The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

For Education to Fulfill Its Purpose

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 9 of the great 1973 lecture Educational Method Is Poetic, by Eli Siegel. He is the educator who has explained what the purpose of education is: “to like the world through knowing it.” Because this purpose has not been consciously seen and pursued, and because the way to achieve it has not been known, and because the opposition to it in the human self has not been understood—education these centuries has not enabled people to like the world in the deepest sense. It has not stopped people from being cruel. That is why the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism is necessary for education to fulfill its purpose. In this issue I comment on the fact that for cruelty to end, humanity needs to learn from Aesthetic Realism about contempt.

A means to see this is a document that came my way recently. It concerns a tremendous form of human cruelty: slavery. But first I quote the principle in which Mr. Siegel describes contempt—that thing in self which he identified as the source of all injustice: “The greatest danger or temptation of man,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.”

The document I refer to was printed in an 1861 newspaper. Someone of then cut it out, and the clipping was placed inside a book and saved there. Then several days ago, in my neighborhood where many homes are over 150 years old, someone threw out that book along with others. My friend Timothy Lynch found them, and so I read recently, on yellowed and crumbling newsprint, the “Address to the People of Maryland” by Governor Thomas H. Hicks, January 3, 1861. (The name of the newspaper does not appear on the part of the page I have, but the place of publication does: Frederick, Maryland — the city Whittier would write of two years later in his poem “Barbara Frietchie.”)

What Mr. Hicks Address tells of is why he kept Maryland from seceding from the Union. After the election of Abraham Lincoln, 7 Southern states proclaimed themselves no longer of this nation; and then various Maryland state senators asked the governor to convene a special session of the legislature at which they could vote to secede too. Hicks refused. In the Address he gives his reasons. A Maryland on the side of the South would, he says, because of its proximity to the Capital, “inevitably become the chosen battle the event of civil war.” There would be, he writes, “loss of life,... ruinous depreciation of property”; and he continues:

As a border Slaveholding State she would especially suffer in the utter destruction of a cherished domestic institution with which all our sympathies are firmly united.

The “cherished institution” is slavery; and that is why I am commenting on this document. Mr. Hicks soon says more about it.

What Can We Cherish?

We know that slavery in all its horrors was loved by the South. But this governor’s words to his fellow citizens, which I am looking at in the same ink in which they read them in January 1861, can help make vivid what contempt is. So I quote two statements by Eli Siegel about contempt. They are the means of understanding how polite people, “nice” people, women who cradled babies in their arms, men ready to do favors for other men, not only didn’t object to the ownership of human beings but “cherished” it, had their “sympathies...firmly united” with it. The first statement is from Self and World:

The fact that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form. [P. 3]

The second statement by Mr. Siegel is from James and the Children:

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. [P. 55]

"The Fulness That You Have"

Hour after hour, people do not see other people as “having the fulness that [they] have.” One’s own feelings matter sharply; if one thinks of another person as having feelings at all, those feelings seem vague, far off, rather academic. How ordinary this is; but it is the beginning of giving oneself the right to do anything one wants to a person—for isn’t he less real than oneself? To give a person the same reality we give ourselves is very difficult; but we should hope to. I have learned from Aesthetic Realism that we should have a passionate worry, “I don’t see that person as having the fulness I have! This is terrible! I want to do all I can to remedy it!”; otherwise, under the proper circumstances, we will be capable of brutality.

The robbing a person of his fulness and the seeing him “in a way that seem[s] to go with comfort” are together. A woman, for instance, can see a man very much in terms of comfort—what nice things he will do for her, how important he will make her. She is not interested in who the man deeply is, what he feels about things other than her; she is interested in whether he honors her sufficiently. She can decorate this selfish interest and call it love, just as a Southern governor could call slavery a “cherished institution.

The owning of human beings definitely “seemed to go with comfort.” It was profitable. And it enabled a Southern lady to be served as she wanted to be. Similarly, the wife of a New England factory owner liked the fact that children worked in that factory, because she could buy such pretty things with the profits from their labor. 

As Governor Hicks Address goes on, he assures Marylanders of his love for slavery:

I am a slaveholder, not by accident, but by purchase, out of the hard earnings of a long life of toil....I have never lived and should be sorry to be obliged to live, in a State where slavery does not exist, and I never will do so if I can avoid it.

The only thing that can explain how statements like this seemed reasonable to people is the thirst for contempt in the human self. Everyone feels, If I can’t look down on somebody, I don’t matter much myself; but if this guy is inferior to me, I’m distinguished! To see a whole race as less than you is a way (seemingly) of thinking well of yourself.

The Everyday and the Horrible

A little boy right now thinks he’s big stuff because he can see his younger sister as a “jerk,” far inferior to him. He does not own slaves; but in that ever so ordinary way of seeing, he has some of the psychological equipment of a slave owner. He has, too, another aspect of that equipment, of that contempt: along with feeling big if we can see someone as less, we feel big if we can have power over the person, have that person governed by us. So the boy, Robby, likes to make his little sister bring him things—a soda, the baseball he left on the sofa. He also had pleasure seeing her cry when he teased her, because that showed how mighty he was.

