The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Ethics, Beauty, & Feeling Bad

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are publishing, from notes taken at the time, some of the earliest Aesthetic Realism lectures. These are the 1946 and ’47 talks that Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall. And we print here the first half of the October 10, 1946 lecture: Ethics Isn’t Soft, for Guilt Exists. In it Mr. Siegel explains what the psychologists today still don’t understand: why people feel pervasively low, depressed, anxious, empty.

This Is New

From the talk’s opening sentence we meet the newness—new in the history of thought, new today—of Aesthetic Realism. Two fields usually seen as very much apart and even as conflicting, are, Mr. Siegel shows, deeply the same: ethics and aesthetics. And both are central to our own intimate choices, confusions, despair, and hope. Aesthetic Realism explains that what makes a work of art beautiful is justice in the fullest and truest sense. And that is so even if the art work is ever so wild.

What makes ethics and aesthetics, justice and beauty, inseparable is described in this central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Our particular, treasured self and the outside world are the biggest opposites for each of us. And Aesthetic Realism shows that the fundamental purpose of our life is to do what the artist does: make these opposites one, take care of ourselves through seeing value in and being just to what’s not us—the world.

I think the Aesthetic Realism understanding of mind is not only true but thrilling. It gives the human self dignity in showing that the deepest drive in each of us is nothing less than ethics and aesthetics—and that we feel bad because we are untrue to our largest purpose.  

The mental practitioners of 2009 won’t do what the Freudians did: tell a person that her nervousness or feeling of lowness comes from sexual repression. Yet the psychiatric approach today is really just as ignorant and insulting. Today’s approach is to say depression and other mishaps of mind are caused by one’s biochemistry, and to deal with these by drugging the person.

While feeling bad can become steep and get into the clinical field, it’s also, of course, dismally commonplace. In relation to miserable feeling, whether severe or everyday—the word in the lecture’s title, guilt, is not used so much now. The contemporary term is often low self-esteem. Yet Aesthetic Realism these many years has explained what causes both the more ordinary self-dislike, emptiness, agitation of people and the more virulent distress. That cause is contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” “I mean forthrightly to show,” wrote Mr. Siegel in his preface to Self and World, “that contempt causes insanity and...interferes with mind in a less disastrous way. Contempt is the great failure of man” (p. 15).

My Mother, Irene Reiss

It was less than a year after the lecture we're publishing that my parents, Irene and Daniel Reiss, began to study Aesthetic Realism. My mother had her first lesson with Mr. Siegel on August 29, 1947, and I’ll quote from it now, because in it we see what Mr. Siegel explains in his lecture meeting the life of a particular person.

I know the lesson only from three typed pages of notes taken at the time by a friend of my mother. I’ve quoted from them before, because that lesson is a classic: it describes humanity, even as it is so specific—so much about a unique individual, Irene Reiss, that she felt her personal confusions were at last comprehended.

My mother had been feeling exceedingly bad. She was afraid to ride the subway—the people there frightened her—and to leave her home unaccompanied. She was fearful of crowds, of being among many people she didn’t know. Mr. Siegel began to teach her that which changed her life magnificently: he explained that she had to do with the whole world, and her feeling bad came because she was unjust to it in her mind. At first, she told me recently, she didn’t understand what he meant by “the world”—she didn’t see that as connected with her life at all.

“Everything,” Mr. Siegel said, “that isn’t Irene is the world. Do you believe you are for that or against that?” The notes don’t include my mother’s answers, but we see Mr. Siegel explaining further: “There is a tendency to say that everything which isn’t ourselves exists to make us less.” That’s because something in us, contempt, “says, ‘The more I can despise and be against, the more important I am.’”

With logic and immense kindness, Mr. Siegel made clear to Irene Reiss the cause of something that torments men and women—something the psychologists are far away from understanding. He showed her that her excessive fear of people was a punishment she gave herself for being unfair to them:

Suppose something in you which you don’t know about says, Other people exist in competition with me and the only time I feel important is when I can forget that they exist. Then when you go into the subway you feel, There are the people I was trying to forget about when I went to bed last night!

People are part of the world that’s not us; they represent it. And Mr. Siegel asked, “If you felt that the outside world existed not to lessen you but to make you more, do you think you would be afraid of them in the subway?”

