The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

How Do We See Other People?

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of They Go Away from Something, by Eli Siegel, a lecture in his great Goodbye Profit System series. And with it is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Bruce Blaustein, from a public seminar of last month titled “What’s the Big Mistake We Make about Other People?” The lecture and Mr. Blaustein’s article have a great deal to do with each other, because Aesthetic Realism makes clear that there is no more important matter in economics than how we see other people.

The two big opposites in the life of each of us are our personal self and the wide outside world—a world that includes all other people. In his book Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes that the central, constant question “facing every human being can be put this way: How is he to be entirely himself and yet be fair to that world which he does not see as himself?” The question is beautiful, and insistent. We can like ourselves, be proud and at ease, only if we’re honestly trying to put together those opposites: care for me and justice to things and people not me.

The same inescapable criterion exists for today’s economy: it will continue to flop until it’s impelled by ethics, by good will—the seeing that the way to take care of self is to be fair to other human beings. In his Goodbye Profit System talks Mr. Siegel showed that an economy based on beating out other people and seeing them in terms of how much money can be extracted from them, no longer works and will never be successful again.

People have mostly felt that having good will for somebody else was a luxury: that the practical, efficient thing was to manage others as a means of having one’s way; conquer them; get the better of them—or simply not think about them. All that is contempt. Mr. Siegel showed that economics based on contempt not only is unjust but has now become irremediably inefficient. Good will is no luxury, but the one practical basis for our economy.

To illustrate the two warring purposes—contempt and good will—I look a little at humanity of around 1380.

Geoffrey Chaucer: Against the Profit Motive

In the General Prologue to his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes the various people who find themselves traveling together on an excursion to Canterbury. Each has an attitude to the world, and Chaucer is deep, funny, charming, and musical in describing them. He is certainly no prude or narrow moralizer, but he makes it clear that the persons to be cared for are not the profit-seekers and contempt-babies.

The first person Chaucer tells of is the Knight. And we find this statement about him: “He never yet no vileynye ne sayde / In all his lyf unto no maner wight.” It means: “He never spoke with ill will, in all his life, to a person of any kind.” There is a quiet grandeur to those two Middle English lines. A person, however placed in life, deserves to be treated with respect, not ill will, Chaucer felt. And because the Knight gives that respect, Chaucer cares for him and presents him with a kind dignity that has lasted the centuries.

Also traveling to Canterbury is a Merchant. Chaucer tells how well he is dressed, and then says something of how he uses his mind. This is the Middle English: “His resons he spak ful solempnely, / Sownynge alwey th’encrees of his wynnyng.” That means: “He gave his opinions very pompously, / All of which were in behalf of increasing his profit.” Chaucer states this factually, but he doesn’t like it. He didn’t think the world and people should be seen in terms of what monetary “wynnyng” they could bring oneself.

There is the Friar. Through him and others, Chaucer describes some of the ways that religion was used for profit. This Friar hears confessions, and if you give him enough money he makes your penance light: “Full sweetly he heard confession / And pleasant was his absolution: / He was an easy man to give penance / Where he knew he would be paid well for it.”

Chaucer says this Friar chose not to spend any time with sick or poor people. He dealt instead with rich people and purveyors of food; “And over al ther as profit shoulde arise / Curteis he was and lowely of servyse” (“And wherever profit could arise / Courteous he was, and humble, desirous to serve”). He was, then, a mingling of fake humility and ugly superiority; so are many people who are after profit today.

To Have Feeling

The Prioress is immortal in English literature. Chaucer makes affectionate fun of some of her ways. But he says:

She was so charitable and so pitous

She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous

Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.

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And al was conscience and tendre herte.

That is: “She was so charitable and pitying / She would weep if she saw a mouse / Caught in a trap if it were dead or bled.... / And all was sympathy and tender heart.” To have feeling for life besides one’s own was important to Chaucer. He felt that there was nothing more important, and that it was opposed to the exploiting of the world for profit.

There is the Lawyer, who uses his knowledge to get “fees and robes.”

There is the Doctor, who, even when he doesn’t know the cause or remedy of someone’s ailment, prescribes medicine anyway, because he and the druggists are in cahoots: “Full ready had he his apothecaries / To send him drugs and potions / For each enabled the other to make profit.”

