The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

How Can People Trust Each Other?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are honored to publish here a portion of an Aesthetic Realism lesson conducted by Eli Siegel.

Aesthetic Realism is always philosophy. It is always thrillingly cultural. And it is always about you, in your rich particularity. In a lesson, the accent was on the life and questions of a particular person, the person having the lesson. And the knowledge of oneself that occurred through these lessons was unprecedented. People felt, as Mr. Siegel spoke to them and related their concerns to art, or science, or history: “I am being understood, as I never thought I could be—me, the person I am inside! And the basis is clear, testable logic.”

It is my immense happiness to have learned about myself in such lessons. And the consultations that take place now at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and via phone and Skype are based on the historic lessons that Eli Siegel taught.

This Is How We Are

The basis of every Aesthetic Realism consultation and lesson is this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that the human self is an aesthetic situation. That is: each of us, so individual, is composed of reality’s opposites, like rest and motion, power and gentleness, sameness and difference, junction and separation. And we’ll be happy, proud, intelligent only if we meet the world, things, people in such a way that opposites work together in us—beginning with care for self and justice to the outside world.

Yet we have a huge desire that makes those opposites of self and world fight. This desire is contempt: to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is the source of every meanness and brutality: from looking down on someone to enslaving him.

A Subject of Beauty & Pain

The section of the 1967 lesson published here is on a subject that’s beautiful yet torments people: trust. How much do we trust another person? What does it mean to trust someone? And there is the matter that Mr. Siegel principally talks about here: Do we feel we deserve to have a person trust us?

We may feel we should be trusted to give the right change—or to tell the truth about where we were yesterday at 2 PM. But should a person trust the way we have him or her in our mind—the way we think about that person?

Trust is much talked about these days in relation to politics. The feeling that politicians should be distrusted is more openly and intensely expressed than ever before. Meanwhile, there’s another huge distrust: the pervasive, largely unarticulated, often taken-for-granted distrust that can go on between people who are a couple, or who are friends—“The way you have me in your mind is not who I really am. Further, I don’t think you’re interested in trying to see who I most deeply am, trying to see all that I feel. And in a fight between being fair to me and getting some advantage, as you see it, for yourself, I don’t trust you to choose fairness to me. Nor should you trust me to see you truly.” This distrust, though mainly unspoken, always has with it large pain.

In the lesson, Mr. Siegel not only describes the situation exactly and with much kindness—he gives the criterion for trust. He explains, in various ways, the basis on which we will be able to trust a person and feel we deserve to be trusted. I won’t anticipate his explanation by quoting that criterion here. But I will say the following, with a sense of its huge historic and human meaning:

In Eli Siegel I met, as others did, a person whom I came to see I could trust completely. I studied with him for many years. I heard him speak on hundreds of subjects and to ever so many people. In every instance, I saw that his desire was to know, and keep on knowing. In every instance, I saw that he had good will: he wanted to be completely fair to the fact, or poem, or person, or happening he was looking at—to see it, him, her as they truly were. And he wanted to bring out a person’s strength, have the person be all he or she could be.

Eli Siegel saw being just to other things and people as the same as taking care of himself. This way of seeing, from which he never deviated, not only made him the most intelligent, courageous, kind person I ever knew or heard of—not only gave him style and grace and humor—but had me feel I could always trust him. To have such a feeling, based on very careful critical observation, is a privilege of a lifetime.

It happens that many people were angry that they could trust Mr. Siegel. That is because a big aspect of contempt is the feeling, “Nothing in this world deserves my trust! I can find falsity in anything and anybody—and I’m entitled to. I should be able to feel everyone is somewhere fake—because if I can’t feel this, then I can’t feel superior; can’t look down the way I want to; can’t justify my own cheapness by feeling everyone else is cheap too.”

There Is Marriage

The discussion printed here has much to do with trust between husbands and wives. And I know that the study of Aesthetic Realism can enable two people to trust each other in a way new in human life. I am swept with gratitude for that fact as I think of my marriage to Timothy Lynch, labor leader and Aesthetic Realism associate, who died this winter. The magnificent twenty years of our studying Aesthetic Realism together—the days and months and years of learning to see truly people, history, America, art, and each other—they are present too as I introduce this lesson with love.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Do We Deserve to Be Trusted?

