identify with them. I once heard the psychiatrist Mark Epstein describe the work he did with a woman who compared the worst of her experience to clinging to a skiff on a storm-roiled sea. But to Epstein it seemed that the woman had so identified with her experience that she had fused with it, becoming the storm-tossed sea itself.12

A narcissistic sense of life is also reductively deterministic. For example, Huysman’s famous character in A Rebours, the massively neurotic Jean Des Esseintes, sounds like Schopenhauer when speaking of the fate of a group of urchin children he observes fighting over scraps of food.


What did their lives amount to but impetigo, colic, fevers, measles, smacks and slaps in childhood; degrading jobs with plenty of kicks and curses at thirteen or so; deceiving mistresses, foul diseases and unfaithful wives in manhood; and then, in old age, infirmities and death-agonies in workhouses or hospitals?13


Similarly, near the end of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, the story’s narrator, John Dowell, bemoans his own misfortune by asking:


Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men’s lives . . . broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?14


Even though Des Esseintes and Dowell express themselves with beautiful and even poetic language—language which might seduce us into thinking they are right—we must recognize that they have both bought into the narcissistic sense of life: they think that people are victims of fate, reducible to the status quo, that they “amount” mainly to circumstance and happenstance.

Religion, one might assume, should offer a haven from unproductive self-focus. Unfortunately, it often fosters narcissism. Worry over the states of our souls, for example, leads us into labyrinthine self-analysis: Am I righteous enough? Is my heart pure? Am I worthy? In all our self-evaluation, “pure religion”—to be outwardly focused and to do for others—fades away. In the grip of narcissistic worry we can and still do reach out to others but, as we do so, we mostly perceive ourselves in the performance of a good act; the person we’re supposed to be helping becomes more or less incidental, functioning only as a vehicle for allowing us to feel better about ourselves.

Jesus addressed this phenomenon when he said: “Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward” (Matthew 6:2). The word hypocrite derives from the Greek hypokrites, which means “stage actor, pretender, dissembler.”15 To the degree that religion offers us a stage on which to act, Jesus calls for a strange kind of acting: “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3).

Religion has also traditionally devalued mortality. Buddhism is entirely straightforward: life is suffering. For their parts, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam essentially agree that mortality is, in the famous expression, a “vale of tears.” According to the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecclesiastes 7:4). Furthermore, Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions contend that the value of the here-and-now is entirely eclipsed by the value of the incomparable hereafter.

In its own way, Mormonism falls in line with the positions of its major religious counterparts. Its language and thinking tend to focus on mortality as something to be endured rather than enjoyed. The Book of Mormon characterizes mortality as a “probationary state” (Alma 12:24)—a period of scrutiny, which, if handled well, may result in a passport to the best possible eternal outcome. This, of course, is a major cause of fretful self-concern. Will I make it to heaven? becomes a question that can easily linger at the back of the mind. If it becomes a central focus, the morass of narcissism is probably not far away.

Fortunately, even though Mormonism bears similarities to the major religious traditions, its differences are far more significant. It contains elements which, if employed, counteract the tendency to focus on self and help to rehabilitate the value of mortality. Two facets of Mormon thought—1) an extraordinary emphasis on free will, and 2) an imperative on enlarging the soul—distinguish Mormonism from traditional Christianity in particular, and combine to form what I call an aesthetic sense of life. An aesthetic sense of life not only offers an alternative to a narcissistic orientation, but also highlights Mormonism’s ability to use the power of religion to enhance life.

In its understanding of the nature of being, Mormonism departs radically from traditional Christianity by rejecting the doctrine of ex nihilo (something from nothing) creation. God is not seen as the ultimate creator of everything that exists, but rather as an organizer of some of the universe’s existing matter. A related belief is that, as God’s children, we have always co-existed alongside him. This is a strange proposition, since children can’t exist until they are born. The Mormon explanation is that God did not create personality, or one’s core identity—the “intelligence” in Mormon parlance—which is eternal, but rather facilitated our advancement by creating the opportunity for mortal life and the possibility of redemption. By rejecting ex nihilo creation Mormonism gains the philosophical space necessary for a meaningful doctrine of personal agency and free will, for if we are not entirely dependent on God for the totality of our existence, then the complementary supposition is also true: there is some part of us that is independent. This independence is a function of the eternal, uncreated self and the capacity to exercise choice.

