The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Will It Be Knowing or Contempt?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue our serialization of The Scientific Method in Feeling, by Eli Siegel. This 1973 lecture is about two tremendous opposites in everyone: knowing and feeling. There has been trouble, pain, shame in about every life because the two have seemed at odds. Both men and women have felt that emotion, especially big emotion, made them less logical; and that to think carefully one had to put aside feelings, that to be reasonable was to be unstirred, rather cold.

Aesthetic Realism shows, magnificently, that knowing and feeling are always together. On how they’re together will depend our integrity or lack of it. And all art, true science, real intelligence, authentic kindness are, each of them, a oneness of mental exactitude and emotion. “All beauty,” Aesthetic Realism explains, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” That principle is the basis of the great lecture we’re serializing.

Scientific Method, Fundamentally

As Mr. Siegel speaks about scientific method he is speaking about what it fundamentally is, what’s crucial in it, not certain procedures. He says early in the lecture: “The purpose of the real scientific method would be to know a thing in the best way.” And in his Definitions, and Comment he explains:

A person...is scientific: 1, when he goes after truth; 2, when he knows he’s going after it; 3, when the opportunity to go after something else is not taken advantage of.

In this talk Mr. Siegel is using selections from the College Book of English Literature to illustrate the simultaneity of science, or knowing, and feeling. He has reached two writers very different from each other: John Lyly (c.1554-1606) and the much more famous Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). And here, I am going to quote words Mr. Siegel wrote about Marlowe in relation to another subject, because that subject has vitally to do with us today: with everyone’s life and with our nation.

Respect or Contempt: To Know or to Own

In his preface to Self and World Mr. Siegel writes about Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus. It is, Mr. Siegel shows, a means of our seeing something about the most hurtful drive in everyone: contempt, the feeling that the way to be somebody, to be important, is through lessening what’s different from us—the outside world and people.

Faustus is the noted scholar who sells his soul to Mephistopheles, the Devil’s representative, in order to have the world at his command: in exchange for Faustus’s soul, Mephistopheles will give him whatever things or power he wishes. Mr. Siegel comments on the contempt that Faustus—despite all his scholarship—has for education: he wants, instead of learning, to have the world on his terms, run by him, and fast; he wants magic. Mr. Siegel writes:

The renowned play of Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, is about a person not pleased with the customary world nor the customary study of this world....When, as Doctor Faustus does, we go for dismissing the wearisome world, we are saying hello to magic. Let us look at some lines of Marlowe...:


Philosophy is odious and obscure,

Both law and physic are for petty wits;

Divinity is basest of the three,

Unpleasant, harsh, contemptible, and vile;

’Tis magic, magic, that hath ravished me.


...Doctor Faustus had contempt for the world as obstructive....The world makes for anger and fear; but oh, how we should like to convert fear and anger into contempt!

The Fight

Faustus is one of the important characters in literature. And the chief reason is the way he embodies what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the constant fight in everyone: between contempt for the world and respect for it. A large form of this battle is: the war in us between our desire to see meaning in things, to like the world through knowing it, and our desire to grab, own, acquire, manipulate, sneeringly run what’s not us.

Dr. Faustus of 1604 represents a fight going on about America herself in 2017. And in order to understand our country we need to understand it. It’s not a political fight. It’s the following ethical, aesthetic fight: Is, deeply, the purpose of America knowing or grabbing? Should her people, earth, abilities, resources, possibilities be looked upon and used in behalf of knowing; that is, should all her citizens be in circumstances conducive to their knowing and valuing the world and each other, to bringing out each other’s good possibilities? Or is the purpose of America, with her people and resources, to be material for some persons to grab, own, run for their private advantage?

This fight, then, of knowing the world and people versus using these contemptuously for one’s narrow, private glory was Faustus’s and is everyone’s. To try to understand this fight in us is truly to take care of ourselves. To try to understand it in a nation is to be patriotic.

In the preface to Self and World Mr. Siegel also looks at another Marlovian protagonist. The title character of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, in a manner different from Faustus’s, sees the world as something not to know but to dominate, have his way with scornfully. Mr. Siegel writes:

The tremendously attractive figure, about 1589, of Marlowe’s Eastern potentate, Tamburlaine, again and again, makes resonant, powerful blank verse lines out of contempt. Perhaps the most famous depiction of contempt in early Elizabethan tragedy is Tamburlaine’s changing various Eastern rulers into something like horses whom he drives. Here are remembered lines of sonorous contempt:


Tamburlaine. Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia!

