The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Drama of Self & World, Justice & Contempt

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue our serialization of the great 1970 lecture Philosophy Begins with That, by Eli Siegel. He explains that philosophy—contrary to how it has been seen—is not just about large concepts, nor is it about a higher, purer reality than the one we go around in, hope in, battle in, feel mixed up in every day. Philosophy is in everything. It has to do with paperclips, nasty looks, funny jokes, our agitation at 2 in the afternoon, our nightmare at 3 in the morning. The fundamental matter in philosophy is told of in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

In the lecture, Mr. Siegel uses passages from a 1929 diary of writer Arnold Bennett to show how philosophy is in the happenings and feelings of a day.

We print too an article by Leila Rosen, eminently successful New York City teacher of English, now retired. It is from a paper presented at a public seminar last month: “Care for Yourself & Justice to Others—Do They Have to Fight?”

An Object, Philosophy, & Contempt

There are, Bennett’s journal illustrates, various fights going on in us. Ms. Rosen’s article is about the biggest of these. And it’s about what Aesthetic Realism has identified as the thing in us which interferes with our own lives, and which is the source of every cruelty: contempt. Contempt is the “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Since it pits the two biggest opposites in our life against each other—our self and the outside world—it damages the relation of all the other opposites in us.

To illustrate that fact, and how philosophy is grandly in an everyday object, I am going to quote and comment on a poem by Eli Siegel. “This Is Your Cup of Tea” is related to Arnold Bennett—who, as Mr. Siegel says, “was affected by the pottery doings in Staffordshire,...by the idea of clay becoming polished and usable.” It is from Eli Siegel’s Hail, American Development and first appeared in 1967 in the Scottish periodical Poor Old Tired Horse:

This Is Your Cup of Tea

The title has more than one meaning:

First, we’re going to tell you about a cup of tea;

And then we’re playing.


The cup of tea is from India, maybe,

And then it is right here.

This means it is foreign and domestic at once;

Away and immediate.


The tea flows

And there is the resisting and helping cup.

How firm the cup seems

Compared to the flexible, the liquid, the soft tea.

What could have more differing temperaments

Than a porcelain cup and flowing tea!


The cup, by itself, is down and up.

Good for the cup!


The cup, by itself, is severe,

What with its being hard.

However, it curves so gracefully.

The cup is severe and yielding.


The tea, the tea is there;

It remains;

It is still.

But we know the tea is in motion,

For it flows.

Stillness and motion,

In the same two seconds, Dwight!


The color of the tea is assertive

And also reclusive.

Boldness and modesty, Alice!


The cup has a center

On which a perpendicular line

Could rise.

Nevertheless, the cup is wide.

Verticality and horizontality and such, Euphemia!


Your cup of tea, then,

Is an arrangement

Of opposites, contraries, oppositions, polarities,

Contrasts, warrings, jars.

The cup is a series

Of reconciled jars.


This is your cup of tea:

A study in

The everlasting opposites.

Live with it, Horatio.

It is your cup of tea.

I love this poem. It has that thing which Aesthetic Realism shows true poetry must have. It has music: music which itself is the oneness of reality’s opposites. In the sound of this poem we hear the definite at one with mystery. We hear playfulness and sobriety, together. We hear, at once, delicacy and might.

This Is What Can Happen

I’ll comment a little on three pairs of opposites mentioned in the poem, and what contempt does with them in our lives.

The tea is at once “foreign and domestic,” “away and immediate.” But in contempt there is the feeling: “What’s nearest to me, my own being and thoughts, what’s under my skin, is a different reality from what’s outside me. I can hide within myself from the outside world so ‘foreign’ to what I am, and have thoughts inside which make less of what’s not me.” This use of what’s of me against what’s away from me, foreign to me, is the beginning of all injustice—including all ethnic prejudice. It’s also the cause of the emptiness and agitation millions of people walk around with, though they may pretend to be oh-so at ease.

“The cup, by itself, is down and up”—and down and up are feelings in everyone. The way people go from soaring to sinking confuses them enormously. There’s nothing more important to learn than this: it’s because we make ourselves superior through contempt, elevate ourselves through looking down on things, that we come to feel low, self-disliking, depressed.

