The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Egypt, the Economy, & Our Deepest Desire

Dear Unknown Friends:

The 1971 lecture by Eli Siegel that we are serializing—Shame Is in How You Do Things—is about ourselves right now: world happenings and people’s feelings today.

In the previous issue I spoke about the meaning of the momentous protests that were taking place in Egypt. As I write this now, they have been successful and people throughout the world are celebrating. Dictator Hosni Mubarak (funded by US administrations for decades) has been forced to leave.

Mubarak gave speeches saying he would certainly not go. He and his government sent goon squads into Tahrir Square to teargas, beat up, and try to terrify and stop the demonstrators. He arrested and tortured people. But the demonstrators were joined by organized labor: workers in major Egyptian cities hit the streets, making it clear they could stop the functioning of the nation’s entire economy, including the Suez Canal, if Mubarak did not go. And on February 11 (with, it seems, intense encouragement by the military), he departed.

As I wrote in TRO 1790, what the Egyptian revolution is about is also the biggest matter in every country, including ours: to whom does a nation, both its governance and its wealth, belong? We do not know what will happen now in Egypt: will the people be able to own the earth, the resources, the riches of that ancient and contemporary land? Until they do, they’ll never be satisfied.

But for now, it is good to use Hosni Mubarak as a metaphor. His adamant but ineffectual stand can be a symbol. His situation is emblematic of something Eli Siegel described beginning in 1970. That is: Mubarak is like the profit system, that economic way which, after being in the world for centuries, is no longer tenable, no longer works, yet is trying to hang on.

Its Time Is Over

The profit motive was always ugly: it is the seeing of other human beings, not in terms of who they are and what they deserve, but in terms of how much profit can I get out of you? By the last decades of the 20th century, Mr. Siegel explained, this motive as the basis of an economy was—along with being unethical and cruel—also inefficient. Its inefficiency is with us now. Thousands of American businesses are gone. Millions of Americans are jobless. Those who work are paid less and less. We’re living what Mr. Siegel described in the 1970s:

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.

—It’s important to note that what must replace the profit motive is not some “foreign” economic way Americans fear, but American good will: seeing people in terms of justice, not profit.

The profit system is like Hosni Mubarak. It, or really the persons whose sense of self-supremacy is tied up with it, do not want to see that its time is over. They are too used to feeling they run the world. The for-profit ones will use all kinds of financial tricks to keep economic ill will grinding on. And they’ll act ever so smug and sure of themselves, as Mubarak did until he hightailed it out of Cairo.

The Opposition

The opposition to profit economics is larger, more inclusive, though perhaps less immediately seeable than the protests in Tahrir Square. It is a protest within the feelings, minds, very beings of millions of people in workplaces and homes: the feeling throughout America and Europe and the world that they’re being rooked and deserve something better. The opposition to economics based on using human lives for profit is, Mr. Siegel explained, reality itself. It is, for example, the fact that the world has reached a certain point in its history when “there is more competition with the American product.” Because many other countries are able to produce well, profit-making is much more difficult, and in many instances impossible. The world is no longer a market in which US companies have a monopoly. The protest against profit economics is not a matter of barricades, banners, shouts: it is a matter of history as ethical force, inescapable in that Tahrir Square which is reality.

On television and the Internet, people throughout the world saw the scorn emanating from Mubarak—scorn that is also conceit’s uncomprehendingness. What we saw as Mubarak spoke was: “I’ve run something for so long, I’ve felt superior for so long—the idea that I have to stop looking down on people and using them for my own aggrandizement is ridiculous! It will never happen!” Mubarak stands for contempt, and contempt thinks it can go on forever.

Contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the feeling I am more through lessening what’s not me. It is a way of mind within every person, and is the most hurtful thing in the human self. In each of us, contempt is at war with our desire to like the world honestly, see its value, have good will. Contempt is ordinary: it can be a little boy’s bossing his sister around and feeling like a big shot because he can. But it’s also the ugliest thing in the world. Hosni Mubarak represents contempt gone very far: feeling he could push 80 million people around and use torture, murder, and US backing to do so.

The profit motive is contempt too: the seeing of earth and persons in terms of one’s monetary advantage. And as I said, we’re at a time when economics based on it has been acting out what Mubarak embodied: “It seems my days are numbered, but I’ll never go.” For it to stay a while longer, people have to become poorer and poorer, and even so it will never flourish again; it will never revive.