What! can ye draw but twenty miles a day,

And have so proud a chariot at your heels,

And such a coachman as great Tamburlaine!

In Love Too

The fight of knowing versus conquering, knowing versus owning, knowing versus using something or somebody for one’s own glory, is a fight that goes on in relation to love too. Ever so many women and men have told themselves they loved someone, when what they were after, a good deal at least, was to possess the person, make the person theirs. To love, Aesthetic Realism shows, is to want to know a person—as richly and exactly and steadily as ever a scientist or scholar has wanted to know a subject. I thank Aesthetic Realism with all my heart for explaining this, and for showing that the desire to know a person is the most truly, thrillingly, sweepingly romantic thing that can happen between two human beings. It’s what every kiss and touch should arise from and impel. And the pain, anger, and shame between people who thought they loved each other has come because what they called love was mainly conquest and ownership, not knowing.

This TRO, then, is about knowing, in two ways: knowing as inseparable from feeling; and knowing as the opponent to contempt—including the contempt that wants to own reality. About the second, in chapter 10 of Self and World there are sentences by Eli Siegel, great as English prose:

We can own the world only by knowing it. We can possess the world only by having it in our minds; that is, by having knowledge of it. All other possession, both in love and economics, is false and hurtful....It will never do. The unconscious will never be at ease. The world was meant to be known, to be felt, not to be parcelled out into huge segments or lesser segments for the complacent but deleterious delectation of some and the domination and manipulation of others.

That explains why Dr. Faustus is enormously not “at ease” as the play goes on. It explains this famous and beautiful line about Faustus at the end of the play: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight.”

Aesthetic Realism exists because of Eli Siegel’s passionate, constant love of knowledge. And through the study of Aesthetic Realism, the “branch” that is a person’s mind can truly flourish.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Knowledge & Feeling, Together

By Eli Siegel

In the work we come to next, science was used adroitly. All the biology and botany of the time was used most fetchingly by John Lyly in his Euphues; somewhat in his plays too. He looked around for anything that grew, and anything that was on four feet or flew, in order to make a comparison. He could make statements like: As the wasp stingeth a gentlewoman, so an unapposite phrase of a careless husband may.* The wasp is like the careless husband. And: As the lady who doth not know what ice can mean to her feet slippeth, so, without knowing, we can accept the slipperiness of Satan and feel it is perfect ground.* That is not exactly euphuistic, but it’s in the field.

Lyly’s Euphues is seen sometimes as the first English novel—as Malory’s Morte D’Arthur also is. Euphues does have its story. I once discussed it, and it is valuable. It has a lot of mental work in it, and uses science—zoology and botany and physics. There are two examples of that in the book I’ve been reading from.

The first has to do with doubts about love. Some things may look as if they’re going to be productive but aren’t; and love that doesn’t come to fruit is put in this way:

That the Persian trees in Rhodes do only wax green, but never bring forth apple.

It’s a very pretty thing: the idea of making Persian trees in Rhodes that are green but don’t bring forth apples stand for the fact that seeming love may appear to bode well but then it also may be false. One can get pleasure from it. The Greek word euphues does mean “graceful.”

Then, another selection. A son is angry with his father because the father doesn’t help him, but only gives him advice. There is this comparison:

But as the herb Moly hath a flower as white as snow, and a root as black as ink, so age hath a white head, showing piety, but a black heart, swelling with mischief.

That is about a father. The herb moly is used in Greek writing, Roman writing, and also in Milton.

Lyly was very fond of having the opposites in his sentences. For instance, he might say: The watermelon, which the new-found land of Cabot and Columbus made known to us of this hemisphere, looketh prepossessing on the outside, but when we come to its redness we are surprised nonetheless.* Those would be opposites: there is the large elliptical stolidness that the watermelon has on the outside, but you have to get within the watermelon to see what it is.

Lyly did introduce a new feeling, and Shakespeare was aware of it. Some of Lyly’s manner is in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and people got delight from it—as they did later, hearing Hamlet and Osric talk. People felt, “This is very taking. What it’s about I don’t know, but it sure is something.”

Lyly is consciously scientific, because he ransacked all the bestiaries and works on botany he could find.

