The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Emotion & the Outside World

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing passages from the textbook Social Disorganization, by Mabel A. Elliott and Francis E. Merrill, first published in 1934.

We come to a sentence in which the word aggressive is used. There has been a great deal of talk about aggression. It’s one of the important words that Freud made people think about. And it is quite clearly related to ill will, or lack of good will. How much that is present in economics is something which will be looked at. The word aggressive was once used for how a salesman should be. It could be in an ad for a salesman to help market a new product: “should be smooth-spoken but aggressive.” In fact, if you want to be a salesman you have to be both.

Aggression is not the same yet as ill will. But the word likely has ill will with it. There can be aggression that has kindness in it: the desire to be useful can take an impetuous form. But most often aggression is related to ill will.

The writers are surprised that a person can feel bad because he had aggressive thoughts—that even though he didn’t do anything about them he feels bad. So we have this:

He may in fact feel very guilty when he actually has done nothing against the other individual except think aggressive thoughts!

It isn’t the thinking aggressive thoughts that’s so bad and makes for guilt; it’s the not being able to be against them in a way that convinces you or looks good. Next to being in favor of what is good is to be sufficiently, effectively against what may not be good. If you have aggressive thoughts, or thoughts that don’t look good, and you have a twinge, the reason you have the twinge is that you’re not against them in a full way. There are two kinds of being against. One is being uncomfortable. That is not enough. The other is having a certain proud and deep pleasure in being against them.

The writers bring in society as a cause of things happening wrongly in mind. Under the head of “Culture and Emotional Conflict,” they say that “culturally motivated desires” may not “coincide with the individual’s ethical ideals”:

The individual’s ideals...may be contrary to his sharp practices, whether in the market place or elsewhere, and he may develop particular neurotic or psychotic distortions as a result.

This is an indirect way of saying that some of the things exacted by free enterprise may cause a revulsion in one’s mind that one can’t do much about. It’s hard to make money from a person without feeling superior to the person. It’s hard to make money through someone else’s work without feeling superior. And there is a footnote: “Read Bain, ‘Our Schizoid Culture,’ Sociology and Social Research, 19:266-276.” In other words, people would be asked to be just, to think of the other person. Then they’d be in the situation where they’d be led to think of the other person only as one they could get the better of. And this is schizoid, if anything is.

How Friendly Is Nature?

Then there’s a sentence describing something from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. It makes Freud a little clearer than I think that book is:

As Freud points out, there are three general sources of suffering: (1) the superior force of nature; (2) the disposition of our bodies to decline (the wearing out of the biological organism as it grows older); and (3) the inadequacies of our methods of regulating human relations.

Looking at this: “...there are three general sources of suffering: (1) the superior force of nature...” So the reason you suffer is: the Rocky Mountains, or Lake Superior, let alone the Atlantic Ocean, is stronger than you are. We have a question: How should one see that which is stronger than one? One could describe, for instance, how, “by contemplating the Rocky Mountains, I felt a little better about myself. I started with the Appalachians and it took months, but I came to think that the Appalachians could be thought about without injuring myself. I was saved by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Then I tackled the Rocky Mountains.”

There are three possibilities as to how you should see “the superior force of nature”: it doesn’t care about you, which means it’s middling; or it will take care of you—it’s friendly; and the third is, it’s against you. When I wrote in “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana”:

Clear air is healthful; men go to Colorado, near Wyoming, near Montana in the mountains, sick men go to the mountains where Indians once lived, fought and killed each other

—I was implying that the mountains could be useful. The air is better. In the same way a person who was troubled with pulmonary frailty, or consumption, or tuberculosis, would go to the Adirondacks, where the air was purer, so people would go to the Rocky Mountains or somewhere else. Nature has been used for healing purposes. As to just what is the attitude of nature, we have this question: We come from nature but it doesn’t care anything about us?

The sentence, then, brings up the matter of whether the outside world or nature is not interested at all in what we are; or is friendly; or is antagonistic. And these possibilities have to be looked upon closely.

