The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Victory of Good Will

Dear Unknown Friends:

It Weakens, the 1971 lecture we are serializing, is one of the Goodbye Profit System talks that Eli Siegel gave beginning in 1970. In these he showed that economics driven by the profit motive—the looking on human beings, their needs, their labor, in terms of how much money one can extract from them—had reached the point at which it could no longer succeed. It might grind on for some years. But the contempt of seeing reality, with its grandeur, and people, with all their feelings and depths and dignity, as existing for one’s private profit, would never flourish again. For an economy to succeed, that ugly motive has to be replaced by something that is new yet has been demanded in various ways throughout the centuries: economics has to be based on ethics, on that aesthetic oneness of justice to other people and to oneself which Mr. Siegel described as good will.

The failure of the profit way, which he spoke of four decades ago, is what we are experiencing now. He documented his explanation with material from history, literature, economic thought, human life, and the news of the moment. At the point we’ve reached in It Weakens, Mr. Siegel is discussing passages of an essay by Emerson. It’s included in a book he used in several lectures, The American Transcendentalists, which contains work by Thoreau, Emerson, William Henry Channing, Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, and more. Through their writing, we can see that the objection to profit economics is as American as Plymouth Rock, and was voiced by some of our most important men and women of letters.

What Good Will Is

In this section Mr. Siegel speaks too about something for which he gave evidence throughout his lectures—something which, as he says, cannot be agreed with through simply hearing it stated: that good will is a force, and is of the nature of reality itself. What Aesthetic Realism means by good will is not what people generally associate with the phrase. It is the feeling that one takes care of oneself by being fair to what’s not oneself. It is not mush, or gush, but accuracy. All art and science arise from this driving desire to be just to the object. They show that good will is true self-expression, resplendent and thrilling.

In the daily life of every person, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, good will is in a fight with contempt: the desire to increase oneself through making less of other things and people. Throughout history, contempt has seemed to win: the victory of looking down, manipulating, grabbing, dismissing, sneering, being cold, has seemed more attractive—and quicker—than the desire to know, value, be just. Yet our desire to lessen what’s not us is the thing that makes us dislike ourselves and feel agitated, pervasively unsure, depressed.

This is because the need for good will is part of the structure of the human self. Our structure, Aesthetic Realism explains, is aesthetic: the oneness of opposites. We are always, inseparably, our particular self and our relation to everything else. Therefore, when we make less of a world to which we’re inextricably related, when we mentally or otherwise kick around what Mr. Siegel called “the other half of ourselves,” we’re untrue to what we are. And the inevitable result is—we are profoundly uneasy and ashamed. No matter how much we gloat or bluster, the fact that self-dislike arises from having contempt is as much a law of reality as a law of physics is.

The profit motive, looked at straight, is contempt. And by the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st—for historical reasons Mr. Siegel detailed in his lectures—the profit system became disabled by its own contempt, just as a person who year after year is contemptuous of others can come to be inwardly disabled with self-dislike, emptiness, anxiety.

Two Illustrations

I’ll comment on two articles which, like many others, point to both the ill will and the infirmity of profit economics.

The first appeared in the New York Times on November 30. Its headline is: “Line Grows Long for Free Meals at U.S. Schools.” The article begins:

Millions of American schoolchildren are receiving free or low-cost meals for the first time as their parents, many once solidly middle class, have lost jobs or homes.

This article by itself is enough to show that economics based on profit is a vicious, ugly flop. It’s vicious because any economy is immoral which causes children to go hungry, which does not have as a prime motive and first order of business the enabling of its young people to eat adequately. The free meals at school are not, in any way, part of the profit system. They are governmental good will attempting to mitigate a little a hideous effect of a profit-driven system: widespread hunger in the young people of our land.

That the profit way is a flop is illustrated by the following sentences of the article:

In Sylva, N.C., layoffs at lumber and paper mills have driven hundreds of new students into the free lunch program. In Las Vegas, where the collapse of the construction industry has caused hardship, 15,000 additional students joined the subsidized lunch program this fall. Around Rochester, unemployed engineers and technicians have signed up their children after the downsizing of Kodak and other companies forced them from their jobs.

