The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Contempt, War, & the Self of Everyone

Dear Unknown Friends:

We begin to serialize the 1975 lecture Contempt & World War I, by Eli Siegel. He is the philosopher and historian to explain that the principal, underlying cause of war is contempt—and that contempt is in all of us; we use it to make ourselves “important” every day.

Contempt—the feeling that oneself is more through making less of what is not oneself—is, Aesthetic Realism shows, the weakener of people’s minds. It is the source of every cruel thought and act. It is that which interferes with every aspect of our lives, from love to education. And it is in a constant battle with another desire in us, our deepest desire: to be truly ourselves through being just to the world outside of us.

Six months after the lecture we’re publishing, Mr. Siegel wrote the historic essay “What Caused the Wars” for issue 165 of this journal. It begins with the following sentences, beautiful in their prose, great in their comprehension:

It is necessary to see that while the contempt which is in every one of us may make ordinary life more painful than it should be, this contempt is also the main cause of wars. It was contempt that made for the trenches of France in 1915; it was contempt which made for the labor camps of the Second World War. It was contempt which made for that awful mode of retaliation called Nazism.

Contempt in Ancient Greece

We can look at an instance from the earliest writing about war in the western world: Homer’s Iliad. In book 13, the Trojan Hektor says to a man in the opposing army:

You inarticulate ox,... will be killed with the rest of them, if you have daring

to stand up against my long spear, which will bite your delicate

body; will glut the dogs and birds of the Trojans

with fat and flesh.

Homer is presenting contempt in various ways. There are scorn and the robbing a person of his humanity (“you inarticulate ox”). There is belittling sarcasm (“your delicate body”). There is the hope to see someone utterly humiliated and lessened (“glut the dogs and birds”), for then one’s own superiority can be complete.

Some of the contempt present in all war is in Homer’s lines, as translated by Richmond Lattimore. Yet that contempt is also in everyday life. For instance, a wife today spoke sarcastically to her husband. Swiftly, across the breakfast table, she hoped to humiliate him, make him feel (at least for the time) small and unsure of himself. Later she might say, “It didn’t mean anything. I just have a sharp tongue.” Yet she feels ashamed.

Contempt is popular because the easiest way to think well of oneself is through seeing someone different as inferior. This sense of self-enhancement never lasts, because it is falsely based, but one goes after it again and again.

The most everyday, minute-by-minute contempt in everyone is the contempt of simply making the feelings of other people unreal. Eli Siegel explains in James and the Children that if “you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person.” If, over the centuries, one person had seen another as having the reality he himself had, he could not have hacked at the person with a battle ax, or blown up his home.

As we publish the 1975 lecture, it is important to state that Eli Siegel was definitely not a pacifist. He believed there were wars (not many, but some) that had to be fought. World War I was not one of these. But World War II was, and so was the American Civil War.

In this part of the lecture, he refers to the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Franco, fascist general, dictator of Spain for three decades, had died eight days before. Mr. Siegel’s feeling about the Spanish Civil War was tremendous. And what happened in Spain from 1936 to 1939 needs to be understood in order to understand what’s happening in America and the world now. So I’ll use some passages from the Columbia Encyclopedia of 1956 to comment on what occurred. Essentially, it was a battle on the Spanish earth between contempt in its viciousness and the beauty of respect.

What the Spanish Civil War Was About

In 1936 Spain had at last become a democratic republic. But, says the Columbia Encyclopedia, “before the new government...[which had] won an overwhelming victory in the national elections...had time to carry out its program,” a military force “under the leadership of Gen. Francisco Franco” launched a war to overthrow the Republic and establish fascism. Franco’s forces were backed by “most conservative groups” and

received the immediate military aid of Germany and Italy....Thanks to the “non-intervention” policy of England and France, the Loyalists received virtually no outside support except for an International Brigade and for some meager aid from the USSR.

What was this about? There is fascism. And fascism, Aesthetic Realism explains, is sheer contempt, using force to insist on itself. Fascism, wrote Mr. Siegel, “is the ego made iron. It is conceit made metallic. And conceit has ownership in it” (TRO 500).

The Spanish Civil War was about how the earth of Spain, the wealth of Spain, should be owned. The Republic said, This land of Cervantes, of the Sierra Morena, of Seville and Guadalajara, of the Prado and the Alhambra, belongs to all the people of Spain and exists for their well-being. Central to fascism is: this nation must belong to only a few people; its wealth and the labor of its citizens should be used for the profit of a few people. That is contempt. The industrialists of Spain were with the fascists, as those of Germany were with the Nazis. And the question of America now, the struggle of forces in America now, is: by whom should the US be owned?

