The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Education and Friendship

Dear Unknown Friends:

This issue of TRO is about two tremendous subjects: education and friendship. We are serializing Eli Siegel's great 1973 lecture Educational Method Is Poetic. And we print part of a paper by composer Edward Green, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month titled "What Does It Mean to Be a Real Friend?" Though of course education and friendship have been concurrent—that is, friendships go on at school—the two matters have seemed hugely different. Learning has seemed another world than social life—even if the social life is whispered conversations in a classroom. And a young man and woman can flirt in a college library, but each feels the mind engaged in flirting is different from the mind that was just concerned with a book. 

     People have severed education and friendship in various ways. My way was to think that going after scholastic knowledge mattered, but that people were much less interesting than, for example, the study of English literature—and much less high class. In college and graduate school I was definitely interested in men; but I didn't think I needed to understand a man as I needed to understand a literary work. It is Aesthetic Realism alone that shows one does: Aesthetic Realism shows that friendship, romantic or otherwise, has to be scholarship in the largest sense. It has to be a tremendous desire to comprehend a person; and because it usually is not, there is pain connected with "friendship" and agony accompanying "love." 

     I love Aesthetic Realism for teaching me this. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel once told me, critically, that it is more difficult to understand a man than the complete works of Shakespeare. I was like other people: I wanted friendship and love while having a deep contempt for what another human being is. People see people mainly in terms of oneself—does this person approve of me, make me important; and that, in its everyday way, even cozy way, is contempt. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else," and identified it as the source of all cruelty and of mental weakness. 

     And Aesthetic Realism is that in the history of thought which not only explains the purpose of education, and the purpose of friendship and love, but shows their purpose is the same! The purpose of both is to like the world. Aesthetic Realism shows that the structure of that world which we were born to like and which can so confuse us is in every aspect of every subject of the curriculum; and it is also in a person we might talk with over coffee, or embrace. That fact is outlined in the following Aesthetic Realism principle: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." 

They Have the Same Opposites

Let us take a subject studied in history classes—the American Declaration of Independence—and a friend. If we see both truly we will see reality's opposites alive in them—the same opposites. 

The Declaration of Independence of 1776 is a terrific oneness of anger and caring. It is fury at how the 13 colonies were dealt with by England; and deep, propelling care for people and truth. And the friend I am thinking of, like a friend you might think of, wants anger and care to be one in himself: he longs to feel that if he's intensely against something it's not for some narrow reason, but comes from a love for what's just. 

The Declaration of Independence is a oneness of freedom and accuracy or logic. Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the others wanted to be exceedingly careful; and their document presents the solid logic for what they are doing. To show their reasonableness, "let Facts," they say, "be submitted to a candid world"; and they present those facts. But what all that orderly, careful logic is in behalf of is Independence, Freedom! A friend of yours or mine has these opposites too: he wants to be exact, and he wants to let go, be free. He's true to himself—he's beautiful—when he puts them together: when he is exuberantly, boundingly fair. But like us, he has pain because sometimes he sees freedom as separate from exactitude: he can go after the "freedom" of not thinking carefully about what other things deserve. Meanwhile: whether joined well or ill, the opposites in a great American document are the very fiber of who this friend is. 

We hear the oneness of pride and humility all through the Declaration of Independence. They are simultaneous in the final sentence, with its sense of self-assertion and need, of self-worth and self-abnegation: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." And there is nothing more important in the life of a friend of yours or mine than to be able to have pride that is also humble, humility that is proud. 

I love Mr. Siegel for showing that to be a friend is to want to understand how the aesthetic structure of the world is in a person, and to encourage that person to like the world. 

Culture and Warmth

Aesthetic Realism shows that education, learning, knowledge, is warm; and that the authentic seeing of another self is a cultural matter—has tremendous dignity. And that is what Eli Siegel showed in his own person. I know of no greater scholar, of any time; and whatever the subject he spoke on in his classes, you felt it had to do with your very self; it was throbbingly alive and close to you. Then, as Mr. Siegel spoke to a person—spoke to you about yourself—you saw a person's life, yours, related to and explained by history, art, principles true about all reality. 

     Aesthetic Realism provides the teaching method that magnificently succeeds—this has been documented year after year by New York City teachers who use it. And Aesthetic Realism is itself the greatest, kindest, most beautiful education. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Education Is the Opposites

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing statements about education in The Shorter Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, ed. C. Morley (NY, 1953).

Then, a sentence by Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago: "We do not know what education could do for us, because we have never tried it." Well, that is taking. In a way it's true, because the full meaning of education, with its oneness of the utmost in emotion and the utmost in structure, has never been tried. 

A person who has talked a great deal about education and science is James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard. What he says is important, because there are two aspects of education; if you want, three: Education makes for responsibilities. Education also makes for abilities. Then, education also — and this is the least accented part — puts you in a position to see the world and like it because you see it. That has not been accented. 