“Nonabsolutistic” is the technical theological term for the Mormon view of God. As Sterling McMurrin explains, “The idea that God is a temporal being subject to time and space is the basic heresy of Mormonism.”16 In the absolutistic view, God is not subject to or conditioned by anything at all. McMurrin elaborates on the non-absolutistic view, explaining that:

Every Mormon believes that the denial of the ex nihilo creation entails the idea that the essential being of a human being, the intelligence, is uncreated. In his influential King Follett sermon shortly before his death, Joseph Smith insisted that humankind is uncreated and co-equal with God. The Church felt, quite rightly, that that was pushing the point a little too far and edited “co-equal” down to mean “co-eternal.” At any rate, the human being turns out to be in an ultimate sense self-existent, a necessary rather than accidental element of the world. If the uncreated intelligence is described in part in terms of freedom, that is, free will, as I think it should be, it provides an important basis for the intense Mormon emphasis on free moral agency.17


As McMurrin suggests, the existence of a non-absolutistic God makes free will all the more important. Suddenly one realizes that God is not calling all the shots, that nothing is pre-destined, and that God seeks active and willing partners to go about the business of enriching life. McMurrin quotes William James’ famous and very Mormon-sounding statement on this point:


Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ‘level best.’ I offer you the choice of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of cooperative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?18


A meaningful claim to free will for God’s children—“to act for themselves and not to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:14)—is, then, the first essential component of an aesthetic sense of life, for nothing by way of authentic living can be expected from a being who cannot self-direct. If there is no free will, God—or something else—would be, as John Calvin imagined, “the beginning and cause of all motion.”19

The exercise of agency naturally leads to the second facet of an aesthetic sense of life: the Mormon premium on enlarging the soul; that is, the purpose of having agency is to use it for one’s own development. References to enlarging the soul are found in various places in Mormon scripture, such as Alma’s discourse on the word of God and its ability to “enlarge my soul,” (Alma 32:28) and Doctrine & Covenants Section 121’s discussion of the priesthood and the practice of various virtues “which shall greatly enlarge the soul” (verse 45). Enlarging the soul is of a piece with the Latter-day Saint concept of “eternal progression.” As the Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains:


The phrase “eternal progression” . . . embodies many concepts taught by Joseph Smith, especially in his King Follett Discourse. It is based on the proposition that “there is no such thing as principle, power, wisdom, knowledge, life, position, or anything that can be imagined, that remains stationary—they must increase or decrease” (JD 1:350).

. . . Brigham Young taught that even in mortality, “We are in eternity” (JD 10:22), and the object of this existence is “to learn to enjoy more, and to increase in knowledge and experience” (JD 14:228). “When we have learned to live according to the full value of the life we now possess, we are prepared for further advancement in the scale of eternal progression—for a more glorious and exalted sphere” (JD 9:168).20


As I claimed earlier, Mormonism has a remarkable capacity to rehabilitate negative views of mortality. Young’s statements, in at least two particulars, clarify why mortality is of equal value to eternity: 1) mortality is part of eternity; and 2) the point and purpose of each is exactly the same: progression. However, the broader point I wish to highlight, leading up to a discussion of what it means to live with an aesthetic sense of life, is Young’s idea that one progresses when one has learned “to live according to the full value of the life we now possess.”

