The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Freedom That Is Justice Too

Dear Unknown Friends:

In the lecture we are serializing—There Are Two Freedoms—Eli Siegel explains something huge, not understood before: he explains what freedom really is. Mme Roland’s words on the matter are famous: “O liberty! what crimes are committed in thy name!” The reason that freedom, or liberty, has been so often a cover for cruelty and for just plain being wrong, this also the lecture explains.

Mr. Siegel is showing that authentic freedom is a oneness of opposites. It is not only expression, doing what one pleases; it is simultaneously accuracy, justice. Unless we feel our being just is the same as our being free, we’ll be ethically sloppy, unkind, even brutal. That is why there is so much unkindness in personal life, and so much cruelty within and among nations.

This is one of Mr. Siegel’s 1970 Goodbye Profit System lectures. In it he makes clear that the only economy which will now work well is an economy in which the two freedoms—individual expression and justice to all people—are made one.

We include here too part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Nancy Huntting. It’s from a public seminar of last month on a subject continuous with that of the lecture: “How Can I Take Care of Me Yet Be Fair to You?: A Woman’s Urgent Question.”

True & False Freedom—& the Bill of Rights

Every matter concerning freedom in the national field, the governmental field, corresponds to something in a person’s private thoughts.

Let’s take that great and necessary thing in American government, the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. We know that the Bill of Rights guarantees various freedoms. But it’s important to see that it is also designed to curb a false freedom: the freedom of persons in power to deal with human beings and the nation itself however they please. That fake, ugly freedom is something everyone also goes after in his or her own mind. There is a feeling in people, usually unarticulated: “I should have my way! People should do what I want—I shouldn’t have to bother about them. What I want matters; what they want doesn’t. And they should be stopped from getting in my way!” This feeling is contempt. It’s the worst thing in the human self.

If you are in a governmental position, you can feel not only that you have the freedom all people give themselves—to do anything they please with other people in their minds—but that you have the freedom to put this way of seeing in action in terms of how men, women, and children are made to live. “The first victory of contempt,” Mr. Siegel explained,

is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please....[This feeling] is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. [Self and World, p. 3]

A large purpose of the American Bill of Rights was to protect the citizenry by curtailing rulers’ freedom to exercise contempt.

The First Amendment vs. Contempt

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees, among other things, freedom of speech. But to do so, it curtails a bad freedom: the freedom of persons in government to stifle people. “Congress shall make no law,” the Constitution says, “...abridging the freedom of speech.”

In ordinary life a person often feels (though she wouldn’t put it this way) that the ability of others to express themselves is a big annoyance, and she would like to be free to take that ability away. A wife can be very angry because her husband has the nerve to express a view different from hers. Within her indignation is the feeling that he just shouldn’t be permitted to! And a husband, of course, can feel that way about a wife.

     How much people are really against others’ freedom of speech if those others disagree with oneself, is hard to calculate. The ego doesn’t like seeing other points of view as real; it doesn’t brook being slowed down by them; it doesn’t like to say, “Well, you don’t see it the way I do, but you have a right to express yourself.” The popularity of the imperative sentence “Shut up!” is indicative of how much people would like the freedom to make others shut up: that is, abridge their right to speech.

     And, of course, people “tune out” others in the midst of conversations. This is a much treasured “freedom”—the freedom to make the expression of someone else seem nonexistent whenever one pleases. It’s contempt. It may seem innocuous. But it is related to government officials’ sending a man to jail, punishing and silencing him, because what he said displeased those officials, interfered with their sense of comfort and power. Our dear, great First Amendment is designed to make sure they don’t have that ability, that freedom. Therefore various persons dislike the First Amendment: they see it as a major inconvenience and would like to get around it.

We Convict People in Our Minds

The Bill of Rights concerns a matter very immediate now: how free should persons in government be to seize a person, jail him, punish him; how free should they be to try him any way they please? Amendment 4 deals with “the right of the people to be secure...against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and says “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” Amendment 5 says a person cannot “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Amendment 6 deals with criminal trials, and says, for example:

The accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury..., and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation;...and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Amendment 8 forbids the inflicting of “cruel and unusual punishments.

All this is a terrific restriction of the freedom to deal with a human being any way one chooses. Related legal restrictions exist elsewhere, including in the Geneva Conventions now much talked about. These restrictions do not exist in order to be “nice” to “bad guys.” They exist because there is that in people which would like to make themselves equivalent to law and which is adept at justifying anything one does or wants to do to anyone.

