The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Education Is For

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing Eli Siegel’s landmark 1973 lecture Educational Method Is Poetic. And we print too part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Marcia Rackow presented this month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “To Manage People, or Understand Them: The Historic & Intimate Debate.”

What Mr. Siegel shows in this lecture is the basis of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method: The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it. That, too, is the largest purpose of everyone’s life. Every subject in the curriculum, every fact taught in a classroom, is a means to like the world, because it is evidence that reality is made well: the object of study, like the world it is of, is a oneness of opposites—such opposites as sameness and difference, motion and rest, the known and the unknown, freedom and order. And these opposites are in us—maybe confusingly, tumultuously.

In the part of the lecture included here, Mr. Siegel speaks passionately, with beautiful intensity and sweetness, about the purpose of education. In 2001, schools are in even more disarray than in 1973. So many children in the nation’s classrooms are turbulent, furious. The reason is the first of Eli Siegel’s beautiful “Twenty-one Distichs about Children”:

Bernice thinks a little.

Bernice is two months old; the world is new for her.

Ah, will her parents' angry world quite do for her?¹

The enormous trouble in schools exists because the angry world children see—also selfish world, also insincere world—won’t do for them. And a child who feels the world won’t do, will not be graceful with such representatives of that world as equations, words to be read and spelled, items of science.

The world, to be sure, is not the same as the way people deal with it and run it; but most of us, including children, don’t make that needed distinction. So America’s children have judged the world on the basis of what they see around them. A child can be given 50 tests a week—if she deeply despises the world in which, and about which, she’s told to learn, there will be a profound blockage.

America has reached this state: children have to believe that the adults of this country, including teachers, like the world which education is about—that these adults really think the world is good to take within one’s mind accurately, honestly, and lovingly. But the children don’t believe that the adults who are telling them to learn, care much for reality. In homes, on television, in ads, on streets, children see people wanting to own as much of the world as possible; they see that adults feel it’s a world in which to beat out others and look down on others. Certainly, they see instances of kindness too, and beauty. But the children are deeply furious that the world they were born into is being presented not as something that people care for—and that they can care for—but as something in which to grab, something to fight, something to get away from.

Aesthetic Realism explains that the thing in every person which interferes with learning is contempt: the feeling “he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” Children see much contempt; and they too have contempt, for people and the world. Then they’re told to do well on tests!

Definitely, the children deserve to live in a nation that is owned equally—by all of them and us. And they won’t trust anyone who doesn’t think so and say so. Economics in America, with many people being poor so some others can be very rich, is simply ugly and unethical. The press and politicians can pretend about this all they want, but in the year 2001 children won’t learn well in school unless they think adults want the world owned well: that is, justly. A child can be selfish and acquisitive himself but still be deeply disgusted by the selfishness and grabbiness of others. And to tell a child who is poor to pass a test, without your making it clear that his poverty is something America should apologize to him for and remedy immediately—well, this is going on in school after school, and it is not only dishonest: it won’t work.

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method succeeds because it is true: about reality, education, and children’s hopes. Through it, for example, in a science lesson a child might learn that gravitation makes the tremendous opposites sameness and difference one. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, Newton proved “that all bodies in the universe...have a mutual attraction for each other.” Newton’s law of gravitation shows that all the things of reality are for—are drawn to—what’s not themselves, what’s different! Gravitation, then, shows that the very structure of reality is opposed to an awful thing affecting life in America, racism—because racism falsely uses difference against sameness, uses difference to have contempt. Gravitation is opposed to our own desire to be apart from things, people, knowledge—to make ourselves a different, separate world. Seeing this, a child sees gravitation as a friend to welcome into her mind.

Eli Siegel provided the means for people to see knowledge as dear to them, as about them, as showing a world they can truly like. He himself was at ease in every field of thought. His desire to know was passionate, unending, and beautifully successful.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Science and Ethics

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel has been discussing the 17th-century scientist Robert Boyle.

In Boyle’s essay “The Value of Natural Philosophy,” we have the two aspects of learning: 

It was a saying of Pythagoras ... that there are two things which most ennobles man, and make him resemble the gods; to know the truth, and to do good. ²

This is the same as liking the world, because if you know the world and that makes you like it less, it’s too great a loss. Either “truth” and “good” must go together, or the world is simply disruption. And this is part of education. The great mistake of the boards of education in every city in America and the world now, including the USSR and China, is that the purpose of liking the world is not seen as the largest purpose.

Education in China, for example, has some implication of liking the world, but at the moment there are two things that hinder that: Dialectical materialism is not a way of respecting the world sufficiently. Also, there is a sort of parochialism in the way the world is seen—it’s not seen sufficiently. The Aesthetic Realism definition of the world is: everything, everything, everything, everything—for a year, if need be—that is different from yourself. And if you want to exclude anything, that much you’re unfair to the world.

The greatest mistake in education, according to Aesthetic Realism, is that it didn’t say consciously: “Dear children, we are here this morning, looking fairly happy. (Your mother’s done a good job; she’s dressed you pretty well; your cheeks are rosy; also, apparently, you are hopeful.) I want to say that my purpose and the purpose of all those who follow me—you may be going to school now for, who knows, 12 years more, 18 years more—always will be for you to like the world! You can never be through liking the world. Any person who thinks at any time there is not a new thing to like the world by is someone who has already accepted the purpose of paralysis.

