Honesty, Nations, & Poems
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue serializing a 1966 lecture by Eli Siegel important for the life of everyone. It’s on poetry of complaint. And at the point we’ve reached, Mr. Siegel has discussed poems by Chu Yuan of 4th-century-bc China, Thomas Wyatt, Emily Brontë, and Byron. Now he speaks briefly, but beautifully, definitively, and very kindly, about a poem by John Milton.
We publish too part of a paper by actor and Aesthetic Realism associate Carol McCluer, from a recent public seminar titled “Honesty & Deception in Love & Life—How Should a Woman See These?” In America today the matter of honesty-or-deception is more a subject of discussion (and outrage) than it ever was before. And, as I wrote recently, that fact in itself is very good. For there to be a hubbub about untruthfulness, a conscious intensity about it, can be a preliminary to something that has been so much lacking in people: a real love for truth.
Honesty & Falsity Centuries Ago
I am going to bring together the two parts of this TRO by saying something about honesty in relation to the Milton poem that Mr. Siegel discusses. That poem deals with Milton’s blindness, and Mr. Siegel comments by way of background: “It is said that he could have avoided going blind in 1652; but he wanted to answer Salmasius, who had attacked the English people for what they did as to the king.”
The English Civil Wars (1642-51), and the overthrow of Charles I, can seem very far away. But they have to do with something America and humanity need to be honest about now. And John Milton is one of the persons in this world who most tried to be honest. The history of the time is intricate, and I am not discussing the happenings of then with any specificity. But they are part of what Mr. Siegel spoke of as the biggest, most fundamental matter of our own time: To whom should a nation, with its land and wealth, belong? To whom should the world belong? In the 17th century in England the matter took the form of: Which should be supreme—a king or Parliament?
By 1640, King Charles had come to be loathed by the people of England. He imposed huge taxes on them (unauthorized by Parliament), taxes that made them poorer and poorer, hungrier and hungrier. One cannot say the Parliament of then represented all the people, but it represented them more than did Charles I, who saw the people of England as creatures to do his bidding, beings whose lives existed for his aggrandizement. When his wishes were opposed by Parliament, he dissolved Parliament. He infuriated English men and women by quartering troops in their towns—German mercenary soldiers whom he hired with tax revenues.
In 1642 civil war began. In 1645 Charles was imprisoned. He refused demands for a constitutional monarchy, and in 1649 he was executed for treason.
A Commonwealth was declared, with Oliver Cromwell as Protector. Much can be objected to in Cromwell. But the fact that Parliament became the supreme power, and remained so even after monarchy was restored—that is part of what Mr. Siegel described as the force of ethics working in the world.
The Dishonesty That Milton Fought
After the overthrow of Charles I, a noted European scholar, Claudius Salmasius, wrote a lengthy document condemning the act—describing it as sacrilegious, brutal, hugely hurtful to all of Europe. This brings us to the statement by Mr. Siegel quoted earlier. Milton had lost all vision in one eye and was told not to strain the other, which was very weak. But he felt, burningly, that the elaborate, impressive, seemingly learned lying of Salmasius had to be answered—and answered point by point so that all who had read Salmasius’s 12-chapter Latin document could see it was a lie. So Milton answered it, chapter by chapter, statement by statement, in Latin, and sacrificed his little remaining eyesight to do so.
Milton’s Defense of the English People is passionate, fierce, eloquent, learned, sometimes humorous, always logical. Sometimes he speaks of Salmasius’s motives in lying, and describes those sleazy motives vividly. He writes of what he himself is presenting, “These reasons prove very fully, that the people are superior to the king,” and says, “The safety of the people, and not that of a tyrant, is the supreme law.”
All this is about honesty. It’s about honesty as to Who should own a nation? Mr. Siegel put the matter, too, in terms of this all-important question: “What does a person deserve by being alive?” The character of each of us today depends on whether we want to be honest about that question. The persons who think America should be owned chiefly by a few individuals and that it’s right to use others for one’s personal profit, are like the persons in Milton’s time who thought there should be a king, with millions beneath and serving him. Kingship was the mode of governance for centuries—yet it was always based on a lie about what the human self and reality are. So is seeing people in terms of profit.
John Milton wanted to be honest about England and people. And he is one of the great poets of our language because he had, too, that full honesty which, Aesthetic Realism shows, makes for poetry: the seeing of one’s own feeling and the world itself with such a desire to be just that one’s words are musical.
“All beauty is a making one of opposites,” Eli Siegel wrote, “and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” This principle is the basis of Aesthetic Realism, and one of the magnificently honest statements of all time. The chief opposites in honesty are self and world: one needs to feel that being just to the outside world takes care of oneself. Aesthetic Realism is the study of why it does. It is the study through which people can truly prefer—truly love—honesty.