     For example, in everyday life people convict others constantly, without the facts. They give themselves the freedom to do so—to say to themselves (and maybe to someone else), without working to ascertain what’s true, “That guy is mean. She’s cold. He’s such an idiot. She’s got it in for me.” Human life abounds with condemnations not based on the desire to know, to find out what is so. We feel someone didn’t appreciate us, interfered with us, made us in some way less important; we’re not interested in what’s fair to this person. We are judge, jury, vengeful punisher, executioner in our minds. That’s because there’s an importance we get being able to despise, dismiss, humiliate. Contempt in a person sees the outside world as an enemy to be beaten; sees the facts as interferences with having our way; and sees doing what we please with another person as part of having a victory over the world. This contempt can be present in a government post or under judicial robes.

Every one of the first ten amendments counters something people want to do, feel they should be free to do—otherwise those amendments wouldn’t be necessary. And the desire to circumvent them has been much in American history. There has been an attempt at various times to say, Oh, we can’t go by the Bill of Rights now; things being as they are, it’s a luxury we can’t afford. The purpose of such an attempt has not mainly been to have America more secure, though that is always what is said. The purpose has mainly been to be free to deal with human beings and the nation however one pleased—which is precisely what the Bill of Rights was formed to prevent.

There were the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1796 and the Palmer raids of 1919 and ’20, which tried to supersede the First Amendment. And there were the government officials in Southern states who tacitly permitted and encouraged lynchings—the idea being that one couldn’t be held back by the niceties mandated in the Constitution; in order to have the white citizens “secure,” there should be the freer, swifter “justice” that a lynch mob could provide.

Because You Say So

A notion of freedom is in an occurrence now in the news. As reported by the Associated Press (Oct. 28), it involves a radio interview with the vice president, and whether the form of torture called water boarding should be used “to get terrorist suspects to talk.” The interviewer “said callers had told him, ‘Please, let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we’re all for it, if it saves lives.’”

I’m not commenting on the vice president; nor on torture, which I’m certainly against; nor on making America safe, which I’m certainly for. I’m pointing to something these “callers” are doing, which I’ve heard persons much more eminent do. Because the matter of torture affects one so much, it’s easy to pass over another aspect of statements like theirs. That is, they are justifying a certain dealing with a human being on the basis that he’s a terrorist, without finding it necessary to see, by fair trial, whether indeed he is. He’s a “suspect”—but the “callers” have smoothly convicted him. You decide, because you say so, that someone is a “bad guy”; then because you decided he’s a “bad guy” you can do anything you want with him. This represents a horrible freedom which, as I said, men and women give themselves every day: in Mr. Siegel’s words, the freedom “to see other people and things pretty much as they please.”

The American Bill of Rights is like art. It stands for what the self most deeply wants in every aspect of our lives: freedom that is justice too. As Mr. Siegel said of the First Amendment in a poem, “It shows what a country can do, / At a beautiful time.”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Free Expression & Accuracy

By Eli Siegel

We are looking at the two freedoms: the freedom to express, and the freedom to express beautifully, truly, ethically, rightly. The oneness of these is in all the arts, because all the arts consist of energy giving itself accuracy through what it is, not through an outside force. That is in keeping with Coleridge’s idea: that a poem is its own happy policeman; the energy is guided by itself. One way of feeling this is to take some of the free poetry of the world and study it as free expression and accuracy. An example is a poem from Mother Goose, “The Bells of London”:

Gay go up and gay go down,

To ring the bells of London town.

Bullseyes and targets,

Say the bells of St. Margaret’s.

Brickbats and tiles,

Say the bells of St. Giles.

Halfpence and farthings,

Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

Oranges and lemons,

Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

Two sticks and an apple,

Say the bells of Whitechapel.

Old father baldpate,

Say the slow bells at Aldgate.

You owe me ten shillings,

Say the bells of St. Helen’s.

Well, there’s freedom here, but there’s also an accuracy. And, as in many nursery rhymes, you cannot separate the two. Mother gave me fifty cents, / See an elephant jump the fence—that sort of rhyme. There’s association but there’s some kind of accuracy, because doggerel, when it lives, is that mingling of the utmost free expression and something which says just there is where you are. There’s just there and going ahead.

