|NUMBER 1878.—July 2, 2014||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin to serialize Intelligence Is You and More, a remarkable, kind, clear, immensely important 1964 lecture by Eli Siegel. Every person has seen himself or herself as intelligent in a big way—as keener, sharper, deeper than others. Every person has also called him- or herself stupid, foolish, and worse. A woman right now, for instance, a Boston lawyer, feels that she’s very knowledgeable about jurisprudence and that she’s the brightest partner in her firm, able to outwit anyone. But she has also told herself she’s been an idiot as to love or else she wouldn’t have suffered so much about the various men she was close to. She feels she’s smart in her ability to impress a jury, but again and again feels inept after a conversation with her mother.
What is intelligence? It’s certainly not what IQ tests—those grossly inadequate and cruel things—delineate.
In this 1964 lecture, as Eli Siegel describes intelligence, we see that it is a huge instance of the principle at the basis 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.” Two decades earlier, in 1945, in his Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World, he had given a formal definition—in my opinion, a thrilling definition—of intelligence. “Intelligence,” he wrote then, “is the ability of a self to become at one with the new.” While that seems different from the definition we find in the present lecture, the two are of a piece, because the 1945 definition I just quoted is about the opposites too—the biggest opposites in our lives: self and world. Here, from Definitions, and Comment, are some sentences from Mr. Siegel’s magnificent comment to the 1945 definition:
Every self is surrounded by otherness: what is different from it....The new is properly otherness thought of as not having been seen before.
...Intelligence should be judged not only by how much we can manage what is around us, but by the scope of what we wish to see as new, and as something we want to deal with....The world is indefinitely capable of the new; and if in any way we object to this, we have that much curtailed intelligence.
To find what is new in the world,...we must be interested in the old, too; because being able to see novelty in the old is part of the job of seeing the new....
Intelligence, therefore, sees surprise in the customary, and the orderly in the astonishing. It looks upon the world as a thing of grace, asking for grace....
Intelligence, then, by its very nature, is a kind of justice. Are we fair to the old? Has it affected us as it should? Adequately? Have we lessened it? If we haven’t, we have been intelligent; and we have been just.
Do We Curtail Our Intelligence?
Not only does Aesthetic Realism explain what intelligence really is—it identifies that in us which, every day, interferes with our intelligence. This interfering thing, this mental weakener, is a fake notion we have of intelligence. That is, there’s a way of dealing with the world which a person feels is oh so smart, clever, self-protective, keen, brilliant. It is Contempt: the getting an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” People may not articulate, even to themselves, this false notion of cleverness, but they have it. The phony smartness of contempt has thousands of forms, and it always makes a person deeply stupid. I’ll give an instance of one of the most frequent forms.
Matthew Prior (1664-1721) is a humorous writer and a true poet. In “An Epitaph” he tells about an imagined couple who died. He says this couple went through their whole lives without being moved much by life. He describes them as having, with a certain thoroughness, the notion most people have a good deal: that the way to take care of yourself intelligently, deal with the world intelligently, is—don’t be much affected by things. This idea of intelligence is ordinary; it is tragic; it is terrible. But from another point of view, Prior shows, it is also stupid and funny. And he’s right. The whole purpose of being a person is to find big meaning in the world; so if you try to take care of your personhood by making less of the world, that’s both comic and dumb. The poem begins:
Interred beneath this marble stone,
Lies sauntering Jack and idle Joan.
· · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
If human things went ill or well,
If changing empires rose or fell,
The morning passed, the evening came,
And found this couple still the same.
They walked and ate, good folks—what then?
Why then they walked and ate again.
It’s clear that this couple is not “becom[ing] at one with the new”: in keeping with the definition I quoted, they’re terrifically unintelligent. Yet in every person there’s that desire to be unstirred, to have things and happenings leave one “still the same,” unruffled and immured in self. That desire is contempt, and it has within it a notion of logic, a fierce, ugly, sleazy sense of intelligence. The “intelligence” can be put this way: “If things mean little to me, I am superior to them—in fact, I’m the most important thing in the world. I’m royalty: I look down on things, people, occurrences. I feel I rule them—I can even make them nonexistent in my mind—because I have nullified their power over me!”
