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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1868.—February 12, 2014

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Individualism—True & False

Dear Unknown Friends:

The great essay by Eli Siegel published here explains something that has confused people enormously, usually without their even knowing it. This thing, seen rightly, has made for all the art, intelligence, justice, science in the world, and, seen wrongly, for cruelty, suffering, and stupidity—both in people’s particular lives and in world history.

“There Is Individualism” was written, I estimate, in the late 1950s. And in it Mr. Siegel explains what had not been explained before: there are two kinds of individualism, one true and one false; one good and one hurtful. He defines the difference with logic that is clear and in prose that is vivid, graceful, often thrilling. For now, I’ll say that the two kinds of individualism arise from what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the two big desires at war within everyone. That is: is our individualism, our sense of our own importance and distinction, based on contempt, the looking down on other things; or is it based on respect—on wanting to see reality with justice and fullness?

History & a Self

To illustrate the difference between two notions of individuality, I comment on an obituary that appeared last month in the New York Times. It has to do with something huge in world history; and while the person written of seems unusual, what went on in him has its likeness to what goes on in everyone. The Times account begins:

Hiroo Onoda, an Imperial Japanese Army officer who remained at his jungle post on an island in the Philippines for 29 years, refusing to believe that World War II was over,...returned to a hero’s welcome in...1974. [He was] a soldier who believed that the emperor was a deity and the war a sacred mission; who survived on bananas and coconuts and sometimes killed villagers he assumed were enemies....Japanese history and literature are replete with heroes who have remained loyal to a cause.

It could appear that Onoda had something like individualism supreme. He refused to believe the loudspeaker announcements and the letters and leaflets dropped over the years, telling that the war was over and Japan had lost: he went by what HE decided was so. It could also seem that Onoda was the opposite of individualistic: that he was self-effacing, sacrificial, “loyal to a cause.” After all, the final orders he received from his superior officer were to “stand and fight,” and he obeyed them—for decades. Yet despite the desire in Japan, and in obituaries like the one I’m quoting from, to present Onoda as heroic, both his individualism and his sacrifice were deeply ugly. And the reason has to do with the life of everyone.

“Loyal[ty] to a cause” can sometimes be noble, and there are instances of such loyalty both in Japanese culture and elsewhere. We see it in Patrick Henry. It is in the Arthurian legends. It is in the Spartans at Thermopylae. However, in all politeness: being loyal to a cause, of itself doesn’t mean a damn. The question is, What is the cause? Is it a cause that one should be for? The Japanese cause and the Nazi cause, and also the Confederate cause during the Civil War, are alike: they were all in behalf of the ugliest, sleaziest thing in the world—contempt for humanity different from oneself. And remaining “loyal” to them is really remaining loyal to something like vicious, lying garbage.

What does this have to do with the daily life of everyone? Every person has made something ugly in himself stand for his “individuality,” and would like to make the ugly thing seem noble, even heroic. That thing in all of us is contempt: the feeling that we don’t have to be exact about other people and situations—we can see them in a way that suits us, makes us feel important, superior. And oh yes—we will be true to our way of seeing, no matter how many facts are brought to us disproving it.

Pride or Conceit?

The Times writes of Onoda’s return to Japan in 1974:

His homecoming, with roaring crowds, celebratory parades and speeches by public officials, stirred his nation with a pride that many Japanese had found lacking in the postwar years.

Conceit is not pride. The difference between these is the difference between false individualism and true. Real pride is the being for oneself because one is trying to be fair to the world outside oneself. If Onoda stirred so-called “pride” in people, it was because his being able to endure a lot for a long time seemed a justification of the filthy thing to which he and they had given allegiance. He was a means of their not having to be self-critical.

The Times says Onoda affected people because he seemed to stand for “devotion.” We can devote ourselves to something outside us because we associate that thing with our own contemptuous superiority. The Japanese cause during World War II, to which so many devoted themselves, was the cause to conquer as many other nations as possible and turn the people in them into slaves for Japanese companies. It was the seeing of the Japanese as far superior to other people—and the using of those inferior people accordingly. In the service of that cause was some of the most extensive brutality in history.

Japan is not the only nation that has gotten to individuality through looking down. All nations have—and I certainly include the U.S., which needs tremendously to be self-critical. However, fascism, Mr. Siegel said, “is the ego made iron. It is conceit made metallic.” And “it is always capitalism.” Fascism in Japan, as in Germany, was used to bring massive wealth to business owners, through destroying unions, stealing the resources of other countries, and providing slave labor. The profit motive itself, in any nation, is the fake individualism of contempt, because it’s the motive—not to see another justly—but to squeeze as much out of the person as you can while giving him or her as little as possible.