That description stands for so much of American life today, in which businesses, jobs, and even whole industries are gone. One of the biggest tragedies and follies of humanity is that people have seen “efficiency” as being apart from, and often contrary to, ethics, kindness, good will. Over the decades, a justification given for profit-motivated economics has been: It may be selfish, but it’s the only efficient way. Well, what we see today is what Eli Siegel described in 1970: “The conduct of industry on the basis of ill will has been shown to be inefficient.” The fact that economics now cannot be efficient unless it is just, is, he said, “the greatest victory of good will in history.”

A November 29th New York Times article has the headline “At Top Colleges, Anti-Wall Street Fervor Complicates Campus Recruiting.” It reports that increasingly, college students are protesting against and picketing persons who come to their campuses to recruit for Wall Street firms:

Yale students turned a Morgan Stanley information session into a protest site....Wall Street has been steadily losing its allure on college campuses since the financial crisis.

One could say the students’ objections are not just based on ethics. One could say Wall Street is now looked on askance on campuses because it’s less able to provide those lucrative jobs the graduates once grabbed at. But it’s that very linkage of ethics and the failure of something standing for the profit system, which matters so much. People have always felt seeing others in terms of acquisition was ugly. In the past they tried to bury their uneasiness, since it seemed that what Wall Street represents was a means of aggrandizing themselves. Yet the uneasiness was always there. We can see it in a person the Times quotes, who says he wants a Wall Street job. He tells the reporter: “My friends and I joke about, ‘Oh, are you going to the dark side?’”

That phrase, “the dark side,” is not only a joke. Because of the failure of profit economics, people find it less possible to make economic injustice look somehow fine, including to themselves. This is a victory of good will.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Our Whole Self, & Money

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing passages from The American Transcendentalists, edited by Perry Miller

An essay by Emerson, different from some other writings of his, is “The Method of Nature” (1841)

The idea of work is something which meant a great deal to Emerson, and he felt that profit had to do with repetition that was false to the idea of “invention,” of seeing the object freshly and newly. He says:

I do not wish to look with sour aspect at the industrious manufacturing village, or the mart of commerce. I love the music of the waterwheel; I value the railway; I feel the pride which the sight of a ship inspires; I look on trade and every mechanical craft as education also. But let me discriminate what is precious herein. There is in each of these works an act of invention, an intellectual step, or short series of steps, taken; that act or step is the spiritual act; all the rest is mere repetition of the same a thousand times.

This idea was to be carried on by Ruskin, Walter Crane, William Morris, and all who wanted to make work something which had the presence of a person. It was a condemnation of the thing presented in a play by Elmer Rice, The Adding Machine, and written of by Harvey Swados in On the Line (the assembly line): work in which the person, if he could, would be thinking of his best girl or even his worst girl in order to get away from the machine.

That is a big matter in industry, because as the machine whirs, your thoughts are elsewhere. So the principle is still: everything one does should have the whole person behind it. And if your work is in order to make money, you have to have a little of the person, and sometimes much of the person, left out. This goes even for executives, because one out of every ten executives is dreamy. I could use worse words; the maladies to which executives are incident are quite many.

We should be interested in what we’re doing. Meanwhile, man, without knowing it, goes towards a loss of interest. He somehow feels that if he can be above what he’s doing and doesn’t have to think about it anymore, he has successfully put out his tongue at the universal method, or God. This is done in every field. The profit system abets it, because the feelings of a person are not the main thing. The end is the product, and if the product could be made by three bad Pinocchios, or behaving automata, it would be just as well. In fact, this is a big matter now.

Should one have feeling while one works? Emerson, and the Transcendentalists generally, felt that every moment of a person’s life was too precious to be given to routine work, or a kind of repetition. There is a lot of that. I have seen people putting paper in a large press, and there was a repetition of a dreamy efficient act. It was dreamy, but it was efficient. How much of the self should be expressed all the time? In this field, there is objection by persons who gain from the profit system too. It isn’t only by the “operative,” as he used to be called, or the worker.

This is what Emerson is dealing with. He distinguishes “invention” from “repetition.” Invention is where the self is wholly present. Repetition is where the self, doing something so well, thinks it doesn’t have to be present, and isn’t present.

Emerson Speaks of “Prerogatives”

Emerson says:

Let there be worse cotton and better men. The weaver should not be bereaved of his superiority to his work, and his knowledge that the product or the skill is of no value, except so far as it embodies his spiritual prerogatives.