From an Aesthetic Realism Lesson
Conducted by Eli Siegel

Note. Before the lesson, Dana Cassidy wrote to Mr. Siegel that she hoped to understand why she felt unsure of herself with people.

Eli Siegel. Aesthetic Realism states that people will never be happy until they think they deserve to be trusted by other people. So, Mrs. Cassidy, do you believe anybody really trusts you?

Dana Cassidy. No, I don’t.

ES. Let’s take Mrs. Fox. She thinks she is trusted partially by her husband. She, in turn, responds with partial trust of him. Both are correct. This is a question every person should ask: Will I be happy unless I feel I deserve to be trusted? That’s the first step—because you can, it happens, deserve to be trusted and not be.

DC. I’d like to ask, Mr. Siegel, what you mean specifically by “trusted.”

ES. It happens that in social life we give the appearance of wanting to be helpful, kind, and good. The first thing in being trusted is this: that we be interested in the welfare of other people. At a certain time, however, we pretend—we lead with our vacancy, our absence of feeling.

Mr. Cassidy, do you believe you need to have the trust of Mrs. Cassidy?

Lorenzo Cassidy. I think I do.

ES. But you don’t have it?

LC. No, I don’t.

ES. Most people go through life without being trusted, so don’t get worried. Mrs. Fox, does anybody trust you thoroughly?

Jessy Fox. No, and I don’t think I deserve it, really.

ES. Do you miss this trust?

JF. I do.

ES. Even if we don’t deserve it, we miss it. A crucial area as to trust is this: when you say you want someone to be happy, do you mean it, or are you putting on a show?

JF. Yes, I see.

ES. I am trying to explain a philosophic situation. Nobody believes anybody is adequately interested in them, but they do enjoy another’s putting on a show. That is why Christmas cards have such a good sale.

JF. I always feel they are insincere.

ES. The big thing is this: it is awful for a person to think he or she doesn’t deserve to be trusted. Let’s not deceive ourselves: it is the first thing in not liking oneself. This should be placed culturally. I am describing the situation of over a hundred million people in America. With all their voting propensities, they feel in their hearts they don’t deserve to be trusted. That is a mighty fact. Then, the particular relevance of it to oneself will be talked about. Aesthetic Realism began with some notion of humanity and relation, and then found this general notion was of use to particular people.

LC. It has been—it is—of terrific use to me!

ES. You are in a certain situation, and it happens to be a situation that most husbands have got to. However, this is a very big statement to make: that the people of the United States do not feel they are trusted, nor do they think they deserve to be. You should inquire into that statement.

LC. I’ve sometimes seen people feel that. And I will inquire.

ES. Good. Once it is seen as a general matter, it is perfectly right to ask the next thing: “What has this to do with me?” Ask yourself how much you are suffering from the fact that in your relation with Mrs. Cassidy, each person is saying, “Please trust me,” and the other can’t. Trust is not something wholly in our control. At the same time we do suffer from the fact that we’re not trusted. Everyone is looking for an answer to the question “Why am I not trusted?” The way to have an answer is to see the grandeur of the question.

What do you think it means, Mr. Cassidy, to say “I don’t trust myself”?

LC. Not to trust yourself, I think, is not to be sure of what your purpose is.

ES. That is a little indirect. In the same way that one doesn’t trust a bridge, or, in certain awful instances, a floor, one may not trust a person. We have a feeling that this person is pretty good, but he may fool me. Distrust is always the feeling that something will fail as to something one desires, or hopes for. Yes, Mrs. Fox?

JF. I used to shout at my mother, “You don’t trust me!”

ES. There are things that people utter in a sentence which, I can assure persons, have engaged minds with tremendous subtlety and extent, and made for works of literature of tremendous subtlety and extent. Aesthetic Realism does say something new on the subject. Not to trust ourselves is to feel we will fail ourselves as to a matter we care for very much. That is the one criterion.

JF. Is the criterion the same about another person too?

ES. Yes. If we don’t trust another person, it means we may hope for something from that person and the person will not be able to bring it, or meet it. The same thing exactly applies to ourselves. We hope for something from ourselves and we may fail ourselves. Trust of another is essentially the same thing as trust of ourselves.

JF. My hope is that I can trust myself more.

The Opposites Are There

Eli Siegel. A human being has two objectives, two purposes. One purpose is for the outside world, and one is just in terms of oneself. When the phrase “He’s his own worst enemy” is used, the idea is that there are two purposes that simply will not mingle well. Do you have two purposes, Mrs. Cassidy?

