|Dear Unknown Friends:
We come to the 6th part of Eli Siegel’s magnificent 1950 lecture Aesthetic Realism and Nature; and at the beginning of it Mr. Siegel does something important in philosophic thought and merciful for people’s lives. He shows, swiftly but clearly, that two qualities which we see as fighting and use to divide ourselves painfully, are really not antagonistic: the qualities of conscious planning and instinct; of logical thought and what’s “natural.” What he explains is an aspect of this great 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.”
I will comment in this TRO on a subject that seems so different from the subject of nature: the subject of the death penalty. I think it is a measure of Aesthetic Realism’s beauty that the philosophy Eli Siegel founded not only is the means of seeing both subjects truly, but shows there is a common criterion. Both — our looking at a waterfall, and how we think about lethal injections or electrocutions — have to do with the fight which Mr. Siegel explained is central in everyone’s life: the fight between the desire to like the world, respect it, and the desire to have contempt for reality and people. He defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And in Aesthetic Realism and Nature he explains something not understood before: we will use “nature” either to value people, to want more to understand them; or we will go to nature with the feeling, People aren’t worth thinking about, and I can wipe them out as I commune with these leaves. The latter feeling is exceedingly frequent, and through it we really make nature in her loveliness an instrument of our contempt; we use nature to fortify a coldness and scorn for people.
Mr. Siegel showed that contempt, which is so everyday, is also the source of all crime. “As soon as you have contempt,” he explained, greatly, “as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person” (James and the Children, p. 55). It happens too that enormous contempt can be present in how crime is dealt with, and Americans are feeling this fact increasingly. There is now, more than ever before in America, a questioning of how people are arrested, convicted, punished.
DNA and the Force of Ethics
In his Goodbye Profit System lectures of the early 1970s, Mr. Siegel said that there is such a thing as the force of ethics in reality. He said that because of it, people were objecting more consciously to a massive form of contempt: profit economics. That is true now, amid all the dot-coms and day trading: men and women are angrier than ever at being seen in terms of how much profit they can provide for somebody.
One way ethics as a force is working at this time is through a discovery of science: DNA as a means of legal evidence. As DNA samples make it clear that the courts in this nation have been convicting many innocent people of capital crimes and sentencing them to death, Americans find themselves impelled to think about people more deeply. A substance that is sheer biology and chemistry, DNA, is a spur to ethical thought. It is reality as ethical force. It has made for more questioning of the death penalty. But it has also made for more objection to the profit system.
As Americans find out that innocent people have been in prison and awaiting execution because they were unable to afford a good lawyer, there is a greater sense of the murderous ugliness of profit economics — of a system which has some persons amass wealth through keeping others poor. The US Constitution guarantees everyone “due process of law.” But, Americans are seeing, it is essentially impossible to get this due process, to get a just trial, if you are poor. Not only, as Mr. Siegel pointed out, is there nothing about the profit system in the Constitution — the profit system makes this Constitutional guarantee (as well as others) a mockery for many, many people. There is really no such thing as democracy where there is poverty. Americans are feeling this fact in relation to the courts — not, certainly, with the full awareness that should be, but with more than there ever was.
They are seeing too that the justice system so often is horrifically unjust to people who are not white. Courts can be racist because they are composed of human beings, and racism is one of the results of the human desire, so ordinary and so terrible, for contempt. I say simply, and with tremendous feeling: the only thing that will end racism in America is the national study of Aesthetic Realism; because it is Aesthetic Realism which explains contempt and enables people to criticize it in ourselves.
There Is the Death Penalty
Then, there is the death penalty, the large popularity of which is growing less in America. My purpose now is not to present an argument against it — though I see it as completely barbaric and think it should be done away with immediately. My purpose is to say something about why the punishing of human beings by execution has been popular.
In the preface to Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes:
People generally feel they are in a world they dislike, that is “uncaring” and confusing. There is a big desire to deal with such a world by annulling, wiping out what we see as against us. This wiping out has thousands of forms, but they are all contempt. They are all in opposition to that respect for the world, in its sweetness and bitterness, which is the desire to know, the desire to have thought that is exact and continuous. A common form of the desire to do away triumphantly with a disliked world takes place in beds every night: people feel, whether they put it this way or not, At last I can get rid of everybody, everything; I close my eyes and make them no longer exist! There are other forms. You curse at someone: through a few expletives you have the triumph of summing him up, of annulling his complexity and your need to understand it, of making him into nothing and yourself right.