The Two Aspects of Ourselves

In August 1947, Mr. Siegel taught a woman from Bayside, Queens, that there are two aspects of her—and everyone’s—self. There’s the self that’s concentrated, just-me, unique, under its own skin, and the self that is related to everything. Whenever I read the two sentences I’m about to quote, I’m moved tremendously—by what they explain so simply, by their style, by their might and tenderness:

Aesthetic Realism says the two aspects can go together the way the bass and treble of a piano go together. You should say, “I am now with a thousand people and the self which was alone in bed is also present.”

I quote now the final statements in the notes. We see Mr. Siegel speaking to Irene Reiss about an Aesthetic Realism assignment: to write three sentences about an object every day. And while it’s clear that much of what he said is omitted, we see his width and beautiful kindness:

Write about something each day. See that the things you write about differ from you, but will tell you something about yourself. I am trying to renew your love for things that are not yourself. The more you will like the world, the more you will like yourself. Don’t miss a day in writing about something which is not yourself—street, sky, shoe, Queen Victoria.

I’ll conclude by quoting something that Irene Reiss wrote this month, at age 94, about that first lesson. Not only does it introduce the lecture you're about to read, but it stands for what people everywhere want to feel. She wrote:

As Mr. Siegel spoke to me about “the world,” I began to see that it wasn’t the world that was the cause of my pain: it was the way I saw it. I had hope; I could change! And I did, through my study of Aesthetic Realism—for which I am eternally grateful.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Ethics Isn’t Soft, for Guilt Exists

By Eli Siegel

Aesthetic Realism sees ethics as having the same problem as aesthetics. In aesthetics, we have an individual giving, in terms of perception, all that is coming to himself as an individual and at the same time all that is coming to an object. When a painting, or any work of art, is good, what has happened is that the artist as person has given scope and precision to what he is and at the same time scope and precision to what something other than himself is. Aesthetics is a high kind of fairness. It is a thrilling fairness. If a painter paints an orange and makes art out of it, it will be because he has given to the orange all the reality which it has—more than has been given customarily—and at the same time given himself what is coming to himself.

Wherever ethics occurs, it is also beautiful; it is also aesthetic. The definition of ethics that Aesthetic Realism presents is: the study of how a person can give himself everything that is coming to him, while at the same time giving to what is not himself everything that is coming to it. It is simultaneous fairness, simultaneous beauty, simultaneous accuracy. Another way of presenting that definition is: ethics is a way of being fair to oneself and being fair to others at the same time.

Ethics has to take on a much larger meaning than is given to it usually. Of course ethics has to do with not stealing milk from somebody else’s doorstep; not taking money from the First National Bank without being asked; not lying; not beating up a person on 44th Street at 4 o’clock in the morning. All those things are unethical because they don’t give to others what is coming to them. In that sense, the definition I gave would take in all the customary notions of ethics, including those that have been common for many years in the penal codes of every state in the union.

There is another kind of ethics, which few people know or think about. This is the ethics that says: If you are not interested in seeing a chair truly, you are unfair to the chair, and you won’t like yourself for it. The first thing everything asks of you, besides not to be beaten, is to be known. If you are not interested in knowing other people and things, and you think you are going to be important by ignoring them, you are going to feel like a spiritual heel. If you feel you can go about the outside world giving just so much of your interest and then disdainfully recoiling, you are going to feel bad.

Knowledge is, then, a kind of ethics. Since you come from a world that consists of things, and you owe your existence to that world, seeing fit not to repay the compliment by being interested in the world which made you is the same as not being interested in yourself. You are being interested in a certain phase of yourself: yourself as smug. What trouble it can cause, I now give an instance of.

An Instance of Trouble

A man was feeling very bad. He felt people at his work didn’t like him; he felt everybody was against him. He had little interest in things. He slept sporadically. He wasn’t interested in his children or his wife. He said, “I don’t see why this should come to me. I never did anything to anybody. All I want to do is to have a quiet life.” He felt he had solved the ethical problem.

He saw himself as religious, and so I told him, “God made the world, and if you think you are on good terms with God but not interested in other things, which he made, you are going to feel bad.”