We see in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls the bomber planes of fascist Italy and Germany used on the Spanish earth and people. We see in Picasso’s Guernica what the Columbia Encyclopedia describes: “the bombing (1937) of Guernica and other undefended cities by German planes.” Meanwhile, the democracies—France, England, and the US—had placed an embargo on aid to the Spanish Republic. Mr. Siegel, who respected Franklin Roosevelt, said that Roosevelt’s agreeing to the embargo was the worst thing that president ever did, and that Roosevelt’s deep shame about it had much to do with his death.

The fascist victory in Spain in March 1939, and the fact that the democracies let it happen, encouraged Hitler to invade Poland later that year. It encouraged the concentration camps and gas chambers. Meanwhile, the encyclopedia notes: “Despite their military inferiority... the Loyalists made a remarkably determined stand.” That statement is about something beautiful: a passionate fight to have justice to human beings win, and contempt lose.

The same fight—between respect and contempt—is the big personal battle within everyone. It goes on, usually unseen, in us, as we think, talk, have to do with people. It is a fight that we need to see clearly. “Contempt,” Mr. Siegel explained, “must be defeated if man is to be kind.” Through the study of Aesthetic Realism, that is possible at last.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Contempt and World War I

By Eli Siegel

I have said that that which causes insanity—contempt—is also the cause of war, including the two world wars and the butchery or killing going on right now. If man had not such a desire to have contempt, he couldn’t shoot at another person: he simply would not have gotten himself into that situation. The having of contempt deep down enables a person to kill another. Of course, some persons do object, but most have not objected—and also, they do not see how they are led into it.

As I talk about this most awful and ugliest thing in the human mind, I will use history to give substance to what I’m saying. In March 1922, a long time ago, I asked in an essay, What would make an American bookkeeper want to kill a German bookkeeper?—which did occur in 1917 and 1918. The cause happens to be disrespect for what is other than oneself, which is shared by one’s rulers.

I’ll read first a poem about war that is a good poem, though I think it leaves out something. Vachel Lindsay wrote “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight in Springfield, Illinois” as the war in Europe in 1914 was showing itself. It begins:

It is portentous, and a thing of state

That here at midnight, in our little town,

A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,

Near the old court-house pacing up and down.

·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   

A bronzed lank man! His suit of ancient black,

A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl,

Make his the quaint great figure that men love,

The prairie lawyer, master of us all.


He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.

He is among us—as in times before!

And we who toss and lie awake for long

Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.


His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.

Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?...

They Didn’t Know

That there was something evil going on in 1914 is quite clear. But I also think that the Abraham Lincoln of Lindsay, like Bertrand Russell, like Lenin, like everyone, had a feeling there was something he didn’t know. And I don’t think that Lincoln could have explained just how people from Virginia would want to kill people from Pennsylvania, fairly near.

“It is portentous.” The most portentous thing in the field right now is that two kinds of Semites, the Arab Semite and the Hebrew Semite, still think it right to see themselves as enemies. That, at the moment, is the largest showing of war. And we should ask, What is the beginning cause? Is the beginning cause contempt as a cherished thing in the human mind? It is cherished in Tel Aviv, as it is in Damascus, as it is in Cairo, as it is in Johannesburg, as it is in Oslo.

“A mourning figure walks, and will not rest.” Abraham Lincoln is looking for the same thing that the two soldiers in the deepest poem of World War I, Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” were looking for. They were asking, What made me want to kill you, and you want to kill me—what was the cause, the beginning of it? I wish that one of them had said, “It seems that sixty years from now or so, someone is going to say the cause is the contempt we both had.”

Later in the Lindsay poem there is the line “It breaks his heart that kings must murder still.” The question is, is just that the cause: you’re at it again, kings—you regal boys are at it again? —And at that time the rulers weren’t entirely kings. France was definitely a republic. And England didn’t see itself as having been gotten into a war by the rather ineffectual King George V: it was Viscount Grey, if anybody, and a little later there was David Lloyd George.

Lindsay does not make it clear that the chief reason for Lincoln’s being restless in the poem is that he is puzzled. You can pace, walk across a room, or around the block, and the reason may be something like anger—but also that you don’t know what to do, and you don’t know why you do what you do.