Orderly Wildness

An example of that is an anecdote about Samuel Johnson in 1752, told in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I’m reading it from London Is London: A Selection of Prose & Verse, compiled by D.M. Low (1941). If this were just a disorderly thing, it wouldn’t have lived in literature, this “Frolic,” as it’s called here. There is something orderly about its wildness:

One night when Beauclerk and Langton had supped at a tavern in London, and sat till about three in the morning, it came into their heads to go and knock up Johnson, and see if they could prevail on him to join them in a ramble. They rapped violently at the door of his chambers in the Temple, till at last he appeared....Told their errand, he smiled, and with great good humour agreed to their proposal: “What, is it you, you dogs! I’ll have a frisk with you.” He was soon drest, and they sallied forth together into Covent Garden, where the greengrocers and fruiterers were beginning to arrange their hampers, just come in from the country. Johnson made some attempts to help them; but the honest gardeners stared so at his figure and manner, and odd interference, that he soon saw his services were not relished. They then repaired to one of the neighboring taverns....

They did not stay long, but walked down to the Thames, took a boat, and rowed to Billingsgate....

This is a picture of disorderliness given tidiness, the two helping each other. Tidiness and disorder are forms of the two freedoms which America is looking for


What Takes Care of Me?

By Nancy Huntting

Pretty early, people come to feel that fairness to others is not what takes care of us. After all, just thinking about others takes time away from ourselves. I wanted very much to believe I was a fair person, but what I actually went by is expressed by Ellen Reiss in an issue of The Right Of:

“The way to take care of myself in this world is not to bother about most of it—but to...manage and own selected items from a world I scorn.” [TRO 1213]

That is a description of contempt, and I didn’t see that it was against what really took care of me. Learning that our deepest desire is honestly to like the world, be fair to it, has made a huge, happy difference in my life, and in the lives of women I’ve had the privilege to teach in Aesthetic Realism consultations.

Lethargy & Anger

I had kept my feelings to myself, considering other people incapable of knowing me. While at college and afterwards, I told myself that I was bad at “small talk.” But the unsureness I felt meeting people bothered me a lot. I hoped a man would solve the problem, because, I reasoned, if you found one person you liked, who liked you, you didn’t need all those millions of other, tedious people. However, after two years with David Collier—the man of my dreams, I’d thought—I got very worried. I often felt lethargic, and constantly depended on him to make plans, to enliven me. I was angry that he didn’t see it as his job in life to fill all my dull and lonely hours with excitement and adoration. Yet when we were together, we’d quarrel.

In the first Aesthetic Realism class I attended, Eli Siegel asked me, “What did you condemn yourself most for at various times?” I thought for a moment and answered, “For wanting to do nothing.” He said, “The desire not to be bothered is in Keats’s ‘Ode to Indolence.’ Did you also get very angry? People who have indolence can also tear up the place.”

Was I surprised by this! But yes, I did “tear up the place.” Though I was mostly quiet and shy in manner, I often would suddenly lash out at a person in fury and be very mean. I thought of my mother, at whom I had screamed, “I don’t care what you think!” and “You’re so stupid!”; and of David, who got verbal abuse from me and, once, a book thrown at him.

Do We Hope to Like People?

I began to learn that a wrong idea of taking care of myself had begun very early. I was praised a lot by my mother, took it as my due, but felt she was a pushover, easily fooled. Increasingly I found fault with everything she did, and felt quite supreme in the family. Since I wanted to maintain this feeling, I hoped to be superior to everyone I met, and looked for their flaws. This was why I hid my thoughts, why I couldn’t talk to people—and why I disliked myself so much.

In a class, when I said I felt “a tremendous amount of guilt” about my mother, Mr. Siegel taught me what could change that:

ES. If your mother asked you, “Have you been fair to me, Nancy dear?” what would you say?

NH. No.

ES. If you feel you don’t want to like the person—which means you don’t have good will—it can make for guilt. Have you wanted to like your mother?

NH. Only recently.

ES. I’m trying to bring that about.

He did. After this class, something new happened: I consciously wanted to have a good effect on my mother. I wanted to know her. I asked her questions. I listened with a respect I’d never had before. She was amazed and grateful. The guilt began to lift, like a heavy weight taken off me. There came to be real friendship between us, and a central change in me towards other people—I wanted the pleasure I felt from having a purpose I could respect myself for. I was really beginning to take care of me!