The cry of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, “Off with their heads!,” stands for something. It stands for that complete lessening which is our revenge on an “uncaring world.” What it stands for has made the death penalty popular.
We are not sure about our own ethics, are not sure how good we are. We do not like being unsure; and we do not like the idea that we have to work to be sure, and have to keep thinking. So if there is someone we can see as very evil and we can have him dealt with utterly, done away with, we can feel we have dealt with the question of good and evil firmly, tidily. This person was bad; we are good; we kill him; no loose ends; that’s that. People have used the death penalty to get to a fake sureness about themselves — a sureness which makes them more unsure, because it is fake.
We should ask why, in history, public executions were popular. Doing so is a means of understanding the appeal of capital punishment. There was undoubtedly a pleasure people got in seeing someone executed — it was a spectacle. It was the pleasure of utter contempt: the being able to do away with a person is the being able to look down utterly and feel you are virtuous in the process. Of course, public executions are not what we have now; there is a difference. But there is also a relation: the death penalty makes for a satisfaction. I quote, therefore, the poet Byron telling about an execution he saw in 1817. These are a few sentences from his account, in a letter to his publisher and friend, John Murray. And one can see through the writing that Byron was there, not to have contempt, but to know:
So we have even Byron, a person with true feeling for people, saying he did not have enough feeling. We have Byron saying there was in him that contempt of choosing deeply to feel less, to be “indifferent”; and he is ashamed of it.
It is my opinion that (to put it conservatively) the national study of Aesthetic Realism will have crime itself be much less. And Aesthetic Realism is the means of people feeling, in domestic life, economic life, government, love, that to think justly about another human being is the same as caring for ourselves. Eli Siegel stood for that beautiful justice. He had it all the time.
It is important to see that there has been a constant interaction of man’s mind, his conscious mind, and nature. But his conscious mind arises out of nature. Logic is a product of nature. Planning, blueprinting, are products of nature. Instinct changed into logic; and we should not think of ourselves as free because we get away from logic. Why did nature get to logic in the first place — in order to become a slave?
The subject of nature, how it’s for us and against us, how the only way we can see it as for us is to put its againstness and forness together — that can be seen in other aspects. I have dealt with Richard Jefferies and England, and with Richard Henry Dana on the ocean. I go now to northern South America, Guiana; and I read some passages from Charles Waterton. He is one of the persons who seem to have felt nature with great zest and great profundity and, most of the time, with grace. Waterton is one of the important writers about nature in the English language. He lived from 1782 to 1865, and was decidedly on the eccentric side. But he writes very nicely. He visited the jungles of South America about 1815 or 1816, and this book, Wanderings in South America, was published in 1825. I’ll read a few passages:
So it seems that all those birds are interested in themselves. And the question is, how did we get all this variety, and what is nature doing all this for? It’s being so silly — all these beings! And yet they all have a structure, they all seem to care for themselves, they all want to be about, and they all have a certain kind of logic.
We should see that in all this variety (though it does seem excessive and silly — it’s like nature having to wear fourteen dresses at the same time), through all this abundance, there is a quality of rainbow superfluity that has to be understood. And if nature were looked on as a great expression of logic and silliness, of profundity and, to a degree, unwisdom, and respected because it was everything (nature is everything), then nature would not be misused. But the tendency to play favorites with nature is very big. We can play favorites, but not in terms of knowledge.
The Primitive and the Conscious
Primitive people have seemed to be the bridge between nature and other humanity; and they have been used and misused in all kinds of ways. But we do see a most conspicuous desire of primitive people to become very conscious, looking for ethics — which is good. Then, of course, we have the desire on the part of sophisticated people to be primitive. This happens on Saturday nights.
Waterton deals with an Indian. This Indian is on the one hand very logical, and is given to science, and the management of the canoe; and then, there would be many things which he would have in his mind in such a chaotic way. This is a description of going past the falls, and how the Indian knows just what he is doing with that canoe, no matter how “primitive” he is:
“You go most safely in the middle way”— which can be misused; but that’s what it means, from Ovid. We find nature, through the Indian, becoming very exact, as he uses this canoe near the falls.
Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
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