The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Arrogance & the Self—Beautifully Understood

Dear Unknown Friends:

In 1948 Eli Siegel gave a lecture titled Mind and Arrogance. We have no voice recording or transcript of it. But I have used notes taken by two people who were there, to present some of what Mr. Siegel said. The notes are those of Martha Baird and Irene Reiss, my mother. Even in this abridged form, we see an explanation that is big, new, greatly kind, and needed by the people and nations of the world.

Most men and women do not see themselves as arrogant. But can a person who seems demure, sad, uncertain, even self-effacing have—and have intensely—something that can rightly be called arrogance? Also: do some of the cruelest ways of humanity arise from arrogance? The answer to both questions is Yes. Arrogance is much more ordinary than people see. It is also more brutal.

Eli Siegel is the philosopher who identified the most hurtful thing in the human self. It is contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Arrogance, he shows in this 1948 talk, is a form of contempt.

My mother was at the beginning of her study of Aesthetic Realism when she attended the class presented here. Her life was changing magnificently through Aesthetic Realism lessons, and a central reason was: she learned that contempt and even arrogance were the reason she felt afraid of people and deeply unsure. For example, in an Aesthetic Realism lesson Mr. Siegel said this to Irene Reiss about why she was so fearful of crowds that she couldn’t ride the subway:

There’s a tendency to say, “The more I can despise and be against, the more important I am.” Suppose something in you which you don’t know about says, “Other people exist in competition with me and the only time I feel important is when I can forget that they exist.” Then when you go into the subway you feel, “There are the people I was trying to forget about when I went to bed last night!”

Mr. Siegel was showing my mother that her fear of people was a punishment she gave herself for being unfair to them—arrogant toward them in her mind. She was learning that what she needed was aesthetics: the seeing that she would be herself through wanting to know and be just to the world different from herself.

This matter of fearfulness and anxiety is one of ever so many that mental practitioners do not understand, because they don’t understand the self. And the fortunate life of Irene Reiss—like that of others who have studied Aesthetic Realism—is evidence that Aesthetic Realism does grandly understand the human self. Some of this grand understanding is in Mind and Arrogance.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Mind and Arrogance

By Eli Siegel

Arrogance is a phase of vanity and comes from disproportion of self; but there is something active in it. Arrogance can be called bad, aggressive selfishness. It means, essentially, the asking in a pretty pugnacious and undesirable way for what we don’t deserve. If we are after more than we deserve, we won’t consider what other people deserve. An inconsideration of what other people deserve, put into action, is the essence of arrogance. Meanwhile, whenever a person is arrogant there is a kickback: because we’re arrogant in one way, we’ll be too humble, ask for too little, in another.

Arrogance has many forms. One is to be seen in the mother who thinks certain privileges are coming to her children that aren’t coming to others. (Mrs. Steerforth in David Copperfield is an example.) But mothers also can make their children too unimportant. Whenever we have arrogance we do have also a tendency to underestimate.

Arrogance is related to snobbishness but is more warlike. People can cultivate it very early—the desire, with pomp, to take things we don’t deserve. Arrogance is bad because it is unjust. It is mental stealing. Going after what we deserve is a good thing. So we have to find out what we deserve, and if we are not interested in finding out there will be trouble. Husbands and wives can be arrogant with each other because they don’t ask what’s just; they ask, “What will make me comfortable?”

There are various things owing to people. One is that there be a wish to respect them. Another is that they not be impeded materially. And a third is that they be encouraged to be all they can be. The job of thinking about other people isn’t easy, but we have to be interested.

Divine Right

In “2-A Pleasure Described”* I write about the deepest arrogance. All the pleasures of contempt are arrogance. They come from a desire to be divine without deserving it. There is a desire to feel that somehow what is untrue for other people is true for us. The highest form of arrogance is the idea of divine right.