There Is Art
Meanwhile, the lines of Matthew Prior are art. They have the true intelligence which all art has. Prior describes people who are unaffected, but he wants to be affected, fully, by them—and by the world itself. His lines are beautiful; they’re musical. In their sound there is the shrug, the flaccidity, the ho-hum that this couple represents. But we hear, simultaneous with that shrug, energy; simultaneous with that flaccidity, a tautness; simultaneous with that ho-hum, intensity and wonder. The couple has flattened the world; Prior has brought the world, with its structure of opposites, to them, made us feel its newness, made us feel it’s in them.
In later lines, he says they were not interested in seeing value, either good or bad. The reason is: if they did, reality would mean something to them:
No man’s defects sought they to know;
So never made themselves a foe.
No man’s good deeds did they commend;
So never raised themselves a friend.
And there’s a fine, terrible couplet about dulling the reality of other people. It concerns leftover food: “They gave the poor the remnant meat, / Just when it grew not fit to eat.” —The poem ends:
Without love, hatred, joy, or fear,
They led—a kind of—as it were:
Nor wished, nor cared, nor laughed, nor cried;
And so they lived; and so they died.
That is utter. But most people go through life without meeting life in its fullness. They think this flattening of reality, this making a circumscribed world for themselves, is intelligent. As a result, they feel their days are empty; they’re nervous; they’re angry; they go around feeling wounded by others. Prior doesn’t deal with those results. But he presents well a notion of intelligence that is really stupidity.
As we begin to serialize a lecture on intelligence, I’ll say—swiftly, for now: Eli Siegel’s was the largest and most beautiful intelligence I have ever met or known of. He wanted to be vividly just to everything: a person, in all her confusion; an object; history; the culture of (literally) the world. His intelligence was scholarly: he was unparalleled in his scholarship, which was always at one with ease and joy. And his intelligence was down-to-earth—grandly just to the particular moment. It made for Aesthetic Realism: the greatest encourager of intelligence there has ever been.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Intelligence Is You & More
By Eli Siegel
The important thing to see about intelligence is that, for all the years of history, and today too, two kinds of things that seem contrary, opposed, antagonistic, antithetic to each other have been called intelligent. What is present in intelligence is always a situation that concerns the opposites. For example, it has been felt for a long time that to be energetic is intelligent: you have to do things, advance yourself, take care of yourself, make a name for yourself. But also, it has been felt that to be intelligent you have to know how to be quiet, meditative, restful, placid, bucolic.
A person who feels that he can be intelligent without needing the opposites and doing something about them is a person who has given up his desire in the first place. So a vernacular definition of Aesthetic Realism is, in the long run, the same as the definition of intelligence: how to use the opposites that are in the world, not against yourself but for yourself.
The “definition” I had in mind before giving that one was: Intelligence is the ability to get ahead without losing your self-respect. That is a vernacular definition—I don’t call it a definition. But I think that you can see the opposites there: getting ahead is not the same thing as having your self-respect. People who get ahead and lose their self-respect are often people whom the law is interested in adversely; but whether the law is interested in your getting ahead in a manner you choose or not, it is good to have one’s self-respect.
For the purpose of this talk, the definition of intelligence that I propose is: Intelligence is the ability to use one’s mind, as opposites, for oneself and the world. I could have left out the as opposites, but mind does consist of opposites.
Intelligence Is Practical
All animals have intelligence. There is the intelligence that an animal has in getting food, protecting itself, finding shelter. To survive, you have to have some intelligence. You have to know where you are and what to do about it. Otherwise the environment or evolution will get you, and you will become a Darwinian casualty. There’s intelligence in the phrase, so common, “Self-preservation is the first law of nature.”
In the field of what can be called everyday intelligence, practical intelligence, there are many, many proverbs, many, many statements. These are to be respected. Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack is the classic American repository of statements that are in the field of intelligence. For example, Franklin’s Richard Saunders says: “If you’d know the value of money, go and borrow some.” Whether this is true today or not, it is one of those statements telling you to be careful.
