The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Reality vs. the Profit Motive

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we conclude our serialization of It Weakens, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on January 15, 1971. It is one of his great, definitive Goodbye Profit System talks. In them, and in issues of this periodical, he did what no other economist or historian has done: he explained what has happened these years to the American and world economy, and why there is so much economic anguish in people’s lives today. He wrote:

The desire for profit has never had a good effect on humanity. But [now]...the old motive in economics is not working well any longer....The purpose of profit is no longer able to produce well and to keep Americans contented....Unless good will in its full, deep, wide, keen meaning, is the chief thing present as man produces, distributes, sells, works, is paid—unless good will is the big thing in all this, there will be the slowing down we have. [TRO 213]

Economics Is Immediate & Philosophic

In earlier sections of It Weakens, Mr. Siegel, using an economics text, spoke about banks, trade, tariffs— always with vividness, depth, width, immediacy, often with humor; always in a way that made one see the world with more clarity and wonder and have more feeling for people. He read for the first time his “Snappy Economics: Six Instances.” They are definitions which, with a poetic, ethical “snap,” enable one to see the injustice that has attended various economic activities these centuries.

The section we publish here accents the philosophic. In discussing an essay of Emerson, Mr. Siegel does something amazing and mighty: he explains what good is. And he speaks about the motive which now must be the basis of economics if economics is to succeed and to stop causing misery. That motive is good will, which is, as he says, no soft, vague thing, but tough and critical.

The economics of Aesthetic Realism is inseparable from its philosophy, from its seeing of what the world as such is. Mr. Siegel is speaking about Emerson’s view that deeply the world is good. A question arising from that view, which Emerson did not ask but Aesthetic Realism does, is whether an economy not in keeping with the nature of the world has something basically amiss and inefficient in it. This is a world to be known, valued accurately, cared for critically—not manipulated, grabbed, seen as a field in which to take advantage of one’s fellow humans. In 1977 Mr. Siegel wrote:

The economics of the world so far has been directed by dislike of the world or indifference to it. This will no longer do....I believe it will one day be seen that unless people are disposed to like the world in which all selling, pricing, working, paying, distributing, storing, consuming go on, all these activities—included in economics, every one—will not fare so well.

A Sonnet Comments on the Profit System

There is a sonnet by Matthew Arnold that presents some of the pain profit economics has inflicted on people. And Arnold says there is a different way people need to see people. He says it in the tight 14-line structure a sonnet has, and with true poetic music. His “West London,” of 1867, begins:

Crouched on the pavement, close by Belgrave Square,

A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied.

A babe was in her arms, and at her side

A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.

There was a big feeling in Arnold that a human being had dignity and should be able to live in keeping with this dignity, and that poverty was not in keeping with what people—like this mother and two children—are and deserve. The profit system has always depended on the existence of poverty. It is, after all, based on extracting as much money as possible from the labor of others while paying them as little as one can. And today, in order to keep profit economics limping on a while longer, more and more people are being made poor.

Arnold uses three adjectives for the woman he tells of: “ill, moody, and tongue-tied.” His choice of these is surprising and true. The profit way has ruined the health of millions of people, but it has also brought out the ill-nature of people. And, too, there is that situation which mattered intensely to Arnold: how much could a person express himself or herself ?—because of the life she was forced to lead, this woman was “tongue-tied.” The poem continues:

Passed opposite; she touched her girl, who hied

Across, and begged and came back satisfied.

Some laboring men, whose work lay somewhere there,

The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.

Arnold sees (and says more about it as the poem goes on) that while this woman has to beg for money, she despises the scorn of the rich. So she sends her daughter to ask for money from working people.

With increasing clarity, people hate profit economics for two reasons: 1) they feel they’re being robbed by it; 2) they feel they are seen and used with contempt. This woman of the 1860s objected to being seen with contempt. She was, as Arnold will say in the concluding lines, a predecessor:

Thought I: “Above her state this spirit towers;

She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,

Of sharers in a common human fate.

She turns from that cold succor, which attends

The unknown little from the unknowing great,

And points us to a better time than ours.”

