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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1834.—October 24, 2012

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Instinct & What People Deserve

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue our serialization of Instinct: Beginning with Shelley, by Eli Siegel. It is one of the many lectures he gave on the subject of instinct in 1964 and ’5. These were wide-ranging and great: definitive, scholarly, even as they also had informality, charm, immediacy, humor. In the present lecture, of March 1965, he uses as text Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay “On Love,” as a means of looking at an instinct which seems to have with it so much confusion, variety, beauty, ecstasy, pain: the instinct to love. His purpose, he says, is to relate love to all the other instincts. And as he does, we see in motion this principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

As a prelude, I am going to comment on lines from two poems Shelley wrote in 1819. They are not about love, but about a matter insisting in America now, however much politicians try to evade it: To whom should our nation belong? To whom should our world belong? Here are four stanzas of Shelley’s “Song to the Men of England”:

Men of England, wherefore plough

For the lords who lay ye low?

Wherefore weave with toil and care

The rich robes your tyrants wear?


Wherefore feed, and clothe, and save,

From the cradle to the grave,

Those ungrateful drones who would

Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?

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

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,

Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?

Or what is it ye buy so dear

With your pain and with your fear?


The seed ye sow, another reaps;

The wealth ye find, another keeps;

The robes ye weave, another wears;

The arms ye forge, another bears....


The Profit System & Instinct

It is nearly 200 years since Shelley wrote these lines. They are about the profit system: economics based on seeing other human beings in terms of how much money you can extract from them and their labor. Shelley hated it. He saw men, women, and children hungry in England, with terrible, wasted lives, because the basis of jobs, whether in the fields or in factories, was the profit system: you work; and the employer takes the wealth you produce and gives you, in pay, as little as he can. That is the basis, still, in America now.

In the section of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel speaks about the fact that all instinct has to do with ourselves and what’s not ourselves. These are opposites. “Instinct,” he says, “goes toward oneself and goes toward something else; all instinct does.” The central matter in our lives is how we relate our treasured self to “something else”: the world outside us—including other people. There are two big instincts which Aesthetic Realism shows to be fighting in us all the time, and each involves those opposites of self and world. One is the instinct to respect: to see meaning and value in what’s not us, with the sense that doing so makes us more ourselves. This instinct is the deepest, most beautiful, most practical we have. But it’s at war with a second instinct, for contempt: to lessen, look down on, manipulate what’s not us, as a means of falsely making ourselves important.

Contempt is the stupidest and cruelest of instincts. It has thousands of forms and is gigantically popular. People feel their contempt is not only practical but a sign of their smartness. Contempt can be a wife’s smug inward triumph in finding her husband once again foolish. It can be a husband’s taking his wife for granted: I married her; she’s mine; she no longer has mystery. And the using of people as mechanisms for one’s financial aggrandizement is sheer contempt. It has caused tremendous suffering. And every person who has taken part in using people that way has been profoundly ashamed, no matter how much the person may bluster or act smooth or put himself forth as having “entrepreneurial spirit.”

Shelley calls the employers of England “drones”—in keeping with the meaning given in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and a drone is “one that lives on the labor of others: PARASITE.” When your financial comfort arises from taking the wealth that others produce, you have a state of mind that says: I want to get as much as I can out of you while giving you the least I can get away with. And so, as Shelley saw, people were made to work for barely enough—often not enough—to keep themselves and their children alive.

He saw that to use another human being for profit was robbery. He put it this way: “The seed ye sow, another reaps; / The wealth ye find, another keeps.” Find here means “obtain by effort” (Webster’s). Shelley said to the people of England: The bosses engaged in robbing you, and the persons in government who support them, are extinguishing your very life: they “Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood.”

Then & Now

A great deal has happened to the world since 1819. Of those happenings, none is more important than what Eli Siegel described in 1970: economics based on using human beings and the earth itself for the financial profit of some private individuals, no longer works. He explained:

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.

In his Goodbye Profit System lectures, he gave the historical reasons for the profit system’s failure. The fact that contempt no longer works as a basis for economics is, he said, a victory of ethics—ethics as a force in reality.

The present economic anguish in America and elsewhere arises from efforts, huge and cruel, to keep profit economics going when it simply is no longer able to prosper. As I’ve written in this journal: the only way now that certain private individuals can make big profits is for more and more people to become poorer and poorer—for people to live increasingly as they did in 1819. Another poem Shelley wrote that year is “The Mask of Anarchy.” In it he speaks about freedom, and says something exceedingly important: economic justice is fundamental to freedom. To say there’s freedom when people don’t have what they need in order to live, is a travesty. Shelley writes—again, to the people of England:

What is Freedom? —Ye can tell

That which Slavery is too well,

For its very name has grown

To an echo of your own.


’Tis to work, and have such pay

As just keeps life from day to day

In your limbs.

Then, addressing Freedom itself, he says, You will exist only when people have the money they need:

For the laborer thou art bread

And a comely table spread,

From his daily labor come

In a neat and happy home.


