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.