The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Yes—Love, Pleasure, & Self-Respect!

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are proud to publish a section of an Aesthetic Realism lesson conducted by Eli Siegel in 1970. The consultations that take place now at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, and by Skype and telephone, arise from the lessons Mr. Siegel gave. The basis was always this landmark principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And always, Mr. Siegel saw the very particular person having the lesson as related to art, science, history, the world itself.

In those lessons, which Mr. Siegel gave between 1941 and 1978, something happened that was new in human history: people felt truly understood, to their depths and in all their subtlety, and were learning, on a logical basis, how to understand themselves. As a result, one’s life changed grandly, richly, accurately for the better. That is an objective statement, but it also has my own living gratitude in it—because I am one of the people who, within that short period of history, had Aesthetic Realism lessons. I met the immense kindness and knowledge of Eli Siegel in relation to my own questions, hopes, life.

When We Are Close to Someone

The lesson represented here was about the huge subject of love and sex. The ethics of the matter is explained clearly by Mr. Siegel, and it is quite different from the ethics or morality people associate with the subject. The big fight within a person in relation to being close to another is, Aesthetic Realism explains, the fight that goes on in us all the time in every aspect of our lives. The fight is about those largest of opposites, self and world. And it is between contempt—the feeling we’ll be important through making less of the outside world—and good will, “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”

Aesthetic Realism is thrillingly clear: the goodness of our love depends on our purpose. Do we want to have good will for the particular person we’re close to: through every conversation, look, touch, encourage him or her and ourselves to see the whole world more justly? Or do we want to have contempt, have a victory lessening in some way the person and the outside world? The first purpose enables us to respect ourselves. The second inevitably makes us ashamed, and furious at the “loved one” who collaborated in that contempt.

This is Aesthetic Realism’s beautiful ethics on the subject. Mr. Siegel presents it logically and vividly. And, I must say, humanity is thirsting to know it, because the confusion about love and body is as gigantic as it ever was. People don’t know why they feel ashamed in relation to sex, and tell themselves, “I guess I’m just not liberated enough.” The real reason is in this statement from Eli Siegel’s Self and World: “When we are unfair to the world, it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it” (p. 45). We can be proud of that “something in us,” proud of our own inner insistence that we see the world justly. And it affects me mightily to say: through study of Aesthetic Realism we can love another person and feel the simultaneous elation and self-respect of caring for the whole world more through being close to him.

Body & Good Will in a Poem

In literature, whenever there is an expression of real care for someone with body present, the care has in it that good will which Mr. Siegel speaks about here. Let’s take a poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674). In his “Night Piece, to Julia” he asks a woman to come to him at night. The first lines are: “Her eyes the glowworm lend thee; / The shooting stars attend thee.” He is telling Julia, Your coming to me is something the world is for—in fact, various representatives of the world will help you get to me. He says (and cumber means trouble):

Let not the dark thee cumber;

What though the moon does slumber?

The stars of the night

Will lend thee their light,

Like tapers clear without number.

This nocturnal meeting is not in order to have a secret victory over Julia and reality, get rid of the outside world and lessen her relation to it. Herrick feels his purpose with Julia is one which reality approves, and will assist him in attaining.

In the final stanza we have the word soul—which, whatever else, means who the person most deeply is. That intangible thing becomes sweepingly physical in the last line:

Then, Julia, let me woo thee,

Thus, thus to come unto me;

And when I shall meet

Thy silvery feet,

My soul I’ll pour into thee.

This is a poem that makes good will the same as physical love. And in the lines, with their oneness of delicacy and strength, shimmer and firmness, we feel pride and assertion that are the same as yielding.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Motives, Body, & Self-Respect

From an Aesthetic Realism Lesson

Conducted by Eli Siegel

Note. For this lesson, Chloe Byrne wrote to Mr. Siegel that she wanted to understand better how she saw love.

Eli Siegel. The large purpose of a person is not only to love something but to love the way one loves it, to like something and like the way one likes it. Do you see the difference?

Chloe Byrne. Yes, I do.

ES. Right now there are relatives who are hugging children to them, and other people are looking on and are not sure this is as good as it could be. Deeply, everybody is asking, Is the way I love people beautiful or ugly? What is the first thing we question in this matter? For instance, in the past, when men called you, did you have a notion of what they were after?

