The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Necessity for Beautiful Economics

Dear Unknown Friends:

We publish here, from notes taken at the time, the 1946 lecture Aesthetic Realism & Economics, by Eli Siegel. It is one in the series he gave at Steinway Hall, describing the new philosophy he had founded. In this lecture on economics we see the central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” We meet a way of seeing economics different from any other, and true, great, urgently needed now.

As I looked at the notes a listener took on September 5, 1946, I was struck by the fact that Mr. Siegel then was explaining so much of what would happen in the years to follow. I think, for instance, this lecture gives the underlying reason why the Soviet Union no longer exists.

Only Aesthetics Will Do

As you’ll see, Mr. Siegel shows that the only economic way that can satisfy people is aesthetics, the oneness of opposites: justice to all people and to every individual person at once; the simultaneity of security and adventurous expression. In “Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics,” chapter 10 of Self and World, he explains:

The world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his. All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs....

The purpose of economics...is to maintain the collective while intensifying the individual, to support gloriously the universal while heightening properly a specific person. [P. 270]

In this 1946 lecture he speaks about Russia’s inability to put those opposites together—to have people who collectively owned a nation feel their individuality was sufficiently encouraged. I’m summarizing a great deal in saying that in Russia 44 years or so after this talk, the aesthetic trouble—about all persons and each particular person, about security and free expression—came to a head.

Many, many Russian people felt, for various reasons, that they were not expressed. And at the same time they took for granted the security, the sharing of their land’s wealth, which their nation provided. By 1990, there were millions of people who had not lived before the 1917 revolution and simply could not conceive that they might be without national health coverage, free education on every level, the assurance of a home, job, childcare. In going after the individualism which they thought profit economics represented, they did not realize they would give up the egalitarian security they had lived with as a human right.

Now, in 2009, the trouble about “support[ing] gloriously the universal while heightening properly a specific person” is still present. It is present differently from how it was some decades ago, as millions of Russians are now jobless, homeless, as the life expectancy is severely shortened, as children are malnourished and there is widespread poverty accompanied by a small, opulently moneyed elite.

America Wants Aesthetics

And what of the United States? In the 1946 talk Mr. Siegel said: “There is something in the world itself that is exacting a reconciliation of individual and collective.” That is so in America. In 1970 he showed that an economy based on an individual’s using the work and needs of others to enrich himself could no longer succeed. The profit motive—the seeing a fellow human in terms of how much money one could squeeze from him, is, Mr. Siegel showed, a phase of contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Its unethical and unaesthetic basis is the reason the profit system is in collapse. It’s the reason Americans are suffering economically so much. The answer is not to hand over trillions of the American people’s hard-earned dollars to financiers whose purpose is to profit from our lives.

The solution is given by Mr. Siegel in the 1946 talk. It is aesthetics, and has not been in any nation before. The answer, he shows, is to take seriously the oneness of opposites articulated in the Preamble to our Constitution. It is to implement, in economic terms, these great, kind, completely practical words from his Self and World:

All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs. In the same way as 10,000 persons can be listening to an exciting composition of music, each feeling that he is listening to it, while others are listening—so each person can see the wonder and delicacy and largeness of the universe as his, while knowing that other selves are apprehending pleasantly this universe.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Aesthetic Realism & Economics

By Eli Siegel

I am going to begin by reading a statement quoted today in the newspaper P.M. It’s by Senator Wayne Morse, who represents division quite definitely insofar as he is of the Republican Party, yet, as Congress goes, is nearly as radical as they come. He says the Republican Party

must not attempt to re-establish a laissez-faire economy with its inevitable boom-and-bust business cycle and resulting mass unemployment and cheapened dollar, or a program to the left based upon a Governmentally controlled economy incompatible with the rights and dignity of the individual citizen.

Senator Morse is asking for two things: he doesn’t want laissez-faire, which means you can do as you please economically; he also doesn’t want a government controlled, regimented economy. But the problem is: how can you have the freedom of laissez-faire and also collective order or justice?

