Our Ethical and Aesthetic Mind
Dear Unknown Friends:
The lecture by Eli Siegel we are now serializing, Mind and Attention, was given in March 1949. And in it is that understanding of the human mind—one’s own mind, one’s own self—which people are thirsting for now, and are not finding in the therapists, counselors, books on self, magazines, talk shows. In the section of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel explains some of the things that mind can do which have most bewildered people and frightened them. His explanation is not only clear, logical, historic, true: it is given with his beautiful grace and humor; with his scholarship, which was always at one with tremendous kindness; with his honesty, which was utter and therefore always at one with ease.
Every person wants to feel good and to think well of himself or herself. To understand why a person (who may be ourselves) does not, and to know what will end this person’s unease, nervousness, deep discomfort, we have to know what the nature of the human mind is. The various counselors today do not have that knowledge. It exists, magnificently, in Aesthetic Realism. So with tremendous gratitude and critical joy, I present here something of what Eli Siegel showed the human mind to be. And I use a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Around 1885, Hopkins wrote, in one of his intricate, jaggedly musical sonnets, about the fact that our own minds can give us so much trouble—why should we be against ourselves so much?; why aren’t we more soothing to ourselves? The sonnet begins:
My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
This means: Let me pity more my own heart, be kind and charitable from now on to myself; let me stop using my own mind to torment that same mind. People all over the world are thinking something like that right now.
There is, of course, a huge desire to say the reason our minds can come up with thoughts against ourselves, the reason we can accuse ourselves, has a source outside us: somebody else made us dislike ourselves. This desire has been much fostered by the counselors of our time, who have been ready to tell you the chief reason you disesteem yourself is that you were abused by somebody in some fashion.
Our Mind Is Ethical and Aesthetic
Eli Siegel showed that we can give ourselves trouble, we can make ourselves feel bad, we can be unwittingly severe with ourselves, we can dislike ourselves—because our mind, by its nature, is ethical and aesthetic. This principle, stated by him, is true about our seemingly so refractory mind: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” There is an ethical demand in us, which is also an aesthetic demand, to put together the two opposites of self and world. In the same way that we are made with a need to breathe the world’s air, we are made with an irrevocable inner demand that we be just to this world we were born into—see meaning in it, care for it.
“Man’s deepest desire, his largest desire,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 1). This desire is a force as existent in us as our heartbeat, saying, “Listen lady, listen gent—you can’t be yourself unless you are trying to be just to the world, which includes trying to know it!” The goodness of our mind, its intelligence, its originality, is how fully we welcome into it what is not ourselves. A mind that doesn’t have the alphabet in it, knowledge of arithmetic, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the play Hamlet, awareness of the American Civil War, is a mind deeply curtailed, not truly itself—but the alphabet, numbers, Beethoven’s notes, Hamlet, the Civil War are the outside world. This is aesthetics—the oneness of opposites—and ethics: for our mind to be really ours is for it to be just to the world.
The aesthetics and ethics of mind is also in the fact that we cannot like ourselves unless we are trying to like the world. Mr. Siegel writes, in a sentence I love: “The greatest biological fact in human history is this: that the whole world went to the making of every individual; in other words, that it was the universe, or existence, or reality, which gave us birth” (Self and World, p. 52). Our atoms are not different from those of a tree, a brick, a lizard. And we have, Mr. Siegel showed, in our physical beings and personalities, the opposites that are reality’s. For example, the being and change that go on in all our cells are opposites to be seen any day in the sky, which is there always yet is always changing. Our personalities have in them gentleness and strength—which are also in a bird flying—and we want gentleness and strength to be together well in us, as they are in that bird. That we are continuous with what the world is, has to do with the Hopkins lines—with why a person uses his own mind unwittingly to pain himself. Mr. Siegel explains, in other sentences I love for their sheer and vibrant truth, and their kind and ringing prose:
When we are unfair to the world, it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it....The unconscious, as judge, has said: “Do not separate yourself from reality. If you do, you are not being yourself entirely, and one side of you will punish the other.” [Self and World, pp. 45, 53]
The Other Desire
Mr. Siegel has explained what it is in us that we ourselves punish ourselves for whether we wish to or not. It is contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” Contempt pits those opposites of care for self and justice to the world against each other: it is utterly unaesthetic; yet it is “the greatest danger or temptation of man.” He showed that contempt is the source of every unjust act and mean thought. For instance, racism, in all its hideousness, comes from that feeling “I’m more if I can make what is different from me less.” Meanwhile, contempt is immensely ordinary. It is the hope that someone look stupid so we can look smarter. It is the feeling, constant in people, that the chief thing about another person is how he treats us—we do not have to think about who he is, how he sees everything. It is the constant sense of ourselves as more real than other people: our feelings are important, urgent; theirs are dim or nonexistent.
The next lines of Hopkins’ poem tell, in his usefully rocky way, that he is unable to bring comfort to himself:
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.
This means: I am looking for comfort, but can’t get it groping in that comfortless territory which is me, any more than a blind person can find day in his darkness; or any more than someone suffering thirst is able to quench that thirst, though there is so much wetness in the world. The reason is: unless we are able clearly to criticize the contempt we have—nothing, no amount of praise, will have us feel at ease. We punish ourselves inevitably for contempt. But we need to be able to criticize our contempt consciously, accurately. Because of Aesthetic Realism, at last we can! This fact is cause for tremendous celebration in everyone’s personal life—and nationally too, as the Declaration of Independence is seen as cause for national celebration for the rest of time.