The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

We & the World Are Intimate & Wide

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize the great lecture Philosophy Consists of Instincts, which Eli Siegel gave in 1965. The very basis of Aesthetic Realism is that we—at our most personal, our most everyday, our most confused, our most hoping, our most worried—are like the world that philosophy looks at, and like art. “The world, art, and self explain each other,” Mr. Siegel wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

The biggest opposites in our lives are me and all that’s not me, or self and world. And our constant battle, in everything we do, is about how we should relate these. In the lecture being serialized, Mr. Siegel describes the battle this way: should we try to know what’s outside us—or use it to make ourselves comfortable? And he shows that those two battling desires correspond to disagreeing approaches in the history of American philosophy. The approaches take many forms, but they always have to do with notions of fact and notions of value.

Kind or Hurtful: The Criterion

In the lecture, Mr. Siegel has been discussing passages about philosophy from The Cambridge History of American Literature, and he has come to a passage that mentions religion. His knowledge of religious thought, as of so many other fields, was vast, and loving. I know of no one who respected the various world religions more. That respect is present as he speaks briefly and somewhat playfully here.

Meanwhile, today there is more awareness than ever that religion can be used badly. We know that throughout history, people have killed in the name of religion; they have been brutes, and also snobs, out of supposed religious piety. Religion has been used for kindness and also for cruelty. Of course, most persons have a much stronger sense that other religions have been used for cruelty than that their own has been.

Mr. Siegel does not speak of all this in the lecture we’re serializing. However, the battle that he speaks of and identifies as the fundamental fight in everyone, is, in my opinion, the criterion for distinguishing a true use of that mighty thing, religion, from a false use. The criterion is: Is my purpose 1) to know, to see exactly, deeply, widely—or 2) to make myself comfortable or important without feeling I need to know?

The second is a form of contempt. And Aesthetic Realism has shown contempt to be the source of every injustice. It is “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” In terms of the battle outlined in the present lecture: as soon as we prefer comfort and importance to trying to understand, think, see, know—we are having contempt. Every great thing (like every minor thing) can be used either in behalf of respect for reality or contempt for reality. A notion of love can be used for contempt; so can a notion of patriotism—and of art—and of God. Some everyday ways people use religion for contempt are in the following state of mind:

“I am superior simply because I was born into this religion while others weren’t—that shows God preferred me. Further, since I go through certain procedures of devotion to God, I don’t have to try to understand and be just to the human beings and things in this world (even though I say God created them all). I don’t have to worry about whether justice, including economic justice, comes to people—because I’m in a superior realm; it’s me and the Lord.”

There has certainly been much written about the misuses of religion—which misuses go all the way from smugness to murder. Yet it has not been seen that every one of them comes from contempt. Whenever anything unjust is described well, however, one feels in some fashion the contempt that is in it. Take a very good satiric poem of Robert Burns, “Holy Willie’s Prayer”: the speaker (or pray-er) is an elder in a Scottish church. Burns has us feel the man’s conceit, his contempt for the rest of humanity, in the following stanza, as Holy Willie addresses God yet is really stroking his own “shining,” superior self:

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,

When thousands Thou hast left in night,

That I am here before Thy sight,

For gifts and grace

A burning and a shining light

To all this place.

Meanwhile: the religious thought that is beautiful and kind—of any time, any land—arises from that other source: the desire of a person to know and keep knowing, to see and feel reality—including human reality—with respect and fullness. I mention swiftly three such persons: St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274); a contemporary of his, Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273); and a person who died three years before Rumi was born, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204).

Poems Praise, Question, Criticize

In the present section of his lecture, Mr. Siegel also comments on the word law, which appears in the text he is using. I’m very glad to include in this TRO four poems of his related to what he says here about law, and to the tremendous opposites self and world.

The first was written in the late 1920s. This poem with a long title—“Of Her Who in Her Seeing Left Loved Things, Lovable Things, a Loved Thing, Lovable Thing, Lightly, More or Less Lightsomely”—is kind and critical. It is about the feeling: nothing should mean so much to us that we cannot manage it, have contempt for it. And the poem says that through this feeling we are untrue to ourselves. We go away from the best thing in ourselves because we want to go away from, diminish, be comfortably aloof from, what we value—it may be art, a person, a city, an idea. We can “leave” something geographically; but we also “leave” it when we want to be superior to it, be able to dismiss it or diminish it and have ourselves to ourselves.

