The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Our Self: Intimate & Wide

Dear Unknown Friends:

We begin here to serialize the definitive, thrilling lecture The Self Is, which Eli Siegel gave in 1970. It is, as he says, philosophic. It is also immediate, vivid—and vital, because every person is a self. And we’ll never understand who we are—we’ll never understand our confusions, our purposes, our mistakes, what success for us is, what failure is, what we’re asking of ourselves, what it means to be true to ourselves or betray ourselves—unless we understand what that human self is, now so intimate under our own skin.

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which shows that the self of every person is aesthetic: it is a situation of opposites needing to be one. And the chief opposites are these: every person is “just me,” is so particular; yet we are related to everything, and we become ourselves the more we meet that everything truly. A baby just born will become increasingly who she is as she is affected by light, sounds, the touch of blanket and air and mother. Eventually words will get within her: she’ll speak a language created over thousands of years by people she never met, and she’ll use it to express her own feelings. She’ll learn about numbers and facts, and become more herself through taking them within her.

Aesthetic Realism shows too that every person’s big mistake is to use a notion of oneself as particular to look down on that other aspect of self: the world that enables us to be. There’s a terrific desire to “lessen...what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” This desire is contempt. It’s ordinary, seems to purr along; but contempt, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, is the cause of every cruelty. And it is the weakener of mind: it’s that within ourselves which interferes with every aspect of our life.

We can see better the great Aesthetic Realism understanding of self through looking at an instance of how the self is presented elsewhere.

On February 28 the New York Times published an article by Jillian Jordan, Paul Bloom, Moshe Hoffman, and David Rand titled “The Point of Moral Outrage.” The idea in it is that when people express dislike of injustice, their deep impetus is not anger at evil but the desire to look good and impress others. This matter has everything to do with what the self is, because it concerns what drives the self, and whether or not the self is fundamentally ethical.

What Does It Come From?

About a person’s expressing indignation at injustice, the authors write:

Why do we get so mad, even when the offense in question does not concern us directly?...Expressing moral outrage can serve as a form of personal advertisement: People who invest time and effort in condemning those who behave badly are trusted more.

It happens that there has been through the centuries much more of a desire to squelch one’s ethical qualms than to express them. Historically, people stifled their qualms about slavery, child labor, fraud, lying, and more, in order to be comfortable and liked. Sometimes, yes, they acted outraged at injustice in order to be liked. However, and this is a huge however: anytime we see something ethically ugly, and have some awareness we’re seeing that, it does outrage the depths of us, truly and inevitably, whatever we may do or not do about it. The reason is: the self is what Eli Siegel described it as being, an aesthetic matter. We have to do with the whole world. We are related to everything. He wrote in Self and World:

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.

The aesthetics of self is also its ethics: since we are related to everything, an injustice to anything affects us deeply, organically—however much we want to lie about that injustice or smooth it over for the purpose of being liked and getting ahead. Deeply, every person is disgusted by what is unjust, including what’s unjust in oneself.

We can compare a statement over two thousand years old to what’s said in the Times article. The Roman playwright Terence wrote in the 2nd century BC, “Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto”—“I am a man: I consider nothing human alien to me.” Did that statement, with its oneness of logic and fervency, come from a desire to impress, to create a “personal advertisement,” or is it sincere? Why has it affected millions of people? Is it because the sentence represents what is central to our self: our relation, irrevocable and grand, to what’s not us?

And take a statement made by an American, Eugene V. Debs, in 1918:

Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings....I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Again, what does this come from? And why are people thrilled hearing it? We can be cheap as hell, cold to the feelings of others. BUT: we don’t like ourselves for being cheap and cold—and that is because we are related to the whole world. Our dislike of ourselves, our nervousness and guilt, come from this aesthetic and ethical fact, stated by Mr. Siegel: “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.’”

The Self & Evolution

The authors of the Times article say they are helping to solve

an evolutionary mystery: Why would a selfless tendency like moral outrage result from the “selfish” process of evolution? One important piece of the answer is that expressing moral outrage actually does benefit you, in the long run, by improving your reputation.

