Contempt, War, & the Self of Everyone
Dear Unknown Friends:
We begin to serialize the 1975 lecture Contempt & World War I, by Eli Siegel. He is the philosopher and historian to explain that the principal, underlying cause of war is contempt—and that contempt is in all of us; we use it to make ourselves “important” every day.
Contempt—the feeling that oneself is more through making less of what is not oneself—is, Aesthetic Realism shows, the weakener of people’s minds. It is the source of every cruel thought and act. It is that which interferes with every aspect of our lives, from love to education. And it is in a constant battle with another desire in us, our deepest desire: to be truly ourselves through being just to the world outside of us.
Six months after the lecture we’re publishing, Mr. Siegel wrote the historic essay “What Caused the Wars” for issue 165 of this journal. It begins with the following sentences, beautiful in their prose, great in their comprehension:
It is necessary to see that while the contempt which is in every one of us may make ordinary life more painful than it should be, this contempt is also the main cause of wars. It was contempt that made for the trenches of France in 1915; it was contempt which made for the labor camps of the Second World War. It was contempt which made for that awful mode of retaliation called Nazism.
Contempt in Ancient Greece
We can look at an instance from the earliest writing about war in the western world: Homer’s Iliad. In book 13, the Trojan Hektor says to a man in the opposing army:
You inarticulate ox,...
...you will be killed with the rest of them, if you have daring
to stand up against my long spear, which will bite your delicate
body;...you will glut the dogs and birds of the Trojans
with fat and flesh.
Homer is presenting contempt in various ways. There are scorn and the robbing a person of his humanity (“you inarticulate ox”). There is belittling sarcasm (“your delicate body”). There is the hope to see someone utterly humiliated and lessened (“glut the dogs and birds”), for then one’s own superiority can be complete.
Some of the contempt present in all war is in Homer’s lines, as translated by Richmond Lattimore. Yet that contempt is also in everyday life. For instance, a wife today spoke sarcastically to her husband. Swiftly, across the breakfast table, she hoped to humiliate him, make him feel (at least for the time) small and unsure of himself. Later she might say, “It didn’t mean anything. I just have a sharp tongue.” Yet she feels ashamed.
Contempt is popular because the easiest way to think well of oneself is through seeing someone different as inferior. This sense of self-enhancement never lasts, because it is falsely based, but one goes after it again and again.
The most everyday, minute-by-minute contempt in everyone is the contempt of simply making the feelings of other people unreal. Eli Siegel explains in James and the Children that if “you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person.” If, over the centuries, one person had seen another as having the reality he himself had, he could not have hacked at the person with a battle ax, or blown up his home.
As we publish the 1975 lecture, it is important to state that Eli Siegel was definitely not a pacifist. He believed there were wars (not many, but some) that had to be fought. World War I was not one of these. But World War II was, and so was the American Civil War.
In this part of the lecture, he refers to the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Franco, fascist general, dictator of Spain for three decades, had died eight days before. Mr. Siegel’s feeling about the Spanish Civil War was tremendous. And what happened in Spain from 1936 to 1939 needs to be understood in order to understand what’s happening in America and the world now. So I’ll use some passages from the Columbia Encyclopedia of 1956 to comment on what occurred. Essentially, it was a battle on the Spanish earth between contempt in its viciousness and the beauty of respect.
What the Spanish Civil War Was About
In 1936 Spain had at last become a democratic republic. But, says the Columbia Encyclopedia, “before the new government...[which had] won an overwhelming victory in the national elections...had time to carry out its program,” a military force “under the leadership of Gen. Francisco Franco” launched a war to overthrow the Republic and establish fascism. Franco’s forces were backed by “most conservative groups” and
received the immediate military aid of Germany and Italy....Thanks to the “non-intervention” policy of England and France, the Loyalists received virtually no outside support except for an International Brigade and for some meager aid from the USSR.
What was this about? There is fascism. And fascism, Aesthetic Realism explains, is sheer contempt, using force to insist on itself. Fascism, wrote Mr. Siegel, “is the ego made iron. It is conceit made metallic. And conceit has ownership in it” (TRO 500).
The Spanish Civil War was about how the earth of Spain, the wealth of Spain, should be owned. The Republic said, This land of Cervantes, of the Sierra Morena, of Seville and Guadalajara, of the Prado and the Alhambra, belongs to all the people of Spain and exists for their well-being. Central to fascism is: this nation must belong to only a few people; its wealth and the labor of its citizens should be used for the profit of a few people. That is contempt. The industrialists of Spain were with the fascists, as those of Germany were with the Nazis. And the question of America now, the struggle of forces in America now, is: by whom should the US be owned?
We see in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls the bomber planes of fascist Italy and Germany used on the Spanish earth and people. We see in Picasso’s Guernica what the Columbia Encyclopedia describes: “the bombing (1937) of Guernica and other undefended cities by German planes.” Meanwhile, the democracies—France, England, and the US—had placed an embargo on aid to the Spanish Republic. Mr. Siegel, who respected Franklin Roosevelt, said that Roosevelt’s agreeing to the embargo was the worst thing that president ever did, and that Roosevelt’s deep shame about it had much to do with his death.
The fascist victory in Spain in March 1939, and the fact that the democracies let it happen, encouraged Hitler to invade Poland later that year. It encouraged the concentration camps and gas chambers. Meanwhile, the encyclopedia notes: “Despite their military inferiority... the Loyalists made a remarkably determined stand.” That statement is about something beautiful: a passionate fight to have justice to human beings win, and contempt lose.
The same fight—between respect and contempt—is the big personal battle within everyone. It goes on, usually unseen, in us, as we think, talk, have to do with people. It is a fight that we need to see clearly. “Contempt,” Mr. Siegel explained, “must be defeated if man is to be kind.” Through the study of Aesthetic Realism, that is possible at last.