|NUMBER 1667.—May 31, 2006||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we continue our serialization of the 1972 lecture Good Will Is in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. He speaks about the economist Adam Smith and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and shows, amazingly, that they have something fundamental in common. He says:
The thing that unites the two is what I have to call good will—I'm always sorry to, because it sounds so pleasant and comfy that the subtlety of the term is left out.
Mr. Siegel has defined good will as "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121).
At the point we have reached, he is discussing Smith's The Wealth of Nations. And he shows that this person, so often presented as the classical theorist for capitalism, is really saying something much larger than, and quite different from, what is put forth by those who picture themselves Smith's ideological heirs. What the lecture makes clear is this: as Smith describes how economics works, he is describing, with vividness and in great prose, an elemental structure of good will.
For example: economics is based on the fact that the needs of one person will be met by another—that someone somewhere is making a garment, or writing a book, or harvesting wheat, which will strengthen someone else; and the someone else is doing work which in turn is needed by and strengthening to another person. Smith, Mr. Siegel shows, makes immediate and tangible this primal mechanism of good will, without which economics itself cannot go on. As he quotes Smith describing other aspects of economics too, from the division of labor to the coming to be of money, we see that they are, in various ways, mechanical good will.
The Meaning of Labor
In the present section, Mr. Siegel points to "the passage that has the most good will." It consists of four paragraphs, early in the book, about labor. And he is the critic to show the real significance of those paragraphs of Smith. Meanwhile, Mr. Siegel himself has spoken and written definitively about labor. For example, in a 1970 lecture he said:
The most important thing in industry is the person who does the industry, which is the worker. That is still true. It never can change. Labor is the only source of wealth. There is no other source, except land, the raw material. The other sources are decorations. I said this ever so many years ago, and it's still true. Every bit of capital that exists was made by labor, just as everything that is consumed is.
We see Adam Smith affirming this statement.
What is it that has interfered, brutally and sickeningly, with good will, all through history and now? Why has the good will implicit within the structure of economics not been continued as people deal with each other financially, buy and sell, think of what oneself can get from another's labor? Why have the persons who have done the work, who are "the only source of wealth," been robbed through the centuries; why have they had so little?
Eli Siegel answered these questions, and said what has not been said by any other economist. The answer is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: "The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt."
Contempt is the thing which has made for the injustice, cruelty, coldheartedness in every aspect of human life. Economics arises from people, and what is hurtful in self has made economics hurtful. The unstated but driving feeling, "I'm more if I can lessen you," yesterday impelled a husband and wife to belittle each other sneeringly across a breakfast table so that each felt later, with a kind of aching dullness, "What's happened to us and the love we once had?" Contempt is in a wife's thinking of her husband not as a full person in his own right, not as part of the whole large world, but as someone who exists to make her happy, who is essentially owned by her. And contempt is in a husband's seeing his wife that way.
The same contempt has made economics a field for selfishness and agony. Let us take a poem Mr. Siegel mentions here: Shelley's "Song to the Men of England," of 1819. It begins:
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Shelley saw that there was something deeply insane in the economy of England. People were wearing out their lives producing wealth—food, clothing, and other good things—which benefited the "privileged" but not themselves. He asks the people of England, "Have ye leisure, comfort, calm, / Shelter, food...?" The answer was no. And he says the English workers have been monumentally swindled:
The seed ye sow, another reaps:
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells;
In halls ye deck, another dwells.
The cause is contempt. In economics as in love, it is contempt that has a person see another not as a full human being with feelings real as one's own, not as somebody to be fair to, but as a creature existing to provide profit for oneself. It is contempt that has had people feel it's tolerable for some persons to be very poor and others very rich, even though there's enough for everybody to live with dignity and ease. It is contempt that has had people think about the world not as something to understand and value, but as consisting of things to grab.
Adam Smith knew a great deal, but he did not know what contempt was and how it worked. Neither, it can be said, did Shelley. In the following great statement from his James and the Children, Eli Siegel describes what has made people cruel to each other; and the cruelty includes that of profit economics for centuries:
As soon as you have contempt, as soon as 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.
The continuous fight within every person is between contempt and good will. That is what people now need to know about, for personal life to fare well and for economics to be sane.
A New Era
In 1970, Eli Siegel began his "Goodbye Profit System" series of lectures. He explained that we are in a new era in economic history: it has become, and will continue to be, increasingly difficult for business owners to reap large profits using other people's labor for the owners' personal advantage. Also increasingly, people resent being seen in terms of money, in terms of how much revenue they can provide for someone else. The difficulty about profits, and the resentment, will not end—in fact, they will intensify—until justice, not profit, impels the economic activities of the world. He wrote:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
This is our present situation. People have had to be made poorer and poorer in order for that completely unnecessary and immoral thing, economics based on seeing humans in terms of money, just to keep going at all.
An article in the New York Times (May 8) contains some vivid descriptions of the American economy today. It is about how easily people who do not see themselves as poor can suddenly become poor. Here are several sentences:
Tens of millions are living on even shakier ground than before, according to studies of what some scholars call the "near poor."... Indicators—a climbing poverty rate and rising levels of family debt—suggest a deepening insecurity....About 37 million Americans lived below the federal poverty line in 2004.
...Recipients [of charity—donated food] include many families...[with] both parents working minimum—wage jobs.
There is a description of a woman, representative of many, who
lost all her teeth and could not afford to replace them. "Since I didn't have a smile," she recalled, "I couldn't even work at a checkout counter."
That people who work hard should have to go to food pantries and be unable to afford healthcare! An economy having this, while wealth and goods and services abound, will be looked upon in future years as plainly evil and insane. Yet the reason more and more people are in such a situation is: they must be sacrificed if profits are to come to those who didn't do the work. The answer, Mr. Siegel has explained, is not in "the rival system." It is in taking with real seriousness the good will Adam Smith presents as the very foundation of all economics.
In another of his lectures, Mr. Siegel composed a couplet which stands for some of that good will. I think it is beautiful as poetry, with its snap and resonant width, its no—nonsense and its longing:
We do the work, we run the show:
A just God would never say no.
There Is Warmth
In their Economics Explained (1987), Robert Heilbroner and Lester Thurow call The Wealth of Nations "[Smith's] masterpiece, which everyone has heard of and almost no one has read." Eli Siegel makes this masterpiece no longer seem forbidding. He shows not only the grandeur of Smith, but his warmth, liveliness, excitement. It is clear that, with all Mr. Siegel might criticize, he loves the book. And through his lecture the real kindness of Smith comes to light and life at last.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
About Labor & People
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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