Before I leave the subject of Mubarak as metaphor, this has to be said: He is not only a metaphor for profit economics—he and others like him have literally been a means of keeping the profit system going. Mubarak was not only feathering his personal nest: he could be relied on to try to keep businesses, including US businesses, profitable through impoverishing and oppressing the Egyptian people.

What Do We Truly Want?

In the lecture we’re serializing, Eli Siegel discusses an article from Fortune magazine. Its author, Max Ways, says that Americans feel profound displeasure about every phase of economic life; our “public policies” have failed, and there is “disillusionment,” a “crisis of confidence.” The reason, Ways says, is that our knowledge is inadequate. The article is not very clear, and Mr. Siegel points out that we have to know what it is that the people of a nation truly want, and have economic policies based on that.

“The way to judge an economic system,” he explained in another lecture, “is whether it satisfies the true wants of people as well as might be.” He said that “an effective economic system” would have as its purpose “to understand what man really wants and to meet it.” For thousands of years there has been an economic way that encourages people to beat out others. It has now failed. People will be more ready to welcome that failure as they see what they want.

Aesthetic Realism explains that the deepest desire of every person is to like, respect, and add to the world—not conquer it. Evidence for this fact is in the literature of every nation. But for now I’ll quote from an Egyptian poem of about 4,000 years ago. These are lines from “Adoration of the Disk,” as translated by Robert Hillyer. The poem is addressed to the God Ra, the Sun. And the writer says that when dawn comes, the creatures and things of the earth show their happy love:

The cattle roam again across the fields;

Birds flutter in the marsh, and lift their wings

Also in adoration, and the flocks

Run with delight through all the pleasant meadows.


Both north and south along the dazzling river

Ships raise their sails and take their course before thee;

And in the ocean, all the deep-sea fish

Swim to the surface to drink in thy light.


For thou art all that lives, the seed of men,

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

The chick within the egg, whose breath is thine,

Who runneth from its shell, chirping its joy,

And dancing on its small, unsteady legs

To greet the splendor of the rising sun.

This poem is beautiful. It is alive. It has, in both its statements and music, the oneness of reality’s opposites: stir and quiet, agogness and composure, personal feeling and the Grand Impersonal, the diminutive chick and the mighty Ra. The world this poem is about should not be the possession of a few people, and a field for the suffering of others. Poetry and the Egyptian revolution both say: the world is something everyone has a right to greet and love as one’s own.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Knowledge & What We Want

By Eli Siegel

Note. The article Mr. Siegel is discussing—“Don’t We Know Enough to Make Better Public Policies?”—is from the April 1971 issue of Fortune.

There is this sentence of Max Ways: “Any new need for knowledge, any field of ignorance of which we are made aware, may prove...difficult to overcome.”

Since the phrase “need for knowledge” is used, we come to this: is there such a subject of knowledge as What does a person want? In lessons, I’ve tried to have people see there is such a subject. People do want something, though it isn’t as clear as could be. And is there such a thing, then, as what a nation wants, or a world wants, or what many people want? Yes. The study of love and the study of government are both a study of what people want.

In this article, Ways makes too much of a difference between knowledge and desire, or knowledge and what one wants. A reason people have found Aesthetic Realism useful is that they have come nearer to seeing what they want.

One definition of shame is: doing that which doesn’t go along with your desire, or what you want, and feeling that it doesn’t. What you want is your personal way of seeing that the world has something beautiful in it which is for you. And you’re false to that if you don’t know what you want.

Economic Terms & Desire

For a generation the U.S. has been struggling to shape national policies toward the linked objectives of growth, full employment, and a stable price level.

All these terms have to do with desire. The purpose of government is to understand the desire of many people and to meet it. The purpose of a “national policy” is to satisfy the people in that nation, to please the persons in a certain part of the world.

“The linked objectives of growth...”: a growth, unless it pleases people, can be questioned. For a person to read about an increase in gross national product knowing he doesn’t feel so good anyway, is not absolutely gratifying. He would like this growth to take a form quite close to him, as near as possible to his nose. “Growth, full employment, and a stable price level”— these are general terms. A person can be satisfied a little in saying, “I have the greatest country in the world,” but if the greatest country in the world doesn’t provide a few samples that can touch his chin, he isn’t pleased.