Loving something truly is a terrific affront to our conceit. Valuing something mightily is an insult to our desire, described in the lecture, that we be a “law all for ourselves.” Eli Siegel’s criticism is ardent in this poem. The lines are lyrically, one could even say rhapsodically, logical; they are crashingly tender. He wrote the poem long before Aesthetic Realism itself came to be, and certainly long before I was born; but I thank him personally for it, because it stands for the beautiful fact that he fought all the time for the best thing in a person—in me.

“World, Wind, Leaves Talked To” is a poem of 1928. The leaves told of in it seem to be ever so free, doing “as they like”—and at the same time obeying some law of reality that has them do as they do. The poem itself is exuberant and exact. It is musically joyful and strict. It has Eli Siegel’s love of the world in it.

“Said One Golfer to Another” is of 1961. A central and constant form of contempt is simply to make other things and people less real than we are. We do not give them the fullness, the depth of feeling, we have. Expunging the full reality of others is part of making ourselves the one law that matters. In this poem, a certain sport opposes that contempt, that using of our self against the world. The poem is humorous, but in its sound it has width, depth, point, resonance.

Poem of Love,” written in 1951, is satiric. It expresses a false and very prevalent notion of love. The “law” within that notion is: Love consists of a person’s seeing me not as I am but as I want him to see me. Love consists of having power over someone while I have myself to myself and can have thoughts (the “elves” in the last line) that no one—and certainly not the loved one—knows anything about!

“Poem of Love” presents the victory that the speaker—a woman—has in fooling, managing, and hiding from someone. But in the sound is also some of her emptiness, her pain.

Meanwhile, I’ll add—Aesthetic Realism explains what love truly is: the desire to know and like the world itself through knowing and being known by another person. That this desire is the means for love to succeed, is one of the greatly beautiful laws of reality.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Philosophy, Deity, & Ourselves

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is quoting, from The Cambridge History of American Literature, sentences by Morris Cohen on American philosophy.

Another passage—Cohen is talking of evolutionary philosophy:

As a religious doctrine the latter [evolutionary philosophy] was in effect a revival of an older deism, according to which the world was the manifestation of an immanent Power expressing itself in general laws revealed by natural reason and experience, instead of being specially created and governed by divine interventions or occasional miracles revealed to us by supernatural authority.

In the Western world, God has been seen with three intensities. The first intensity can be called a God who knows everything and sees everywhere (for a good purpose, of course); who knows every one of your own doubts a little better than you do, and furthermore keeps an eternal record of all this. He notes the doings of everyone. As soon as you have a thought, he knows it.

This is a God that you can see in the phrase “God knows,” or if you are praying to God and saying “Please see to it that, because I pitched yesterday’s game and won and therefore saved my team, I do not get in any way complacent or feel too much my own importance,” or “Please see that I can help all the poor children in South Boston without making myself as the Pharisees.” You ask God to see to it that you not get too swell-headed as you do all these good deeds—we find such statements. So God would be the most attentive thing going. He’d be mixed up in every person’s life—and nothing got around or stayed longer than he did. This is being omniscient, omnipotent, and also completely loving.

The second intensity as to God is in the view that something called God made the universe and then let it spin. This is deism; and Thomas Paine saw himself as a deist. That is: God didn’t take the trouble to reveal himself, and didn’t have books written in his name. A deist is one who feels that there is a force that can be called God, which made the world but, at the moment, is not managing it. He left it to its own devices.

The third intensity is: God present only as a scientific concept. This is something in the idea of Henry Adams: that the thing that makes the world go (which was seen as feminine, by the way), the dynamo, need not be given any personality as we understand it, and is simply a force which gets to its own procedural symmetries. There’s a poem by Anna Wickham that begins: “God, Thou great symmetry.”

We have, then, three intensities: the ever-present, ever-seeing God; the God that made the world with some good intent but then let it go about its business; and the third, the presence of the universe, very busy, which doesn’t have to be endowed with any God quality. Then, there are combinations. Pantheism and atheism are somewhat different from any of these.

Law in Ourselves

With the phrase “an immanent Power expressing itself in general laws,” we come to the matter of law. Now, the idea of law working in us is present. We generally depend on the way our bodies work, though we never planned our bodies at all. Then, we also know that our bodies are not working right. But there is a mechanism that we see ourselves as having; there is some good sense we see ourselves as having. And we can be accurate without knowing that we are accurate.