There is another man of the Church, the Pardoner, who makes a lot of money selling people fake religious relics: for instance, “a pillow case / Which he said was Our Lady’s veil.” Using men and women for money, Chaucer says in Middle English, “He made...the peple his apes”—he made monkeys of them.

The two travelers to Canterbury whom Chaucer clearly respects most are the Clerk, or university scholar, and the Parson. Both are in opposition to the profit way. The Parson could have a luxurious ecclesiastical position, but doesn’t want it. He really cares about people and wants to preach “Christ’s gospel truly.” He has good will. Even in translation these lines reverberate with deep, kind strength: “A good man was there of religion / Who was a poor Parson of a town, / But rich he was in holy thought and work.”

Then there is the Clerk. Chaucer says he is not after a lucrative job; he is interested in knowledge: “He would rather have at his bed’s head / Twenty books, clad in black or red, / Of Aristotle and his philosophy, / Than rich garments.” The Clerk illustrates this sentence from Eli Siegel’s Self and World: “We can own the world only by knowing it.”

So does Chaucer. He is an artist because he used the English of his time to be just to people, objects, thought. I think he would have loved the magnificent justice and scholarship of Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Economics & How People Feel

By Eli Siegel

I felt that tonight I should state once more what others commenting on the economy don’t want to state, and can’t. They cannot see how people feel as a factor in what is going on economically in America. In America now, people are discontented with the profit system. That is to be inquired into. The question is: Is there discontent with the basis on which money is made?

I have read some current articles this evening, but there will be just one item about something having to do with history: the tariff. And tariff is getting to be more important now. In a textbook I’ve used in these classes, Ault and Eberling’s Principles and Problems of Economics, we have on page 454 the repetition of a phrase one can see, with ethics present, in many histories of America: the Tariff of 1828 was called “The Tariff of Abominations.” Everybody wanted to be protected. Ault and Eberling have this sentence:

However, producers of wool and hemp in Ohio and Kentucky insisted that these agricultural products be protected also, while the miners of Pennsylvania demanded a duty on pig iron.

I’m reading this because it shows what America is like. That there should be wool produced in Ohio and Kentucky, and hemp, which is very useful—well, it shows what the good earth can bring forth. Then there’s pig iron, with that funny name. The producers wanted to be protected: that is, to have wool and hemp, and also pig iron, not come so much from Europe and elsewhere.

The writers deal with an old way of putting a competitor out of business: you lower your price while he’s doing his best, in such a way that he can’t meet it and all people come to you. Then, when people come to you and don’t come to him, you can raise the price again. If you haven’t had that experience, you’ve missed something:

It was and still is the practice among domestic competitors as well as foreign for strong and well established industries to freeze out the young or weak competitors by price-cutting. After competition is stifled, prices will again be advanced.

There is a section with the heading “The Infant Industry Argument”: that is, the tariff has to protect a new industry. For instance, suppose somebody starts making baby carriages and he doesn’t want any baby carriages from England or France—neither do the babies. Somehow or other, you have the protection of baby carriages in the next tariff bill.

Baby carriages also have a history. There were perambulators, but I haven’t seen them written of in early American fiction. I can’t account for this except by the fact that maybe there weren’t any. But I’m willing to learn.

To make a baby carriage fitting for a baby, in which the baby can sleep and also go about, is something. It needs subtlety and a very profound sense of the possibilities of infancy. So if this is a digression, it’s in a good cause.

Then, about tariff, which is part of one of the most complicated things in the world—imports and exports—there is this soothing sentence:

Further, it might be argued that under normal conditions an excess of imports of merchandise shows a healthy state, for it can take place only with a rich country having large investments abroad.

I choose to make up this little homily: A person doesn’t have to be afraid of importing into himself all that the outside world offers: he may be a rich country. The fact that you import things doesn’t mean that you are in a poor state; after all, as these writers show, America, when it was richest, imported most. If we have “large investments abroad” we can take whatever comes our way gracefully and deeply. I think there’s a graceful lesson there.

What I read describes things happening in the commercial world, which should be noted. Psychology and economics do meet, and say something about each other.


Our Big Mistake about People

By Bruce Blaustein

The big mistake we make about people is: we don’t see them as having insides that are as real, deep, and complex as our own. And often we see people either as existing to serve and praise us or as adversaries to beat. These were, very much, mistakes I made, and I’m grateful for what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism that enabled me to change.