Dana Cassidy. I think I do. I’m not sure what they are.

ES. Your purpose, for instance, is to take care of yourself only. But you also have another purpose: you would like to be good for someone else. These have not made a one, as they usually don’t in domestic life. This is a tremendous intellectual subject. It has to do with the meaning of only and including: these are intellectual, logical terms. You have the problem of being interested in Lorenzo Cassidy and at the same time being interested in yourself; being interested in other people and at the same time being interested in yourself. It happens that the job in any of these instances has not been to your satisfaction.

DC. No, it hasn’t been.

ES. Why? Is it the fault of other things—or that you haven’t gone at it in the right way?

DC. I think I haven’t gone at it right. There’s something missing in the way I’m interested.

ES. The matter of opposites is important here. Two instruments can be in a duet. Aesthetic Realism says that if the interest in oneself is in accord with the interest in another person, it will be like the two things in a duet. There is usually a rift. The nature of the rift has to be looked at.

Lorenzo Cassidy. I’m very much interested in this, Mr. Siegel. Could you give an example of the problem?

ES. For instance, there is a desire to possess. As soon as there is a desire to possess, we are already asking for failure. Along with the desire to possess, there is the desire to be aloof. It is as if a drum and clarinet, while trying to mingle, were trying to possess each other and be aloof too. The music wouldn’t be good.

LC. Yes, I see.

ES. When two people get along, it is something like what happens when two instruments get along; or bass and treble get along in music; or any two sounds get along; or, for that matter, any two colors.

Jessy Fox. Is it a sense of harmony?

ES. I don’t want this to be settled by saying “harmony.” I am trying to look within the word harmony—because the being able to recite good things is one of the most important ways of limiting oneself.

LC. I’d like to ask: are the elements within a person and music—are they essentially the same?

ES. I’d say that, strictly speaking, when two people get along, they have to be more themselves, more individual, have to feel their individuality has been brought out; they also have to feel that they are of someone else. Then, the third thing—which is important, and is present in music too: the universe is present.

When two people get along, there are two things present at the same time: both feel more individual and both feel more as if they were of something else, something outside themselves. It is like hearing two notes in music. One note brings out something of the second, the second something in the first; in the meantime, they’re both more individual than ever before.

LC. I’m seeing a relation I never saw. Thank you.

ES. The reason people don’t trust themselves, essentially, is that they have already settled things in terms of having it two ways. That is, they are going to be by themselves and with others as two different things, not the same thing. And as soon as you adopt that, which is what most people unconsciously adopt, you already feel that you made a wrong choice. Yes, Mrs. Cassidy?

DC. When a person is different with various people, does it arise from the fact that he is different with people in general from how he is with himself?

ES. It can be, because there are two kinds of difference. If you are a host, and a handyman comes in, then a musician, a writer of biographies, a lady who is known as the average American woman—if you weren’t different with them, something would be wrong. But still you can be one person.

DC. How can that be?

ES. It’s a matter of aesthetics. You can be different in a sloppy way. For instance, a man talks to a young man in his office and bawls him out. Someone comes in who represents a bank and the man is too buttery. Something is amiss there. It’s the way one is different: there’s a right way and a wrong way.

How Do We Value?

Dana Cassidy. What is a good way of being different with different people?

Eli Siegel. Let’s say this: a person smells a flower, and also eats a meal. In both instances there is a value: “I am better off if I smell a flower, or eat a meal.” The things are different, but there’s a sense of value in each. The value doesn’t change. The person I spoke of should feel that the young man in the office can do something good to his life. One has a value in seeing that “this young man in the office does things I don’t do—they are of value to me, and I respect him for that and don’t take advantage of the fact that I pay him every week.” You can be accurate about this person and not have contempt. Yes, Mr. Cassidy?

Lorenzo Cassidy. How does that have to do with trust?

ES. A person doesn’t trust himself if he does something wrong as to the nature of value. When we feel that we are unfair in what we look for, we have to distrust ourselves.

This is the large thing: Every time people are together there is a certain assignment given by fate. The assignment is that a person should be proud of how he sees you. And you have an assignment to be proud of how you see another person. Let’s say a person is looking at pictures in a gallery. He may have different notions of the value of each picture, but his purpose in looking is the same. If one sees that, it can be a means of lightness of heart.