However, law can also be used to avoid thought. Law is, on the one hand, science; but on the other, it is automatism. When a person goes into himself, away from things, he believes in himself because there is a desire not to believe in anything else. Being in oneself is a sort of snuggling automatism which is one of the perils of individuality. An individual (that is, a false “individual”) believes in his willingness to take care of himself, but not fully in the willingness of anything else, though he may manage something else. And if we go into ourselves, we have the sense of everything’s being right, in the way a baby who is not disturbed has it while sleeping. There is a buzzing automatic law all for ourselves. This is a kind of magic that is also law.

The word law, then, which has been present in the thinking of American philosophers, is that which is present in the unconscious as automatism, a feeling that the continuity of self, the continuity of one’s own being, is the one security that we can have.

Most people do not see themselves as of any external law. There are two kinds of law quite clearly. One is the law that we have because we are citizens of a community and we’re not supposed to burn up five-and-ten-cent stores, for example. We’re also not supposed to take books from the library and put our own name in them and have our friends read them—things of that kind. We’re not supposed to throw lettuce at the heads of people in parades, and so on. This would be disorderly conduct. Laws are with us, most of which we don’t know. We have codes.

And there is law of another kind. For example, we have to follow the law—which is exceedingly oppressive—that after a certain number of hours of being awake, we find we are not so interested in being awake. This is a great comedown for many people. The other phase of it is, we’d like to sleep and we can’t. But the law of wakefulness and sleep is around; and law is next to rhythm. The universe does seem to be made in an orderly way. Physiology is more orderly than most municipalities—there’s not as much graft, though there is some.

Two Uses of Law

Law used to see other things better and law used to comfort ourselves badly have been around. That is a large subject. Then, there are two beliefs in the human being: 1) anything we do can’t be right, and 2) everything we do must be right. This is a phase of man’s conflict. Insofar as he goes for knowledge yet also knows he isn’t after it, he condemns himself and feels nothing he does can be right. Insofar as he feels he shouldn’t be enslaved by knowledge, everything he does must be right.

I’m hinting that these philosophic ideas are in the conflict of the two instincts: the seeing instinct and the comfort instinct.


Four Poems by Eli Siegel

Of Her Who in Her Seeing Left Loved Things, Lovable Things, a Loved Thing, Lovable Thing, Lightly,
More or Less Lightsomely

O lady, leaving loved things more or less lightsomely;

O, more or less:

In the world where there’s a loved thing,

And seen, O seen, somewhat well,

And the loved thing is of world’s truth, of truth, lovable,

O don’t leave it, for loved things, rightly loved, are not, the world in its might of beauty says, are not to be left; are not to be left the world says, well, nicely, beautifully, are not, not, not, to be left, even, even, more or less lightsomely; even so; even so.

So, now, take the world well and don’t leave lovable things, O lightsomely, not so wisely, not so well, not so joyously, yes; and O, well, badly, badly, badly.

World, Wind, Leaves Talked To

Down the street leaves were coming nicely.

Ho, autumn was merry.

Over doorsteps, some leaves went, these leaves did.

They could be called rather bold, rather good, good and bold.

If leaves want to do as now they’re doing,

Skipping along streets, running up trees (the wind’s strong, very strong), running into men’s faces, running up, high, high, towards the sky, I say (I feel I’m right), let them.

You can’t well say just how leaves should behave, should go on.

Let leaves do as they like.

I think you will.

Go on, leaves; you and the world you’re in are all right.

Let this mighty wind of now, this very strong wind of now, blow you where, blow you how, it pleases and can.

World, wind, leaves, wind, leaves, world, you are all right.

Said One Golfer to Another

Said one golfer to another:

As I hit the ball, and hard

(Maybe well),

I think something at least is real.

This is satisfying.

In fact, when I hit the ball,

I can see you as more real, Bill Higgins,

My opponent, my business associate.

Poem of Love

Tra-la-la, I’m still unknown.

I’m married now, and yet alone.

My husband sees enough to charm

The dazzled youth, but not to harm

His iridescent Margaret.

Much to miss, but not to fret

About, say I, alone in room.

He loves as much as I presume

He love; and so we have ourselves.

And I can play with unknown elves.