NUMBER  1487. — October 3, 2001
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 
The Real American Patriotism
Dear Unknown Friends:

     Patriotism is like love, and is a kind of love. Just as we need to see what real love is, we need to see what real patriotism is — and to have it, and not some false thing calling itself patriotism. People have given each other agony because what they went after and called "love" was not that but something really opposed to love.

     Love, Eli Siegel showed, is good will: "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121). The first thing in love is to want to think about a person: Who is she? (We'll say she for now.) What is best in her and how can it be larger; what does she dislike in herself; what in her interferes with her being as good as she can be? Men and women have come to resent each other fiercely, because — with all the praise, physical pleasure, and readiness to punch in the face anyone who insults the beloved — the desire to think with any depth about the person one "loved" wasn't there.

     The not wanting to think is the most unpatriotic thing there is, as it is the most unloving. It's ugly as such, and it causes misery. The feeling one shouldn't have to think with any depth is a form of contempt, and contempt, Mr. Siegel showed, is what all cruelty comes from. It's "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."

     There is a terrific desire in Americans now not to think. Our nation was hurt by vicious people on September 11; and they should certainly be stopped from doing more harm. But there is a big drive in America, fueled ferociously by media and politicians, to put aside thought, to say that everything's clear — that we're completely good and can do anything we want without considering the consequences.

     America should be loved now, protected, treasured — with real love, protection, treasuring. It is the biggest insult to America not to want to think deeply about her and her relation to the rest of the world, but to want instead to just act — and kill innocent men, women, children in the name of "love" for her. That is also the most dangerous thing I can think of. America is being put in peril because people don't want to use their minds, question themselves, try to see.

     Aesthetic Realism is based on this principle: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." Crucial opposites for our nation now are action and thought; pride and self-questioning. We cannot afford to act, to use our force, unless it is at one with self-questioning. There is an objection to America throughout the world. We cannot try to fool ourselves that all the objection to this country, felt by millions of people on every continent, is a hate of our freedom, a dislike of how fine we are. What those of the terror network have done is use the true objections to the US which many others have, to justify themselves — have themselves seem not as bad as they are.

Pride & Self-Questioning

The people of the world are looking at us now. What is it they want to see? They want to see an America who, certainly, will stand up for herself when she has been hurt — but who will also be honest about where she has been unjust, where she has been a cause of hurt to others. That combination, a oneness of opposites, is the only thing that will make the people of the world respect and trust America now. It is the only thing that will stop terrorism.

     Last week I quoted from an important article in the Wall Street Journal, "The Question in the Rubble: Why Us?" (9-14-01). It mentioned some of the huge resentments of America had by people in the Mideast and elsewhere. One is that we have "propp[ed] up hated, oppressive regimes." People in (for instance) Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, El Salvador know: the US has backed brutes and kept populations impoverished so US firms could profit. That objection is not an objection to our "freedom." These people, as I said, are watching us. We will win a war against terrorism only if we can convince the persons who are not terrorists that we want their lives to fare well: that we feel the earth should belong equally to everyone and they too should have its wealth; that we no longer see the earth and them as existing to provide profit for US businesses and we sincerely regret we ever did. That is the only way they will be "on our side."

     The true patriotism, the trying to have America as strong as she can be, is to try to see deeply what weakens her and what strengthens her. America has had beauty and ugliness. We have had the First Amendment, and we have had slavery. We have had the most beautiful diversity of peoples, and we have had children working in sweatshops. Americans want to feel now that we are strong. The strongest thing in people and a nation is to look at ourselves courageously and try to be honest about what's good in us and what is not. Is America strong enough for that? I have to think that the America of Abraham Lincoln and the prairie and John Brown and the Mississippi and dear, great New York, can be strong enough. The feeling, "It's my country so it's only good - and let's just go nuke 'em all!" is sheer ego and the weakest thing in the world, as well as being hideous and massively dangerous.

To Stand Up Truly

We need to stand up truly for America. To do so, we have to see that having profit for companies be the basis of our foreign policy has been wrong; that it has caused terrific hurt to people, and should stop. (And certainly within this country, Americans themselves have been angry for years at how they were seen at work, how they were used as mechanisms for someone's profit.)

     America has a chance, through all this horror, to be more beautiful than she has ever been — truer to her Declaration of Independence and the grandeur of her land. That will be if Americans want to think deeply and truly, with a self-questioning that is the same as pride. 

     In this issue of TRO, we are publishing the conclusion of Mr. Siegel's 11th lecture on H.G. Wells' The Outline of History. In this 1952 lecture, he shows that to make sense of the opposites that are in us, we need to be interested in history — for those very opposites are present there. For example, he spoke early in this talk about freedom and order, inspiration and organization, in Greece and Rome.

     In the concluding section, as he reads statements of Wells about the 1st century, Mr. Siegel speaks about religion as part of history. His respect for all religions was tremendous, as his scholarship was. And I think he was the person in history who most enabled people to care for and respect religions other than their own. He represented always the courage and kindness humanity desperately needs.

 The Desire for Kindness
By Eli Siegel

Wells has been writing of events in the Roman Empire, and as usual they look kind of cruel. Most history looks cruel; the events hardly ever seem very kind. In the next chapter we have "The Beginnings, the Rise, and the Divisions of Christianity." Christianity and Judaism are both very much in process. The aspect of Christianity that I want to insist on now is the desire for kindness.

     Every person is a battle between toughness and kindness, cruelty and commiseration — every person. And history is like that too. The most notable example of the desire to be kind is to be found in the early phases of Christianity. When Jesus is presented, he is always presented as a kind person. Kindness may seem very simple to many people, but in the long run it is more subtle than French verse, more subtle than higher mathematics, more subtle than the stock market. The warfare of kindness with something else, its relation with something else, is tremendously intricate.