The history of economics and politics is really like the history of a person. At certain times there is a great call for more individuality and freedom. For instance, the Republicans twenty years ago were calling all over the place for less interference of government with business. Then at other times there is a big cry: Why doesn’t the government do something?! And the same person can make the cry. The person who in 1926 would say, “I want to do as I damn please and I don’t want any government or union to stop me,” would in 1936 cry, “Why doesn’t the government do something?” That going from the desire for freedom to the desire for security and order is like a person’s wanting to be independent and to think other people don’t have to matter much to him, and then getting awfully lonesome and frightened and wanting to have people around him like anything.

People know that there should be some interference by the people in general as represented by government, and yet they want to be free. The same businessman, as Charles Beard did a useful service in pointing out, who at one time says, “The less interference by government in business the better,” will, when things go wrong, want a government subsidy, want a government law against unions, want government help toward a railroad, and will ask for all kinds of government favors through lobbyists. That doesn’t make sense.

All of economics is, in one way or another, a phase of trying to solve an aesthetic problem: the problem of individualism and “collectivism,” as it is put in the college textbooks. Everyone knows that at certain times there is a feeling that government should be less. A person will say, “Who wants to work as a servant of the state? Who wants to be regimented?” Then there can be the feeling in the same person that everything is let go in a harum-scarum fashion, people lose their jobs, get sick, die and their widows aren’t taken care of—and the government should do something!

Anyone who faces the idea of a government that gives him security and just security will, as the security is had, feel put out about “me.” “I want to do strange things. I want things to happen to me. I don’t want to be educated by the government, insured by the government, medically treated by the government.” It is security, but it palls. That very same person, if he doesn’t know where he is, if he is unsure as to his health or food, or thinks he has got a raw deal from a woman, will want the government to do something about it.

Two Aspects of Mind

Roughly speaking, there are two governments today that represent two essential aspects of the human mind. The Soviet government is now the only government of its kind that has lasted. It has lasted much longer than the Napoleonic Empire. People still are puzzled by it, and I think even Soviet citizens are. In its economic way, it accents the fact that one person has to do with all persons. This is a big unconscious truth. Insofar as it does that, it is very fine. Now, the question is raised by many people, How about individual freedom? The question as such is a permanent question, because the purpose of government is to give everything to an individual while at the same time giving everything to all individuals. In other words, the purpose of government can be dogmatically said to be the aesthetic reconciliation of individualism and collectivism.

How can you have individual freedom and still a representation of all people? Every person has his individual freedom interfered with by being forced to send his children to school: we have had compulsory education for some hundred years. That is one instance of all people telling some people what to do. It’s no more collectivistic and no less than some of the things in socialism that various people look upon with horror. But if there isn’t an attempt from either side to feel that social justice is also individualism, and if there is a feeling that with social justice you’re going to have less individualism, then the world will be in some hurly-burly for a very long time.

There is confusion as to individualism in the Soviet Union. Unless it is able to prove—and I don’t think that it has proved it in a way that I should like—unless the Soviet Union is able to prove that in the collective society a person who wants to roam Times Square at 3 o'clock in the morning and look at the dim store windows won’t miss anything, people will want collectivism mostly for security’s sake but they will have something deep in themselves, the individual, which will not be satisfied.

I said in “Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics” that quite a few people who are of the left are persons who consciously will demonstrate in strikes, take part, if need be, in dangerous picketing, will give hours to addressing envelopes, but who still have a segment of them which is as individualistic in its unconscious way as Senator Taft is in his most repulsive way. People can use a collective sacrifice to justify unconscious individual rampageousness, selfishness in the bad sense. There has not been the reconciliation. I have seen persons of the left who are as petrified when it comes to something which they should see as new, as conservatives are. There are persons who have used progressive ideas not as something they happily believe in deeply, but as something which they atone with. As I say this, I must say I am all for the left; I have been for years. But the left has to mean the honest reconciliation of individual and collective.

