Fellow-Feeling, & What’s Against It
Dear Unknown Friends:
We’re honored to publish here portions of a lecture Eli Siegel gave in 1948: the magnificent Mind and People. As with two other 1948 lectures by him that we printed recently, no audio recording or transcript of Mind and People exists, and I am again using notes to reconstruct some of what Mr. Siegel said so many decades ago. The notes are those of Martha Baird and my mother, Irene Reiss. Mind and People will appear in two parts—with the final section in our next issue, TRO 1909.
This lecture is a classic: it is true for all times and places. And it has what we need to know right now.
The biggest matter in the life of everyone is how we see other people. And how people see people is the biggest, most urgent matter affecting the world itself: it determines the decisions of nations, including whether there will be war or peace; it determines how wealth is distributed; what laws are made; how persons of different ethnicities and religions treat each other. In Mind and People Mr. Siegel explains what it is that has human beings see each other hurtfully. He also explains what can enable us to see other persons in a way that’s resplendently just—both to them and to our own ever so particular treasured self.
Coldness—& What Can Change It
To introduce this lecture, I’ll comment a little on an article of our own time. It’s about a question asked in various ways for thousands of years: Why is a certain unfeelingness so extensive in humanity? Why are persons so cold to what others feel and endure?
On July 12 the New York Times printed an opinion piece titled “Empathy Is Actually a Choice.” Empathy can be described as feeling for the feelings of another. The writers are three professors of psychology: Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht, and William A. Cunningham. They note that “empathy seem[s] to fail when it is needed most.” And they say there’s a current view, put forth by “a growing chorus of critics,” that empathy is not so valuable and may even be hurtful. It’s a view with which these authors rightly disagree. Meanwhile, what empathy (or, to use an old-fashioned term, fellow-feeling) truly is, and what in oneself stops one from having it, is not to be found in this article. It is to be found in Aesthetic Realism. So I’ll mention four things that need to be known and studied for empathy, fellow-feeling, to exist with real power among people.
1) Eli Siegel explained that there is a fight going on in every person: “the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151). Contempt is the feeling that we’ll take care of ourselves by lessening things and people, looking down on them, using them to aggrandize ourselves, seeing them as less real than we are. It is gigantic, subtle, has thousands of forms. And our contempt is in a fight all the time with the deepest desire we have: to see meaning in things and people. Unless we’re studying this fight as Aesthetic Realism describes it, “empathy” will not prevail in us and humanity. That’s so whether it’s a matter of having large, effective feeling for people suffering in a war; or for a person requesting money on the street; or for a relative whom we may hug but not want to understand.
For example, the authors of the article say: “Some kinds of people seem generally less likely to feel empathy for others—for instance, powerful people.” Well, first of all, we have to see what “powerful” means. Power can be exceedingly kind: Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln were powerful and had much feeling for people. But if many “powerful” individuals are also unfeeling, the reason is that their notion of power is contempt. That is: when one operates on the basis that power for oneself is to make a lot of money, own the world rather than know it, beat out others, be in a position to push them around—one has a state of mind that’s incompatible with seeing people as having feelings like one’s own.
2) We come to another principle of Aesthetic Realism that people need to study in order to be kind: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Let’s look at a statement at the end of the article I’m discussing. The authors write: “Empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.” That has a pleasing sound; yet there’s a reason people have not “chosen” empathy much these centuries. The reason has to do with the opposites: people don’t think having feeling for others takes care of themselves. In order for us to “choose” empathy—to have large, steady fellow-feeling—we need to see that caring about what’s not us is also selfish. We need to see that being just to someone else is the real selfishness, makes us more.
Aesthetic Realism shows that this is an aesthetic matter. Every instance of true art is impelled by a person’s feeling: “The way to be Me, take care of Me, is to be just to this object not myself, these words, sounds, shapes, lines. I express myself as I try to bring out their meaning and power.” We need to learn from art how justice to the outside world and self-affirmation are the same.
3) For empathy to prevail, humanity also needs to know the following: Empathy is an aspect of ethics, and Aesthetic Realism explains that ethics is a force, no matter how unjust and unfeeling we choose to be. That is, there’s an insistence in us to be ourselves by feeling justly what other things are, and if we don’t go after that justice, we inevitably dislike ourselves, feel agitated, low, empty, depressed. This fact is a tribute to the ethics in humanity.
We’re Related to Everything
4) In point 2, I commented on the opposites of justice and selfishness, what’s not us and ourselves. For people really to like the idea of empathy, we also need to learn about two other opposites, central to the aesthetic structure of the world: sameness and difference. We need to see that while each of us is ever so particular, there’s not a thing or person we’re not also like. We cannot have feeling for a person unless we see that we have things deeply in common with him or her. That is something our contempt has not wanted us to see.
Aesthetic Realism is the beautiful, necessary study of what all things have in common: how each object and person is at once individual and related to everything.