“The cup is severe and yielding.” It is like us. We want to show that we are we and won’t give way sloppily: that is, we want to be severe. Yet we want to be affected, have feeling: that is, yield. The ways contempt tampers with these opposites are encyclopedic. For instance, contempt tells us nothing is worthy to affect us much—in fact, the world is something to repel and punish. However, we can, out of contempt, trickily “yield” to what we think people want from us, in order to fool and manage them.

The great joiner of opposites in us is the purpose contrary to contempt: good will. Mr. Siegel described good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” For instance: the first thing in good will is the desire to know, and knowing is the fullest yielding to what a thing is. It is also the strictest severity, because it is after exactitude. Aesthetic Realism arose from Eli Siegel’s good will. It was my honor to witness for years his constant, indefatigable, beautiful desire to know.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


One, Many, Relation, & Fights

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing entries in the Journal 1929 of writer Arnold Bennett.

Life is sometimes seen as a philosophic matter, but “thorough” philosophers say that life is a vulgar interference with the study of pure reality. They feel: what do you need it for?—all you need is motion, time, space, weight, change. Life seems to confuse things, because usually if you have life you have individuals, and then philosophy is lost. This idea is in keeping with Valéry and Shelley. Shelley says, in lines from “Adonais” I’ve quoted often, “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity.” And Valéry in “La Jeune Parque” says there is pure existence, and then man, with his vulgar fears and hopes, interferes. But I guess if a philosopher wants to think about life, he can’t be stopped.

Inner Fight

Meantime, the year 1929 is going on. Bennett has some fights with himself. What does it mean for a self to have a fight with itself? The first thing in ethics is the sight of man uncertain: man for this and against this. That is the continuous matter in ethics; we find it everywhere. We can assume that Noah had a little problem before he took that pleasing liquor which his sons saw him use. And Abraham seems to be always in a trouble about Sarah. Adam and Eve—well, they must have had problems about what is it all about? And how should they be to each other? They certainly must have had a problem about what attitudes to take to Cain and Abel.

The self, then, is a subject of ethics. And once you grant ethics as a part of philosophy, the objection to having life a part of philosophy is obviated, because you can’t have ethics without life—not full ethics. You can have incipient ethics, which doesn’t satisfy people. That is, you can see a sunbeam as chiding gray clay, but that doesn’t satisfy. The self being against itself, considering itself, asking what is its destiny, has been seen to be in the philosophic field.

Bennett has a fight in relation to a “play-idea.” He had written some successful plays. One of these, Milestones (written with Edward Knoblock), is based on the idea of having three generations in three acts. Now he is thinking of writing another play. He said he would never write a play again, but he describes the fight with himself, delicately:

London, March 3rd. The play-idea came to me again, in Piccadilly. Weak-minded, I yielded and decided to write the play, thus breaking my most solemn oath.

How does reality have play ideas come to it? One definition of man is: a reality who can write a play maybe—because he’s the only reality who has written a play. No others in the various zoological kingdoms have written plays. And we are suggestible; things influence us—which has to do with relation. We can see in Bennett’s novels that he was affected by the pottery doings in Staffordshire, where he was born, by the idea of clay becoming polished and usable and having curved space in it which could carry milk and tea and perhaps wine and other things that are liquid. Bennett was affected, and the idea of clay changing into something else is a large idea.

Relation Concerns One & Many

Relation is a philosophic idea. Philosophy deals with the things in the world that are permanent, and there are a few such things. One way of describing the world is one and many. That will stay. Another is being and change. That will stay. Another is cause and effect. That will stay. Space and time, motion and rest: these have stood up very well.

Many and one is, on the one hand, philosophic; on the other, it is mathematical. I defined mathematics roughly as the study of less and more, and less and more has two phases: in terms of much and in terms of many—more of that bread, and many more loaves; a larger loaf, and many more of them. Those are the two phases of quantity: more of a thing, and more instances of the thing. This has to do with the matter of many and one, which also was the first aesthetic requirement, because as soon as there were critics, they began asking how the parts of a play or poem or picture cohered. That was the first aesthetic quest or finding: how are these things together? It is still looked for, though the many and one idea is changing.

As soon as the circus comes, you have another notion of many and one. And these opposites are in the technique of Bennett’s novels. He is somewhat like Seurat: he gets to an entirety of effect through adding things, looking at separate things—the pointillism of Staffordshire.