She points us, Arnold is saying, to a time when people will feel they are related to other people, and when this sense of authentic relation is the basis on which life, including economic life, is organized. What he is describing is good will. It is now the one thing that will enable economics to succeed.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Reality & People’s Motives

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is commenting on passages from “The Method of Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In another passage, Emerson grows, as he often does, lyrical. He is speaking about how nature is organized, and the cause of that organization:

How silent, how spacious, what room for all, yet without place to insert an atom—in graceful succession, in equal fullness, in balanced beauty, the dance of the hours goes forward still....Seekest thou in nature the cause?... Thou must ask in another mood, thou must feel it and love it, thou must behold it in a spirit as grand as that by which it exists.

That is in keeping with other philosophy and with religion. But it is important that Emerson has an impulsion to say this unknown cause of things in nature has form and generally is on the side of good.

The definition of good is not easy, but the nearest thing that can be said of it in terms of the history of the world is: good is the presence of the opposites working as one in any situation, and the apprehension thereof. Emerson goes along with that in these phrases: “how spacious, what room for all, yet without place to insert an atom.”

There are other ways of defining good. For example: good is a separate thing which has in it the structure of the whole world and goes for that structure. Goodness would be like a peach that was not so hard that you wanted to throw it away or think it was all seed, and not so flabby that you felt it was oozy and woozy and gushing. The idea of firmness at one with flexibility is one of the ideas of good. That is the way a housewife used to judge vegetables on First Avenue. It’s called the palpating way—somewhat the way a doctor would judge. The idea was that anything which was too rigid was not good, and neither was anything that had a tendency to flow when it was supposed to be a solid. Then, there is the idea of good as the mean, which the Chinese had, and Aristotle had.

“What room for all, yet without place to insert an atom.” That is, the world is a tight outfit, a tight business. Every bit of space is occupied. But at the same time, it has space. And that is a good thing. We usually don’t feel like making speeches about the admirable place and structure of molecules or atoms, but one can.

Vagueness & Structure

“In graceful succession, in equal fullness, in balanced beauty, the dance of the hours goes forward still.” “The dance of the hours”—which is the title of a very popular musical composition—has in it the idea of vagueness and structure. You can consider the hours as nymphs dancing, and in that instance they are even more definite than the dance itself. On the other hand, the hours can be seen as hours anywhere. As soon as you have “the dance of the hours,” the unmeasured and the shapeless have taken on composition—and that is good. What I am saying is that the perception of opposites as one is the same as good. Though I can say it, it has to be seen in ever so many relations, ever so many instances.

Emerson says about this “dance of the hours,” or nature:

Like an odor of incense, like a strain of music, like a sleep, it is inexact and boundless. It will not be dissected, nor unravelled.

“Like an odor of incense”: when incense is good it has in it sharpness—something perceptible—and something suffusing or gentle. “A strain of music,” being a strain, has something definite, but also something general. “Like a sleep, it is inexact and boundless.” One can say, “I slept six and a half hours”: that’s one of the loveliest phrases in the world because it takes that infinite, unseen thing called sleep and gives it a home. The trouble with the Sleeping Beauty was that she didn’t know when she’d wake up. But Tchaikovsky, of course, tended to all that, as Perrault did.

“It will not be dissected”: there is something bad about a thing’s being cut up. There are two kinds of evil: that which resists analysis, or separation, and that which goes for it. “Nor unravelled”: there is something beautiful about hair in a tight knot—and also hair when it is flowing. Flowing hair and tight hair have both been seen for a very long time as standing for beauty.

Good Will Puts Opposites Together

The more one sees that reality is a oneness of opposites, the more one sees that reality has something good about it. The next thing is: what is the relation of that good to good will? Good will for a human being means that the utmost being affected by what is not yourself is the same as the utmost affecting of what is not yourself, and it is the going for that. You want to mean a great deal to what is not yourself and want all that is not yourself to mean the utmost it can for you.

Good will is the oneness of opposites in a person. The tendency to see it as only one opposite is false, because anyone who thinks he can have good will without being critical, and liking criticism from another, is only a votary of schmooze.

Emerson Asks about Cause

Away profane philosopher! seekest thou in nature the cause? This refers to that, and that to the next, and the next to the third, and everything refers.

