The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

King Richard III & Everyone

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the great 1973 lecture The Scientific Method in Feeling, by Eli Siegel. It is about those two tremendous opposites in every person: knowing and feeling. Just about everyone has the sense “I’m a different person reasoning, knowing, from the person with emotions.” People have taken this rift in them for granted. Yet it has made them ashamed, and pained, also unkind. In the lecture we’re serializing and in Aesthetic Realism itself, Mr. Siegel shows that the division doesn’t have to be. In fact, feeling and knowing are always simultaneous. Feelings themselves can be known, seen accurately, and it’s necessary for us to want to know them.

In the lecture Mr. Siegel uses an anthology of English literature to show that true knowing is inseparable from feeling. And as I say this, I say too that Mr. Siegel himself embodied the oneness of those opposites, magnificently—in his teaching, writing, life. His desire was always to know. He wanted to know the world in all its fullness and immediacy. His scholarship was wide, deep, rich—truly unsurpassed—and it was always warm, vibrant with life, passionate.

In America Now

At this time, when there has been so much tumult and shock in America, it’s necessary more than ever that we want to know what goes on within ourselves and others. It’s necessary that we get to primal matters: that we ask, What kind of feeling do we want to have? What kind of feeling is best for America? Asking this is patriotism. It is also science—because to be scientific, Mr. Siegel explained, is to go after knowing, to know we’re going after it, and to see knowing as preferable to soothing or aggrandizing our ego.

In the section of the lecture included here, he quotes Thomas More on King Richard III. And now, in behalf of understanding our feelings and what America is looking for, I am going to quote from an earlier lecture in which Mr. Siegel also spoke on Richard III—and used him to describe a fight in everybody. He gave that lecture on May 29, 1970. Its title is There Are Ambition, Money, Love, and Energy.

Richard III, who reigned in England from 1483 to 1485, has been seen as a person who would do anything to get what he wanted, including kill anyone who stood in the way of his becoming king. He is a character in three plays of Shakespeare. In one of them he says, “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile” (3 Henry VI). Mr. Siegel explained:

Richard has what everyone has—the feeling the world exists so that you can have your way with it. [He] represents the ego without bars, the nude ego that is aggressive, interested in nothing but itself.

We Need to Understand the Fight

The situation of America today—the bewilderment, the whirling, the anger—is a demand that we look at what Mr. Siegel is the philosopher to explain: there is a fight in every person between two desires, one of which Richard III stands for vividly. That is: we want to have contempt for the world—which includes looking down on people and truth, and manipulating these to enhance ourselves in a spurious fashion. But the desire for contempt is at war with another desire of ours: to respect this multitudinous world we were born into, and become our full, glorious selves by being grandly just to its facts and happenings and people.

The fight is personal for everyone, and it is also historical. In 1970 Mr. Siegel explained that economics based on contempt—on seeing people in terms of how much money can I squeeze from you and your labor?—had failed and would never succeed again, despite anything that might be done to keep it going. This is not a political matter. It is a matter, Mr. Siegel showed, of ethics: the only way an economy can now succeed is for it to be based on good will, the honest asking and answering of the question “What does a person deserve by being alive?”

Shakespeare’s King Richard III is the most famous work on that monarch, and Mr. Siegel explained that it was very popular from the time it first appeared because

people felt they were Richard—how wonderful to have one’s way without any interference and if there is interference you do away with it. We are all miniature, muted Richard IIIs. Everyone is more interested in having one’s way than deserving it.

And yet, victorious contempt has never satisfied anyone, because the human self is made ethically, aesthetically: our deepest purpose is to be ourselves through being just to what’s different. That is why Richard in Shakespeare’s play about him is plagued with bad dreams. And it’s why, after many centuries, an economy based on getting “yours” by taking from people what is theirs has not been able to hum along as it once was able to do.

Mr. Siegel said in his 1970 discussion of Richard III:

People feel they can be selfish all they please. It has an effect on the corpuscles and cells. The literature of the world has tried to say, If you have anything of the world make sure you deserve it. Anytime we make money and don’t feel we deserve it, we are hurting ourselves.... Why is the phrase “I made a killing” used in business, however jestingly?

Everyone Should Ask

What Mr. Siegel explained and asked in that 1970 discussion is throbbingly needed by America today. For example, he said:

It is a good thing to see the absence of good will not faring so well. This has to do with ambition in America....Is there a good ambition and a bad ambition? There is a kind of ambition which is scornful of the world. But what is the largest thing? Is it the seeing of the world or its conquering?