A phrase like “spiritual prerogatives” was very popular with the Transcendentalists. A prerogative is something you have a right to ask for. It is from the Latin word rogare, “to ask.” There is what people have a right to ask for. Most people think they have a right—and their showing it is against the profit system—not to be bored at work and not to be repetitive. Emerson feels we have a right to do that which expresses us, or not to do that which doesn’t. All this is concerned now, because while people are of course angry with their monetary returns, they also are angry with the failure to feel entirely themselves in their work. Emerson writes:

Here, we set a bound to the respectability of wealth, and a bound to the pretensions of the law and the church.

He’s objecting to what he saw “the respectability of wealth” and “pretensions of law and the church” as going for: the idea that man is not asking for anything more—that any asking for more is not really man. That idea is like what’s said now about protests on the campuses: that it’s only a disgruntled minority trying to get publicity for itself! Emerson disagrees with the notion that man is pleased with how he lives.

Meaning versus the Market

A little later he says:

The power of mind is not mortification, but life. But come forth, thou curious child! hither, thou loving, all-hoping poet! hither, thou tender, doubting heart, which hast not yet found any place in the world’s market fit for thee.

Emerson had a sense that a person who wanted to see what the meaning of things was didn’t have a place in the market of life. Many people have felt that without writing essays about it.

...thou tender, doubting heart, which hast not yet found any place in the world’s market fit for thee; any wares which thou couldst buy or sell—so large is thy love and ambition....

This means that because a person had a love for things that was great—here related to true ambition—there wasn’t a place in the market for him. And while many persons have felt that, they then have put their shoulders under the yoke and behaved. In the meantime, the wound has never healed.

Smooth thy brow, and hope and love on, for the kind Heaven justifies thee, and the whole world feels that thou art in the right.

The Force of Good Will

Emerson couldn’t make up his mind whether man is kinder or nature is kinder. Sometimes he presents man as kinder, but in this essay it is different:

When man curses, nature still testifies to truth and love.

The whole idea of these talks is that good will is the greatest force in the world, the most dynamic force, greater than the atom, steam, electricity, horse power, a mountain; that it is as great as reality itself, being reality itself; that while reality doesn’t show all that it’s for, it is showing what it’s for now. Since the profit system is an insult to the good will in reality, reality, while having accommodated itself to the profit system, will be seen by historians as saying beginning in 1970: “No more of that! Good will is the strongest thing and everybody has to see it. And if they don’t want to see it they’ll suffer.”

That is true: if you don’t see that good will is the strongest force in yourself, you, whoever you are, will suffer. Going back to what I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, the strike by the NewYork City police: the policemen felt that the public, which they were protecting—including at night, sometimes in hot nights, sometimes in cold, sometimes in boring, sometimes in dangerous nights—the public didn’t care about what they felt. The idea was, the only way they can learn is for the policemen to desert the public for a while.

I know that when I say good will is the strongest force in the world—stronger than chemistry, physics, electricity—I’m saying something that cannot be readily agreed with. The only thing is: it’s true. You cannot outrage good will and get away with it indefinitely.

He Saw This in Nature

There is a feeling in Emerson that nature has a symmetry which is akin to good will. He is not putting it the way I’m putting it. But I think if you look at his sentences, you’ll find something like it embedded as a raisin is in brown cake.

Not the cause, but an ever novel effect, nature descends always from above. It is unbroken obedience.

Here, nature arises from God, or reality, whichever way you want to put it. Nature has various meanings. It can be defined in religious terms as the way God does his stuff, the way God proceeds. Alexander Pope uses the word somewhat in this meaning. He was not exactly a theist, but he looked at the way that the world conducted itself and thought of the force from which all of it came, and the method. Nature is force and method: method standing for form, and force for strict energy. It is force and method for both Alexander Pope and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They are quite different, but there are things said by both which have a decisive likeness.

“It is unbroken obedience.” Nature is seen here as what God or reality ordains, and nature is obedient. Chlorophyll is quite obedient. Somebody, something, said, Let there be chlorophyll. And nature said, Okay, let there be chlorophyll. And there was chlorophyll. Emerson writes:

The beauty of these fair objects is imported into them from a metaphysical and eternal spring..., a mysterious principle of life.

The thing to see is that Emerson feels this principle of life, which is also the energy of life, has good will in it.