The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Evolution, Ethics, Beauty

Dear Unknown Friends:

In the 1974 lecture we are serializing, Poetry Is of Man, Eli Siegel discusses an article which, he says, “I regard as one of the most important articles that ever appeared in any journal.” It appeared in early 1850 in the Quarterly Review, and is an unsigned review of five books having to do with the development of species, including the human species. Two of the books are by James C. Prichard, a writer now little known, but whom Mr. Siegel respected very much.

Prichard and the anonymous reviewer are courageous in saying then, with firmness and logic, that all of humanity, whatever one’s race, arose from a common source. This was nine years before Darwin’s Origin of Species. “Prichard,” said Mr. Siegel, “was one of the first who said definitely: all people come from one source. That meant a good deal in 1850, because there were attempts to show that some people should be slaves.”

In this important lecture Mr. Siegel is presenting, at times from an anthropological and geological point of view, the very basis of Aesthetic Realism: that the structure of reality, which includes humanity, is aesthetic—it’s a oneness of such opposites as sameness and difference, many and one, rest and motion, order and freedom. And the oneness of these opposites is what we see, hear, feel in art—in every good painting, dance, instance of music, drama, poetry.

Aesthetics vs. Injustice

I’ve said in previous commentaries that the answer to racism and to other injustice is in this great lecture.

We need to feel we’re at once like and different from another person—whether that person is our mother or somebody of a different nation or background. But mainly in life, we make these opposites separate. So much domestic misery comes because we’ve made certain people “ours”—perhaps a parent, sibling, spouse. We feel we own them; that is, we’ve made them falsely like us—mere adjuncts to us. And in so doing, we’ve wiped out their mystery, annulled their distinction, flattened them.

Then, we make other people only different from us, and we can use anything to do that: their difference of skin tone, language, even style of dress. When we see someone as different and don’t see that within their difference is a tremendous, central likeness to ourselves, we’re cold, and we’ll be deeply—and sometimes viciously—mean.

Aesthetic Realism has explained what it is that makes us be wrong in this way about sameness and difference. The cause is contempt, the false feeling everyone has that we’ll get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” We lessen people by wiping out now the distinction of another person, now a person’s likeness to us. The one thing that can have us be steadily, proudly kind is to see that our relation to every other person is an aesthetic relation: a oneness of difference and sameness. And in this lecture, Mr. Siegel is showing that the very structure of humanity as such is that aesthetic oneness of opposites. What we need to see in order to be kind is ratified by science itself!

Evolution: A Study in Relation

Along with being immensely serious and careful in this discussion, Mr. Siegel is also casual, playful, humorous. The discussion is, in various ways, about evolution, and today we have the amazing sight of persons trying to make Darwinian evolution seem questionable after these many years. Therefore I’ll comment a little on what some, at least, of the anger about evolution has come from since 1859.

In the preface to his book Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, Mr. Siegel writes: “Poetry, like life, states that the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things.” Evolution is one of the great tributes to, one of the great showings of, the fact that a person is related to the rest of the world. We have to do, not only with our uncles and cousins, but with some being who crawled from water onto land millions of years ago.

The biggest fight within every person, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the fight between the desire to respect what’s not us and the desire to have contempt for it. The desire to respect reality is the desire to feel that we have to do with everything—that we’re related (and not just theoretically) to all things, beings, people, near and far in time and space.

But if we want to feel superior, if we want to have contempt, we have to hate relation in the fullest sense. We’ll consent to see ourselves as related to certain things and people. We may cultivate our genealogy, try to trace our family over ten generations. We may want to see ourselves as related to the college we graduated from, or a political party. But the idea that we’re related to everything and everyone and every creature is repugnant to our conceited sense of self—because if we’re connected to everything, how can we feel picked out and supreme?

Much of the objection to evolution, in the 19th century and now, has come from the same source as the objection people had to Galileo when he showed that the earth revolved around the sun. My earth (a person could feel) a mere planet?! Never! My earth has to be special, has to be the center of the universe—the way my mother made me the center of the universe! Likewise, my species, Homo sapiens, could not be part of long and continuous evolution! It has to be a “special creation,” because I want to feel I’m special and separate—and supreme.