Everyone should ask: “Is the way I’m going for something really liked by me?” “What kind of emotions do I want to have?” “What effect do I want to have on people?”

I think the people of America have a chance now to be deeper than ever, more honest than ever, in looking at each other and themselves. They can be, through the study of Aesthetic Realism, including through the questions just quoted, which Eli Siegel asked.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Kings, Monks, & Motives

By Eli Siegel

In speaking about the scientific method in feeling, the next excerpt from the College Book of English Literature I’ll use is by Thomas More. Literature, for this purpose, can be described as occurring when the personal and impersonal meet in a valuable way. That is the one thing that literature has to have: it has to have the personal and impersonal. And in its highest form it’s poetry.

Thomas More (1478-1535) is now seen as a greater Catholic than he once was thought to be, and is also seen as having more meaning: he is, in terms of the English drama, the “man for all seasons.” He is difficult. And though he was very wise, if he did intend to save himself he wasn’t able to, because he got Henry VIII so angry that Henry VIII thought it well to execute him. If anyone asks you what is in common between Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More, the grisly answer is: they were both beheaded by Henry VIII. They are so different. And More in himself is so different, because there is something so gentle in him and something also so wanting to have the way he saw prevail.

His Utopia is a great socialist work, because it does have a common control of the resources of a country in it. And one of the works of Sir Thomas More is a life of the boldest nobleman in English history, a man who made up his mind that even though he didn’t have the right to be king of England he was going to be anyway. This person is the Earl of Gloucester, Richard III, of whom Shakespeare wrote. The way he got to be king is not praiseworthy. There have been attempts to rehabilitate Richard III. They haven’t wholly succeeded.

Fact & Feeling about Richard III

For this early life of King Richard III, More says he tried to get the facts. He deals with the murder of the two princes, the sons of King Edward IV, Richard’s brother—the finding of an executioner and the appointing him to smother both of them. Those two princes are the subject of a painting of the French Romantic period, a historical painting by Delaroche, and they do look so engaging, those princes. As I read More on the coming death of the two princes, a question that arises is: is melodrama itself, excitement itself, suspense itself, a subject of scientific method? Some of the most careful conversation in relation to television, the drama, film, is how to increase the suspense. It’s almost the same as how to increase the capital of a company.

How can we increase the suspense?: there’s a good deal of thought about that in every field, in relation to anything that’s narrative. The thing that narrative should do is inform; but if it’s going to be read by many readers, it should have some kind of suspense. The two things that have been seen as making narrative interesting (both begin with s) are sex and suspense. And there are many persons who, though they may look at sex books, would rather read Agatha Christie—there’s suspense there. At any time, there’s some writer who has both. Then, there’s a person like Iris Murdoch, who has subtlety and suspense. Kafka, by the way, has philosophy and suspense; you never find out what it’s all about, but that’s just as well.

Suspense is the arousing of one’s desire to know, and that desire is part of the scientific method. If, in the early part of a book, you really want to know why this person was found sitting on a Jacobean chair dead in the cellar—and you keep on wanting to—well, there’s something impelling you. But the desire to know and knowing are quite clearly of scientific method.

In the matter of who killed the two sons of Edward IV, one of whom was entitled to be king, it doesn’t seem to have been Richard III directly. However, the feeling still is that Richard felt these lovely blond boys, his nephews, were in his way. So More is factual—he is the source, apparently, of Shakespeare’s play—but he also shows emotion:

And thus, as I have learned of them that much knew and little cause had to lie, were these two noble princes, these innocent tender children, born of most royal blood, brought up in great wealth, likely long to live to reign and rule in the realm, by traitorous tyranny taken, deprived of their estate, shortly shut up in prison, and privily slain and murdered, their bodies cast God wot where, by the cruel ambition of their unnatural uncle and his dispiteous tormentors.

That’s a long sentence, one of the sentences of Sir Thomas More. The prose of More, with all his being better known, is still not favorite reading, even in Utopia. —So there is this sentence, where More shows indignation at something, indignation had simultaneously with his saying he looked at the facts: “as I have learned of them that much knew and little cause had to lie.”

Who, What, How

If you want to know how something happened, the question whodunit? can be part of the scientific method, along with what dunit? and how did it do it? Whodunit? is not so important in scientific method, although you can study who was responsible for a change in a certain principality of Germany, or why the empire faded—who was responsible for its not being so powerful. But mostly, science has to do with what dunit and how. A great deal of feeling can be there. For example, if you’re happier, you need to ask what dunit and try to find out. In fact, Aesthetic Realism recommends that the problem of happiness be gone after with complete scientific approach, or scientific method. If the matter of calcium deserves the scientific method, certainly happiness does.

