The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Self: Proud & Humble

By Eli Siegel

A hero of Riesman is the French writer on politics and history who visited America and who does say some big things, keen things, about the thought of Americans in the 1830s: Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59). Riesman quotes him. And in the first passage I’ll read we have a mix-up between the ideas of pride and vanity, which is unfortunate. The distinction made by Aesthetic Realism still holds good: to like yourself for the wrong reason is vanity; to like yourself for the right reason is pride. But the terms do get mixed up.

“Moralists are constantly complaining,” de Tocqueville observed in 1834, “that the ruling vice of the present time is pride. This is true in one sense...; but it is extremely false in another, for the same man who cannot endure subordination or equality has so contemptible an opinion of himself that he thinks he is born only to indulge in vulgar pleasures.”

The businessman has been described that way. And, for instance, the mayor in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is very self-sufficient, but he is also very uncertain of himself. To be a mayor or prefect in France gave you great importance. You felt you were following in the footsteps of Louis XIV, only better. The Nucingens in Balzac are self-sufficient, Père Goriot is self-sufficient, the miser Grandet is sure of himself—and also not. The French novel, like every novel, is a matter of certainty and uncertainty. In Flaubert we have characters who are both. That is so in Bouvard et Pécuchet, and there is Homais in Madame Bovary. Then, there are the characters in Zola, and they are bustling. And Maupassant is just replete with people who speak French better than most of the people here and at the same time are unsure of themselves.

The relation of the two is to be seen—as a father is very sure about business but has a son who gives him the ha-ha and also the run-around and ye olde horse laugh. And Dreiser has people who are sure of themselves in terms of finance but not so sure in terms of women. You can, then, be sure and quite trembling. So de Tocqueville says of the people he met in America: “For the same man who cannot endure subordination or equality has so contemptible an opinion of himself that he thinks he is born only to indulge in vulgar pleasures.”

Every time you do anything, you show the opinion you have of yourself. Your unconscious attitude to yourself has to be shown in how you talk, what you do, how you think; but the two apparent things are talking and doing. For instance, once there was a person who was trying to get into society, and he would have a toothpick in his left pocket. Somehow he felt he could get away with it—it looked ornamental. He was accepted. He had enough money to get by with it, but it was difficult.

De Tocqueville continues, as quoted by Riesman:

“He willingly takes up with low desires without daring to embark on lofty enterprises, of which he scarcely dreams.”

We give ourselves limitations. Many people look at other people and say, His greatest notion doesn’t go beyond that low hill. He makes an ambition out of a mole hill. Well, the self is an attitude to itself and an attitude to all possibility.

Humility & Pride: Aesthetic Opposites

More of the quotation from de Tocqueville:

“Thus, far from thinking that humility ought to be preached to our contemporaries, I would have endeavors made to give them a more enlarged idea of themselves and of their kind.”

There are people who have gone down in history because of their humility. The most noted example of a person who made an art out of humility is St. Francis. But a person quite different from him, St. Bonaventura, the friend of Thomas Aquinas, did well too. And there are other persons who have humility—like Elizabeth Fry, and certain nurses in the Civil War.

Humility is something that has been in history. The Pope has washed the feet of unknown and impecunious Italians; this is a showing of humility. Humility is a value of Christianity and other religions. It’s a value in Buddhism. And it’s to be seen in the first Psalm: do not sit “in the seat of the scornful.” So what humility is, is something to see. People will say in after-dinner speeches, All the things said about me this evening make me very humble; I’m not sure that I deserve them.

“I would have endeavors made to give them a more enlarged idea of themselves....Humility is unwholesome to them; what they want most is, in my opinion, pride.”

In dealing with humility well, you should also deal with pride well. The question then is: If the self wants to do well with humility and pride, is the self an aesthetic inevitability in terms of its purpose, if not in terms of its accomplishment? There is a kind of pride that is false. There are quite a few characters in literature who have that, and also characters who have false humility. There is Pavel Smerdyakov in the Brothers Karamazov of Dostoyevsky. He is a deeper Uriah Heep.

We have these two things, pride and humility. And if people have to have pride and humility, that means they have to have an attitude to something not themselves. A mountain can give you humility, as a bank can, and also a person who reads Hebrew or Greek on sight—and all these are not yourself.