Do all economic terms have to do with desires? Economic terms are very often terms that have liveliness, like demand: it is a term next to desire. If you have a desire, you can surmise or be silent, but you can also request or demand. The word consumption also is a pretty living term. People want a world which they can proudly consume, and also which proudly—if not consumes them—proudly has them. But do all these terms—“growth,” “full employment,” “a stable price level”—have something to do with human desire? Desire and what one wants are quite the same thing. Desire is feeling going for something, or feeling as a cause.

Matthew Arnold defined culture as the knowing of “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” This really comes to the desire to see reality as beautiful, because you want to know what has been said and thought that is best in order to see the world as beautiful. The greatest desire of every person is to see the world as beautiful without fooling oneself. And if economics went right, or politics went right, or government went right, it would help one do so. As it is, people get a great glory in thinking that the most important persons make things messy. The greatest sustenance of bad government is the pleasure of contempt that the sufferers get. If they didn’t have this pleasure of thinking that the world was badly run, there would be more authentic criticism, more effective criticism.

There is anger too. And it happens that the anger has been more, in proportion to contempt, than it used to be—because people sixty years ago would stand for anything as long as they could make fun of their rulers.

Ways Asks Why Economics Has Failed

Last year saw a high rate of inflation, a high rate of unemployment, and no growth—a combination that had been considered improbable under almost any set of policies....Should we conclude that economics...has learned nothing in these areas where it has concentrated so large a part of its recent effort?

There, again, the relation of economics to desire, including unconscious desire, has not been thought of. The purpose of politics, the purpose of history, is to understand desire, including unconscious desire, and meet it. Aesthetic Realism says the greatest unconscious desire is to like the reality that is you and not you. The purpose of economics and government and history is to meet that desire—and this means the desire of every being that lives. The one thing all people have in common is the desire to see reality as being as honestly beautiful as possible, or as honestly likable.

Is Reality Something We’re Impelled to Like?

The difficulty lies at the root of economic science—and, by analogy, at the root of any science when it is applied to the world of raw and total phenomena.

These “raw and total phenomena”—they can either satisfy human beings or they can’t. Reality is the only thing that has a chance of satisfying you or, for that matter, of dissatisfying you. The question, then, is whether, if reality doesn’t satisfy you, it is because it hasn’t yet been presented in the best way and you haven’t seen it in the best way.

It’s a little bit like the problem of poetry. I take it every human being is just wild about poetry. He can say he never reads it or never wants to remember it: that doesn’t mean a damn to me. I take it his unconscious is wild about it. The unconscious, in other words, takes a long time getting to. It’s deeper than the Grand Canyon and you may have to walk some miles before you get there. Still, for a person to say he doesn’t like poetry, Aesthetic Realism sees as equivalent to saying he doesn’t like reality. It is impossible; it is a missing of what is around you or what you are looking at. What a person can say is anything, but the truth still may be completely different.


Adam Smith understood quite well that man was not a simple mechanism motivated solely by the desire to maximize his material self-interest.

That may be. But to say that man does not have a desire to see what he’s interested in completely, which is the same as complete self-interest, would not be true. The reason that the world is interesting to man is that he’s interested in himself. The reason we are interested in the moon is that we are interested in ourselves. The reason we are interested in German history of the18th century is that we are interested in ourselves. Our selves are our possibilities.

But by proceeding as if economic man, a fictional construct in Smith’s head, represented actual flesh-and-blood men, Smith was able to found the science of economics. Without the gross over-simplification on which it is based, economics...could hardly have got off the ground.

Economics is like a rose. A rose is a botanical exemplification. It has a structure; you can have a diagram for it. But at the same time, it is a means of meeting a desire. Every object is. Every object is both desire and fact, because every object can meet a desire. Economics is like that. Economics is interesting to man because his desire is there. And we need to see reality as the one means of satisfying desire, which it is. There is no other way—because as soon as you think something unreal is satisfying desire, the unreal is simply an employment of the real by your own inventiveness.

In discussing this essay, I wasn’t very eulogistic. I cannot be, because I don’t think the problem is stated truly there. But it’s still very valuable to see the feeling which is presented in it: that man is ashamed of something in America. —Now I’ll take up something different.