Along with statements about how you should save your money, make as much as you can (of course, with the law consenting), there are other statements that are in the field of folk intelligence. It has been felt for a long time that if you want to be President, you have to get up early. (You don’t need much else, but you have to get up early.) Whether that is so or not, the need to get up early is part of a good deal of wisdom of the folk kind, which is a phase of intelligence. One of the best folk jingles of all time is the following, by Franklin: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” This, like many folk statements, is not wholly true, because there have been many persons who got up early and went to bed early and never made any money. But it is a good jingle. Another statement of this kind, which I don’t think will bear the most unrelenting logic, is “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”—because people have eaten apples day after day and the doctor came anyway.
But there is much in this field of prudential intelligence: “A stitch in time saves nine”; “A penny saved is a penny earned.” And Aristotle is like Benjamin Franklin when Aristotle points out in his Ethics and elsewhere that it is good to be prudent, and courageous without being rash—which is an application of the Golden Mean.
However, in looking at practical intelligence, we have to see that it has many rivals. Let us take the statement that is useful and is pleasantly euphonious, rhythmical, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” The same persons affected by that statement are affected often by a statement from St. Matthew, which, whatever else, is in another field:
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
This also is in the field of prudence, but it is an opposite kind of prudence. It has to do with respect, aesthetics, seeing. The phrase “lose his own soul” has much to do with a kind of intelligence adverse, seemingly anyway, to the intelligence of “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
In understanding intelligence, then, we have to welcome both kinds. We have to see some relation between the prudence of the moment and an attitude to the world of all conceivable time, all conceivable space. Jesus has been seen as wise. So has Benjamin Franklin.
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself....” A good deal of folk wisdom is in this other field. We have such folk wisdom without religion in the phrase “If you want to be happy, make someone else happy.” That is not the same as “A penny saved is a penny earned,” but many people think it’s intelligence. How, then, do we get those things together? Intelligence clearly is about opposites, because man wants to feel that he’s generous, worthy of self-respect, but also wants to feel that he is no fool, won’t be taken in by anybody, and, if he can help it, won’t be taken in by himself. (En passant: he usually can’t help it; he is taken in by himself.)
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” This has got around. And if it’s true, it is wise; and if it’s wise, it’s obviously intelligent. But how does the intelligence of this go along with “A stitch in time saves nine,” and so on?
“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” It is quite clear that if a man is going to own various banks and get all the interest present in a whole county but lose himself, it’s not such a good bargain. What this passage is saying is, There’s a better bargain, folks, than the one you may be making. Intelligence always points to a better bargain. When, for example, in the Barry play Holiday a young businessman decided that he wanted a full year off, he thought he was intelligent. Many people still think this young man was not unintelligent. He wanted a year off to see what the world was like, without missing Paris.
Seeing & Acquisition
So we have the two kinds of intelligence: the intelligence of seeing and the intelligence of acquisition. They take many forms, but art and religion are on the same side—all religion. Religion, as such, says another world is to be thought of in relation to this one. What that other world is, is a question. But it is hard to imagine a bank with celestial regions, whether pagan, Christian, or Jewish. And it’s hard to think that interest will be present in the other world. There is the intelligence of seeing, and there is the intelligence of putting ever so much stock in the piggy bank.
The contest is present in many ways. For example, Dryden has a play about Anthony and Cleopatra and its title is All for Love; or, The World Well Lost. So while art and religion have been seen as against acquisition, by Blake, Emerson, Kierkegaard, and many others, there has been a fight likewise between acquisition and a glorious time. This contest is in Dryden’s title. (For the moment, love can be defined as a glorious time.)
It is necessary that one’s desire to have a good time not interfere with one’s desire to get adequate moolah, but many people would say it is intelligent to have a good time. Very few people would say it isn’t. They’d say, Don’t, of course, risk your soul, but have a good time if you can do so without risking your soul. The early Methodists went quite far here: they felt that nearly any good time—dancing, admiring crockery, collecting stamps (I may be parodying a bit, but with good feeling)—was against one’s soul. As soon, in other words, as you were aware you were enjoying something, Satan, Beelzebub, Baal, and other creatures of that sort were beckoning. Yet most people think that it is well to be prudent but also well to have a good time, and the better the time, the better. Do we have opposites here? Yes, we do.
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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