Richard III got to be king. But he wasn’t king long, just two years, 1483 to 1485, which shows that if you’re king illegitimately you may not be king long. That has been belied somewhat by William the Conqueror. He got to a kingship by taking a little trip across the Channel at the right time, and knowing something of the opposition, and he was king over twenty years: 1066 to 1087.

Taking Others’ Property

The editors have a sentence that I’ll read, about another subject. The taking of other people’s property is a big thing in history. If it is done grandly, it’s called sometimes “dynastic change.” A person who changed ownership is the person mentioned earlier, Henry VIII, of whom a life that is acceptable has not yet been written. What kind of person was he? He must have had as many personalities as he had wives, and six was the number of wives. —Who first was responsible for the phrase women so often have used, “You’re killing me!”? History says it was Anne Boleyn (I’m trying purposely to be frivolous). Another wife, who followed Anne Boleyn, was the mother of the king in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Edward VI, the king who wasn’t king long. Her name is very much fitting for Aesthetic Realism: Jane Seymour (i.e., see more).

Henry VIII felt that the clergy were too wealthy. This matter of how wealthy the clergy should be, how much ecclesiastical riches there should be, is still with one. King Henry VIII is after the treasure of the Church; and he has Cromwell and Wolsey assisting him, Cromwell in particular. So I’ll read a sentence of the editors on the subject—I’m using it because there’s a mingling in it of romance and factuality.

Sometimes a list of names is romantic. It can be certain western American states. It can be certain places in, say, Ecuador. It can be certain kings. You just say them one after the other and you feel reality is interesting. But here we have the kinds of monks there were. And when you see them all together they sound more interesting than when you see them separately. The sentence has to do with Henry VIII’s wanting money from them. The editors write:

In ten years the crown collected some four million pounds from the diocesan churches and from the monastic establishments of the Benedictines, Franciscans, Augustinians, Carthusians, Dominicans, and Carmelites.

That is quite a lot of monastical history. The names of four of these come from a person: the Benedictines, from Benedict; the Franciscans, Francis of Assisi; Augustinians, from Augustine; Dominicans, from Dominic. The Carthusians, however—that name arises more from a place: it has to do with the Chartreuse Mountains. And the name of the Carmelites has to do with Mount Carmel. But four come from persons—because every now and then somebody would arise in the Catholic Church and say the Church needs to be purer, truer to itself. The Benedictines came to be very early; then later persons would get away from the tough times of the tenth century and find repose in a monastery and also catch up with their reading of Cicero. Well, the names themselves—“the Benedictines, Franciscans, Augustinians, Carthusians, Dominicans, and Carmelites”—if you’re not stirred you have my condolences. There’s feeling in the scientific method. This is a list of the important monkish ways, or monastic procedures, or monasteries in the Middle Ages.

A Desire of Rulers

In this book there’s a quotation from More’s Utopia. The person who tells about Utopia is described as a Portuguese sailor, Raphael Hythlodaye. The editors give a summary of a portion of the book. Hythlodaye has been pointing out that the countries of Europe are not ruled so well, and we have a sentence by the editors summarizing statements by him. That is: it can be said very definitely that we like people to agree with us, and this desire to have people agree with one was a desire of kings and dukes and counts. So this sentence is here:

Notoriously, however, says Hythlodaye, rulers pay no attention to wise counselors, but prefer the enthusiastic approval of “yes-men,” supporting their inordinate love of lebensraum, and of wealth gained by evil means.

There’s a big desire for territory. It’s a wonder that Europe is pretty much as it was in the 7th century, with all the desire for territory. However, it is, pretty much. I’ve looked at maps and I can say that the Europe that followed the invasions of Attila, and Alaric and the Visigoths, and the Vandals is pretty much the Europe right now that is represented by the United Nations. The Rhine is where it was. That’s good news. And the Moselle is where it was. The Volga was hardly heard of at that time. It was a place nobody went to. Meanwhile, the tendency to like persons to agree with one was around.

The history of the European wars is a large matter, and there is feeling with it. When Germany came to be what it is, one country or an empire, after having been a lot of principalities—that has a great deal of feeling with it. You relate Westphalia and Bavaria and Brunswick to Germany, and you get a sense of difference and sameness, part and whole.

Every European conqueror was a person. There are some persons who early felt that the best way of spending their time was to conquer—it was better than studying trigonometry.

Well, that is about yes-men, as mentioned in More’s Utopia.