The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Happiness—& What Makes a Person Unkind

Dear Unknown Friends:

On November 18, 1946, at Steinway Hall, Eli Siegel gave his lecture The Purpose of Aesthetic Realism. We are honored to publish it here, from notes taken at the time. He is, as he says, speaking principally about the purpose of that “phase of Aesthetic Realism which is individual lessons.” Meanwhile, there is Aesthetic Realism in its philosophic and cultural entirety, about which he writes in Self and World:

Aesthetic Realism is personally useful; it is all for personal development; but it is always a seeing of the whole world, and a hope not to miss anything which tells us what the world is. Aesthetic Realism, then, is unabashed philosophy, as it presents the moment as friendly to a person; as perhaps wider, deeper, more of oneself than was thought. [P. 20]

In the 1946 lecture, Mr. Siegel is explaining something that no other philosopher, and certainly no psychologist, has understood: the way of seeing in everyone which makes the person unhappy, nervous, and also unkind. This way of seeing is contempt, and he describes it in the following statement: “Something in everyone can’t see itself being happy or important except through...lessening what is not oneself.”

To comment on that statement and on some of the ways people now, as in other years, damage their lives through contempt, I’ll look at lines from a poem of 1798.

The Fundamental Crime

William Wordsworth’s Peter Bell is a long narrative poem, and its protagonist is an itinerant seller of earthenware goods. Wordsworth says that Peter Bell, age 32, travelled throughout England and saw ocean, hills, skies, and more, yet was not much moved by any of it. For example:

He roved among the vales and streams,

In the green wood and hollow dell;

They were his dwellings night and day,—

But Nature ne’er could find the way

Into the heart of Peter Bell.

In vain, through every changeful year,

Did Nature lead him as before;

A primrose by a river’s brim

A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more.

Those last three lines are famous, and Wordsworth is describing what to him was a horrible crime: You don’t want to see the wonder and meaning a primrose has?!!! It’s hideous to meet all this and keep yourself immune!

Wordsworth is right. Fundamental to contempt is the robbing things of their value. People every day feel life is empty, dull, flat. But they don’t see that they have wanted to be unaffected by things. They have wanted things not to mean much to them—because the minute we see meaning, value, wonder in anything, we can’t feel superior to it. We may not be as thorough in our flattening, dulling, and imperviousness as Peter Bell is—we may occasionally be stirred by a sunset or think some landscape is beautiful—but there are thousands of objects and happenings and certainly people, the value of which and whom we’ve made ourselves dead to. Contempt in everyone sees treasuring oneself as in competition with being affected by what’s not oneself. And so, people everywhere are too much like Peter Bell: through a notion of self-importance, they make themselves dull and hard.


Wordsworth says of Peter, “There was a hardness in his eye.” Also, he had an “air / Of cunning.” Cunning, or craftiness, is frequent in people, because if you see the world as an enemy (and most persons do), you feel you have to trick and outsmart it. Our present economic system, the profit system, is based on this manipulating; and despite attempts to present economic slyness as impressive, everyone deeply resents and is ashamed of it.

What’s wrong with Peter Bell’s and anyone’s cunning is the contempt and ill will in it. And so much of people’s thought is, really, cunning: how can I manipulate this person to do what I want him to do? How can I arrange it so I get my way? As soon as we’re more interested in having our way than in seeing and honoring what’s true, we’re in the cunning field. Meanwhile, that kind of thought—however popular, however seemingly necessary—makes us ashamed, because our largest purpose is to see the world justly, care for it honestly.

Ethics & an Animal

The poem tells about Peter’s mistreatment of a donkey, or ass; then about Peter’s changing—to a large degree because of the animal’s ethical beauty, its kindness and fidelity.

Peter, traveling about Yorkshire, sees “a solitary Ass,” immobile, looking into a river. He wants to seize and take away the ass in order to work him. Peter leaps on the donkey, kicks at him fiercely, pulls at his halter with terrific force. But the ass won’t move—because his master has drowned and the animal has been standing faithfully for days looking into the water where the man’s body lies. Peter is furious, and says, “There is some plot against me laid.”

There is a huge proclivity in people to feel, as Peter does, that the world is against them. Unless we see the world as something to know, feel, value, we’ll see it as something from which to wrest what we want; and if we don’t get our way, we’ll give the world the purpose we ourselves have: we’ll feel it wants to defeat us as we want to defeat it.

