The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Good Will, Profit, and Chaucer

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize the great lecture Selves Are in Economics, which Eli Siegel gave in 1970. That was the year in which he explained, in his Goodbye Profit System talks, that we are at a crucial point in the history of economics and the human self. Now, after so many centuries, he showed, "an economy based on ill will cannot succeed." Even as people take part in the profit system, there is more conscious repugnance and resentment at being seen in terms of how much profit some boss or corporation can squeeze out of one. "The desire for profit has never had a good effect on humanity," Mr. Siegel wrote. " ... In recent years, the insufficient ethics of a specialization in profit has been noticeable; and also the inefficiency of that specialization."*

Aesthetic Realism explains that the big fight raging within each individual is: Should I see the world and people with contempt or with respect, with good will or ill will? Mr. Siegel showed in 1970 that for an economy to work well, it can no longer be based on contempt, on the hope that another be weak so you can be strong, on the hope to beat a person out, on taking the wealth another’s labor produces while paying him as little as you can. The only way economics will now succeed is for it to be based on good will, which Mr. Siegel described as "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121). Economics has to be different from what has been in the world before. It has to be in keeping with the justice to people described in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

In the present lecture—with a certain casualness, lightness, yet also passionate exactitude—Mr. Siegel is illustrating that which he showed to be the central matter in economics: how selves see other selves. Since he refers to Chaucer here, I am going to comment on some lines of Chaucer: passages that have to do with purposes in economic life, from the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.

The date of The Canterbury Tales is about 1380; and at the end of the 14th century money was made in various ways. We meet some of them as Chaucer describes the people, of different walks of life, who are traveling together to Canterbury. And it has been clear for 600 years that the persons whom Chaucer respects are not those who want to grab, manipulate, make a lot of money, but those with good will. That is always true, for everyone. When we see the profit motive straight, it always looks sleazy: the motive to get as much as possible for oneself from somebody while giving that person as little as possible. In order to make acquisition look good, you have to pretend it’s something else; you have to make it look like good will. And that has been done all through history. Advocates of child labor argued that having small children work was kind because it developed character in them. Advocates of slavery tried to make it seem that slavery was kind to black persons—that it was a means of their being taken care of for life.

"A Specialization in Profit"

One of the 14th-century human beings whom Chaucer tells of is the Merchant. We find in the Chaucerian Middle English this sentence about him: "His resons he spak ful solempnely, / Sownynge alwey th’encrees of his wynnyng." In modern English, that means: "He put forth his views pompously, / And they always had to do with the increase of his profit." So there was in this man a "specialization in profit." It’s the thing, Chaucer says, the Merchant’s conversation is always about—even as he and his fellow pilgrims are journeying, in spring, to visit the Canterbury shrine of Thomas à Becket. And that is what so many people have used their lives for: to get profit, or "wynnyngs," as the 14th century put it. Is that a purpose good enough for humanity? Mr. Siegel explained:

One does not come to terms with the world by owning certain phases of it. Owning does not satisfy the unconscious drives of the self. We can own the world only by knowing it. We can possess the world only by having it in our minds; that is, by having knowledge of it. [Self and World, p. 279]

That, as we will see, was the deep feeling of Chaucer too.

Doctors, Pharmaceuticals, & Profit

A journey to a nearby shrine was as much a vacation in the 14th century as it was a religious activity; and among the Canterbury pilgrims was a Doctour of Phisik, a physician. Here are three of Chaucer’s lively, neat, critical lines about him, followed by a translation:

Ful redy hadde he his apothecaries

To send hym drogges and his letuaries,

For ech of hem made oother for to wynne.


He had apothecaries who were very ready

To send him drugs and elixirs—

For each of them enabled the other to make profit.

How contemporary this is; some persons would say agonizingly contemporary. Chaucer tells us this doctor "kepte that he wan in pestilence"—that is, he held on to the money he made in times of plague. And "he lovede gold in special"—he especially loved gold. So we have a matter which has befouled the centuries: that a deep distress of people, sickness, has been a field for somebody to profit. Mr. Siegel was passionately clear on the subject: No person worried about health, he said, should ever have to worry about paying for health care! And further, he explained, for someone to feel that the suffering of another is financial good fortune for oneself, is terrifically hurtful to the person making the profit. A doctor in the 14th century, who became rich because people were enduring the plague, tended to hope people got the plague. That is surmisable in Chaucer’s lines about a man of medicine.

A Lively Line about Deceit

When the economy one is of is based on the motive to make as much money as possible from people, there will be the temptation to deceive people so as to get more money out of them. That is what Chaucer describes the Miller as doing in the line "Wel koude he stelen corn and tollen thries"—"Well could he steal corn and take toll thrice." The Miller steals grain from the person for whom he is grinding it; he takes three times more than the percentage of it he is supposed to receive in payment. Chaucer’s line describing this shady accomplishment is ever so good poetically: it has zip and roll and tautness.

Religion and Profit

The profit motive is a form of contempt, and has used everything it could as a field for what it’s after. It has used religion. The use of religion for profit was one of the reasons for the Protestant Reformation, a little more than a century after Chaucer. With others on the trip to Canterbury, we find a Pardoner, a person of the Church who sold pardons—papal indulgences. Along with being able to pay a Pardoner for these strips of parchment which would substitute for other penances, you could pay to see, or perhaps purchase, a relic. Chaucer’s Pardoner is funny, immortal, and terrible; and what Chaucer describes in him is the simple profit motive: the seeing of people in terms of how much money he can make from them. Chaucer has a line describing the Pardoner’s enthusiasm in that motive: he is "Bretful of pardoun, comen from Rome al hoot"—"Brimful of pardon, come from Rome all hot." That is a wonderful line: sizzling mercenary eagerness mingles with piety, as "bretful" and "al hoot" meet "pardoun" and "Rome."