There has been a desire on the part of Southerners and others to say that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about states’ rights. That is bunk, and this document by Governor Hicks makes clear that it is bunk. I have had the honor to write before about how passionate Mr. Siegel was on this subject. He said that the much romanticized “lost cause” of the South was slavery, period—and that the only good thing about it was that it was lost! The Hicks Address makes clear—as other documents of the time do—that the “states right” in question was the right to own a person and do whatever one wanted with him, including beat him and kill him. But to understand how slavery could be seen as a “right,” we have to understand contempt, including in ourselves.

Governor Hicks complains that his enemies slandered him by putting out a rumor “that I had invited the slaves to a public dinner, on Christmas day.” He also complains of the people in the “Cotton States,” who want to drag Maryland into a war; and of course he complains about the “fanatical demagogues” of the North. Every person who has contempt (that means every person) is very ready to see himself as hurt but not ready to see where he may be hurting another. So a man who bragged of purchasing human beings shows how wounded he is.

The two good things about contempt are: 1) we can never like ourselves for it—our contempt, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the reason we are nervous, lonely, depressed, deeply unsure; and 2) when we see contempt clearly, we don’t want to have it. Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that enables people at last to see contempt clearly!

Education and Kindness

The alternative to contempt, the means of respecting people and things not ourselves, is in this principle stated by Mr. Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” That is the basis of the beautiful, successful Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. In the New York public school classrooms where teachers use this method, children see that the subject they are learning is composed of the same opposites they have. They might see, in an earth science lesson, that the earth itself is a oneness of surface and depth: a city street with a surface we walk on has many strata underneath it, which came to be during millions of years. And every person is a surface, something that can be seen swiftly, yet also has so much within—so many feelings and thoughts and memories under that surface. A student, who has felt that what she shows is so different from what goes on inside her, welcomes deeply and happily what she is learning: not only is the earth like her, it shows that opposites which trouble her can be one!

That great principle, which is the means for successful education, is also the means for victorious kindness. When we see that a person has the structure of the world itself in him or her—a structure that we also share—we cannot have unjust contempt for that person. Eli Siegel, through what he taught and how he himself was all the time, showed that respect for people and reality is the strongest, most imaginative, most intelligent, most pleasurable, most exciting, most beautiful thing in the world.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

What Education Does

By Eli Siegel

One of the best writers on education—he has a lecture on education—is Jacques Delille. He is looked on as the chief of the French academic poets of the 18th century. He translated Virgil and Milton, and was very much interested in showing the world to be a composition favorable to man. Delille and Fontanes are the two representatives of non-romanticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

The French Revolution wanted to change education, and it didn’t wholly do so. It made the same mistake, I must say, that China and Russia made. They didn’t say: “The purpose of education is to like the world and know what you mean by the word like.” Everyone is invited to be critical of that statement.

So I read from John Maunde’s translation of Delille’s Les Jardins (the gardens). This section has the heading “The Enjoyments of the Educated,” and in the English translation the lines are poetic:

The Sage alone, who studies Nature’s laws,

Sincerest pleasures from the country draws,

And while the Arts his friendly aid receive,

For him, and him alone, does Nature live

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . With learning’s richest store

Your leisure soothe, and make enjoyment more.

The idea that education enables you to enjoy the physical world, to contemplate it more pleasantly, is a good thing. But the other notion of education, that it strengthens you, is to be seen too. I quoted James Conant, who talked of education as making for responsibilities. That is one phase: it makes you sterner with yourself in a beautiful way. But the other is that it enables you to see more of what you like in the world. It also makes you kinder. Education makes you kinder; makes you like the world more; makes you stronger or sterner. The relation of these three is what Aesthetic Realism says has to be found; otherwise you’re going to disrupt education and be false to it.

The idea of a deep contemplation, a pleasant contemplation, is present in Delille. He talks of nature, and praises the naturalist Buffon, who attempted to make some sense out of the world as broken and the world as continuous. Something of that relation is in the following lines:

Of old, the deluge, in its dreadful course,

Loosing the waves, left man without resource!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Beneath one tomb two continents it hurl’d,

Scattering the ruins of the ravag’d world!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Hence buried deep those heaps of blacken’d wood,

Teeming with fire; the red volcano’s food!

Hence secret layers, within their earthy bed,

Bear one world’s ruins on the other’s spread.

This goes along with geology as it’s seen: that geology is both catastrophic and organizing. One can find that in Buffon, and in the later history of geology. So education is here too.

But there is the big thing: that the purpose of education is, while seeing the worst in the world and not fooling oneself, as honestly as possible so to organize the world that—at least through seeing it might be organized, as in art—one can like it. The big thing, then, about education is to see how much knowledge and organization of the world, the oneness of the fact and the feeling about the fact, can make for a world which deeply we don’t see as a mistake in relation to us.