The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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:

Celestial Light,

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


No Freedom without Good Will

By Eli Siegel

I’m trying to show that there are two freedoms, and that good will and freedom are the same thing. The two main freedoms are the freedom to express and the freedom to express accurately. It is like a person playing the piano: if he is just going over the keys, everybody gets bored. I remember once a child coming to a piano and going over the keys and having a wonderful time and bothering his family. But he got bored very soon, because without accuracy you can't satisfactorily go on. These are the two freedoms.

The way, in art, color is completed by outline is the way freedom of expression, including economic expression, is completed by good will. Good will is the outline, and color is the activity. If we see, through all kinds of sources, that this is so in human life, there will be a greater readiness to feel that freedom is good will and that without good will a person is not free. Free enterprise is not free because it doesn't have good will.

Milton & Rightness

In the Areopagitica of John Milton, the large idea is that human expression has its sense of rightness, has its accuracy. What we see in Milton is energy as precision. It is in his poems, including “L’Allegro,” and in his prose. I’m reading from an anthology edited by J. Donald Adams, The Treasure Chest (1966). Adams quotes Milton under the heading “True Virtue:

He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian....

What Milton is getting at is that you cannot be free until you are economical and deep and beautiful about possibility—otherwise your freedom is the same as having no opposition, from yourself or anybody else.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat....Our sage and serious poet Spenser..., describing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him...through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain.

Artists have felt this, because as they use color, there is a looking for that which would limit it, contain it. These are the two freedoms: the freedom to move and the freedom to be precise. They have been mixed up in the history of business in America, badly mixed up, and the result is what we have.

Freedom of Choice

There is the phrase “freedom of choice,” which Franklin Roosevelt made famous, though of course it was fairly famous before then. But the phrase consists of two parts. The first part, the “freedom,” is just expression, as, say, a puppy just runs around the floor because it wants to run; it isn’t going to a library—it just runs. That’s the sort of expression you see occasionally in a baby. It’s kind of lovely. It’s called unfettered exercise, organic non-impediment. The other part of the phrase is “choice.” And as soon as you get to that word choice, there is something precise. The meaning of choice has to be looked at and looked at.

The Pretense of Good Will

A great tribute to the fact that free enterprise is a failure is that hypocritical use of the word service which was made fun of in the 1920s by Mencken and others. At that time, about every person in business felt it was necessary to say they were going for “service” to people. Today other words are used. But the idea was to act as though you were doing something that was useful to people. It has been the fight always, however it’s been put: between industry for profit and industry for the making of humanity stronger and happier. What is being shown now is that if industry doesn't honestly go for the making of man stronger and happier, it will not go at all. And this doesn't mean a praise of what can be called the rival system, because that has to be looked at too. The point is that persons should work for something they see as beautiful.

If every person in the business world, every person who ever read Fortune, were asked, “Are you an executive for the good of humanity?,” generally the person would say, “No.” He may take the answer lightly, but it hurts him.

A Baby, Economics, & Art

Milton writes:

Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial.

There are two kinds of freedom in the infant, which will show later. One is the ability to cut up and raise hell and be infantile and run around and pour orange juice out of the window; the other is to have some selectivity that represents the person. These go on at the same time. As a child begins toddling on the floor, some notion of precision is in its mind. These are the two freedoms. And the two freedoms are also in industry. They are the activity and the outline of the activity—the what-for of the activity. The what-for has not been good enough. What industry is looking for right now is a motive it’s proud of. The reason we do things should be as beautiful as possible.

Milton is saying that we don't bring innocence with us, “we bring impurity much rather,” and then we use our life to mix our colors properly, to be precise, and that goes on all the time.

What Is It For?

In life, as in art, there are these two things: the plus and the minus, or, if one wishes, the opulence and the abstinence. The two correspond to freedom. We have the freedom of wandering in space, and the freedom of being in an armchair. This is everywhere, and the two are concerned now.

In business there is more of a question: what have we been producing for? We all know we wanted to have a market—to produce something which would sell, for which there is a market. Right now there are markets, but there is more than one productive source. The United States is not just rivaled by Russia; it is rivaled by Sweden, Norway, France, the people in the European Common Market. It is rivaled somewhat by Canada. It’s rivaled also by Mexico, wherever Mexico finds it possible. It’s rivaled by all desires for industrialization of Bolivia. And every one of the new African countries would like to have factories and not just places for Hemingway; there is a difference.

Checks on Laissez-Faire

The debate about laissez-faire is still going on, and it happens that laissez-faire has been interrupted. Every government has interfered with industry and the freedom of business to do anything it pleases. (Industry has interfered with government too, so it works both ways.) But there is no laissez-faire, and every industry has standards. You can't employ a child at four in the morning—Mrs. Browning has won out somewhat.

These two things, wanting to be uncontrolled and also wanting precision, are, as I said, the two freedoms. They make up life; every person wants to know what to do and every person also doesn't want to be told what to do. We are looking for harbor, home, accuracy, and we are looking for the freedom of the infinite dragonfly.