An example can be seen in a statement by James I of England. He was a clumsy man—it seems he slobbered—and a pretty inefficient person, but he thought God had made him king. This feeling is had by many women and men: divinity is in them and not in other people. This is James I to Parliament in 1610:

The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth, for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called gods. ...As to dispute what God may do is blasphemy, it is sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do.

One sign of arrogance is how you take a disagreement. There are persons who, not considering why a person disagrees, are against it as such; we don’t have to be a king to feel that. The contemptuous self is in a state of majesty: it doesn’t want to think anything outside of itself can be informative and feels that for another person to have a different viewpoint is an affront. When, without seeing the truth, we say we have the truth, it is unconscious purloining. We have no right to say we have seen the truth unless we have worked for it and seen it in an honest way.

Then, there is James I to the Judges of England, 1616:

Encroach not upon the prerogative of the crown....That which concerns the mystery of the king’s power is not lawful to be disputed; for that take away the mystical reverence that belongs unto them that sit in the throne of God....It is presumption and high contempt in a subject to dispute what a king can do.

Well, about 33 years later, James I’s son had his head cut off because the people of England objected to this.

There is an arrogance related to it that can come to public officials, even to receptionists: they have a seat and the other person is standing up, so they think they are in a certain position. Discourtesy comes from a desire to feel superior. It comes from the fact that one of the things we would like to have without deserving it is importance. If we can’t get that in a true way, we will try to get it in an untrue way.

In the Field of Love

Arrogance is very much related to sex; it can be very deep there. There is a story about arrogance told by Robert Browning in a poem (“The Glove”), and also by Leigh Hunt (“The Glove and the Lions”). It’s about a woman who asks her lover to do something dangerous, so she can show her power over him. They are sitting where there are lions in an open arena, and she asks him to jump down into it and get her glove after she has thrown it there. He does, but then says he doesn’t want to have any more to do with her. Many women and men put each other to all kinds of tests because each feels oneself is so important that the other person should put up with anything.

In a very famous poem of Browning, “My Last Duchess,” the arrogance of a man is shown. A duke is speaking to the emissary of a count whose daughter the duke is interested in marrying. He talks about his former wife (“my last duchess”), and says she smiled for everybody and not just for him. He was of a family 900 years old and that just couldn’t be! So she was got rid of. Now he is looking for a wife who will smile only for him. What he says comes to this: his wife was pleased by things other than him and his family, so he had something very bad done to her—had her either killed or put in a dungeon. (Browning gave different explanations at different times.) The duke tells the emissary:

...She had

A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

Sir, ’twas all one! My favor at her breast,

The dropping of the daylight in the West,

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule

She rode with round the terrace—all and each

Would draw from her alike the approving speech,

Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked

Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody’s gift.


Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together....

This is a horrible story, told nonchalantly. Jealousy may be called a big jam between shame and arrogance. The duke felt his wife was too easily pleased by things beyond him: that is possessiveness, which is always arrogance. The last point in it is wanting to have everything and not wanting anybody else to have anything. People have gone to mental asylums feeling that way.

One cause of arrogance is the awful way of seeing the family that’s in the poem. The way people have used their heredity has made them hate each other and despise and have contempt. It’s all right to like one’s heredity, but to use it against other people’s, as is so often done, is awful.

The duke thinks that to criticize his wife, to show her she gave him pain, would be beneath him. He says that if he’d told her: “‘Here you miss, / Or there exceed the mark’... / E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose / Never to stoop.” There are many people who don’t want to say, This displeases me. They will say it in an indirect way. —Because the lady was so happy and had so many ways of annoying the duke’s vanity, he got his revenge.

Tennyson Was Interested

Ever so many women think men look down on them, and ever so many men think women are making fun of them. Tennyson’s “Lady Clara Vere de Vere,” from his Poems of 1842, has a man of a middle class family being annoyed by the airs of an aristocratic lady and saying, To hell with you:

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,

Of me you shall not win renown;

You thought to break a country heart

For pastime, ere you went to town.

At me you smiled, but unbeguiled

I saw the snare, and I retired:

The daughter of a hundred Earls—

You are not one to be desired.


