The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Biggest Question for a Person & Nation

Dear Unknown Friends:

There is no more pressing question now than How should people see people? It’s the biggest question for every individual, in social life, domestic life, and love. It’s the central question for a nation. It’s the burning economic question. We have two choices: 1) Do we see people principally as existing to aggrandize us and make us comfortable—as beings to beat out or ignore or use for our importance? Or 2) do we feel it’s through seeing other people truly, justly, that we become more ourselves?

The question of how we should see people is a form of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the great fight within everyone: “the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151).

In his Goodbye Profit System lectures, begun in 1970, Eli Siegel explained that economics for centuries has been based on seeing people with contempt. It’s been based on the profit motive, which is: how much profit can I get from somebody’s labor; how much profit can I make from somebody’s needs. He showed that by the 1970s, this contempt for one’s fellow humans was no longer a tenable basis for an economy: it no longer worked. Such an economy might be made to limp on for a while, but would do so with increasing difficulty, more and more pain to people. And that, as I’ve been illustrating in issues of this journal, is where we are today. Mr. Siegel was right: the only economy that will now work is one the world hasn’t had before—an economy based on good will, the feeling, I take care of myself by being fair to you.

We are serializing the lecture he gave on May 28, 1971, Shame Is in How You Do Things. In it he looks at an article from Fortune magazine. Much of the article is unclear, turbid. But what its author, Max Ways, does say with a definiteness is that the American people dislike how just about every aspect of the country is run: they’re looking for something and are disappointed—there is a “crisis of confidence.” Mr. Siegel makes clear what it is that people are looking for, including in economics.

Looked For in Egypt

I am writing this commentary as a revolution is going on in one of the oldest nations of the world, Egypt. There are barricades, tear gas, burning police cars, and people, people, people demanding something, near the same Nile where Cleopatra travelled in all her queenliness and humanness. I don’t know, of course, what will happen to this Egyptian revolution. But it’s about what Eli Siegel described in his Goodbye Profit System talks. Humanity, he explained, “is saying: We don’t want ill will to hurt and poison our lives anymore.”

It is clear that the fury of the Egyptian people is centrally about the fact that they’re tremendously poor, there is massive unemployment, and their government hasn’t wanted that situation to change. In recent years, the media have led Americans to think the big opposition to Mideast dictators comes from persons who desire an Islamic government. But the recent successful uprising in Tunisia, and now the mighty events in Egypt, as well as demonstrations in Jordan, show that is not true. “So far,” notes the Wall Street Journal of January 29-30, “the protests have remained secular rather than Islamic in nature.”

There is a way, Mr. Siegel explains in the talk we’re serializing, that a person wants to be seen. A term for that way is good will. Another term is ethics. Aesthetic Realism shows that good will and ethics are not “nice” terms or “soft” terms. They’re about something real, solid, powerful, inescapable. Central to good will is: should every person have enough money to live with dignity and grace; or should you (a boss, corporation, or politician) be able to keep people poor so you can enrich yourself through them? Part of good will is the very material matter of how the wealth of a nation should be owned; what kind of homes people should be able to live in; the quality of food people should be able to eat.

The people of Egypt hate how they have been seen—with ill will. Their objection is not a religious one (though it may happen that various religious parties try to make use of it). Their objection is of ethics: human, eternal, immediate ethics. People want to be respected; and they want to have enough money to live well. They want both, and the two are not separable.

Unemployment Is Ill Will

Unemployment—huge, ongoing, agonizing unemployment—is a major reason why millions of Egyptians have used their bodies on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez to demand that the Mubarak government get out. And of course, while the United States is very different, the pain and insult of unemployment are across our nation too.

Unemployment is part of the failure of profit economics. An economy which cannot supply jobs to the people of a nation is a failure. The basis of jobs under the profit system is: you can work only if somebody else can make a profit from your labor. This is sheer ethical ugliness. A person who could do or make something that other people need (perhaps desperately need) is not permitted to—simply because somebody else can’t make money from it! The outrage at this ill will is walking, running, protesting in Egypt’s streets.

