The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Aesthetics; or, How Not to Be Depressed

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to publish The Philosophy of Depression, by Eli Siegel. He gave this lecture on January 2, 1947, at New York’s Steinway Hall, and our text is notes of Martha Baird, taken at the time.

Speaking nearly 63 years ago, Mr. Siegel is presenting what psychiatry both then and now has not understood. For lack of this knowledge, millions of people have endured misery. And they’ve been subjected to shock treatments (then), and numbing and agitating drugs (now). They were told then that their feeling low came from repressed sexual desire. And they’re told now, with equal wrongness, that their depression is biochemically caused.

In the 1947 lecture Mr. Siegel explains, with clarity and vivid examples, what must be seen for depression to be understood: There is a desire in everyone to find what’s not oneself inferior, dull, cruel—because in doing so we feel that we are superior and special. This desire is contempt, and Aesthetic Realism shows it to be the most hurtful thing in the human self. It is the cause, for instance, of racism. And it simmers, thrusts, mingles with other desires in everyday life.

People have not been much aware of a wish in them to dislike the world, though they’ve occasionally gotten inklings of it. There is a wife who has thought smugly that her husband would once again forget to do some chore. But he remembers—and the wife sinks a bit. She thinks, “Why do I feel disappointed that he did it? Do I want him to let me down?”

Our contempt is the reason we dislike ourselves. It is the cause of “low self-esteem”—because our deepest desire is to like the world, see value in it. And so we feel permeatingly against ourselves for being unjust to it.

As Days Darken & Grow Cold

This time of year, articles appear in the press about a kind of depression called SAD, “seasonal affective disorder.” As the weeks become darker and colder, some people feel low, pervasively gloomy; lack interest in life; find things around them unappealing and oppressive; feel heavy and immobile. The cause given by the psychiatric practitioners is: the lessened sunlight lowers the body’s levels of melatonin and serotonin.

On November 1 an article appeared in the Boston Herald titled “Falling into Seasonal Depression.” It puts forth, once again, biochemistry as the explanation. “The main cause of SAD,” we’re told, is the effect on the body of “reduced exposure to sunlight.” Yet why is it that some people, exposed to just as little sunlight, don’t get depressed, while others do? And why, in the article, is there this statement from a woman:

In August, I start feeling depressed because I notice the days are getting shorter....I feel awful. I don’t even appreciate the fall because I know winter is coming.

In August there’s a lot of sunlight. If “the main cause” of SAD is “reduced exposure to sunlight,” why, as the article tells us, does this woman’s depression “start in the summer”?

Certainly things can happen to the chemistry of our body. But what’s necessary to understand is this: There is a desire in a person to feel reality is miserably dark and cold, because if the world is a painful place then oneself is too good for it, too precious for it. As days shorten, as the world gets physically darker and colder (or even if, as with the woman quoted, one thinks it will), a person who unknowingly hopes to clinch her case against things can use the situation to feel deeply: “I was right to be suspicious of the world. It’s an awful place. I don’t want to go out to it. The only place good enough for me is in myself.”

A prerequisite for happiness is to see that something in us would rather be pained and superior than happy and not superior, happy and (God forbid) grateful. Knowing we have this desire, we can be a real critic of it and have it not win.

The article says that sitting before a light box can sometimes alleviate SAD a bit. Maybe the light box affects one’s melatonin; but maybe it’s also a critical reminder, before one’s very eyes, that reality is not just bleak but has brightness, a glow that’s REAL. Meanwhile, since people are not hearing the central explanation of their pain, “seasonal depression” goes on and is often treated with drugs.

Poetry Opposes Contempt

In a very good poem, Emily Dickinson tells about the bleak light of dark New England winter days. Here are the first eight lines:

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons —

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes —


Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are —

Emily Dickinson had depression in her life, but her poems are the opposite of depressed, and this poem is. As she wrote it, she was seeing the world aesthetically. She was not using a New England winter day as material for hidden ego-manipulation. She was seeing it as standing for a world that is a oneness, in grandeur, of pleasure and pain, trouble and aid. She was seeing the bleakness of things, even the pain of things, as part of their magnificence. So we have “Cathedral,” “Heavenly,” “Meanings.”