This, of course, brings up the big matter of what the main thing in evolution is. And calling oneself an “evolutionary psychologist” is not the same as understanding what evolution centrally is and means. I’m not speaking at length about evolution here. But there is nothing larger in it than the idea that all creatures, all forms of life, are related. In fact, that’s the reason various people are still angry with Darwin: I’m too good to be related to that—that monkey! or that one-celled organism!

There’s also the matter of what another word in the just-quoted passage means: the word selfish. If a basic desire of the self is to see meaning in things, find value in the world—then one takes care of oneself, is selfish, by doing so. Evolution is much about selfishness in that large sense.

Another big question arising from the Times article is this: Even if a person showed “moral outrage” in order to impress others—why would that impress them; why do human beings look favorably on combating injustice? Why do they think well of someone who seems to hate unfairness? It’s because the depths of people feel that justice matters, matters to who I am. It’s because, as Eli Siegel explains, our self, our very own self, is an aesthetic oneness of point and width, of only me and everything.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Self Is

By Eli Siegel

In this philosophic talk I use a book of our time that is quite popular and somewhat deserves to be. It is by David Riesman: Selected Essays from Individualism Reconsidered. Whatever else Riesman does, he writes well. And some of the keenest things said in recent years are in this collection. What is not there is also something to be thought about.

The talk itself is called The Self Is. The self as such, in the treatment it’s been given, has been insulted in more ways than can be told. One of the reasons for Riesman’s popularity is that, in his books, there’s a constant counterpoint, a dance between the two parts of self, although he puts it most often as the self as alone and the self as participating in the group, or in society—a person at Yankee Stadium and then in his own room.

The Two Aspects of Self

The self has the two forms that, let’s say, a triangle has. There’s one part, which is a point, and then there is a wide base. There are many other ways of describing it. It’s like the way the eye exists: the eye is fairly small, but can look out across an ocean. And Riesman was aware of a certain mobile dichotomy, a prancing between east and west. There are many sentences of his which have the two aspects of self in a lively fashion, and I want to be just to those. I cannot say that the story is there entirely. I don’t think that Riesman sees the self as an aesthetic proposition, though he says quite a few things that would go for that.

The self is. Then, what does that mean? We have to begin as simply as possible. We can begin with the fact that every person waiting in a doctor’s office seems to be a person, and also carries his troubles along with himself. His troubles and his self are hard to separate. And this happens elsewhere. The self, then, takes things along with it.

That fact is in a passage from the first essay in the Riesman book. He talks of a conference on science, philosophy, and religion, and says there were only four papers that dealt with values in a concrete and empirical way. (You can describe the self as that which has a bellyache on the same day that it has values.) Riesman has this on page 1:

It seems plain to me that men cannot live without values, without preferences and choices....

“Men cannot live without values.” What a self can’t be without can logically be described as having to do with the definition of self, because what a thing cannot exist without is, as they say in business, of the essence. The self has itself and it does have values. For example, we find in the packaging of cereals that a boy can be much taken with a football player, or a hero of some kind: the boy is supposed to have values, and wants to imitate this Notre Dame left end.

We Want What’s Outside to Be Of Us

Values have to do with what we respect and would like to have. And they’ve been talked of from the beginning. There are two great sets in the western world. One is Plato’s: the good, the true, and the beautiful. Then, St. Paul, living after Plato, also seemingly speaking Greek, has: faith, hope, charity, “but the greatest of these is charity,” or good will, or love. Ever so many things are called values. And the big thing to see is that, in the same way as the self can be thought of as carrying a washtub or baseball bat or sheet of music, so the self has values—which means the values are outside of it. You can’t carry anything without its being somewhat outside of you. The terms carry and have are terms that I love, and I certainly shan’t scant them, because the relation of is and have is a philosophic matter.

Values are things we have but also go for. So there are two aspects of their being outside the self: you go for them, even as you have them.

There are other terms that have been used for the values people go for. For example, the value of progress: what could we do without our idea of progress, which can be said to be a phase of hope? Then, the great value that’s caused a lot of trouble is love. People are looking for love, which means it’s somewhat outside of themselves. Meantime, it’s supposed that you also have it.

Along with beauty, you can say that form is a value. You can go further and say that imbalance and balance are values; today symmetry and asymmetry are values—but those are more to the side.