One way to conceptualize “the full value of the life we now possess” is simply to refer to it as reality—our current mortal reality. The task is to fully live within that bounded framework. But mortality is certainly difficult and, as Schopenhauer and others show us, it is easy for us to become fixated on its limitations, disappointments, and terrors and then to turn inward. To refer back to Richard Sennett’s statement on narcissism, the result is that “one drowns in the self,” either causing a sort of death of the self or plunging us into a closed loop of the mind. It might seem that the concern for enlarging one’s soul could place one at risk of exaggerated self-focus, but this is not a danger because soul-enlargement cannot be directly sought. Rather, it is the byproduct of virtuous and meaningful living. Or, put even more simply, it arises from action and activity, not the entropy of exaggerated self-focus. A basic feature of an aesthetic sense of life is to keep one’s focus directed outward, toward engagement with God, others, and the world.

I have borrowed the idea of an aesthetic approach to life from Nietzsche and Alfred North Whitehead. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues that “it is only as an esthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.”21 Similarly, in Religion in the Making, Alfred North Whitehead asserts that: “The metaphysical doctrine, here expounded, finds the foundation of the world in the aesthetic experience, rather than—as with Kant—in the cognitive and conceptive experience. All order is therefore aesthetic order, and the moral order is merely certain aspects of aesthetic order. The actual world is the outcome of the aesthetic order, and the aesthetic order is derived from the immanence of God.”22 Finally, in Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead claims: ‘The teleology of the Universe is directed toward the production of Beauty.”23

As a branch of philosophy, aesthetics has traditionally concerned itself with the perception, apperception, and appreciation of beauty. The word aesthetic itself means to perceive, sense, feel.24 Questions such as What are the formal qualities of art?, Why does art please us?, or even the more rudimentary What is beauty, and what is art? are some of the concerns. What might be called the art of the artist—the processes involved in the production of a work of art—receives much less attention. Nietzsche and Whitehead, however, seem to be aiming at just that. They don’t merely refer to aesthetics but to “aesthetic phenomenon” and “aesthetic experience.” Their interest is in events and activity, over and above “cognitive and conceptive experience.” This becomes most obvious with Whitehead’s use of the word “production,” suggesting that at its core, life is not at all about death, as Freud theorized, but about the processes of life itself: production, reproduction, begetting, creating.

Whitehead’s notion of a productive universe corresponds well to Mormon philosophy. It complements, for example, the notion of eternal progression and Brigham Young’s view that “there is no such thing as principle, power, wisdom, knowledge, life, position, or anything that can be imagined, that remains stationary—they must increase or decrease.” Whitehead says as much himself: “Advance or Decadence are the only choices offered to mankind . . . the very essence of real actuality—that is, of the completely real—is process. Thus each actual thing is only to be understood in terms of its becoming and perishing.”25 As Nicholas Rescher confirms, “Process philosophy thus prioritizes change and development in all of its aspects over fixity and persistence.”26

More to the point for my purposes, process philosophy posits the existence of owned and unowned processes. As opposed to unowned, or natural, processes which are outside of human experience, “Owned processes are those that represent the activity of agents. . . . They represent the doings of things. . . . Agent-managed processes are in general teleologically productive; they usually issue an intended result of some sort.”27 This too is the doctrine of Mormonism. As the Lord told Joseph Smith: “Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves” (D&C 58:27-28).

Explaining his concern with agent-owned processes, Whitehead asserts that:


Man cannot live without ideal aims which relate his endeavor and his suffering and his joy to something more lasting and more unitary than the sum of individual human achievements taken merely at face value. Without such an aim, he falls into cynicism or despair, by which the will to live is indefinitely nullified.28


We have already investigated the cynicism and despair to which Whitehead refers. In various ways, we have encountered how a narcissistic sense of life stifles the will to live. By contrast, those who seek to live in accord with an aesthetic sense of life aspire both to human “endeavors” and to “ideal aims.” They seek to enrich and enlarge life so that, in the words of Brigham Young, mortality—our here-and-now arena of being—comes to its “full value.”


I will end with a passage from the art critic John Berger. It contains and conveys an aesthetic sense of life in the context of appreciating works of art, though an aesthetic sense of life might be pursued in almost any walk of life. According to Berger:


After we have responded to a work of art, we leave it, carrying away in our consciousness something which we didn’t have before. This something amounts to more than our memory of the shapes and colours and spaces which the artist has used and arranged. What we take away with us—on the most profound level—is the memory of the artist’s way of looking at the world . . .