Why People Are Cruel

Peter Bell beats the ass viciously. The animal drops to the ground but will not leave his place.

Wordsworth wants us to feel there is a relation between Peter’s not being moved by a sky or primrose, and his cruelty. He is right. If we don’t like reality, we’ll want to punish representatives of the disliked world—to have a victory over it by making someone feel bad. And people go for that victory. It may take the everyday form of humiliating someone through sarcasm, or calling a person a demeaning name.

Wordsworth wanted to show in Peter Bell that kindness is real, and is stronger than unfeelingness and cruelty. He has the ass represent that kindness. For instance, when Peter, unable to conquer the animal, finally tries to see what is affecting him and looks into the river where his master lies, the donkey is so grateful to Peter that “The little Ass his neck extends / And fondly licks his hands.”

Much happens. Peter comes to have more feeling. And toward the end of the poem he speaks this way to the donkey:

“When shall I be as good as thou?

Oh! would, poor beast, that I had now

A heart but half as good as thine!”

Various persons, early and later, made fun—wrongly, I believe—of some aspects of Peter Bell. It is a true poem, sincere and musical. Peter Bell is a portrait of dislike of the world. And what it means to like the world, honestly, logically, critically, is the study of Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Purpose of Aesthetic Realism

By Eli Siegel

The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to show that a person can be himself and like the world at the same time. By liking the world, I don’t mean saying, “I like to go to dances and help people across streets.” I mean a feeling, from the blood cells out, that difference is not against one. Most people do fear the outside world, and their like of others is far from complete. Not liking the world, people can’t function effectively in working to make it better.

A definite purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to make a person happy—but in the exact sense of the word, in the sense that in happiness one is useful. Most people are unhappy, because they see their individuality as separate from and antagonistic to the world about them.

When I say the purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to make unhappiness less, I don’t mean that it is a cheering up method. Aesthetic Realism does aim at making Jenny Jenkins or John Jenkins a happier person. Through the phase of Aesthetic Realism which is individual lessons, people have been made happier, definitely. But the purpose of Aesthetic Realism is larger than that.

If it is said to the persons here tonight that Aesthetic Realism is the one way of accurately combining the individual and collective, combining psychology and economics, combining the “me” and everything that is being read about all over—it sounds like a tall order. But this is the case, and it has to be affirmed.

Another purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to make people less against each other. There has been a lot of talk about the Brotherhood of Man. There was the French Revolution and the phrase “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” There are various progressive movements which are against people being exploited. There is the Golden Rule, and an idea in all the great religions that people should be fair to each other. But the Brotherhood of Man won’t come to be through that kind of talk, because something in everyone is against the idea of happiness through peace and good will. Something in everyone can’t see itself being happy or important except through making profit from people or some other form of lessening what is not oneself. This way of seeing is contempt, and unless it is understood it will be around in a person, doing mischief.

In thinking of how people are against others, we come to what is called delinquency. At the present time, most children are against what’s around them. They have always been, to a certain extent. We have in novels (in Turgenev, for example) presentations of sons against fathers and daughters against mothers. Delinquency must be seen in terms of the worlds within children. Children are in philosophic unconscious fights. And when children are against what’s about them, they are likely to steal and do other undesirable things.

What Went On in Him?

A newspaper story today tells of a young man, cited for valor in the war, who after he got back sat around for weeks in his home and didn’t seem to feel like doing anything, just wasn’t interested in anything. Yesterday he killed his grandmother and grandfather and himself. Why did this happen? Explanations will be given in terms of “sex repression” and various large words. But the chief thing making for a happening like this is that such a person couldn’t see the world as friendly, couldn’t see that something in himself flowed out to it, and that if he let it flow he’d feel all right.

That story shows unhappiness in a sensational way, but it’s also simple. Unhappy people feel that what is different from them is against them. And such a feeling is had also by persons who think they’re against exploitation and war no end.

I have mentioned before a dream told to me by a person who was very active in progressive movements, had a big social life, and felt he liked people. The dream showed that that wasn’t the whole story. In it, he is dressed in blue velvet tights and he is caressing a bed which is also covered in blue velvet. People come to the door and knock and call to him; he runs away. This dream has to do with the fact that his deepest existence was not his social and progressive activities; his deepest existence was away from people.