We have the value, which comes from truth, called knowledge. And science occasionally says it’s a value. It’s a little coy on the subject, but science is a value. Art is a value. There’s the tremendous value of justice. Then, there’s a more intimate value, called friendship. Peace has sometimes been seen as a value. There is the tremendous value which is God.

These values have to do with self, because I think nobody can say they’re not interested. If it’s a real value, as soon as it’s mentioned, you find you want some.

There’s humor; that’s been seen as a value. Imagination. Poetry. Music. Law sometimes is seen as a beautiful thing, with a wonderful person carrying scales and looking composed. Mathematics has been seen as a value that gives stability to all other values. History has been seen as a value.

And people have said, What would we do without laughter? Of course, we don’t mean giggling and hysterics and just lip motion—we mean the real thing, the abandon that God sometimes vouchsafes to his troubled creatures. Then, life itself is seen as a value. And value itself is given a value. Reality is given a value. Meaning is given a value.

If you’re a football coach you will talk of the tremendous value of sportsmanship, the value of fair play. You can talk of the tremendous value of love for your hometown. Patriotism is a value. And religion is a value.

Now, I’m saying this because it’s evidence that the self is here and there. And the here and there are still looking to be in the best relation.

A Beginning

The thing that made Riesman popular is that he goes along with the feeling there’s something wrong in individualism by itself and there’s something wrong in groupism by itself. The next step would be: how should they be together? Riesman does not say that. But he gives it to both of them, which is valuable, because once you know that being an individual isn’t enough and being in a group isn’t enough, well, it’s a beginning. And he has many lively things on the subject. He does hedge in a most subtle manner. I cannot think of a better hedger. He is a person who can hang around a hedge and get the utmost hedginess from it. Some of that is in a lively half-paragraph on page 19. There’s this sentence: “Not all the developments towards groupism are to be deplored.” What are you going to do with that? In other words, there can be such a thing as good groupism. Then:

Groupism rests in part on an increasing sensitivity to subtle states of feeling, and this is an advance.

Well, that’s not wholly accurate. A gang is a group, and it’s not very “subtle”—you just want to be one of the gang. I’ve seen girls in the backyard with their jacks, and they were already in a group. They were already putting out their tongues at girls on the other block.

Only, as always, such advances bring with them a dialectical train of new perplexities and limitations.

Which is quite true. If you want to be of society, it’s not easy. If you want to be alone, it’s not easy. And it would seem that if you can’t be completely comfortable being alone, and you can’t be completely comfortable being in a group, then let’s see what the relation is. One of the greatest words of value, which I didn’t mention, is relation.

We must skeptically question the demands for greater social participation and belongingness among the group-minded while, on another front, opposing the claims of those who for outworn reasons cling to individualism as a (largely economic) shibboleth.

The two things are meeting, and they hurt each other. And everybody is in a messy state about it. I’m being very careful. Everybody—including, I’m afraid, Riesman himself—is in a mess about these two things, the group and individuality. And if you think you aren’t—well, try to convince yourself.

Occasionally Riesman does write like somebody presenting the idea of pep to Tufts University graduates:

We must give every encouragement to people to develop their private selves—to escape from groupism—while realizing that, in many cases, they will use their freedom in unattractive or “idle” ways. [P. 26]

—Meaning that if people escape from a group they might get into a mess anyway, because there are more than one way of being wrong. You can be false to yourself in company and you can be false to yourself alone.

There Should Be No Sacrificing

Riesman is concerned with how an individual is sacrificed to the group. And this is what made the book popular, because it happens to be true: when people come together, something cheap comes to be electrical among them, and Riesman noticed it:

I am insisting that no ideology, however noble, can justify the sacrifice of an individual to the needs of the group. [P. 27]

So the group is constantly looking to make a person an instrument, and going against the Kantian principle that every person is an end in himself. The other thing that’s true is: you cannot sacrifice the sincere purpose of a group to the whims and petulance of an individual.

Riesman, William H. Whyte, and Vance Packard all deal with the interplay of self and what seems to be other than self. Of these, Riesman is the best writer. But the question is: are those other things in self too? How did the self ever come to have a group? The group possibility must have been in the self. In other words, why do the beavers keep together? —That was from the first essay of Individualism Reconsidered.