Contempt & Wearing Out

The second of the “three general sources of suffering” mentioned is: “the disposition of our bodies to decline (the wearing out of the biological organism as it grows older).” This seems to be entirely true. But the matter of who is the first offender is also important. It’s very easy at an early age to see the world as opposed to one. We have it in the famous nursery rhyme “Rain, rain, go away. / Come again some other day. / Little children want to play”—where the rain is interfering. But the important thing is that, very early, the way a child sees nature or the outside world may have superiority in it.

One thing Freud never did was deal with the subject Aesthetic Realism sees as major: the desire to build up a self by being contemptuous of anything whatsoever that is not it—anything. That desire is as constant as the heartbeat. And if there weren’t this desire for contempt, would the “wearing out” or the declining be as fearful as it has been? There is a phrase, eaten up with envy; and contempt also makes one shrink—not so much because it’s contempt, but because wherever there’s contempt there is something ashamed in the one having it, and so there is a shrinking into oneself. If a person, for example, said loudly, “I despise that! I disdain that! I think that’s weak! I think that is not much good!” immediately it wouldn’t be contempt, because contempt always has a sense of the hidden joy. Once you despise something and you’re loud about it, the word contempt doesn’t seem to be the right one anymore.

The third of the “sources of suffering” given is “the inadequacies of our methods of regulating human relations.” That’s something else. How much can be done about all three, and what’s the cause of all three, is the matter to know about.

That sentence is not so much about Freud; it’s about mental derangement and the way it was seen in the 1930s and ’40s.

The writers say: “And the biological organisms that are our own bodies contain the very seeds of disorganization and dissolution.” A question is whether, if the self did not have any peril, the self would like it. The self wants to be free but have everything arranged in advance to suit itself. That is not easy to get, because if you want to be free, you have to be aware of something opposed to you.

Then we have a statement about feeling as affecting people:

We are fairly certain...(1) that feeling[s]...tend to react upon the whole physical organism, and (2) that if the emotion is intense, as is anger or bitter hatred, it sets a somatic pattern in motion which more or less has to wear itself out. As we say, we have “to get it out of our system” quite literally. We also know (3) that human beings, generally speaking, can take severe traumatic shocks relatively well, but that long, enduring emotional strains are extremely hard on most persons.

So there is the statement that feelings “tend to react upon the whole physical organism.” And Aesthetic Realism says definitely, once you’re fond of any feeling, if it’s false or unjust, your fondness makes you the cause of your own weakness.

“(2) that if the emotion is intense, as is anger or bitter hatred, it sets a somatic pattern in motion which more or less has to wear itself out.” About that phrase “if the emotion is intense”: There’s nothing wrong with emotion. There’s nothing wrong with anger. There’s nothing wrong with contempt, even, as long as it is based on a desire to see. Your anger will be bad if it’s for the purpose of building yourself up. It’s not bad because it’s intense; the anger can be secret. And your contempt is bad if it’s for the purpose of building yourself up. That’s true of any emotion. Even fear can be used that way: while you’re in a state of fear, you can think you have a case against the world and you can misuse it. It’s not the intensity of the emotion that makes it hurtful. There’s no limit to how much a person can be angry. A value of Wagner in terms of thought is this: in his music there’s a certain kind of intensity that people saw could be had without the losing of control. And some of the intensity is for a good reason. Every second Valkyrie had some sense. So it’s not the intensity of the emotion—it’s what it’s for.

The problem for Aesthetic Realism consultants to make clear is: What is an emotion that harms one? What is an emotion that doesn’t harm one? How can an emotion be intense and be good for one—and be more valuable than a not so intense emotion which can be bad for one?

“We also know (3) that human beings, generally speaking, can take severe traumatic shocks relatively well, but that long, enduring emotional strains are extremely hard on most persons.” That’s not wholly so. But it is worth seeing that there are two kinds of effects: something that is continuous and something sudden. In other words, life is made up of the chronic and the surprising.