Care for Self: Relation vs. Contempt
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing Eli Siegel’s great 1970 lecture The Self Is. And he is the person in the history of thought who has described truly what the self is, that self which is everyone’s own. In the talk he uses a collection of essays by a writer he respects: David Riesman. Yet Riesman did not see what Aesthetic Realism explains: the self is an aesthetic situation, a oneness of the opposites individuality and relation. Each of us is a point, particular, specific—and at the same time we are related to the whole world, from words to food to history to people on our block and on other continents. The way we come to be increasingly individual, who we are, is through welcoming our relation to what seems different. That is what education is about. It’s what love is about.
Eli Siegel is the philosopher who saw and described this. And he identified the thing in every person which weakens that person and is also the source of all cruelty. It is contempt, the making less of other things and people as a means of aggrandizing oneself. Though in having contempt we feel we’re making ourselves important, we’re actually stunting ourselves, making ourselves smaller, duller, emptier, unintelligent—because the way to be ourselves is through finding meaning in all that to which we’re related: the outside world.
In this issue we include part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Ernest DeFilippis presented last month at a public seminar. The topic was “A Man Wants to Be Comfortable, but Also Respect Himself: What’s the Solution?” As you’ll see, he’s speaking about the self, and the mistake we make about it.
What Is the Attraction?
Any moment in history can be used to study that false notion of self which is contempt. Our present moment can. And as I comment on something that has affected people intensely in the election campaigning these months, I’m not doing so “politically,” to advocate for or against a particular candidate. I’m doing so as a means of illustrating the self.
Why have large numbers of Americans been attracted by statements that are monumentally insulting of millions of one’s fellow human beings: statements that have huge contempt for people on the basis, for instance, of religion and nationality, and that express an intention to put this contempt into resounding action?
There is a big anger in America today. And a central reason was described by Eli Siegel in the 1970s. He showed that a way of economics based on contempt had failed after hundreds of years. That economic way is the profit system, the seeing of a person in terms of: how much profit can I squeeze from his labor?; how much money can I make from him while paying him as little as possible? In his lectures on the subject, Mr. Siegel explained why profit economics could no longer hum along as it once had. Today, the only way it can go on at all is by making most Americans poorer and poorer so a few individuals can enrich themselves.
This effort to keep the profit system going by sacrificing the lives and income and dignity of the American people is a massive source of fury across America. People aren’t as clear as they could be about the cause of their anger, though many are getting clearer. Meanwhile, people of every political persuasion hate the way they’re seen on the job, how they’re paid, not paid, how they’re made to work, and not work. They feel insulted, worried, humiliated. What will they do?
Well, the individual people of America will either use their anger to go for more justice, to see more their relation to others, to see that all Americans should own this land—or they’ll try to get to a sense of distinction through contempt: through making oneself big by looking down on others, degrading them and kicking them around.
The Encouraging of Contempt
In issue 165 of this journal, Mr. Siegel explained that Hitler was “perhaps the greatest evoker of human contempt in history.” The German people had been humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, and Hitler made them feel big through evoking their contempt for other people. We are not, of course, in 1930s Germany. But the situation now with us is this: The American people have been humiliated by the profit system—what should they now go for? How should they see?
To understand the appeal of certain campaign statements, we have to know what Eli Siegel has explained: “We are looking for contempt at any moment of our lives. Contempt is our soothing revenge for a world not sufficiently interested, as we see it, in what we are hoping for.”
There is a desire in a person to let go utterly with one’s contempt, be untrammeled in one’s expression of scorn and despising. To see a seemingly powerful person glibly and sloppily pour forth contempt encourages the ugliest thing in a person: Why should I have to think?! I’ll deal with my suffering by looking down but good—by putting them in their place! People whose lives have been horribly damaged by profit economics can still like the contempt at its basis—the idea that certain persons are vastly superior to others. One’s contemptuous sense of self can be furious at the idea that all people deserve to own this world.
The other aspect of people, showing itself more than ever in America now, is the aesthetic desire, good will: I want to see my relation to other people. I’ll take care of my individuality by valuing what’s not me. The fight in America is like the fight in every person: between contempt and aesthetics, ill will and justice. Aesthetic Realism is the means to understand that fight—and have aesthetics and justice win.