In a recent class for Aesthetic Realism consultants and associates, there was discussion of sentences by Thomas Carlyle from his Past and Present, of 1843. The sentences are about unemployment. They’re about men who want to work but are not permitted to, for the reason I just gave. Instead, these men have to live in miserable poorhouses, or “workhouses” (“pleasantly so-named,” says Carlyle, “because work cannot be done in them”). Carlyle’s writing is beautiful, about a situation that is terrible and, he makes clear, unethical:

Twelve hundred thousand workers in England alone; their cunning right-hand lamed, lying idle in their sorrowful bosom; their hopes, outlooks, share of this fair world, shut in by narrow walls. They sit there, pent up, as in a kind of horrid enchantment.

To have a person be jobless, says Carlyle, is to cripple him, lame his right hand.

And Carlyle describes the opposites which, as one, are the true basis of economics: the land and labor; earth and selves; the world with its possibilities, and a person who can bring those possibilities forth. These opposites have been sundered by the profit system. He says about the jobless men:

They sat there, near by one another; but in a kind of torpor...: An Earth all lying round, crying, Come and till me, come and reap me;—yet we here sit enchanted! In the eyes and brows of the men hung the gloomiest expression, not of anger, but of grief and shame and manifold inarticulate distress and weariness; they...seemed to say, “Do not look at us. We sit enchanted here, we know not why. The sun shines and the Earth calls; and, by the governing Powers and Impotences of this England, we are forbidden to obey.”

I’ve brought together people in England, 1843, wretchedly stunned by joblessness, and people in Egypt, 2011, furious at joblessness, poverty, and a government that seems to welcome these. The big difference is that people now, throughout the world, are not only stunned by their economic situation: there is a much greater consciousness that this is not how things should be!, that we deserve something much better!, that what’s been inflicted on us comes from ill will! This greater consciousness is part of what Mr. Siegel called “ethics as a force.”

The Choice

It’s been said the US government is in a difficult position as to whether to welcome the Egyptian uprising. America has called Mubarak an ally and given his government $1.5 billion yearly even though it’s clear the Egyptian people’s resentment of him is correct. The difficulty as described by the media is: if Mubarak goes, there may come to be an Islamic fundamentalist government. Certainly that’s not desirable.

But there is a deeper difficulty for the US government. It has to do with the profit system itself. For decades, US administrations have supported dictators in the Middle East and elsewhere because they were friendly—not to America—but to American corporations. The basis of judgment has not been: Is the government of that country fair to its people? The basis has been: Through that government, can US companies make profit? And companies today can’t make the profits they want if people are paid well. For a few persons to make large profits, millions need to be poor. Now there is this question: Suppose the people of Egypt want a government which is not Islamic, but which is also not for profit economics and is fair to them—would the US welcome that?

The America I love—of Lincoln, Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence—says, I want an economy fair to people, based on good will, not contempt, here and everywhere in the world!

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


How People Want to See People

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is commenting on the Fortune magazine article “Don’t We Know Enough to Make Better Public Policies?” by Max Ways, of April 1971.

In another passage Ways writes:

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, [there was]...optimism that science and education would gradually solve all practical problems.

We have the phrase “solve all practical problems.” People generally don’t think their attitude to other people matters too much to themselves. They feel that what one should do is maintain good social relations with the people one knows, but that it is not necessary to have a just attitude to people as such, nor is it possible. This has to do with the present situation of America. Aesthetic Realism says that any person who doesn’t have an attitude he’s proud of to people and to reality is uneducated. Furthermore, he’s dangerous to himself. I wish this would be looked at and inquired into.

Every now and then a voice is heard explicitly repeating the utopian promise in accents not very different from those of sixty years ago.

Since the word utopian has been used, it’s good to say what utopia may mean. Utopia will be when people living in this world are proud of how they see the world and see other living beings. There is no other true meaning for utopia. All other utopia is gadget utopia. And in More’s Utopia there is something of what I just described.

In the same way that in Kafka’s The Trial there is something one is tried about and it is never stated, so this article has something that you’re supposed to go after but it’s never stated. There is just a saying,We don’t like what we have and we do miss something else.

If we listen carefully to one of these utopian statements we may begin to understand how we have been promising ourselves more than we can deliver...: Dr. [Bentley] Glass, a biologist, [said]...the life sciences now have so much knowledge in hand or in prospect that basic understanding of the genetics, structure, and behavior of living things did not seem far away.

Are Values Scientific?

Most scientists, and most people for that matter, would not be sure there is such a thing as ethics as a subject, or that ethics is a reality. Still, this article has in it a calling for values, and ethics and values are very close. It has not yet been decided whether such a thing as a value exists—or are values talking terms for people?