After quoting de Tocqueville, Riesman says:

True individuality...is based on an awareness of, and liking for, one’s self in its particularity and uniqueness.

But if you asked any person, What is your particularity and uniqueness? it would be hard for the person to answer. Even if he felt he had a certain disagreeableness, he found many competitors—people who also had it. What is his uniqueness? He couldn’t say he saw baseball in a peculiar way, or he knew some 18th-century composer no one else ever heard of. Sometimes that happens, but it doesn’t last too long, because as soon as you tell about your discovery you’re in danger: the peculiar gets around. What is your particularity and your uniqueness? All you can say is you have it. So every person depends desperately on their je ne sais quoi, which, insofar as it is the je ne sais quoi, is both here and there, in them and in the world.

The Self as Coldly Separate

At the moment there is a large volume of Aldous Huxley’s letters getting about. So it should be pointed out that the writer who made a great deal out of a person’s keeping frigidly composed, coolly detached, non-torridly aloof, while uttering things of silver un-engagement, is Huxley. In Crome Yellow, also in Point Counter Point, let alone in stories, he presented that kind of character—who is also to be found elsewhere. Aldous Huxley is affected by Thomas Love Peacock: Dr. Folliott in Crotchet Castle is like that. One can say that Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is like that. You can find quite a few distinguishedly frigid people in fiction.

In this 1947 essay, Riesman comments on two books by authors who were current and well known: Ignazio Silone and Arthur Koestler. There is this about Koestler, who has an intense way of not knowing what he’s talking about (I’m being very serious):

In Arrival and Departure, Koestler is frightened by his own mocking of contemporary liberal and democratic values, mocking which he puts into the mouths of Bernard the fascist and the woman psychoanalyst. He is unwilling to face his fear, and to take the responsibility for his mockery....His answer? A symbolic plunge into “affirmation.”

There has been this feeling: that if you affirm yourself, if you affirm a value, it must be right. All you have to do is to plunge into a value and you’ll be better off than you were. Riesman is doubtful of that. You can plunge into values and come back more objectionable.

But what I was saying earlier in this talk is that a value as such is a sign that the self wants to be elsewhere—because a value is not the territory underneath one’s tongue or the secret places of the palate. It’s part of the world.

His answer? A symbolic plunge into “affirmation.” Peter, the hero, is parachuted into enemy territory, a dangerous war exploit.

The person who best presented such a thing is Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. He took that cool enjoyer of himself, that connoisseur of hedonism, Sydney Carton, and had him “plunge” into another, unselfish identity.

In Italy Too

Then Riesman comments on a Silone play set in 1930s Italy:

Silone’s recent play And He Hid Himself...contains a similar lesson. Murica, a revolutionary student..., under pressure betrays his comrades to the Fascist police.

One of these days there will be a serious biography of Mussolini in English, and he will be seen more as of a piece. Meantime, Hitler is looking also for a biographer who can make sense of him. In the world, the objectionable has as much structure as the unobjectionable. Riesman says about the traitor Murica:

No one knew; no one would know; he is safe. But he finds it intolerable to be alone in the sense of being detached from the revolutionary movement.

Riesman implies: Why couldn’t he be alone? He was lucky—why not take advantage of it? It’s not put just that way.

He is tormented by remorse and confesses, first to his girl, then to...a sympathetic cleric, and finally to Pietro Spina, the socialist leader who has disguised himself as a priest. By these confessions he risks his life....However, Spina forgives him, permitting him to rejoin the movement.

The time of “the movement” is over. This is a time where there are lots of movements fighting for the same tablecloth. There’s nothing now like “the movement” in the old sense.

Riesman criticizes the hero of the Silone play for wanting to confess, and says he should have “decided what he was, and wanted to become, on the basis of his potentialities for the future, rather than on the basis of the judgment of his past made by outsiders.” And Riesman writes:

Murica remains unpunished until, at the end of the play, he is captured and tortured to death by the authorities. He dies without betrayal but instead with psychological solvency.

So there is this going into selflessness.

There are three things that make the self dangerous. For the self to be as it is, is dangerous. For the self to be selfish is dangerous. And it’s also dangerous to be selfless. The self is simultaneously this and that, within and without. Though the self is a point, it’s also a line that goes around the world. That is metaphorical; it’s figurative. But one of the big subjects in philosophy is self. There would be no world apprehended if there weren’t a self to do it with.