What’s the Relation of Justice & Comfort?
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 4 of the great lecture They Go Away from Something, which Eli Siegel gave on January 22, 1971. It is from his Goodbye Profit System series, in which he explained something huge that other historians and economists have not understood—something that today is being lived amid worry and suffering throughout America. We have come, he showed, to the point at which economics based on seeing people in terms of how much profit can be gotten from them no longer works. Ethics, he said, is a force in history, and
there will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
There Is a Fight
In the section printed here, Mr. Siegel explains an exceedingly ugly thing in American history, some of which is still going on: hypocrisy about civil rights and law. As he does, he speaks about two desires in every person that have been intensely at odds: the desire to look good to oneself, respect oneself—and the desire to be comfortable. A person wants to see himself as for what Plato called “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful” and ready to stand up for these. But to do so, one feels, can be so inconvenient! What most people go by is the feeling, “Ethics, justice, honesty are all well and good, but they jeopardize some other things I want.”
This difficulty is a form of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the biggest fight in every individual, and in history itself: the fight between respect for the world and contempt for it. It is a great fact, a fact showing the ethical nature of the self, that we can respect ourselves only if we’re just to what’s not ourselves. Meanwhile, being just interferes with something else we’re fiercely after: contempt, the feeling we’re more through looking down on and lessening what’s other than us.
Unless we can see the opposites concerned as one—unless we can see that we’re important and take care of ourselves through being fair to what’s not us—we’ll pretend and be hypocrites. So people have pretended to a concern for others that they didn’t have. Often they’ve pretended to themselves. For instance, they’ve acted as though they were devoted to someone, told themselves they were, when a large part of the “devotion” was a desire to manage the person’s life.
An American Anniversary & the Facts
The matter of looking good to oneself and contempt is very much present as Americans commemorate the Civil War on its 150th anniversary. There is an effort in various Southern places to continue what has gone on for a century and a half: to make the purpose of the Confederacy look good, justifiable, even glorious. To do so, one has to lie about something foul.
There are various articles like the one I’ll comment on, which appeared in the New York Times this February. It’s about a reenactment in Montgomery, Alabama, celebrating “Jefferson Davis’s swearing in as president of the Confederacy.” This article is about history, but it’s also about something that can go on in every individual: changing the facts in order to make oneself look good, and in order to continue having contempt by calling it something else.
The reenactment was “organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” who present the Civil War as “an act of unwarranted Northern aggression upon a sovereign republic.” And here I’ll say plainly what I have said in other issues of this journal, and what I heard Mr. Siegel state with ringing clarity and passion. The Southern cause, no matter how many magnolias and weeping women and supposedly daring deeds are associated with it, consisted of one thing only—the “right” to own other human beings and use them any way one wished, including the “right” to sell them, beat them, work them to death. The whole purpose of the Confederacy was the “right” to slavery.
Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy that explains what racism and slavery come from. They come from contempt: that feeling “I’m big because I can look down on what’s different from me.” We won’t understand racism until we understand its relation to things that are quite ordinary: for instance, how a family can gossip at dinner about the neighbors. The members of the gossiping family feel smug and self-important because they can look down on those people next door, sneeringly degrade them, make them seem ridiculous.
We won’t understand how slavery could be until we understand how “nice” people diminish each other’s humanity every day and see human beings as existing to serve oneself. In social life and marriage, for instance, a woman can see a man first and foremost in terms of whether he praises her enough and does what she wants him to do. A man can see a woman that way. And both can call it love.
Racism and slavery are extensions of that self-aggrandizement through lessening another which is everyday contempt. They are hideous extensions. But to be truly against them, we need to see contempt itself as hideous and be against it everywhere, including in us. There is that in every person which wants the world and other people to be subject to him, be managed by him, glorify him. That contempt is where slavery begins. Contempt will never say straight what it is: it tries to make itself seem noble. And so the Times article says: “The Sons’ principal message was that the Confederacy was a just exercise in self-determination.”
La Rochefoucauld & Whitman
One of the noted statements of the world is about the matter of wanting to seem ethical while going after contempt. It is this swift, poetic maxim of La Rochefoucauld: “L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu”—“Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.” The maxim stands for the fact that we cannot accept ourselves as unjust, brutal, cruel; therefore, we pay justice the compliment of trying to make our contempt look like it.
Yet the pretense never works. Whether we’re trying to act proud of the Confederate cause, or of a personal way of seeing that’s narrow, grasping, and unkind—we can never be at ease with our contempt. It inevitably makes us feel unsure, lonely, empty, ashamed. And—as I said earlier—this fact too is “un hommage,” a tribute or homage, to the power of ethics.
Aesthetic Realism says: the real opposition to contempt is in art. We can look at a person who wrote much about the Civil War, and saw it differently from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Walt Whitman, throughout his “Song of Myself,” says that he is himself, important, glorious through being affected powerfully by people and things not himself, through being fair to them. In section 33, Whitman writes about a slave trying to escape: “I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.” And in section 16:
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.
I resist any thing better than my own diversity.
These lines represent what Aesthetic Realism can teach people to see and have as real in our lives: that ethics and self-importance, justice and comfort, are not contradictions we have to shuttle between or pretend about. Justice, gone after truly, is that which gives us ease, and also style, intelligence, grandeur. It was my great good fortune to see that Eli Siegel himself not only explained this fact but embodied it.