It is not a matter of slapping someone, or taking his money; it’s that we have to be interested in seeing other people as they are. Being nice to them is not sufficient; not being malicious toward them is not sufficient. If we feel that the world is so confused and boring that our only solution is to have a nice, interiorly streamlined time in ourselves, we are going to feel guilty. We have to be fair to the world as such. If we say, “I have only to do with my family, my job”—that isn’t true.

If a person thinks that everything which is not the person can be played tricks with, he takes the chance of feeling very bad, and also of going into an overcrowded asylum. I go so far as to say that every person in an asylum has been unfair to the outside world. He may have felt that he had justification—that prices were too high, there was confusion about the children, the kitchen was messy. Still, it happens that when you are unfair in your mind, you feel very bad, because what you have done is consent to be less than yourself. The outside world is that which made us. It is ourselves. Every self has the outside world as a form of itself. Therefore, to discard what isn’t ourselves is to invite guilt.

What Guilt Is

Guilt is the feeling that you have lessened the world in order to make yourself more. Guilt is always about the world. Even in robbing another person, you are unfair to the outside world. There is no such thing as a specific unfairness without a general unfairness.

Depression that arises from within is always a matter of feeling that one has been unfair to the outside world. In order, therefore, to understand why people feel bad, you have to understand what they feel guilty about. Guilt does exist. Guilt is a self looking at itself and not liking what it sees. Every self wants to be complete, and if we get to a fake security at the expense of complete security, we are going to feel like hell, or semi-hell, or bad. We are going to feel depressed. All depression has something to do with guilt.

 Guilt exists because a human being is self-critical. When we get some importance and don’t like how we got it, we are going to feel guilty. That is why the man I was talking about felt bad. In the recesses of his own mind he was making himself a hero by being unfair to the outside world. The only way he could keep on being a big shot was by forgetting the world. He had to feel people were against him so he could go away and make a separate world.

Depression Is Criticism

Ethics is accuracy. It isn’t what the Viennese gentlemen have said it is. The self wants to deal truly and precisely with what isn’t itself. Whenever a self is depressed, it doesn’t like itself. When it doesn’t like itself, it thinks it hasn’t been dealing with what it meets in an accurate way. Depression is criticism.

In depression there is a desire to be anesthetic: the world is too much—let’s get away. We have to find the world bad; otherwise we would have no right to be comfy in the recesses of ourselves. This has to be understood, because the ailments having to do with depression are victories of contempt: they arise from the self’s getting importance by despising, going away from what is not itself.

A man who steals is a man who isn’t fair to others and himself. That is so of a man who tells a lie in the way of business. Anytime a person accepts the idea that we feather our nests by stripping feathers from other nests, that person is unethical, and he is liable to all sorts of evil conditions.

The phrase a way of being fair to oneself and others at the same time should be looked on as a job having to do with the accuracy of engineering, or of bookkeeping. If a person says the only way to be fair to oneself is by being unfair to others, that person is declaring war against himself. There is the man I’ve been speaking of, who was feeling so bad thinking everybody was against him: when I pointed out to him that what he was doing was making a separate world and that he wanted to despise the outside world, he made some objections; but when he saw it, he came to feel better.

When we hear of people who go about feeling awful, if we look hard enough we will find that this is what is going on: a person has come to feel that meeting the multitudinous, unexpected world of objects is too complicated, too bothersome. There is a feeling of phony heroism in the process. But if we are related to the whole world, we cannot go away from seeing it and like ourselves. We are not just a point; we are a relation. We are what we have to do with. We are a rhythm between here and there. If we don’t see this, we shall be crippling ourselves inside. All mental pain has to do with that.

The Need to Know

Knowledge, therefore, is ethics. Knowledge is a way of being fair to the outside world in terms of our own mind. If we see something, take it for something else, and are comfortable in taking it for something else, or for less than it is, our deficiency in knowledge is also a deficiency in ethics.

One can say, “I don’t like the world very well.” But if that not liking of the world is joined with an unconscious disdainful desire not to know it, one is making for distress, for separation. At no time in our lives have we the right to say, “I don’t want to know the world.” Any person who decides that she is not interested in the world is doing it out of conceit. We may talk about how people are bad, how economics is bad; we may point out how people lie and tell stories. But at no time do we have the right to say we don’t want to know the world. There is a tremendous desire on the part of everybody to say, “I have come to my share of the world. With that part I can be comfortable, but the rest I had better keep away from.” It is better to criticize the world but keep on knowing it.