Cause is, on the one hand, indwelling. That is, as Emerson felt, the cause of everything can be seen as one thing not seen. What is the cause of it all?—the indwelling thing. Then, also, a cause is a series of happenings and relation. How did Radio City come to be? Well, first there must have been the stone for Radio City; also the capital (somebody supplied the capital); and the ability to construct at such a height. A previous knowledge of architecture had to be before Radio City came to be, just as it had to be for the Lever Building to be. But architecture begins where everything begins. The beginning of architecture preceded Moses, Ashurbanipal, all people who think they come from old families.

So in order to see cause, there is the chain idea: in the way that if a person sees all his activities of a day and sees himself at a point, a certain moment, he can see how all his activities led up to his being at that certain point. But then, in turn, what the activities began with arose earlier. Cause, then, is point-to-point and is also indwelling. A way of seeing the indwelling is: “I, of course, existed 3,200 years ago but I didn’t think it was necessary to show that until the year I was born.” That can give the idea of the indwelling.

About how to know the cause of nature, Emerson says:

Thou must ask in another mood, thou must feel it and love it, thou must behold it in a spirit as grand as that by which it exists, ere thou canst know the law.

A question in art and science and religion is: should the beginning of things only be pondered over, only be surmised about, only be granted with a feeling of perceptive trembling—or should it be loved? Can it be loved? Can, in other words, we have any affection for the cause of it all? Or do we just leave that out and feel we can only deal with secondary things?

There Are Nature & Motives

Emerson talks of the generosity of nature—its “hospitality,” the fact, for instance, that it makes so many “suns and planets.” He says we should compare

a treatise of astronomy...with a volume of French Mémoires pour servir*. When we have spent our wonder in computing this wasteful hospitality with which boon Nature turns off new firmaments without end... —suns and planets hospitable to souls—and then shorten the sight to look into this court of Louis Quatorze, and see the game that is played there—duke and marshal, abbé and madame—a gambling table where each is laying traps for the other, where the end is ever by some lie or fetch to outwit your rival and ruin him with this solemn fop in wig and stars—the king—one can hardly help asking if this planet is a fair specimen of the so generous astronomy, and if so, whether...it be quite worth while to make more, and glut the innocent space with so poor an article.

This is not too clear. But the general idea is that nature is the most generous thing, the most lavish, multiply bestowing thing. And the discovery that Emerson makes is that nature, in making planets, was more generous than those French courtiers who were so cautious about all the values of the court. The poor courtiers of Louis XIV—they had to be careful to see that no one got to the king a little earlier than they, or did something for him.

But we are compounds. We are compounds of great generosity and great caution. Every person is both an exemplar of avarice and a prodigal.

Look into this court of Louis Quatorze,...where each is laying traps for the other, where the end is ever by some lie or fetch to outwit your rival and ruin him with this solemn fop in wig and stars—the king.

In the court of Louis XIV there wasn’t exactly the profit system, though there were financiers in the 17th century. The advisors of Louis XIV—Colbert and Mazarin— knew finance. But most often the profit was of another kind: persons would want to get favors from the king. People did try to be ahead of each other in the 17th century, and I’d say the dispositions were generally not better than they were later. Then, there is the way kings negotiated with each other. Louis XIV tried to get the favor of England. He also would have liked to get the favor of Holland, but that wasn’t easy. He particularly tried to get the favor of Spain. And there were the Elector of Bavaria and Emperor Leopold. The history of diplomacy, the history of European courts, has a great deal to do with advantage and a certain kind of profit.

What’s Deepest in Us?

So Emerson says that astronomy is generous, but as soon as people came to be, they watched each other. The consolation, of a sort, for him is this: that while persons are plotting, they still can have within them other and greater purposes: a “faculty to run on better errands by and by.”

The question for man, as the Transcendentalists saw it, is: what errands should man run on, whether self-given or not self-given?

Emerson has the intense feeling there is good in the cause of the world. And he says the individual soul goes along with this:

Each individual soul is...a power to translate the world into some particular language of its own; if not into a picture, a statue, or a dance— why, then, into a trade, an art, a science, a mode of living, a conversation, a character, an influence.

He says not only does the world affect an individual, but an individual can make the world like himself or herself. A sentence like that is what affected Nietzsche in Emerson.

I haven’t concluded this essay. I hope to do so next week. 

*Mémoires pour servir are personal memoirs used to place a particular subject or phase of history.