A Small Boy Makes a Big Mistake

In his Children’s Guide to Parents and Other Matters, Eli Siegel wrote:

You like people truly when you can truly think they exist to make you more: that is, they exist to make you more when you know them, not when, just, you are fooling them and making them do as you want them to do, and are not giving them insides of the sort you give yourself.

These two ways of seeing people were in me as I grew up in Baldwin, Long Island. When I was twelve I signed up for a pen pal at the Parker Pen pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. As Nurud Doja of India and I exchanged letters, I was excited to learn, through him, about the extended family system of India, aspects of the Hindu religion, and what it was like to live in the small village of Patna. Through Nurud, I saw the world as mysterious and friendly, exciting; and the feelings and hopes of a Hindu boy in India seemed not so different from those of a Jewish boy in America.

But I had another way of seeing people. I liked being able to fool them. And I enjoyed making fun of them, having contempt. One thing I used was the fact that we Blausteins were tall, and to me tall meant better. I’d joke about the boy next door, “He’ll have to use two telephone books when he drives!,” and enjoy the laughter that followed.

I received lots of praise, especially when the relatives visited on Sundays. My brother would be outside playing with his friends while I arranged to be the center of attention. I played a simple song on the piano, “Mr. Frog Is Full of Hops,” and received a standing ovation with everyone smiling. I recited lines I’d written, and heard, “It’s poetry!” On such occasions I would feel triumphant, and think, “They’re so foolish!” Then at night, lying in bed, I’d be scared, unable to sleep.

Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, when I spoke about those times, Ellen Reiss asked me: “As you made people smile, do you think it was honestly or dishonestly?” I said I felt it was dishonestly, and she continued: “I think you could honestly want to cheer up people. But also, did you want to fool them? Did you feel the charming, cheering-up person was different from your thoughts about people to yourself?” As I heard these questions, I felt a weight lifting from me.

I began to see that the agitated, speedy quality I’d always referred to as “the Blaustein personality” came from my scornful attitude to people, an indisposition to be affected by them. This was my big mistake: feeling I’d be somebody through making less of other people. I began to ask myself, “What do I want to bring out in this person? Do I hope this person is stronger? What can I learn from him or her?” As I consciously asked these questions and really began to listen—not pretend—I felt calmer, happier.

I began to have much more feeling for people, and one of them was Lauren Phillips, a beautiful young woman from New Jersey, with radiant green eyes, a keen, critical mind, and a wonderful sense of humor. I felt that she wanted to understand me, and that I didn’t have to put on a show. She is now my wife, and I love her very much. Together we’re learning from Aesthetic Realism how to see other people deeply, fairly—as a means of knowing ourselves and this world we’re in.

What a Young Man Is Learning Now

When you begin to see you’re related to other people, that your feelings are more like theirs than different, you become kinder and happier. That is what a young man of twelve, whom I’ll call Brian Kelly, of Nyack, NY, was learning in his Aesthetic Realism consultations.

He appeared very charming and agreeable, but he had thoughts about other people that he didn’t like himself for having. He told us he felt bored in school and didn’t see why he had to do the work the other children did. He said too that he fought with other boys and had even wanted to punch his friend Paul.

Like many young people across America, Brian was also affected by his father’s financial problems and uncertainty about the future. But he was not interested in how his father might be feeling—only in how those problems affected him, including his not being able to get some things he wanted.

“Do you think,” we asked, “you have more worries than your father, or your father has more worries than you?”

BK. My father has more worries.

Consultants.Would it do you good to want to know some of your father’s worries, what goes on inside of him?

BK. Maybe.

Consultants. Do you think your father is like many fathers—worried about having enough money to take care of his children? Is it good for you to think about this?

He thought a moment. “Yes,” he said.

In his next consultation we looked at a photograph by the important photographer Lewis Hine, who captured on film some of the horrible effects of the profit system on children. Brian read the caption: “Leo, 48 inches high, 8 years old, picks up bobbins at 15 cents a day. Fayetteville, Tennessee. November, 1910.” Then he looked more closely.

This photograph of a little boy in the cotton mill where he worked day after day is about something cruel: child labor. Because Lewis Hine so much wanted to show Leo’s situation honestly, the boy’s true dignity, his meaning, comes forth. We were moved seeing how stirred Brian was; something new was happening in him. He excitedly asked: “Is he by himself in there? Are his parents there?”

Brian Kelly is changing. He thinks more about what affects other people and what they deserve. And therefore he is prouder, and more himself.