CB. I certainly did. Oh, yes.

ES. What they were after is another way of saying their motive. And you didn’t like it but you went along with it?

CB. That’s true, I did.

ES. But do you think you have a right in a philosophic way to question people’s motives?

CB. Yes. I do think about what they want from me.

ES. People have asked me what good will is. Good will is the desire to have an effect on a person or thing that is permanently good, and that you hope will look better with all time. To please a person is not the same as having a good effect. To have a good effect means that this moment will be a source of strength for the rest of one’s life. That is good will. And pleasing momentarily, it has been agreed upon, is not necessarily that, because we can be unsure of the way we are pleased, and we question it.

CB. Oh, I see.

ES. When love is not good, the reason, according to Aesthetic Realism, is just the reason that a way of economics is not good: because it does not have good will in it as the beginning thing. Any emotion that does not have good will in it—the desire to have a good effect on the person permanently—is not good.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves: if having a good effect on a person bores us, we should admit that. And most often it does bore us. What we feel is, if we please a person, that person should try to please us; there is an interchange. Just as in the profit system there is a certain interchange of commodities or services, in love there is an interchange of flatteries. So far, love has been dastardly and desperately profit-based.

—Yes, Mr. Akers?

Jonathan Akers. Mr. Siegel, why should we admit that it bores us to have good will?

ES. Because it’s a way of being honest. If you admit it, then you are in a position to question it. Most people feel having a good effect on a person is not interesting, but to have an interesting night is. There’s a difference. It’s a matter of honesty.

CB. Is that one of the reasons why we have good will sometimes and then later we don’t feel like it?

ES. The reason is: people don’t believe in it.

An aspect of the conservation of energy is that any motion or effect goes on. And it is well known, for instance, that when a person gets hurt by another, the momentary effect can scar for the rest of one’s life. In terms of physics, any effect, however momentary, has some relation to permanence. If we wish to have that effect be good, we have good will.

CB. So I have to think about more than just the moment!

ES. Life has two dimensions: the moment and eternity. If you don’t want to think of eternity, good will may not be too interesting. —Yes, Ms. Orlov?

Kate Orlov. How can you know if the effect you have will be a lasting good effect?

ES. You ask about it: what’s important is the honest desire to know. If we had to know everything right away there would be no science, because most of the sciences are spent in fumbling around. The large thing to ask about is what you’re interested in. A person has the right to be interested in pleasure, but a person should also be interested in the effect he or she has on another person. The two can be combined.

Pleasure & Self-Esteem

Eli Siegel. Have there been things in your life, Ms. Byrne, that you feel you cannot look at?

Chloe Byrne. Oh, yes. I think the worst is the way I’ve been with men.

ES. Many women have given their bodies to people they didn’t have enough respect or affection for. The two words are related, respect and affection; they’re also quite different. It goes on a very great deal, and what do you recommend about it?

CB. I think they should only give their body to a person they respect.

ES. What else is there? Do you think respect is a situation or process? You see, nobody in this world has ever respected reality enough: it’s a process. The purpose of education, and the reason there are more plays, paintings, drawings, is that things be more respected.

Suppose a woman was with a man, let’s say in 1894—her name was Dora—and there was another woman, Davida, who was with a man. Dora had a wonderful time, but about three days later she didn’t respect herself too much. Still, if the purpose of life is to have a wonderful time, she did pretty well. However, Davida was with a man and did respect herself. Who was more fortunate, Dora or Davida?

CB. Davida.

ES. That’s right. It’s arithmetic: you are more fortunate if you can have ecstasy plus self-respect instead of having ecstasy alone. This is not church talk.

CB. Is it possible to have ecstasy and self-respect?

ES. If it’s not possible, why do people feel bad about the two not being together? Would they feel guilty about what is impossible?

CB. I don’t think so, no.

ES. If it is not possible, that is something one should see. But it would mean that people are in the awful state of feeling bad about something which is impossible anyway, and that would be desperately unfair.

There are books in which women compare their feelings about men. One person says she disliked herself less being with this man than with the other—which means that if you can have less self-loathing from one man than another, the possibility of indefinitely less loathing is there, isn’t it?