The poem has structure, music: it has weight and lightness as one, mystery and clearness as one, a bounce at one with severity. It stands for the aesthetic like of the world which, Eli Siegel showed, is the true opponent of depression. Emily Dickinson wanted to know that. So do millions of people now.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Philosophy of Depression

By Eli Siegel

Depression obviously means feeling low. And the word low is capable of more than one meaning. When one feels sad, the lines on one’s face seem to go down. When one is happy, they seem to go up. Depression, a state of being pressed low, has a superficial meaning and also a very deep one. It is the deep one that I shall talk about principally today.

When we think of feeling low, the next thing is down; the next is within. In the very worst depression, a person is trying like anything to go down, go into himself, have himself, even if it means being consciously pained.

There are thousands of persons not interested in anything, persons who feel breakfast is no good, steak is not interesting, movies are just dull. In an important Aesthetic Realism lesson,* I asked a person whether she’d feel that way if she gave up being queen of the world. And she said she was queen of the world because she felt that way. This is the crux of philosophic depression: that the only way to be queen of the world is to feel bad.

There is a desire in all of us to get importance by being bored by other things, and disliking them. Suppose a person, Mrs. James, thinks she’s a very good cook. Mrs. Gubbins invites her to lunch and has prepared a very good lunch. Can Mrs. James give up her supremacy over Mrs. Gubbins by liking it? Likely she’ll find the meal bad.

Finding the world dull so that we can be superior to it is the cause of classic depression. However, it can take all sorts of specific forms.

For example, a woman of about fifty feels she can’t enjoy anything. She finds food an interference, water something you have to put up with. She was a pretty successful businesswoman. She ran a rooming house with the assistance of her daughter. Her daughter married, and her depression began about that time. She’d thought she wanted her daughter’s marriage, but the picture of her daughter assisting her and depending on her had become very important. She had dominated her husband, and had gotten about all the importance she could from her business. Then her daughter insulted her by getting married. She went more and more into herself—because she either had to accept the world as something to be happy in or call the world names. She didn’t know it, but what she was saying was, “I haven’t liked the way the world’s treated me in the last few months, and if the world won’t be the way I like—to hell with it!”

The tendency to feel that is in every one of us. When the world disappoints us, we can do two things: we can say the world has been disappointing but the disappointment is not the main part of it; or we can say, “The nerve of that universe! I’ll show it. I’ll have nothing to do with it.”

What Desire Is

It’s necessary to see what desire is. Accurate desire is respect. If we desire a thing, we have to give some importance to it, and truly wanting something means wanting to have that thing affect us. But in the unconscious of each of us is a feeling that if we’re affected too much, where are we? Everyone wants things and at the same time is afraid they’ll affect us too much. Therefore, without knowing it, we can resent the idea of being happy, of enjoying the world.

In being happy, we have combined well with what is not ourselves. All happiness is a calling forth of the self. But suppose a self thinks that in being called forth it will lose its individuality. What happens is, we’re happy for a while, and then have to restore our vanity and self-esteem by being unhappy for a while.

The self has two aspects: individuality and relation. If you can’t see that your very bones are of the self that meets things and likes it, then there has to be a time when the intimate self will say, “Now I must have my inning.” Only through aesthetics can we see that the two aspects of self are one. If we’re to avoid being depressed, we must see this—because depression is caused by the intimate self’s being separated from the self in relation.

Both shame and arrogance are always present in depression. A person writes a book. It is successful. He is esteemed. Then he becomes depressed—because one part of him likes to be away from people and can’t feel comfortable having their esteem. He wants to despise the people who give him the fame. On the other hand, he feels he doesn’t deserve the fame.

Something similar can happen in relation to love. A woman wants to marry a man. Finally she succeeds. He’s all hers. Two weeks after the wedding, she becomes depressed. The reason is: she doesn’t feel she deserves to be happy, because in order to deserve to be happy she couldn’t just plan to possess the man; she’d have to be affected by him—someone not herself. She can’t do that and keep a certain picture of herself. So shame and arrogance are in a fight in her. If nothing is done about the fight, a severe situation can result.

Two Attitudes

We can have two attitudes toward the world: we can go away from it or toward it. If we don’t see these as one, in going toward it there can be aggression, also penitence. A person can be very depressed and low, and then when he feels he’s suffered enough he can become very angry, or he can cut up, be the life of the party. Unless we can see the world aesthetically we’re going to see it at times as dull, as against us, or as so much better than us.

There can be a certain state of indifference. Indifference can be illustrated by one train attempting to go north and one south, on the same track, from the same spot. They’re of equal weight and neither will give. What happens is, the two trains just won’t move at all. There will be a dull, static impact. Still, there’s a lot of force in the trains: the engines are still working. When we think we deserve something so much that we’re triumphant and think we don’t deserve it so much that we’re cowering, something like this can occur.