In economics, as Senator Morse intimated, we do have this problem all the way through, and it is the aesthetic problem. It is the problem of Self and World. The reason people have to be economically progressive if they want to feel good is: if they are unjust to other people they will feel bad. If a person feels he can put something over on a worker, he may find himself visiting a doctor. Many of the ailments that people have occur because they go through the process of getting the best of other people.

I am not speaking politically. In any party, where there isn’t a correct interest in all people along with a feeling for what the individual wants, and there isn’t a desire aesthetically to put those two together, the party is not sufficient.

A Point in History

This is a time of disorder, and that disorder will last most of our lifetime. There is something in the world itself that is exacting a reconciliation of individual and collective. This goes beyond any party: it is the party in the human mind. The human mind wants to feel individual and related, and the history of the world has come to such a point where that unconscious feeling has to be satisfied.

In order to see what the question is, to see its constancy, we could use Aristotle’s Politics, we could use Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s City of God, Thomas More’s Utopia, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Carlyle’s Latter-day Pamphlets; we could use the Declaration of Independence. Here, though, it is well to read an important statement: of 1787, when the Constitution was decided on by the Convention, two years before its ratification. It is the Preamble to the United States Constitution, and as far as I know, this is the first time it has been dealt with from the point of view of the unconscious:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

We have in this Preamble the idea of all people taking care of every individual person. Further, there is a statement in most general terms of what all people want. I won’t go into the niceties now, but there is in the Constitution a triplicity: of what rights came to an individual, to the individual state, and to the federal government. The Constitution is a rhythm among all three. There is a tie-up between the following phrase and a desire for nationalized medicine: “promote the general Welfare.” In other words, we have the feeling that the purpose of the Constitution is the good of everybody. How you can achieve this, is the rhythm which Aesthetic Realism goes after. We see a desire for “Tranquility” and a desire for “Liberty.” There is a feeling implicit in the Preamble that all this is a common concern, that the land is ours.

It should be seen that in the fullest sense politics has always been economics. The substance of economics is how a people living on earth in common manage earth as a physical thing in common. The form is the politics. What people decide to do is how economics has been put into form.

We, as proud people, would like to think that in being happy we in no way took advantage of others. If, therefore, the desire of a person to be happy goes along with actively desiring another person’s getting more meaning from himself, then where government represents all people it should in some way help along this desire.

Contempt & Economics

Where you have something and it stops another person from expressing himself because you own it, then you shouldn’t have it. The idea of somebody’s having a hundred acres of land and saying, “You can’t till this land unless you pay me,” is outrageous. It is against the unconscious of people. I have said in “Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics,” the only way the self deeply can feel it owns something is through knowing it. Contempt will use ownership to assert itself and say, “I can have things which other people can’t have!” Ownership, where it depends on the lessening of others, has made for nervousness all through history.

With present-day economics, there are doctors who say they want people to be well but who also hope, without knowing it, that people get sick so they, the doctors, can make more money; lawyers who hope people do get into trouble. We have all kinds of intrigues in offices. We have businessmen who hope they can get their business opponent at a disadvantage. They suffer, but their contempt drives them on; they have to feel they are managing people.

The highest example of contempt in the world is fascism. It is only the putting of contempt into full action: the feeling that the more one sees others as cheap and worthless, the more one becomes elevated. We should see a relation among anti-unionism, fascism, contempt, and capitalism. By capitalism I mean the private ownership of that which people need to make a living. I don’t mean the private ownership of a book or a garden. It can take the form of possessiveness in love; of fooling a person; of employing a person and getting as much out of him as possible, without respect for him.

The Only Solution

The only way to reconcile laissez-faire and regulation is the aesthetic way. When you have freedom and accuracy at the same time, you have aesthetics. If economics is really to make for security, if there is to be a feeling of freedom and of a true government, a government which represents what the motto of America is—“E pluribus unum,” “From many, one”—then government will become aesthetics; economics will become aesthetics.

If unions are to function effectively, if we are going to have an America as beautiful as the Rocky Mountains, then politics and economics, unions and parties, representative government and individual government will become aesthetic.