So we have “devotion.” Fake individuality can be very devoted. In the 1960s, some mothers in Mississippi were devoted to making sure black children were kept out of schools white children attended. Today, there are well-heeled persons devoted to trying to kill unions. Like Japanese fascists, they try to appear noble: they use a phrase like “right to work” when they really want to make working people poor so owners can aggrandize themselves at the workers’ expense.

Another word the Times uses about Onoda is “perseverance.” But perseverance can sometimes be terrible, and stupid. Often a woman has persevered in telling herself a certain man is a great guy—though fact after fact shows that he’s pretty selfish and has been mean to quite a few people. But she is an individual: her view will not be changed by mere facts. She perseveres in it, because the man makes her important. Fake individualism is contempt for truth, and for all the evidence that counters what oneself desires.

That was so of Onoda. The obituary says he was found by “a student searching for him, in 1974,” but rejected “pleas to go home, insisting he was still awaiting orders.” No explanations or photographs could make Onoda believe the war had ended and Japan had lost. He yielded only when his former commander, sent by the Japanese government, came to the jungle and relieved him of duty.

A more critical obituary than that of the Times appeared in the Independent (UK). It has, for instance, this description of contempt for truth and humanity: Back in Japan,

Onoda found common cause with ultra-conservatives who denied Japan was an aggressor and said it had no choice but to attack the rest of Asia. He bitterly blamed “left-wing propaganda” for promoting war guilt.

Then, There Is Art

All art is true individualism. Art is always a person expressing oneself, being oneself, through being vibrantly fair to what is not oneself. There has certainly been true individualism in Japan. It is in Hokusai, Basho, Lady Murasaki, and more. The mix-up about individualism has been explained, after centuries, by Aesthetic Realism—so that true individualism can win at last.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

There Is Individualism
By Eli Siegel

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


1. It Is Hard Being an Individual

People, as usual, are having a hard time being individuals. Every person wants to be an individual, for being an individual means being happy. However, a person does not see what being an individual means; most people have a fitful, peevish, incomplete notion of individuality. They associate it with such things as separation, being unbothered, aloofness, and, at the worst, loneliness, hiding, secrecy.

2. Individualism Has Implied, Chiefly,

One’s Getting Away

So far, in history, individuality has implied mostly one’s being able to get away from, not be concerned with, not take part in, not be affected by. It happens that the ability to get away from things is one of the commonest man has: a child gets it early, and uses it a lot. It is quite easy to see the world as something to protect oneself from, and quite easy to find a means of doing so in becoming aloof, apart.

3. False Individuality Has Been Assertive, Too

False individuality is shown also in a desire to have one’s way, truth or no truth. Individuality has been associated with assertiveness, insistence, and even bad manners. In social history so far, people have dimly become individuals by being absent or by being assertive; the being absent and the being assertive have made for being contemptuous. These three unfortunate things have been present in the false individualism of history: the absence of self, the assertiveness of self, and the contemptuousness in self or by self.

4. True Individualism Has Been Present, Though

Luckily, something of the true individualism has always been present, as well as the dreary welcoming of spurious individualism by men and women. True individualism can be described as the affirmation, completing, of self through the courageous and just relation of the self with more and more things. The self is both definition and abundance; it is one thing with unending relation.

5. The Self Is an Aesthetic Situation

The fact that the self is one thing, with relation, makes it an aesthetic situation or possibility. Indeed, all true individualism is aesthetic. We have for ourselves a question in art. This question is: How can I affirm the oneness, or particularity, of me, while honoring the desire I have to meet and be accurate with more and more things?

6. Is Self a Wanting-to-Be?

A self is what it wants to be. If it could be shown that the self did not want to meet other things, did not want to be as much affected by them as it could be, then that self would arrive at, sustain, and maintain individuality by keeping away from other things as well as it could, as much as it could, as often as it could. And people have tried this. It has never been a success. It has also got people into sad institutions, where persons maintain their individuality immured and uninterrupted.

7. People Are Usually between Two Possibilities

People in general are between the undesirable thoroughness of the institutionalized persons maintaining individuality by profound separation, and the possible aesthetic affirmation of the oneness of self in unfettered, ungrudging relation.