Unless a person is ready to say, “Come on, world, affect me more,” he’s planning depression. At a certain time he’ll have to give more of himself to the world, or he’ll have to retreat. If he can’t make up his mind, he’ll have a classical depression. A depression is related to a vacation, after which one returns. The self feels, “I’ve had my ego for a while; now I can afford to let myself be affected by things for a while.” Wanting to be affected by the world all the time takes a tremendous lot of courage.

Depression is akin to revenge. If someone has been disappointed and therefore says of the whole universe, “It’s meaningless,” he unconsciously feels very important. We don’t get our own way with the world, and so we want to say the game wasn’t worth playing. If we can’t feel the world is on our side, a specific sad happening can set off that which has always been waiting to say “To hell with all of it.”

What Is Self-Preservation

We want to preserve ourselves, but we take ourselves to be only what appears warm, cozy, comfortable. We need to see that the warmth isn’t just here, but takes in more territory than we’re aware of.

The word self-preservation hasn’t been given an expansive meaning. It seems to mean a getting rid of something, an adroit hiding. It isn’t seen as the same as growing. Growth is the way a person has of becoming more oneself by becoming what was not oneself. But part of us doesn’t want to see it that way. We want to keep part of ourselves snugly hidden. If we associate being affected with an invasion of what we want to preserve, the shame and triumph will make for the closure, the lack of response, the dullness associated with depression.

There Are the Opposites

In everyone there is always a tendency to put together opposites. Part of us will try to be genteel, unconcerned, to manage the world by dealing with it as if it were made up of elegant feathery nothings. Yet we also feel that in doing so we’ve done an injustice to ourselves. There are many smug people. They are really frightened. Then when they become affected, it’s like Orson Welles or Robert Taylor—aggressive. Since we have a desire to make the world manageable and Mayfair, and since we know that the world, though manageable, is also deep and volcanic and Dostoyevskian, we feel that in being timid and managing we’ve betrayed ourselves.

That is one of the quite common causes of mental disturbance. It has to do with the feeling that we can’t see two aspects of ourselves as working together—as the right and left foot do, or the bass and treble in a piano. Depression arises from the fact that the two ways of mind—the wanting to be a self within, and to go outward—have to meet. They don’t meet happily; hence the depression. To avoid depression we have to welcome the new.

As soon as our desires become less, we become organically conceited. Desire is feeling seen as a cause. It takes a lot of courage to desire. It would seem that to desire is easy. But if you want something and don’t want to be affected by it, you don’t really want it. A person not wishing to desire anything can think in this way: “The color green—so what? The Rocky Mountains—so what?”

When we associate depression with being blasé—when we see it as representing the feeling in everyone that if he sees what’s not himself as good he’ll somehow become less—we’ll be better able to deal with it.


The question of depression has connotations as to everything. I’m trying to mention some of the most important, and one is self-criticism. A person truly free in the world is one who thinks that as he acts he represents the world. The other person thinks that part of him is just shuffled around by the world and that he has another self, his own self, which is not touched by the world. This means he will never get to happy self-criticism. When there is “self-criticism” it will be whining, not authentic. Whenever a self really criticizes itself, it is proud. When there’s a whimper, you can be sure it’s vanity.

Self-criticism is part of self-knowledge. There is a need for it. If the two kinds of criticism—the authentic kind and the whining kind—come into a jam, it can make for depression. The shame often noticeable in depression is not the shame of true criticism. It’s the shame of admitting some failing with part of oneself in order to have perfection in another way.

At present, the desire to think the world is messy is perhaps stronger than at any other time. There is a desire to use the bad things that have happened in the world (which I’m not denying in the least) to go away from it. A person who does this is using these happenings for his conceit. Otherwise, he’d try to understand the ugliness and fight it so it could change to something else. Many persons have been, they thought, so hurt by events, that they felt they had to leave the world. It’s necessary to distinguish between the not liking of a bad happening and the hoping that things be bad.

Where “depression” is a state of honest self-criticism, it is no longer depression. It is loftiness. Otherwise, it is a selling short of both the world and yourself. Aesthetic Realism says: When you sell yourself short you sell the world short, and when you sell the world short you sell yourself short. So don’t do either. 

*The Frances Sanders Lesson, of 1945, Appendix II of Eli Siegel’s Self and World (NY, 1981).