CB. Yes, it is—that’s absolutely true.

ES. No self-loathing at all would be near self-respect. If a woman has less a sense of disrespect for herself in any one instance than another, that margin, if it were made a principle, would be nearer to self-respect as such.

So this shows that perhaps it’s possible. The large question is whether there can be such a thing as release accompanied by self-respect. That is the question, and it’s occupying the lives of all people.

—Yes, Ms. Orlov?

Kate Orlov. Would the self-respect come from going for respect?

ES. It comes from the feeling that there was an emotion about things that was large enough. If a person has a good effect on things not oneself, he thinks or she thinks that something beautiful has gone on. If a woman waters the garden and thinks the flowers are better off, she has a good feeling about herself. If you wash the window, if you make furniture look brighter, if you take a young tree that has sort of been hit by the wind and you make it straight—anytime you really think it is a good effect you can have a good feeling. This is the basis: that you feel what you did added to the beauty of the world. Otherwise you can’t have respect for yourself. If you are convinced it did, you can have self-respect.

CB. If we can have good will sometimes, does that mean we can have it all the time?

ES. You can have it nearer to all the time. If a person bats .300 in baseball, he’s not going to bat .400 right away. Yet it means he can hit the ball. And there is the possibility of batting .500, though no one has ever done it. —The question is: do people want that combination of self-respect and pleasure or release? Should they be honest about it?

CB. They certainly should. Mr. Siegel, you said “added to the beauty of the world”—I would like to see more how that can be, for myself.

ES. Suppose you were able to do a dance and it was a beautiful dance. Even if persons had not seen it, did you add to the beauty of the world?

CB. I think so.

ES. Does every flutter of a bird’s wing add to the number of fluttering wings that have been?

CB. Yes.

ES. It’s the same with beauty. If you do something beautiful, you add to the beauty of the world. We feel that Beethoven added to the beauty of the world in a manner that the world won’t forget. But the fact is that whatever we do, we want to see it as beautiful; and if it’s not beautiful, we haven’t added to the beauty of the world.

CB. Thank you. I feel the beauty of the world is being added to now.

ES. What I’m trying to say is this: one can act ecstatically and beautifully. Many people have felt that even though they were pleased by what occurred, it was not beautiful. And it troubles them, because if you do not add to the beauty of the world, you feel guilty. People are guilty because they don’t have a sufficient desire to add to the beauty of the world: that is one way of seeing it.

—Yes, Mr. Akers?

Jonathan Akers. Why is it that this can make a person feel so bad?

ES. The reason is that every person wants to feel in the best relation to all that is not oneself, or the world.

We Need to Make Opposites One

Eli Siegel. Every problem, according to Aesthetic Realism, is aesthetic, which means that the forces that are in art are present: the opposites. Take the matter of love. The first thing we have to make a one of is: how affected are we as we affect another? There is often a disruption. For instance, there are many wives who feel they’re winning out over their husbands because the husbands are excited and they are not. Or the husband is dull and the wife is excited. This, of course, has to do with sexual possibility, but there’s something larger, because as soon as a person is excited he or she wants to have contempt for the person who is not; and a person who is not excited wants to have contempt for the person who is.

One way of having respect for yourself is through the relation between how you are moved and how another person is moved. I’ll ask you this: when do you think you’re more important, when you’re stirred by something or when you’re not?

Chloe Byrne. I’m not sure. In the past, it was being less stirred.

ES. In your relation with people, has there been a constant desire to be less stirred?

CB. Yes.

ES. Everyone has a battle about what they’re going to be cool to and what they’re going to be stirred by, and about the relation of coolness and being stirred. Do you see that this is an art problem every painter has—to have both coolness and intensity?

CB. Yes!

The Great Opposites of Self & World

Eli Siegel. Aesthetic Realism says the self can be no better than its relation with the world. If sex makes for a worse relation with the world, its effect is not good. For example, women have gotten worried because through being with their husbands they feel more isolated instead of more with things.

—So, Ms. Byrne, do you have a notion of what you’re going for?

Chloe Byrne. To see good will as really important.

ES. Do you want to be proud of how you see people?

CB. Yes, I definitely do. And I’m learning how at this very moment.