The Big Question

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.

He is among us—as in times before!

And we who toss and lie awake for long

Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

So Abraham Lincoln has arisen from his tomb and is walking about Springfield. If any question should disturb the dead, should disturb those who may have headstones accompanying them, it should be this question of what is contempt and what can it do? I can’t think of the dead being busier more usefully about any other question.

“And we who toss and lie awake for long.” Many people, at the time of the Spanish Civil War, lay awake because of a person who recently died: Franco, and what he was doing in Spain. It was one of the most hideous things. It kept people awake, and they ran out to get the midnight edition at that time. “What’s going to happen near Teruel?” “What’s going to happen by the Ebro?” “What kind of bombing will Madrid endure?” “What’s going to happen in Barcelona?” “What’s going to happen in Bilbao?”

At last Franco is useful: glory be for the cleansing power of the mortuary and death! The only thing that could clean Franco has occurred to him. If he could have been cleansed in life it would have been lovely. But he wasn’t cleansed in life. He went almost to his last day, with all his diseases, cruel as ever. Not one word, from the generalissimo, of repentance. The one thing that Abraham Lincoln and Francisco Franco have in common is, they’re both dead. The great difference is that Franco deserved to die earlier.

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.

Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?

Too many peasants fight, they know not why;

Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

Well, it’s good to be able to say that this is poetry, which it is. Lincoln’s “head is bowed,” but the question is: is his thought clear enough? It’s the easiest thing in the world to object to war. It’s the hardest thing to say clearly why it had to be, it seems, for perhaps 4,000 years now, if not more.

Lindsay calls the world “sick.” And sick can have two main meanings. One is, having a purpose which is not a true purpose. The other meaning is that the world is not an integrity, or a composition: the parts of it, phases of it, aspects of it work against each other. The world has been called sick often. It’s called sick by Donne pretty often in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and in his sermons, and the meaning is that the thing that’s running the world is not the right thing. What is that thing running it? According to Aesthetic Realism, the thing that’s been running it is the tremendous power of all the individual contempt taken together as one major sociological, economic, or political thing. It’s contempt made large. Now, a statement like that should be looked at and looked at, evaluated, appraised, and analyzed.

“The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.” It has to be asked whether even from the beginning—even with Ashurbanipal or Tiglath-Pileser or Alexander the Great—if the warlords hadn’t had accompaniment in the plain soldier, they would have been able to do what they did. If there hadn’t been a desire to be commanded, to be told what to do, in the customary person, the average person, would the warlords of any century have been successful? How much do the people agree with the warlords, and in what way?

“He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now / The bitterness, the folly and the pain.” We have, then, two segments of humanity dealt with: one, warlords; and the other implied in “The bitterness, the folly and the pain,” as if people participated in the cause, not just warlords, which is quite true.

Today there’s not a warlord in sight. Even Moshe Dayan, in Israel, is not a warlord, and I don’t think Sadat is a warlord. As far as I know, there’s no great warlord in Syria or Lebanon. But something has occurred, and right now the people of Tel Aviv are nervous. They go to sleep with misgiving. Life goes on but there is a questioning, How did we get ourselves into this?—as there is in Damascus, as there is in Cairo. To paraphrase the “St. Louis Blues”: “Take me to Cairo, and I’ll see somebody like myself. Take me to Cairo, and I’ll see somebody like myself.” That fact ought to be seen more in Tel Aviv.

What Is against Justice?

“He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn / Shall come—the shining hope of Europe free.” I agree with Lindsay: Europe should be free. But freedom is under the skin and miles away from one’s skin. Freedom is everywhere.

“The league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth, / Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.” There is the giving of a reason—that the worker has not got justice. That’s quite true: the worker has not got justice. But it can be said that no person has gotten justice, with contempt running people.

“It breaks his heart that kings must murder still.” Again, the cause as being only in kings, I think is inaccurate. Others would not have followed kings so well if they hadn’t agreed with them. We can see that uncertainty in, say, Falstaff’s uncertainty in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2; also, the uncertainty of the soldiers in Henry V. But that there was a desire to have contempt for a person like a Frenchman at Agincourt is quite clear. And Shakespeare often expresses it.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,

That all his hours of travail here for men

Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace

That he may sleep upon his hill again?

This question is with us in November 1975: Will peace come to the world unless contempt is understood? And is contempt changed into anger, and anger changed into contempt, the thing that keeps the warfare in the Middle East going?