The reason we value people is that there are a few people in every person’s life who see us differently—in a way different from the way other people do. We mean something to them. We are aware we are part of their consciousness, and we hope to like the way their consciousness has us in it, to like the way they see us. This is a foreshadowing or intimation of what people are looking for. And that will be the only true utopia: where there won’t be this feeling just about particular, special people, but there will be a feeling that people as such are disposed to look at oneself in a lovely or beautiful way, because they think that is best for them and also best for oneself.

There will be then the utilitarianism of casual and profound love, or good will. That is necessary, because the way people have seen each other so far is ugly. It has also hurt them. And the way people see each other even when they’re in the special state has too much ill will in it. The only reason that love has gone wrong in marriage is, people haven’t had good will as their deepest purpose; they see good will as a sort of boring incident.

From the expected scientific triumph [Dr. Glass] inferred a fundamental change in the realm of action. Mankind, he said, would enter “A Golden Age.” By this...he meant a utopia, a condition where problems...cease.

Unless persons are glad that other people exist, we are going to have wretchedness and a state of incipient war. It has to be that way. If you’re not glad other people exist, you’re either bored with them or you want to fight them.

At the moment, honesty can be seen as utopia. There is no other utopia. (I’m reading these passages because they’re here; but as far as I’m concerned these are the dull gallops of 1880.)

How can science at any point in its progress have a scientific basis for assessing the extent of all that it does not yet know?

Science should ask once more, what does it think cannot be known? A good deal of what is called ethics or value is part of that. And if it’s true that values can’t be known, that should be seen. Aesthetic Realism says that values are the things that are most firmly known, because every time a fact is fully known it has become a value. A fact that is not a value cannot be believed in.

What Are People Asking For?

“Scientific” utopias smuggle the idea of heaven back into a worldly context where it does not fit.

“Heaven” would be a state in which you liked the way the rest of the world saw you. And the reason that situations are called “hell” is that in them it seems you cannot like the way the rest of the world sees you. But in order to like the way the world sees you, you have to like the way you see the rest of the world. Is that possible?

At this time, this matter of how people see each other has to be settled. People can’t stand the idea, as I imply in the essay “The Ordinary Doom,” of being seen in that greasy, insincere way. Since Max Ways uses the phrase “the idea of heaven,” I’ll say: heaven can be described as respect as dazzle. It is a mingling of respecting things and seeing them as having color and brightness.

There is considerable evidence that the more we learn the more we need to know. Few scientists think they are running out of questions.

There is this big question: What are people asking from other people, and particularly from those people who are chosen to govern? It is asked from all people. When persons shout, “Mr. Nixon, help us working mothers!” it is a way of people’s asking for something from other people.

It is the common observation of nonscientists that society in action faces more “problems” now than it did fifty years ago.

I have to disagree with that. The problem of society has always been one: What is the most beautiful thing we can do with ourselves as material—how can we most beautifully compose our lives? The two problems of the world, corresponding to fact and value, are these: what is; and what do we want—and what do we want from other people? is part of that. The problem of love and of government is the same: love is about what we want from a person, or a few people we know; government is about what we want from people as such.

The Most Necessary Thing to Know

The awful truth seems to be that as knowledge advances ignorance does not diminish.

There is something that needs to be seen as belonging to knowledge, and if it isn’t, ignorance can’t diminish. I see good will as the clearest thing in all knowledge. I use the word clearest carefully: the clearest thing is that which you cannot miss without missing everything else. The thing that is most necessary would be the clearest. And so, that a person needs to have good will is the clearest thing in the world—and that he wants it from others. He either wants to fool them or evade them, or he wants to have good will.

Two thousand or so years ago, the mind of man was impelled to see Christ as a shepherd and human life as a sheep that had been helped by the shepherd. This has something to do with what is being looked for, because everyone wants to be a shepherd—to take care of something. And everyone wants to be taken care of. It is part of the opposites active and passive.

Kindness is the most sophisticated thing in the world. It’s the most necessary thing in the world. And it is what is looked for: a certain honesty and consideration of ourselves that seems authentic and goes deep. The other way, the way that is not good will, is this: people have wanted to go through life feeling, “The world is pretty bitchy, but I’m so smart I can get what I want anyway.” What isn’t realized is that the seeing of the world that way is already defeat.