8. Relation Is of Man Himself

The critical question here is: is relation something outside the self only; or is it as much a part of self as blood, bones, skin, personal memories? Relation is part of the self in the way that being over five feet tall is part of the baby just born. The self is a wanting-to-have-to-do-with thing; and denying, corrupting, diluting its wanting-to-have-to-do-with is like stopping, interfering with, meddling with the growth of an infant. Our desire is as much a part of us as our blood is: what we want to do is what we are.

9. Individuality, Then, Is Two Possibilities as One

Now, being an individual is to meet and satisfy this desire, with its two sides: one, to affirm ourselves as ourselves; and two, to be in as much relation as we can be. It has been easier for people to accent, fight for, plan for the first side of this desire. That way untrue individuality has been fostered. What victories have occurred here have been sad victories. There will be more of them, apparently, but there shouldn’t be.

10. False Individuality Has with It Routine

Wherever the oneness of self is not at one with its relation, we have a timid, ungrown being, afraid of what it is. There is Paul Slappey, for example. Paul does a lot of hiding. He is quite unknown to his wife, children, family, and friends. Mr. Slappey thinks that way he will get individuality, though he has never worked it out. The company that Paul has in this endeavor at autonomy of self through concealment, is immense. Paul, though concealed, and having a great deal of only his own companionship through his own desire, outwardly is as conformist as anything. He listens to the same radio events, he buys the same articles, uses the same phrases, enjoys the same wits, has the same prejudices as the people about him. Through secret, incomplete individuality, he has become an outward man of routine and imitation.

11. That Is What They Are, in the Shadows

Timid people, in fact, are those whose individualism has gone too deep. In the shadows, they are anarchists. In the shadows, they are unhindered Tamerlanes. In the shadows, they are Bluebeards, Rimbauds, Captain Kidds, Cleopatras, and Men in the Iron Mask.

12. What Is True of Jacob Mynes?

A timid person is one who thinks that if he were affected deeply, by as many things as possible, and by as great things as possible, his flame of individuality would be extinguished, the hearth of his personality would be dampened, the vigor of his selfhood would be lessened, his Me curtailed. If this were true, then Jacob Mynes, now in a New Jersey establishment for the custody and assistance of the mentally distressed, would be right. Jacob Mynes has gone even further than Paul Slappey in sheltering himself from the world to which he is related. Jacob has quietly but unmistakably said: “No relation for me whatsoever! As little having-to-do-with-anything as I can manage.” We do not think, though, that Jacob has his individuality. We think, to the contrary, that he has lost it.

13. Individualism and Relation Are Friendly

If, therefore, Jacob Mynes has not saved his individuality through the utter denial of relation, it would seem that individualism and relation may be friendly. They are. It is only through our meeting things, our knowing them, our seeing them as existing independently even while they become part of us, that we can further ourselves as individuals.

14. Our Individuality Is an Aesthetic Interaction

The self is one and many, within and without. It is an aesthetic equilibrium between oneness and diversity, simplicity and multitudinousness. Our individuality is the aesthetic interaction and oneness of what we are as one thing and all that we can meet.

15. People Have Gone after Individualism


Children have declared they wanted to be individuals and so frightened the family and sometimes others. People have acted individualistically, they thought, when they were rude, or unscrupulous, or driving. Persons have nourished individuality by not talking, being glum, uncandid, difficult, absent. All this is neither commendable nor inevitable.

16. The False Individual Is Uncomfortable and Wants

to Make Others Uncomfortable

A true individual is kind, aware, thoughtful, imaginative. The rude, tricky, inconsiderate people we meet are those who are trying to maintain individuality with the wrong equipment and the wrong objectives, and are, therefore, uncomfortable, with an inclination to make others uncomfortable.

17. Individualism Is the Self Thriving on

What It Has to Do With

Individualism is the whole world rightly in ourselves, and welcome there. It is reality working with a sweet lack of interference, through us. It is a self proud in its awareness of reality’s possibilities, immediacy, and unknown greatness. It is the self thriving on what it has to do with, making beautiful what it has to do with.

18. St. Luke and Whitman Agree

Religion has deeply expressed the idea of individualism. True individualism can be seen in the great phrase of the New Testament “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.” The Kingdom of God, or reality, is also, quite clearly, outside of oneself. To see reality as within you, while, also, it is everywhere outside of you, is the way to individualism. Whitman’s Song of Myself, the first few lines of which I have quoted, is a beautiful commentary on St. Luke. Both St. Luke and Whitman say, in their manner: Individuality is far away from our skin, too; not just under it. black diamond

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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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1] Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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