Yet why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us? Why does it give us pleasure? Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our potentiality as artists ourselves. But a way of looking at the world implies a certain relationship with the world, and every relationship implies action. The kind of actions implied vary a great deal. A classical Greek sculpture increases our awareness of our own potential physical dignity; a Rembrandt of our potential moral courage; a Matisse of our potential sensual awareness. Yet each of these examples is too personal and too narrow to contain the whole truth of the matter. A work can, to some extent, increase an awareness of different potentialities in different people. The important point is that a valid work of art promises in some way or another the possibility of an increase, an improvement.29


For Mormons, God is the ultimate life artist. He functions in accord with an aesthetic sense of life, focused always outward—as Whitehead has it—on the “production of Beauty.” Moses 1:39—perhaps more than any other scripture—portrays God at the height of his artistic and creative activity: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” We too, whatever our life circumstance, have the opportunity to follow an outward, fruitfully aesthetic engagement with the world. In doing so, we “loseth” ourselves, pursuing possibilities of increase and improvement in meaningful causes and endeavors, until, eventually, we find, as a surprise along the way, the ultimate treasure: life.



1. U. Carlisle Hunsaker, “Mormonism and a Tragic Sense of Life,” Sunstone (Volume 8, Number 5, September-October 1983): 30-35. “Mormonism and an Aesthetic Sense of Life” can be read as a companion piece to “Mormonism and a Tragic Sense of Life,” and as a son’s appreciation for the ability of his father and mother to exemplify tragic and aesthetic modes of living.

2. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism (New York: Knopf, 1974), 324-325.

3. Quoted in Carol Lakey Hess, “Echo’s Lament: Teaching, Mentoring, and the Danger of Narcissistic Pedagogy,” Teaching Theology and Religion 6 no. 3, p. 127.

4. Theophile Gautier, Mademoiselle De Maupin and One of Cleopatra’s Nights (New York: Modern Library, 1937), 5.

5. Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism, on Human Nature, and Religion: A Dialogue, Etc. (Stilwell, KS:, 2008), 15.

6. Todd Dufresne, ed., Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2011), 77. In addition to Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the collected essays in this volume offer various commentaries on the death drive or “death instinct.” Schopenhauer’s influence on Freud is especially present in relation to the death drive. In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer said that “death is the real aim of life” (see page 21).

7. Graham Robb, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Norton, 2003), 41.

8. George Sand, Mauprat, (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1870), 130.

9. H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Volume 5: Philosophy, edited by S. T. Joshi (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2006), 71.

10. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (New York: Macmillan Company, 1907), 98.

11. Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost and Other Stories (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001), 17.

12. Mark Epstein presented a psychotherapy workshop at the Salt Lake City Chapter of the International Psychotherapy Institute on 18 September 2009. See: (accessed 17 February 2014).

13. Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (À Rebours) (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 155.

14. Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (New York: Vintage Books, 1927/1951), 237-238.

15. Online Etymology Dictionary, Retrieved from:

16. Sterling M. McMurrin, “Some Distinguishing Characteristics of Mormon Philosophy,” Sunstone (March 1993, Volume 16:4, Issue 90), 41.

17. Ibid., 42.

18. Ibid., 42.

19. John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion (London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1845), 234.

20. Lisa Ramsey Adams, “Eternal Progression,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 465. See: (accessed 17 February 2014).

21. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1995), 17.

22. Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926), 105.

23. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933), 341.

24. Oxford English Dictionary, Retrieved from

25. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 354.

26. Nicholas Rescher, Process Metaphysics: An Introduction to Process Philosophy (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996), 35.

27. Nicholas Rescher, Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Ideas (Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2000), 28-29.

28. Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948), 148.

29. John Berger, Permanent Red (Village Station, NY: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1960), 16-17.