The Ethics of Freedom
Dear Unknown Friends:
In the lecture we’re serializing—There Are Two Freedoms, of June 5, 1970—Eli Siegel is explaining something huge in history, in reality, and in the self of everyone. He is explaining what freedom really is, including economic freedom. He is also explaining why people are so mixed up about freedom.
In keeping with the basis of Aesthetic Realism, that “all beauty is a making one of opposites,” he shows that freedom is not just unrestraint, letting go, having one’s way. That kind of “freedom” is a mess and even brutality. It’s the kind of “freedom” cancer cells have, as they assert themselves so unimpededly. Real freedom is the oneness of letting go and accuracy; of self-expression and justice. This is the aesthetics of freedom. It’s also the ethics of freedom.
Mr. Siegel explains that economics these centuries has not been based on real freedom, freedom that’s the same as justice. And therefore economics—the way people are made to work, the way goods are produced and the ability to purchase them—has been both inefficient and cruel.
False Freedom No Longer Works
The present lecture is part of his Goodbye Profit System series, begun in May 1970. Using history, culture, and immediate events, he gave evidence that economics driven by the profit motive was no longer able to flourish and never would again. Fundamental to the profit motive is the desire to get as much as you can from someone while giving that person as little as possible. It has been put forth as economic freedom, but it has always been contempt.
In the Goodbye Profit System lectures Mr. Siegel explained what has indeed materialized during these three decades. He said that profit-making—some individuals’ wresting a lot of money for themselves from the labor and needs of their fellow humans—would be increasingly difficult. In the section printed here he refers to one large reason why. It’s the reason which he puts this way in another lecture:
America is not the only country now with industrial know-how....Persons in other parts of the world have caught up....There is more competition with the American product.
It speaks well for humanity, it’s in behalf of human dignity, that people all over the world have more knowledge and technological ability. Yet this betterment of humanity has interfered with the profits of US corporations. A gain, then, for ethics and human dignity is a loss for profit economics, and that is because profit economics is based on something at odds with ethics and human dignity.
Now, Mr. Siegel made clear, we have come to the point in history when an economic motive which is ugly has to be replaced by one which people can be proud of. That single just and efficient motive is good will. What Aesthetic Realism means by good will is not mush or holiday glow or self-sacrifice. Good will is the expression of self, the flourishing of one’s individuality, the exploration and success of one’s creativity, through wanting to see justly and strengthen what’s other than oneself.
Economics Comes from People & Affects Them
As Aesthetic Realism sees it, in order to understand economics, we have to understand people, the human self. Economics is not statistics and indicators, though it can include these. It arises from the human self. Every economic activity that has ever occurred—whether it’s selling an apple, buying a book, fighting a union so one can pay one’s workers as little as possible, looking for a job month after month without finding a decent one, tipping a waiter—everything economic has people’s hopes and motives and needs and maybe terrors in it.
In the section printed here, Mr. Siegel speaks about the central fight in economics. It is a phase of, and arises from, what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the central, continuous fight in every person: the fight between wanting to like the world honestly, have good will for it, and wanting to have contempt for it, look down on and manipulate it. These are the two purposes that have fought in people and mixed people up in every century. As technology advances, those two purposes are present amid new material, but they still constitute the fight in everyone. I’ll give a current example.
Cellphones & the Ethical Drama
There is the cellphone. It was a rare item ten years ago, but now people feel so attached to it that finding oneself on the street without one’s cellphone can make for a sense of agitation.
There is good will in the invention and use of the cellphone. A person feels she owes something to other people, and they should be able to reach her anytime. Also, she can call (or text message) other people: she’s interested in them, they mean something to her, and the cellphone is a means of asserting that interest. The popularity of the cellphone is a tribute to the fact that the self wants to affirm its relation to what isn’t itself. The popularity of the cellphone is people’s saying, “I need to be connected to other people in order to be me!”
Yet this wonderful object has also been a field for contempt. Persons have used cellphones to make a world apart from the immediate world they’re in, to scorn the world of people and rooms and streets and human feelings, and often they have angered others in the process. When someone talks loudly on a cellphone in a public place, people around that person feel, without putting it into words, “She’s having contempt for me.” It’s not just the loudness that annoys. There’s a sense that this person has made the people and things around her meaningless, that she feels superior to them, and also that she’s showing off how much more important she is. There is a notion of freedom in talking on a cellphone in this fashion. It’s the false, ugly freedom, because it’s not at one with good will.
The contempt can be present even without the volume. People have used the ability to send text messages wherever they are—in a park or a theatre or a family gathering—to have contempt for their immediate surroundings. There is a feeling, “I have something with me that’s mine, through which I can arrange what I’m affected by. I don't have to be affected by you or him or that: I can text message away—make my own world through this cellphone and thumb my nose at everything and everyone else! I can disregard them.”
Cellphones have been banned from New York City public school classrooms because, according to the October 1 New York Times, “officials view them as a distraction.” What this really means is: young people used cellphones, particularly text messaging, to have contempt for education and to show how unimportant their teacher was—they had something better to do than listen to her.
So the cellphone has been material for a continuation of the old battle: between valuing what’s other than oneself, being more affected by it—and scorning it, managing it, having the false “freedom” of contempt.
Words & John Milton
In the part of his lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel looks at a passage by John Milton. It is from Areopagitica, of 1644: Milton’s pamphlet in behalf of freedom of expression in print, against censorship. Since he speaks of Milton, and since I have just been writing about cellphones, I am going to look briefly at a famous line in which Milton talks to something, addresses something, begins to convey a message via text to something. It can seem wild to compare Milton’s address to Light at the beginning of Book 3 of Paradise Lost to what a person does with a cellphone. But in both instances words are used, and in both instances someone has a purpose.
People are greeting each other all day long, in person, over the phone, in emails and text messages; and in the first line of Book 3, Milton greets the Light:
Hail, holy Light, offspring of Heaven first-born!
He is concentrating on the recipient of this address, the Light—but not to put aside the rest of the world, as people so often do, with or without a cellphone. The sound of “Hail, holy Light” is inclusive in its dignity: it has might, fulness. Then “offspring of Heaven first-born” continues the feeling of largeness; and it rustles, with its r and s sounds; and has tumult in it, as the fs and v cut, and as many consonants come together and delicately collide with each other in “offspring” and “first-born.” If Light was, as Milton says, the first-born child of Heaven, he has us feel the birth was not just easy—it had a little struggle in it.
The point is that Milton’s purpose was to be fair to an object (Light) and to the world. And so we hear the world’s might and delicacy, rest and motion, concentration and expansion, smoothness and roughness as one in this line. Because this line is so just, it is truly free: it soars exactly.
Milton was blind when he wrote, in Paradise Lost, about the light he would never see again. But he asks the Light to make his thought clear, to have his mind see truly, without mist:
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate; there plant eyes; all mist from thence
Purge and disperse.
He is asking—beautifully asking—for what Mr. Siegel showed is necessary: freedom which is the same as a just seeing of, an accurate thinking about, the world.