I have a respect for Marx, but he did not see psychology and economics as together. We have to put the economics of Jesus Christ, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Marx, Henry George, and others together with the unconscious. And it has to be done in a cheerful, open fashion, not with heavy words and pedantry. We have to feel that the world of strikes has to do with the world of a child’s imaginings at night.

What We Want to Do

Loneliness, the kind people are mostly unaware of, exists terribly. A purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to do away with it. Loneliness, like other unhappiness, comes about because people think that to be themselves they have to be against what is different from them. The way to combat this feeling is to show that it is not necessary; that it won’t make people feel good; that it’s not what they really want. That is the only way that will work.

So, from another point of view, a purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to enable people to see what they want to do. Although the possibility of being against others is in every human being, that possibility does not make for the happiness of human beings. It has to be shown to people that they aren’t being all they can and want to be.

There are two possibilities: either a person is going to cultivate the idea that he’s a being apart from the strangeness about him; or he is going to know as much about this strangeness as he can, with the feeling that what is being known is on his side. Everyone wants, to some extent, to have nothing to do with what’s different from him.

In the person in the newspaper story I mentioned, we see melodramatically what can happen to anyone. We have to like the world or be against it. Most people in their being against it are respectable. They become cynical, tend to doubt elegantly the goodness of large things, and so on. But againstness can take a flagrant form.

The purpose of all education is the purpose of Aesthetic Realism. This purpose is to like and know the world that is and can be. A person, no matter how erudite, who doesn’t like the world is a failure.

Some Illustrations of a Principle

A large desire in people is to “play off” things against each other. The chief things played off always are oneself and what is not oneself; however, this can take a great variety of subtle forms.

In Aesthetic Realism lessons I have asked a person, “Can you touch your hand and think of Australia at the same moment?” The person finds he can. Everyone can: the self is that way. Well, as a person consciously combines the intimacy of his hand with the remoteness of Australia, the contemptuous unconscious at that moment is getting a shellacking. Contempt in a person wants to think that self and world, or intimacy and farawayness, can never be at one. If it is the nature of a self to be as infinite as space and as intimate as warm skin, and it isn’t seen that way, the self will be divided and in trouble.

Sometimes I have asked a person to mention nine numbers. He mentions, perhaps, 814,965,237. Is that number unique? Is it special? Is any other number just like it? Still, that number couldn’t be if there weren’t other numbers. Could 814,965,237 exist if it weren’t for 19? As a person thinks in these clear terms about uniqueness and relation as such, his way of seeing is affected.

There is a terrific battle in every person, between the desire to like the world and the desire to be against it. What we most often see are only the peaks, but the battle is going on all the time. In most people it comes to a draw. Aesthetic Realism is a way through which you’re going to see truly yourself and the wonderful reality around you. The time to see that there is a battle in yourself is not when you’ve seen the battle’s sad outcome. The bad outcome is only a stage in a process that has been going on all along. Say a shirt becomes worn: there is a certain moment when we see the hole in the shirt, but it has not become torn in that moment. A process has gone on, and at a certain moment you see the tear.

Sometimes in Aesthetic Realism lessons I have asked people to write sentences containing particular words, as a means of placing together what the person wants to keep apart. All of us resent the puzzlements and uncertainties of reality. We want to be a mermaid in a drop of water, safe and sweet. This is the impeccability and beatitude of contempt. I once asked a person in a lesson to write a sentence with the words green and square. At first he didn’t want to write it. Squares were angular, and associated in his mind with opposition to greenness and fluidity. Likewise a person might at first not like the idea of writing a sentence with sharp and snow. But as he writes it, how he sees the world is affected.

An assignment often given in the study of Aesthetic Realism is that a person write three sentences about an object each day: a pen, a street, a floor, a person. I can recommend this procedure to everyone here. Sentences on objects are not just homework. In giving yourself to an object, seeing it accurately, and describing it or your feelings about it, something not you becomes you. All perception is something not you becoming you.

The Purpose in Life

I have told people in lessons that a baby, when born, doesn’t know who he is. Then the baby sees things, hears things, touches things, and at the age of, say, 18 months, the baby says “I.” It is through other things that a baby comes to know himself.

The big purpose in life is to like, excitingly, ourselves. We can’t like ourselves unless we like what is not ourselves. If people called delinquents, and the person of the newspaper story I spoke of, could be shown that they could be happy without being against others, there wouldn’t be murder of relatives and delinquency. But the world has to be seen joyously, humorously, intimately, and respectfully—which, as you know by now, means to me aesthetically.