I’m not condemning persons who have questioned Darwin with a desire really to see what is so. I’m also not criticizing a true desire to relate what religion is to what science is. I’m saying that the preponderant dislike of evolution comes not from religion but from what true religion itself opposes: contempt. The Observer of London (13 Jan. 2002) notes that there are persons

involved in social policy [who] hate natural selection, says [biologist John] Maynard Smith. “...They want to believe we are isolated from the animal kingdom.”

The desire to feel oneself as separate, unrelated—and “special” in a way that makes what’s different from oneself apart and inferior—is the source of all ethnic prejudice. It is also the thing that can make Darwinian evolution, in its grandeur and beauty, appear an offense.

So I quote a sentence of Darwin from the conclusion of Origin of Species. Whatever else, it is fine English prose:

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

Darwin is saying, in accord with Aesthetic Realism, that our distinction, our nobility, is not at odds with our relation, but comes from it.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Nations, Languages, Migrations

By Eli Siegel

Note. The 1850 reviewer Mr. Siegel quotes has been pointing out how little we know from written history, including biblical history, about the development of the human being.

A question for those who feel there was instantaneous creation of a new kind of being in the image of God, is: what happened between the Creation as we have it in Genesis and the coming to be of lands like Egypt, Moab, Edom, even the land of the Amalekites? It seems that the Bible is interested in how Israel came to be, but is not so interested in how the Canaanites came to be, or the Edomites, or the Moabites, and also the people of Egypt and Assyria. These nations or tribes were formed somehow.

When a nation like France, which is also a people, comes to be, the poetic principle of the world has worked. Something has been differentiated. That is so of the English people. I’m not too much given to nationalism, but poetry and art are distinguishing things, and for one people to be different from another people—that much, something poetic has been working. There’s a little skimping in Genesis with the Tower of Babel, because what we have is that people wanted to build a tower and God didn’t want them to; therefore he made them use different languages. And there was the diffusion of culture (that’s the anthropological term) just because God was angry with persons for building the Tower of Babel. Well, I regard that as speedy anthropology. Still, what happened? How did peoples come to be? And while Noah was saving people with his ark, were the Indians here? —In this passage, the writer refers to the Old Testament:

Even in an early part of these books we find allusion to nations which had grown into existence and power; but without any sign to mark their origin, beyond some single name, or the general statement of the multiplication of man on the earth.

The Bible does not deal with the existence of Greece, although as time went on there were persons who knew both Hebrew and Greek. So, how did nations come to be? That’s a political question, but it’s also anthropological. How persons felt they were with each other and other people were not: the feeling could be exclusive and unkind, but that demarcation or distinguishing has to do with poetry. Mind, as it gathers things together and distinguishes them, is both logical and poetic.

This writer wants to respect what he calls the sacred volume. I respect it very much too. But it lacks some information. It doesn’t explain dew very well. It doesn’t explain the structure of the leaf; as far as I know, nobody in the Old Testament was interested in the structure of the leaf. The word leaf is used. So the writer says:

We must not look to Scripture for description of the primitive physical characters of the human species, or for details as to the origin of human languages.

Never was there anything truer. The idea of somebody cultivating the Edomites to see how they talked!

We shall do well for the cause of truth to hold the sacred volume ever in our hands, seeing where it fairly comes into contact with other knowledge, but never forcing its peculiar objects and phraseology into conclusions with which it has no concern.

What Is the Origin of Language?

The thought about the origin of man is like the thought about the origin of language. It is felt that somewhere in the world, somebody having successfully leapt in terms of evolution, or from one kind of life to another, came to a consciousness that insisted on speech; that there were some persons who began talking and others heard them and said, It’s a good idea—we'd better learn how to talk too. Then it got around. The other theory is that God at a certain time distributed languages, with the gerund and the supine and the verbs and all.

 So, what is the origin of language? There too there’s something poetic. Persons looked at objects, and if you get a word for a trunk of a tree, you’ve got to be poetic. It was the first time a trunk ever got a word for it! Or you use a word for a branch, or the shore of a river, or water. Aqua is poetic. So is hydor. One is Latin and one is Greek, and we have aquamarine and hydraulic. Languages are different, deeply different. Some go for oneness, as the Chinese does, and some for manyness as English does, or French. Chinese likes to have one syllable standing for five meanings.