But what I am going toward is that many and one changes into the idea of relation. A thing, as one thing, changes, and then there’s a relation between what it was yesterday and what it is today. A human being is a series, and the series can be seen with increasing subtlety and manyness. What is the relation of my self wanting to eat too much, to the self that wants to see more points in Bach? There’s a relation of things in oneself. Then, there is one’s relation to all things. Two people are in different parts of a very big room: they’re in relation. Then they rise from their chairs, go across the floor, and bump like mad. The relation is changed but it’s still a relation. Bumping is relation asserting itself. Well, relation is definitely a philosophic thing. It is more accepted as a study of philosophy than life is.


Do They Have to Fight?

By Leila Rosen

One holiday season, I was looking through bookstore shelves for a gift for a friend when my eye fell on just the thing: a book on an author we both liked. I reached for the volume—then suddenly stopped mid-air. If I gave her this book and she read it, she’d know more about the writer than I did—and the thought rankled. I felt horrible about being so competitive and, for a few minutes, inwardly battled my selfishness. But it won, and I didn’t get the book.

What was going on in me was an instance of the fight that’s gone on in everyone. “History,” wrote Eli Siegel, “consists largely of man’s attempts to acquire what he sees as justice for himself with the rather clever desire of not giving it to another.” But trying to care for ourselves this way, through contempt for what other people are and deserve, derails us from our deepest purpose. We need, Aesthetic Realism shows, to feel sincerely, “I’m taking care of me by trying to be just to others.”

What I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism on this crucial subject has given me a happy, richly useful life and a greater desire to be just to other people. They include the thousands of students I taught for nearly thirty years as a high school English teacher, using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method.

Justice vs. Contempt, Early

As a child, I liked learning about words and language, and also science. I remember the thrill of seeing, in first grade at Brooklyn’s PS 104, how letters grouped into words joined to make sentences, and, printed on a page, told a story. And I was enthralled watching Don Herbert—known as Mr. Wizard—on TV with my father, who’d then help me carefully replicate some of Mr. Wizard’s experiments.

But this same father, Barney Rosen, confused me. He could be explosively angry—so different from the man who could dance jauntily in the kitchen with my mother. Who was he? And who was my mother? Was Edith Rosen the woman who was sarcastic and, I thought, preferred my sister to me—or the one who liked to help people and strike up friendly conversations? I felt my parents stood for a confusing and vulgar world. Wanting to be as different from them as possible, I cultivated a placid demeanor, unperturbed and aloof.

Though with one part of myself I loved language, I didn’t speak much unless it was absolutely necessary. When people called me a snob, I was offended: I told myself I was just protecting my dignity, that if I put myself out there I’d make a fool of myself as, I disdainfully thought, my mother did. I felt most people were unworthy of me, and against me. I was to learn years later that—because the self is deeply ethical—I punished myself for seeing people in this unjust way, by feeling lonely and increasingly hopeless about ever being close to anyone.

Meanwhile, I felt consciously bad about how I saw my father. In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, when I said scornfully that he was a “dreamer,” and also that he cared for numbers, my consultants asked: “Do you think the pain he has, which may show itself as anger, says anything about a desire to put opposites together and an inability to do so? Do you think if he could put together the precision of mathematics and the person who has all those dreams, he’d be a happier person?”

I learned that, like many people, my father had a difficult time making sense of the way he could be tough one moment and tender the next. And as I saw that he and I had questions like this in common, the hard knot of anger within me began to loosen.

What People Hope to See

Through assignments I did, I came to see trying to know other people as a good time: for instance, “A Monologue of My Mother at 18” and “My Sister’s Pain: A Short Essay.” And I wrote part of an imaginary Aesthetic Realism consultation of my father, taking both his role and that of the consultants. Through it, I began to realize that he’d felt my mother, sister, and I made him into nothing. When I saw that I’d actually hurt him, that I hadn’t wanted to see him as having feelings and he had a right to be critical of me, I wanted to be different. For the first time, we began to have real conversations, which made for new respect and deeper feeling in both of us.

The change in me had a visible effect: people said I looked softer, happier. When an old friend spotted me from a distance, she ran to me, saying, “You’re in love!” I was—with the way of seeing I was learning from Aesthetic Realism.

It’s my opinion that because Aesthetic Realism shows that justice to others is the same as gloriously caring for ourselves, it is the hope of humanity.