     When the notion of Jesus came to people, a notion of one who said "Love one another" and Be kind was present. That the notion has often been corrupted is quite clear, but even the persons corrupting it cannot do away with the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount. And there is no reason why anybody can't like the Sermon on the Mount. There is no reason why anybody shouldn't like the Psalms. There is no reason why anybody shouldn't like Gautama, or Buddha, if he says something nice. Since when is being nice so special? It can happen anywhere: by the Jordan; in the North Pole. The best thing about religion has been that it has told people, Care more for each other, because it is the only way of caring for God. All religions are akin in this. — Wells writes:

In the reign of Tiberius Caesar a great teacher arose out of Judea who was to liberate the intense realization of the righteousness and unchallengeable oneness of God, and of man's moral obligation to God, which was the strength of orthodox Judaism, from that ... exclusive narrowness with which it was so extraordinarily intermingled .... This was Jesus of Nazareth.
     Part of that passage is dangerous. Every people has been narrow, and Wells shouldn't emphasize any one people. The biggest thing in Judaism is the idea that God is one. What is the meaning of one? It has two sides: the fact that there is unity; but also that there is completeness. From a certain point of view, it is only one; but from another, it is 100% — wholeness. The second meaning has been left out.

     Any God that is seen as only for some people and not for all people is not one God. If we don't see a God as having to do with all people, we have accepted a specialized God. This tendency is very strong — because most people want to go to God, who represents the world in its entirety; but then, the desire to be exclusive and snobbish is around. Every people, every sect, has had that. I say quite boldly, God doesn't like it!

Unity & Comprehensiveness

The important thing here is: what is the oneness of God? Does it just mean unity, or also comprehensiveness? One means two things: oneness and comprehensiveness. As such, this is what we see in the Psalms; and Jesus was repeating it.

     Jews are human beings, and there is a tendency to be exclusive; that is essentially true of all people. Right now the tendency is growing less. A scholar whom I respect very much, Martin Buber, is bringing Judaism back to something of its first meaning — as not only connected to Judaism but as standing for the whole world, presenting unity as meaning comprehensiveness and likewise richness.

     There has been a tendency in various synagogues and churches to think that God is a special visitor. Somehow he has deigned to come into the church or synagogue because he doesn't like others so much. That is blasphemy. God likes everywhere. He can go wherever he pleases, and if you want to welcome him in a synagogue, fine. But to say that he can't be in a barn or in a baseball field is, I think, presumptuous. God also says, "Don't fence me in."

     Wells does talk hazardously about the Jews, but the Jews have had this difficulty of accepting the comprehensiveness which is in the thought of Judaism. There are signs that it is being accepted now, and that is very fine. But the struggle even now goes on. The fight between the narrow aspect of Judaism and the comprehensive aspect goes on right now in Israel. — This is Wells on Jesus:

We are left ... with the figure of a being, very human, very earnest and passionate,... teaching a new and simple and profound doctrine — namely, the universal loving Fatherhood of God.
     That feeling presented by Wells is in the Lord's Prayer, and I don't see why any Buddhist, any Muslim, an atheist for that matter, should object to it. Wells describes something happening, though just what happened is not known. That the kindness it stood for was often corrupted into cruelty and scheming — that is well known. But has the kindness entirely gone? Can you smother it entirely? What is the reason Christianity has gone on for these 1950 or so years? Is it just because persons have had power, or is there something beneath the power? Other religions have had power and haven't lasted. There is the wonderful fact that Judaism has lasted; Christianity has lasted; Mohammedanism, or Islam, has lasted. The understanding of each is a very current matter.

An Aesthetic Relation

In recent fiction there is the phenomenon of Sholem Asch. His books on Christ have been quite popular. In fact, he has a tendency to make Christ into a very good Jew; and Asch is read by Jews and others. It is all interesting, because what we have really between Judaism and Christianity is a relation not exactly like that of Greece and Rome but a little akin. There is a kind of might in Judaism, the presenting of God as someone who cannot be left out, present in everything you do, the God who (as in Job) is in the mountains and seas and can throw the stars around.

     This was necessary, because the world should be respected. But there was a feeling that somehow this granite, mountain quality of God should be given something more personal; that God also should have kissing lips, not just be stone. The beginnings of Christianity were for that. Some people, they likely were nice people, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, felt they should tell about something very gentle. What were the Gospels; who wrote them; why are the stories different; who was St. Paul? — much, much has been written about it. Who was Jesus, and what did he feel; what was his work; how did he spend his time? These questions are still virginal.

     But if you look at the New Testament, simply as thought, and thought that became history because it affected people, and you look at the Old Testament, you will see that they do complete each other, and that a mountain of the Old Testament is changed into something that first is seen as flowers. Certainly, there is gentleness in the Old Testament; but the general accent is on God as watching, as exacting. In the New Testament, God becomes more personal, takes on a delightful frailty of flesh.

     If all the fights and cruelty were put aside, and the New Testament were simply seen as a whole thing and the Old Testament were too, there would be a beautiful combination. Just as Greece and Rome, representing thought and organization, met and are still meeting, so severity and gentleness meet in the Old and New Testaments. I am speaking very roughly now.

     Again: we see that these things, wonder and organization in Greece and Rome, gentleness and severity, which the New and Old Testaments have, are in us. Religion is part of history, because thought about the other world is still a thing that happens in this one. And when history is seen as a mighty repetition of events in ourselves, it is then that we really see it and care for it.

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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