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.