“;My purpose, dear children, is to encourage you to like the world. And if you hurt your dear knee by falling today, and you also had some strange feeling in your tummy, or, as pedants say, stomach, you should remember that. Children can be divided in two ways: one, those who, because they have a pain in their tummy, give up liking the world; and others who still think the world should be given a chance. My purpose with arithmetic is to have you like the world. My purpose with grammar is to have you like the world. My purpose with geography—for instance, a few weeks from now I'm going to tell you where Switzerland is—is to have you like the world. I cannot say this too often. And if you want to feel that teacher wants to repeat, it’s quite correct. Teacher does want to repeat.”

Well, as I was trying to manifest in this little vignette of the happy children finding out what they came to school for, liking the world is the purpose of Aesthetic Realism. We go to concerts, we see plays, we visit friends, we care for somebody, we want to get the most from our food, we sleep, we do everything with the hope that, through that, the world will be liked more. And liking the world is the utmost in instinct, in inevitability, and in purpose. 

Boyle says of “natural philosophy” [i.e. the physical sciences]:

There is no human science that does more gratify and enrich the understanding with variety of choice and acceptable truths; nor scarce any, that does more enable a willing mind to exercise a goodness beneficial to others.

It is not by chance that Aristotle wrote on ethics and also on physics. Ethics is the study of possible goodness. Physics, along with chemistry, is the study of the structure of the physical world. 

In the 17th century there was a feeling that you could find a moral in everything. That way is in Shakespeare: “How far that little candle throws his beams! / So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” ³ That is an emblem: the candle fights the dark, and so the candle is a good deed. The emblem was used by Francis Quarles: the broom, and also the hourglass. The broom, if rightly applied, would take any filth or dust and put it elsewhere. The emblem was a showing that the physical world had a moral message, that there was goodness in it. And it is used constantly. For instance: ice has been in the river for four months; then it starts cracking, and a few birds fly around, and this shows the cruelty of the world can get tired.

Then, there are parables, which also use the physical world. Aesop’s story of the man who didn’t let the wind, with all its blowing, take off his coat—he just wrapped it further—but when the sun came out and it was warm, he took it off gracefully: that’s an emblem and a parable at once. When you use the physical world to show some quality in the world, you are bringing together science and ethics.

Click here to continue reading lecture.


To Manage or Understand?

By Marcia Rackow

“Aesthetic Realism believes,” wrote Mr. Siegel, “that to understand, which is the same thing as getting truth and organizing it, is the deepest desire of [the self]” (TRO 450). But Aesthetic Realism shows we have another desire: to have contempt for the world, see it as a confusing mess and other people as inferior beings whom we should manage. This desire is what makes us dislike ourselves.

Growing up, I was already in a debate between wanting to know and wanting to run things. My parents, who worked in fashion and advertising design, encouraged my love for art, taking me to museums and teaching me how to draw and paint. I thought it was wonderful that on a flat surface an artist could convey a feeling of depth and space. But the idea of seeing people as having depth and dimension—that didn’t occur to me, because I had a different purpose with them.

Though I had a timid, ingratiating manner, I was a little empress in sheep’s clothing. I used our living with my grandparents and two uncles and my being made much of by my whole family, to feel I was the most important person in our household. I flattered my father and uncles while thinking they were foolish about me. And as I grew older, I came to see men as existing to glorify me. I would hover about a man, be ready to go wherever he wanted—because I thought that was the way to have him see me as wonderful.

When I was living in Florence, Italy, studying art, one afternoon a young man struck up a conversation with me as I was sitting on the steps of the Duomo. Ari was a student from Israel. We started going out together; but I wasn’t interested in understanding who he was, and don’t even remember what he was studying. I was much more interested in managing his life.

For example, I knew he liked stuffed cabbage, which he said he hadn’t eaten since he’d been home. I searched the Florence bookstores for a Jewish cookbook and spent the morning of the day of a rendezvous I had arranged, preparing a big pot of it. When he arrived, I put on Edith Piaf records and we had our dinner, which turned out quite well. But that was the only thing that did. Later in the evening, as we were preparing for bed, Ari suddenly said he couldn’t stay, and left. I was mortified. I now see that he had the uncomfortable feeling my purpose wasn’t to have his life go well but to make him my possession.

A month later, when I saw Ari walking with another girl, I was so hurt I couldn’t eat for a week without getting nauseous. I thought my jealousy was a sign of my great love for him, but I have since seen that it was quite the contrary: I was furious that I couldn’t own and manage him.

Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, when I asked Mr. Siegel how I could strengthen a man I was close to, he replied, “What is the first thing you want to see if you want to understand another?” And he explained, “The large question is: how does that person see himself or herself? There is the question in my poem ‘Ralph Isham, 1753 and Later’: ‘What was he to himself? / There, there is something.’ A person has a way of seeing himself.”

Mr. Siegel enabled me really to change my purpose with people, and a lifetime is not long enough for me to express my gratitude. I am grateful to be married to Ken Kimmelman, filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant, and to be in the happy midst of understanding him—how he sees his past, his family and friends, his work in film. I now know that trying to understand a person is the most romantic, exciting thing there is—the height of intelligence and pleasure!  

¹ Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems (Definition Press: 1957).

² In English Prose Selections, ed. Henry Craik (1894), 3:66.

³ The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.90-91.