Trust me, Clara Vere de Vere,

From yon blue heavens above us bent

The gardener Adam and his wife

Smile at the claims of long descent.

Howe’er it be, it seems to me,

’Tis only noble to be good.

Kind hearts are more than coronets,

And simple faith than Norman blood....

Arrogance is expressed here as the desire to use other people as a means to one’s own importance. Many women feel that no man cares for them unless they can bother that person. When we try to use people, and try to show the effect we can have on them without their having an effect on us, it’s arrogance. This lady has thought she’s so good that even if she pains somebody it’s a sort of privilege. You don’t have to be nobility to feel that.

Everybody has to be confident, proud, and stick up for his or her rights. Where does this change into excess and ugliness? That point is hard to find. This is where aesthetics comes in. Arrogance is disproportion of self in action: you give too much to yourself. There can be arrogance in the way a person sits on a bus seat: you can do it so that people will feel they can’t come near you.

One of the greatest blows to arrogance occurred in the Middle Ages with the very popular couplet by John Ball: “When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then the gentleman?” It seems that evolution is democratic.

Tennyson was much occupied with this question of birth and arrogance. Another poem of his about it is “The Beggar Maid,” in which King Cophetua meets a young woman who is lovely but poor. The poem ends: “Cophetua sware a royal oath: / ‘This beggar maid shall be my queen!’” The relation between beggars and kings has been very much around.

The most arrogant king in the Bible, nearly, is Nebuchadnezzar. One of the most meaningful dreams in the Old Testament is his—told of in chapter 4 of Daniel. He is bothered by this dream, which none of his magicians can explain. Then he tells it to Daniel:

I saw...a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great.

...The height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth....

A holy one came down from heaven;

He cried aloud and said thus, Hew down the tree, and cut off his branches, shake off his leaves, and scatter his fruit:...

Nevertheless leave the stump of his roots in the earth;...and let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth:

Let his heart be changed from man’s, and let a beast’s heart be given unto him.

Then Daniel explains the dream—the tree is Nebuchadnezzar:

It is thou, O king, that art grown and become strong....

And this is the decree of the most High...:

That they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen,...till thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men.

So this magnificent king, who made the hanging gardens of Babylon, had such a toppling that he went with the beasts and ate grass. Such is the relation of arrogance to shame. And I think the interpretation of Daniel is essentially true: the tree is himself. We know deeply, though we can’t put it into words, what we deserve. If we have all sorts of power which we feel we don’t deserve, the awareness of arrogance can come on us and we can be like the tree hewn down.

A nervous person is one who fears too much and is arrogant. He is humble and conceited. The important thing is to see that our greatest pride comes from seeing ourselves truly.

Acting Miserable & Managing

A person can act miserable, and do so more with his family than others, because it is a way of showing people up: you don’t interest me—even though I am living with you. A certain misery is arrogance: it’s a way of saying that the whole world, with everything it has, can’t interest us. Boredom deeply is arrogance. We are bored because we find it difficult to be interested by taking things as they are; what we would like to do is drive the world. We would like to drive people, but we cannot do it outwardly—just order them around—so we do it subtly by becoming miserable.

Arrogance in its outward form is shown by Marlowe in Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine has various kings acting as horses for him, drawing his chariot. He says:

Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia!

What! can ye draw but twenty miles a day,

And have so proud a chariot at your heels,

And such a coachman as great Tamburlaine?

Arrogance comes from a desire not to enjoy the world or know it, but manage it. The giving of orders can be very subtle. Whenever orders are given without an interest in the person they are given to, arrogance has won. If a person can’t get importance by being happy, he’ll get importance by being miserable and unconsciously think it was a good choice. In being miserable, we can be contemptuous of people and order them around. Arrogance is the taking of too much importance to oneself and—if necessary—too much misery. In the process of asking for more than is coming to us, we are like Nebuchadnezzar, Lady Clara Vere de Vere, and Tamburlaine.

*Self and World, pp. 357-8