How did words come to be; then also grammatical constructions, including the participle? There was the first person who used the participle in language. One of my definitions of man is an animal who can use the participle. I have many; another is: an animal who very often keeps a diary.

Peoples on the Move

We have the matter of the migrations, and there are peoples on the move. It must be said that the persons who most variously have been on the move are Jews. There’s a word from the Greek, Diaspora, which means the diffusion, the dispersion, after the taking of Jerusalem. It’s sad, but still it’s factual. The Jews went everywhere, including India and Africa.

There have been great migrations: people have gone from one place in the world to another. There’s a good deal of that in the early Middle Ages. This author says we don’t know much about it:

How much more obscurely still those vast Celtic, Teutonic, and Sclavonic migrations which have given cast and color to all the succeeding destinies of Europe!

How did people get to France, or the Ukraine, or England, Ireland, the Orkneys? We know how people came to America, because there was emigration, which is a smaller word, in a sense, than migration. We know that people went from Europe to America. There is the matter of how the Indians emigrated from somewhere. Some people feel they were in a part of Asia, and could go from Asia, maybe around Alaska, and get right into California. Then—what do you think?—they got later into Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming. Every Indian tribe must have got there somehow, or else the origin was right there in Wyoming or Oklahoma or Maine.

The Indians have languages and tremendous ethnic diversity, which anthropologists are very busy about. They know that an Algonquin Indian is not the same as a Comanche and has to be studied by himself. And these days the Algonquin insists on it, and so does the Comanche. I’m playing about a bit, but the point is that what’s called ethnology is a study in sameness and differentiation, and that puts it in the poetic field.

 At the time of this article, 1850, the East was seen with greater exactitude. The person here called Mr. Layard did excavations at Nineveh and found some Assyrian bulls—sculptures which the British Museum won’t part with for anything. Rossetti wrote a poem on the subject, and it was exceedingly interesting to see those remnants of art and architecture. Some of it is great art. To put together a winged bull and the head of a person is a poetic idea. This writer says:

We have only just begun to disentomb the great Nineveh, and can only partially decipher the peculiar cuneiform characters which designate and give date to its wonderful works of art. The intrepid zeal and ability of Mr. Layard...will, we doubt not, achieve further successes on the same fertile soil; but when all is done, there will yet remain the void of time beyond, in which genius and diligence are alike lost and fruitless.

 There is the question Where did it all begin?, because even the Assyrian had a beginning. The Babylonian had a beginning. You can’t start with Babylon, or Nineveh, or Baghdad, or Damascus, because they all had beginnings.

Time and Place

The writer makes a relation between astronomy and geology, and time and place are here in a large way:

What space is to the astronomer, time is to the geologist—vast beyond human comprehension, yet seen and comprised by the conclusions of the science.

Are the opposites of time and place simultaneous in our minds at any moment of our lives? Even as we look into darkness, are we somehow affected by time and place?

Then we have a statement that is in keeping with Herbert Spencer. He was very busy at this time, and the large idea in Spencer is about how the universe is in a constant motion between the homogeneous and the heterogeneous, and how difference and sameness have to be honored if the universe is to be a universe. Everything tries to have a beautiful fixity while retaining its desire to move around. In Spencer’s First Principles, that is seen as a description of reality itself: that which, while wanting to remain the same, shows its desire by going for difference. The words of Spencer associated with him most are heterogeneous and homogeneous. About this time, 1850, Spencer is coming to be known. Not that he’s quoted here, but things that he'd agree with are said here.

Dividing these periods by the geological characters which clearly denote their relative age and succession,...we may affirm that each period, amidst a general change of species, contains some element of higher life and more consummate organization.

That is, geology is a study in progress. Geology gets to a certain presence, it shows certain signs, and, lo, there’s another period. Every period is a sign of having acquired something. “And what did you learn today, dear Time?” “I learned that I can be carboniferous.”

At a certain point—and it is one of the great moments in the history of the world—geology changed into botany. It didn’t change right away into animals. We have the problem as to whether some viruses are living beings, and it still isn’t settled. But at a certain time, geology did change into botany; and botany changed into zoology. Those are great times, and they all have to do with poetry. I think the change from rock into a plant is poetic. I also think the change from a plant into an animal is poetic. We have some mischief-makers: there are plants that behave like animals. Then, there are a few lazy animals that behave like plants. That’s carrying poetry too far.