Education gives you the ability to rule men. It makes for responsibility. It will make you a foreman quicker than other people, or superintendent, or vice-president. For the most part, the people who run business are people who have taken business courses, not persons who went with their father to the one-story shop and learned about machinery there. Conant says: 

The primary concern of American education today is ... to cultivate in the largest number of our future citizens an appreciation both of the responsibilities and the benefits which come to them because they are American and free. [P. 83]

Had I talked longer about Africa on Sunday, I would have presented many instances of the uprising of education in Africa. Never was there such an uprising. The Congo seems largely like an academy. Anyway, Conant in this sentence is somewhat parochial. The purpose of education is to get as wide a sense as possible of the world and as precise a sense. 

There is the word cultivate in Conant's sentence. Again and again, education has been compared to the cultivation of wheat, or of carnations. To cultivate something that grows is like cultivating a person; and the word cultivated is related to culture. The two words about culture which Swift used, and Matthew Arnold used, saying that it makes you kinder and also makes you clearer, are "sweetness and light." It makes you like the world, and also clearer. Those are still very valid. And I think if they were taken more seriously by the educational system of New York City, we'd have less suffering. There's more suffering right now in the schools of New York than there has ever been. 

Going on with this sentence of Conant: the word appreciation, as I've pointed out, is, on the one hand, enjoyment, and on the other, true value. You appreciate a diamond when you see how valuable it is and how much it can fetch. Appreciation has in it both calculation and joy. 

"The responsibilities and the benefits." When you are educated, you know what it is you owe to your city, to your country, to the world: that's responsibility. You also know what benefits you can get. Here again, we have opposites. 

But the thing that Conant doesn't mention is that education is a means of liking the world. That is the chief thing that Aesthetic Realism says: that if you are educated, you are in a better position to like the world than if you're not. Mark Tapley, in Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit, because he's exuberant, with optimism and the ability to bear things, is a character hardly believable — he's always cheerful. And he's cheerful because of his corpuscles, not because of what he knows. But most people don't have such fortunate corpuscles. 

Click here to continue reading lecture.

What Is a Real Friend?

By Edward Green

For many years I wanted to think my trouble about friendship came from other people—from their not appreciating me enough. Aesthetic Realism enabled me to be more honest: the truth was, I didn't like people enough to be interested in their lives. I also didn't like needing people and being grateful to them; I wanted them to be grateful to me. 

It was in 1972, when in my senior year of college and hoping for a life as a composer, that I began to study Aesthetic Realism in consultations and learned I had two motives with people: to respect them and to have contempt for them. I felt very relieved. I felt: At last—I can make the right choices, and really respect myself for how I am with people! 

The mistake I had made early in my life was very common: I had equated approval from people with warmth. So when students and teachers I met in school were not as praising of me as my family had been, I thought that they were mean and that I was in an unjust world: one that deprived me of the importance that was my right, a world that wanted to cut me down. I remember vividly how pleased I was at age 8 when, after I'd complained that no one at summer camp wanted to be my friend, my mother told me I had to be "big" about it and realize how jealous other people were of my superior intelligence and talent. 

This was advice I did not need. On my own, I already felt I was the most interesting person I knew. Instead of wanting to know what the other boys at camp felt about things, I would talk constantly about myself and what interested me. Later, at college, I did the same thing; and it is understandable that my freshman roommates requested a transfer away from me. 

When I began to study Aesthetic Realism in classes with Eli Siegel, he saw how troubled I was about the way I saw people; and he showed me how I could change and like myself. One instance was in a class in 1975. Mr. Siegel was speaking about important matters in the life of another person present, but as the discussion went on I grew very impatient. "Mr. Siegel," I said, raising my hand to get his attention, "I want to ask a question about myself." 

With critical humor, he said, "Why don't you ask a question about the Duke of Wellington instead?"—and I was so surprised when I realized that spontaneously I had joined in the general laughter about this! Mr. Siegel continued: "The first question for you, Mr. Green, is whether your way of seeing helps you to be as good as possible or hurts you. Do you think you are competitive?" 

"I am," I said. "Does trying to be better than another person help you be all you can be," he asked, "or less than you might be? Do you believe you should try to know all you can about the world—or do you want to show other people that you know more than they do?" When I hesitated, he said: "Your job, Ed Green, is to be as good as you can be and not at war with others. Stick to that." 

What Mr. Siegel was teaching me is one of the fundamental ideas of Aesthetic Realism: that a person can look good in his own eyes only when he has good will. "Good will," he writes, "can be described as the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121). My study of Aesthetic Realism these years has enabled me to know what good will is and increasingly to have it. 

One of the results is something I am grateful for with all my heart—my happy and exciting marriage to Carrie Wilson. I once thought the way to get a woman to like me was through praising her, and soothing her when she was agitated. This was contempt for the ethical depths of women; and every woman I knew, in one way or another, objected to me because of it. They felt I patronized them and would rather give them advice than listen deeply to them. 

Aesthetic Realism taught me a better way—one that every man is longing for: to be a friend to a woman by using my thought to see honestly how to encourage her and also how to have her know and change the things in her that weaken her. And love is also welcoming a woman's criticism. It is pleasure in learning from her and in being made stronger by her, as I am so grateful to be by Carrie Wilson. Aesthetic Realism makes it plain: good will for another person is the greatest pleasure in the world, and also the source of self-respect!