There is a description of the Pardoner’s "relics." This is an example: "For in his male he hadde a pilwe-beer, / Which that he seyde was Oure Lady veyl"—"For in his bag he had a pillowcase, / Which he said was Our Lady’s veil." I translate in prose the lines telling how the Pardoner used people; then I give them in the original Middle English, because they are beautiful as they express Chaucer’s compassion for people and toughness about the Pardoner’s motive:

But with these relics, whenever he found a poor parson dwelling in the country, on that day he got himself more money than that parson earned in two months. And thus, with feigned flattery and deceits, he made monkeys out of the parson and the people.


But with thise relikes, whan that he fond

A povre person dwellynge upon lond,

Upon that day he gat hym moore moneye

Than that the person gat in monthes tweye;

And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,

He made the person and the peple his apes.

They Are Respected

It has been felt for many centuries that the two Canterbury pilgrims Chaucer respects and loves most are the Parson and the Clerk. That is true. And the reason is, they have the most good will. They are described very plainly as having a motive contrary to the motive of acquisition. I translate some of the lines about the Parson. They have Chaucer’s down-to-earth quality, but they also have a music that reverberates, is deep, is gentle and strong. The lines have one feel good will as so definite, they can make for tears: A good man was there of religion,

Who was a poor Parson of a town,

But rich he was of holy thought and work.

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

Wide was his parish, and houses far asunder,

But he did not cease, either for rain or thunder,

In sickness or misfortune, to visit

The farthest in his parish, great or small.

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

He was a shepherd and not a mercenary.

Just as the Parson prefers kindness to acquisition, the Clerk, or scholar, prefers knowledge to acquisition. Those two, kindness and knowledge, are the two aspects of good will, and they are deeply inseparable. I give in modern English some lines about this scholar from Oxford with the threadbare coat: For he preferred to have at his bed’s head

Twenty books, clad in black or red,

Of Aristotle and his philosophy

Than rich clothes .... 

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

Sounding with moral virtue was his speech,

And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.

What people have truly respected through the years stands for what people want now. That respected thing has always been the desire to know and to have a good effect on people, not the desire to use earth and humanity for self-aggrandizement. Aesthetic Realism explains that art embodies the way of seeing we need in our personal lives and in an economy, because in every instance of art a person has expressed himself through being fair to the outside world. That is what Chaucer does; and so he is grandly alive now, while the wheeler-dealers of 1380, the medieval wealthy ones, are quite forgotten. What Chaucer valued so much, Eli Siegel had with the greatest fulness: good will for people and love of knowledge.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Greatest Power

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is commenting on statements in The International Thesaurus of Quotations, comp. R.T. Tripp (1970).

A further quotation has to do with good will. I said that good will is the greatest force in the world, greater than all electricity, all the atomic power, all power of steam. It is reality itself. That is my most unconfined statement. And because the present profit system is against good will, is fighting good will, and good will is the most powerful thing in the world, those people who are in the know will bet on good will as stronger.

One form of good will is courtesy, which was made a great deal of in medieval times under the head of chivalry. Chaucer used the word courtesy as if it were something else than just manners. Emerson used it as quoted here:

We must be as courteous to a man as we are to a picture, which we are willing to give the advantage of a good light. [Emerson, "Behavior," The Conduct of Life (1860)]

This has in it the idea of good will: that one hopes to see something in the best way, and also hopes that there is something good to see. This is the greatest force in the world, or an aspect of it, because reality wants to be a success. And if reality wants to be a success, we should hope that the instances we meet go along with that — hope, not fool ourselves, hope.

Goethe is quoted too:

There is a courtesy of the heart. It is akin to love. Out of it arises the purest courtesy in the outward behavior. [Goethe, Elective Affinities (1809)]

The statements of Emerson and Goethe are under the head of "Courtesy" in this book. And Tennyson is quoted:

The greater man the greater courtesy. [Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Last Tournament," Idylls of the King (1871)]

When this is understood and is not seen as something decorative, I think people will know who they are. Until then, they don’t know who they are. The greatest mistake that people make is to think that they are for themselves. They are for themselves as they see it, but the full meaning of it is not seen. A further quotation is from a criminologist or penologist, Robert Rice, from The Business of Crime:

Crime is a logical extension of the sort of behavior that is often considered perfectly respectable in legitimate business.

I say something like that in James and the Children.

Two persons are quoted, very different, under the head of "Envy." It is interesting to see Aeschylus and Yevgeny Yevtushenko in the same section. The translation of Aeschylus is by Richmond Lattimore; this is from Agamemnon (458 BC):

In few men is it part of nature to respect 

A friend’s prosperity without begrudging him.

This was seen by Aeschylus. And Yevtushenko says something related (1965): "A show of envy is an insult to oneself."

It is to be seen that there is a continuity between Aeschylus, part of the Athenian city-state in the 5th century BC, and Yevtushenko. That is a notable thing. The purpose of the profit system is to make your envy look beautiful, and also to have people envy you and to have their envy of you look beautiful because you are more fortunate. If Yevtushenko and Aeschylus can agree, we should ask what they agree on.

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*Goodbye Profit System: Update (NY: Definition Press, 1982), pp. 13, 167.