Feeling, Knowing, & Dr. Faustus

Next we meet a play still having a history, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Marlowe himself is a subject of science. A lot of research has been done on him, including about what services in foreign parts he did for the ruler of England, Elizabeth. And textually Dr. Faustus has long been a subject of science, because there are two forms. There is the first form, which is shorter, and that is often printed. The later form has additions and has things that many people think are not worthy of the play. Then, a scholar, W.W. Greg (1875-1959), proposed putting the two together in a way that’s been seen as acceptable. That is called a recension. It’s something people have tried to do with the first version of Hamlet and the later Hamlets. Philology and editing belong to science.

This book gives the following stage direction—we see, very early, that Faustus is restless, as many people are:

Faustus, in his study, reading from and discarding one book after another.

Even so, he knows books; he is Doctor Faustus.

Early, we have quotations given by him. One is from John, very important; it has to do with superiority and inferiority. Faustus very kindly reads it in the Latin—from the Vulgate, as it’s called—and then translates:

Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas; / “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.”

This, too, is about feeling and knowing: if we feel we don’t have sin in us, we don’t know the truth.

The passages I’m reading are in keeping with the large idea of scientific method and feeling, which is quite the same as education. Feeling is looking for scientific method and scientific method is looking for feeling. And when they meet, when scientific method has a happy marriage with feeling, education can rejoice.

Geography & Grapes

In one scene there are the Duke and Duchess of Vanholt. The duchess mentions that if it were summer she would desire a dish of ripe grapes. Mephistopheles hears, and comes back with grapes—after all, the Devil knows how to get grapes in winter. And Faustus gives a learned explanation:

The year is divided into two circles over the whole world, that, when it is here winter with us, in the contrary circle it is summer with them...; and by means of a swift spirit that I have, I had them brought hither, as you see.

There’s a little lesson in geography. And the duchess says: “Believe me, Master Doctor, they be the best grapes that e’er I tasted in my life before.”

Knowledge does go for the superlative. It goes for the ordinary, but also for the superlative. Every person would like to hear the best music, read the best things. Thinking of the best is part of thought, and knowing it is part of education. The best is reached by scientific method and feeling.

Helen appears twice in the play. The first time, she appears as part of education. There are scholars, students of Dr. Faustus, and they’re very interested in seeing what Helen is like. After all, they’ve been reading the classics and would like to have some real optic method.

First Scholar. Master Doctor Faustus, since our conference about fair ladies, which was the beautifulest in all the world, we have determined with ourselves that Helen of Greece was the admirablest lady that ever lived: therefore, Master Doctor, if you will do us that favour, as to let us see that peerless dame of Greece, whom all the world admires for majesty, we should think ourselves much beholding unto you.

There is a stage direction: “Music sounds, and Helen passeth over the stage.” But it’s education.

Knowing & Faith

An old man appears and tells Faustus that there is a chance to repent. Mephistopheles sees the old man as having greater faith than Faustus. And this is a large question: what is the relation of faith to knowledge? The relation of faith to knowledge in religion is like the relation of intuition to observation in science. The greater scientists had some notion of what might be true before they found what was true.

What is faith? Faith, when it’s honest, is the feeling that persists that something is true when the reason you give for its being true you yourself know is insufficient. That’s a sober description of faith when it’s honest. The other definition of faith is: the getting to something you like and insisting that it’s true no matter what you hear. That is dishonest faith. Mephistopheles says of the old man:

His faith is great; I cannot touch his soul;

But what I may afflict his body with

I will attempt, which is but little worth.

He Blames His Education

We have some attacks on education in Dr. Faustus. Faustus says at certain times, If I hadn’t been so learned and didn’t read all those books, I wouldn’t have sold my soul to Lucifer. He’s at Wittenberg, which is the college of Hamlet too—here called Wertenberg. And he says:

Though my heart pants and quivers to remember that I have been a student here these thirty years, O, would I had never seen Wertenberg, never read book! and what wonders I have done, all Germany can witness, yea, all the world; for which Faustus hath lost both Germany and the world, yea, heaven itself, heaven, the seat of God, the throne of the blessed, the kingdom of joy.

This matter of scholarship and education used badly is a big thing; it does exist.

Well, I’m talking of Dr. Faustus now not as a play but as saying things about knowledge and emotion—about education, here looked upon as a mingling of scientific method and feeling.

*This sentence was composed, extemporaneously, by Eli Siegel.