Pride & Humility: The Drama in Everyone
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 3 of the great 1970 lecture The Self Is, by Eli Siegel. Yes, the self is—it is ours, and there is nothing more intimate about us than it is. Aesthetic Realism explains what has never been understood before: this thing, the self, so particular to each of us, is fundamentally an aesthetic matter. It is the oneness of opposites—first of all, the biggest opposites: our own individual being and the whole outside world, to which we’re unendingly, indissolubly related.
Further, the most hurtful thing in everyone, the thing in us that weakens our own life and mind, is contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” Contempt is the self’s looking down on what’s outside it, and this looking down can go all the way from sneering at someone’s hairstyle to demeaning a whole race. But contempt is also, and always, the pitting of one aspect of ourselves against the other. Whatever form our contempt takes, whether fierce or seemingly delicate, it is always an assault by us against that which enables us to be ourselves: our relation to the world. Contempt is ordinary—and the source of every cruelty.
We Want Both
In this lecture, Mr. Siegel is discussing statements by a writer whom he respects but does not always agree with: David Riesman (1909-2002). And in the present section, he speaks about something that arises from those central opposites of individuality and relation: he speaks about the drama, in self, of pride and humility. There is much pain in that drama; there are confusion and disheartening turmoil about pride and humility, in everyone’s life.
All of us want to be proud; of course we do. We also want to be humble, because we want to look up to something, feel there are things—even people—that have some value we don’t yet find in ourselves. We want to feel, humbly, that there’s a bigness and beauty and meaning in things which we can’t sum up, have under our thumb. Unless we feel this, unless we have this humility, we’ll feel we’re in a world that’s empty, shoddy, dull. BUT: if we don’t feel that our looking up also makes us big, even glorious, our self will be awry, in disarray, imperiled. In other words, if our humility isn’t also proud we’ll have a self we dislike, a self with which we’re profoundly disgusted.
Then, there is our notion of pride. Unless our self-esteem, our sense of our own importance, is also respectful, honoring of what the world is—we will be, again, awry, deeply messy, imperiled.
Usually people feel that when they’re humble they have debased themselves and that in making much of themselves they’re scornful of others. This is the chief reason people dislike themselves—have an ongoing ill-at-easeness and shame.
Pride, Humility, & Love
Take a couple in New Jersey, whom we can call Lacey and Sid. They’ve been married eight years. Though they don’t talk about this with each other, or even clearly to themselves, they both feel they’ve humbled themselves to the other. In a sense they’re right: after all, each feels he or she needs the other. But there’s a difference between humility and humiliation, and inwardly each takes the need for the other as a humiliation—and has ways of “paying back” the other for such a humiliation. Lacey, for instance, feels driven to manage Sid, and has a certain self-esteem (a fake and short-lived self-esteem) in seeing him as a fool, quite inferior to her in intellect and sensitivity. Sid doesn’t know that he makes up for having humbled himself to a woman by being surly with her, and also often silent and aloof.
An Aesthetic Realism definition of love is “proud need,” and whenever love is true we see that beautiful oneness of pride and need, pride and humility. We see it, for example, in these words of Juliet, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep. The more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.”
As Mr. Siegel quotes passages from Riesman’s Individualism Reconsidered, we see something of how intense are these opposites: the self as proud and humble; the self making itself aloof, apart, and also wanting to put itself aside and be selfless. We see too that writers, like others, have not known what Aesthetic Realism explains: that these opposites must be one or we will never like ourselves—that is, they are aesthetic opposites. Every time we feel something is beautiful, we feel there is pride in that thing, at one with humility.
We can look at a large tree, with branches spreading, offering their bounty to the sky and earth in this spring weather. The tree, maybe an oak tree, has Juliet’s humility, her giving herself. And it stands tall in its self-assertion; it is firm, as the rhythm of Juliet’s words is. Both the tree and Juliet seem to reach, with humility; and also proudly affirm themselves and soar.
Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that art does what we want to do, what we thirst to do, what we suffer from not being able to do: art makes opposites one, including these magnificent, tormenting opposites of pride and humility. For example, a true artist is always humble. In a certain way, he puts himself aside to be fair to the object or subject. He wants to see truly—to use himself to be fair to what’s not himself. But he is not sacrificial. He is at his proudest as he tries to see truly. He is important because he wants to be fair, expressed because he wants to be fair—even immortal because he has been fair. That is true whatever the art. Beethoven was humble and proud at once. Cézanne was humble and proud at once. Shakespeare, like the Juliet he created, was proud and humble at once.
Aesthetic Realism, then, explains what people have not known: the self of everyone, the self that’s so intimately ours, will never be its authentic self unless we are trying honestly to put opposites together. And we need to learn from Aesthetic Realism how to do so. Is the desire to see truly the greatest pride and also the greatest humility? Is it a oneness of the two? Yes. And Eli Siegel himself exemplified this fact all the time, with the richest diversity and grandeur.