What Makes Your Emotion Right or Wrong?
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue our serialization of the lecture Eli Siegel gave on November 15, 1974. It is about the troubles an individual mind can have, and the troubles of a nation and its economy. I have seen that Aesthetic Realism is—magnificently—the authority on both subjects and on the relation between them.
What in us interferes with our own mind, life, feelings? Aesthetic Realism shows that the big weakener within a person is contempt, one’s going after an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And contempt is also the source of every human injustice—including snobbishness, racism, massacres, bullying, and economics based on using human beings for somebody’s private profit.
In the section of the lecture published here, Mr. Siegel is speaking about something that he was the philosopher to explain: What is it that makes an emotion harmful, ugly, bad, and what is it that makes an emotion valuable, good, even beautiful? Four decades later, the various psychiatric practitioners still do not know the answer to that all-important question—even as they present themselves as experts, prescribe mind-muffling pharmaceuticals, and advise persons to accept themselves. And people are greatly troubled because they have emotions that make them ashamed, and that they don’t understand. Nor do they know what kind of emotion would make them proud.
So as a preliminary to Mr. Siegel’s great discussion, I’ll comment briefly on an emotion that confuses and frightens people as much as any: anger.
Even for Anger, a Criterion
Whether they show it or not, millions of people are angry. One can act polite, function in a civilized fashion, and yet be raging within. And we can be sure that somewhere right now a representative husband and wife are lashing out at each other verbally. Immediately, both feel ashamed. Yet they continue that verbal inter-assault, neither of them willing to stop. Both feel hurt, both tell themselves they’re justified—and both feel disgusted with themselves.
“Anger-management” courses are an industry. And mainly they do not work, because what anger needs is not some superficial “management” techniques, but to be understood.
The first necessity for the understanding of any emotion is to know what is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Our deepest—and also most urgent—need is to put together the opposites of care for self and justice to the outside world. When an emotion of ours is an attempt to make those opposites one, it is a good emotion. That is as true about anger as it is about tenderness.
Further, as Mr. Siegel explains in the present lecture, when any emotion of ours is for the purpose of building ourselves up and lessening what’s different from us, the emotion is ugly, harmful, shame-making. So a “nice” emotion, like tenderness, can be horribly ugly. For example, a woman can feel ever so tender toward a man who belittles other people, lies about them, sees them as worthless, hopes horrible things happen to them, and makes her the one human being he can stand. He has made her a queen, and the rest of humanity grossly beneath them both. So she melts in his arms; she tingles with warmth as she thinks of him. Her tenderness is really one of the foulest states of mind a person can have: she feels glorious through injustice to other people. There is a lot of tenderness that’s of this sort, though of course the persons having it don’t describe it truly, even to themselves. Most contemptuous feeling is decorated to look noble.
American History & Ourselves
As a means of distinguishing between anger that is bad, ugly, harmful, and anger that is beautiful, good for humanity, we can look at the two big angers that made for the American Civil War.
There was the anger of the Southern slave-owners. With the election of Abraham Lincoln (and much that preceded it), they felt that something they considered themselves entitled to would be taken from them: that their owning of human beings would be interfered with. The Southern anger was as follows (though not stated this way): “I’m furious that I may be stopped from dealing with what’s different from me however I please. I and those like me should be able to go on feeling infinitely superior to black people, look down on them—and use them accordingly! I’m furious, seething, boiling because those Yankees want to stop me from having my way, and a big part of my way is that certain human beings just exist to serve me and people like me, do our bidding, create wealth for us! If I can’t have my way I’m not free. And you bet I’m angry: my friends and I will destroy this country before we let anyone interfere with our freedom—our freedom to own someone, work him, sell him, beat him, even kill him.”
It happens that everyday anger is not so different in principle from the anger of this Georgia plantation owner. People every day are furious because something interferes with their having their way, interferes with some notion of self-importance, comfort, superiority. For example, each of the arguing spouses I described earlier is angry because he or she has to consider someone different from oneself—because that other person has the nerve to assert his or her own way of seeing and doesn’t exist simply to praise me and do my bidding.
A Beautiful Anger
There was another anger in America that made the Civil War come to be. It had been at work for a number of decades. It was the anger of the abolitionists, including such persons as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Henry Ward Beecher. They had a beautiful anger. It was an anger at slavery—a fury that a human being should be owned by another human being. They saw it as unbearable that people in, say, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania were not also angry at this horror, or had anger that was faint, tepid. They wanted to bring out the true anger at slavery, which most Americans found it inconvenient to feel. They made beautiful, furious nuisances of themselves. As Mr. Siegel pointed out: in the 1830s, a certain powerfully expressed anger at slavery was had by only a few people—those “fringe” abolitionists; by 1861, it was represented by the whole Union Army, and changed the nation.
Describing the difference between good and bad anger, Mr. Siegel said in a lecture: “In a good anger we are fighting for the beauty of the world. In a bad anger we don’t give a damn about the beauty of the world.” The abolitionists were fighting for the beauty of the world, which was inseparable from fighting for justice to a black child enslaved in Tennessee.
In the present election year, America is in the midst of angers good and bad. Americans need to understand these angers, and distinguish between them. That means we all need to engage in the beautiful, kind study of Aesthetic Realism.