Thou art clothes, and fire, and food

For the trampled multitude;

No—in countries that are free

Such starvation cannot be

As in England now we see.

“The Mask of Anarchy” concludes with Shelley saying to his countrymen:

Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number!

Shake your chains to earth, like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you—

Ye are many, they are few!

Those lines have to do with the fact that there is an instinct in people against the profit system. One may be, as Shelley puts it, asleep to that true instinct for many years. The outrage at profit economics is closer to the surface, much more part of everyday life, than it was in 1819, or 1909, or 1969. It is an aspect of our instinct to be treated justly. It has nothing to do with political parties. Millions of people throughout America feel they are being used contemptuously, to enrich some boss or corporation, and they’re furious.

There are various persons in business and politics who are trying to have Americans not see what our own instinct and increasingly conscious objection are really about. These persons are trying to fool us into thinking we resent something else: maybe immigrants; or teachers; or that which will really enable us to get the economic justice we deserve—unions.

Nevertheless, there is an instinct for justice. Shelley had it and tried beautifully to be true to it—as Eli Siegel did even more greatly. That is the instinct, also the world force, which is insisting now.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Instinct Is about Self & World
By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing Shelley’s essay “On Love.”

The second paragraph begins:

I know not the internal constitution of other men, nor even thine, whom I now address.

The “internal constitution of other men,” the “internal constitution” of ourselves, is exceedingly interesting. To be internal means to have some feeling about the external.

What goes on in us is not known. Most people have died without having a fair idea of what went on in them. The internal consists of physiology, and of impulsions, instincts, possibilities. Among these instincts, impulsions, possibilities are those having to do with love. And when a person says, “I love coffee better than tea,” the word is spelled in the same way as when it’s used about people. If someone says, “I love boating,” most persons will not say, “You’re speaking bad English.” Or “I love motorboating”: I read somewhere that one person out of every 22 is fitted by nature to enjoy motorboating. Why a person should be so taken by motorboating is hard to say, but it has something to do with what he or she is.

Some persons can say, “I love machinery, any kind.” There are women who, after having rejected their husbands, are rapturous over crockery: “I love crockery!” It’s all “internal.” People are taken by crockery; they’re also taken by furniture. The purpose of Sloane’s and such establishments is to satisfy an instinct, of love: “I just love Louis Quinze furniture!” It’s “internal.” The word instinct has the prefix in-, and instincts are all internal at the beginning. A rough definition of instinct is: something in you that you don’t wholly know, making you do something.

There’s How We’re Constituted

“I know not the internal constitution of other men.” The word constitution should be looked at. It has been asked whether a bee recognizes a bee. It seems it does, and the reason is that only a bee has the bee constitution. Only a bee is made exactly like a bee. Constitution is the same as parts in a certain arrangement. It belongs to a fundamental idea: of organization, of oneness, of parts seen as making for a basis.

When something has a constitution different from something else, the instincts are different. The reason a butterfly and moth have slightly different instincts (butterflies don’t happen to be fond of light the way moths are; moths and butterflies have been conducting an unheard debate for years on their tastes) is that the butterfly has a constitution different from the moth’s. I have never yet read of a butterfly’s really liking a moth, because the problem of difference and sameness is very bad there. Butterflies do like caterpillars more, because they come out of them.

Constitution, then, makes for instincts. To have a different constitution is to have different things driving one and causing one to do things.

A Point in History

“I know not the internal constitution of other men.” A word important in the field of instinct is other. On Wednesday when I talked about I in poetry and read poems in which I is the first word, I tried to present I, somewhat, as the conclusion of an instinct. That is, there is a tendency to become our own object, to look at ourselves. The existence of I is a point in the history of things: a thing knew what it was and could say so, and then I began. In every use of I there is a knowing that one is, and something of what one is, and the being able to say so. The I occurred when reality was no longer gagged.

Meantime, as soon as there is an interest in oneself as an object, there is also an interest in something else. Shelley—I quoted him on Wednesday—is very much interested in himself. He wrote letters, and very often he is lyrical in the fullest sense: that is, he writes about himself under no disguise at all. Yet the word other is very close to him.

The instincts that a kitten has are self and other. A kitten is perhaps the best being for washing itself; it has made washing an art. Other beings wash themselves. I’ve heard that hippopotami do it, but they don’t so much want to look at themselves: they go into the water, splash. We can occasionally see a fly doing something with itself, and it seems to come out comfortable. So living beings are their own objects. The petals of a flower unclosing and going back show that a flower is, in a way, its own object. But the flower is interested in the sun and water. (And they tell of some flowers who, when they don’t like the conversation in the garden, pull their petals back.)

Well, instinct goes toward oneself and goes toward something else; all instinct does. The moth going toward the flame is a moth affected by otherness. Some instincts are very hurtful; the moth’s going toward the flame has not been praised. But we are affected by what is other. That is the biggest aspect of life, and it is so for all beings. Because we are what we are, we see what is other a certain way. Man has an instinct toward more otherness than any other being. The catalogue of a large library will show that. He goes from fabric to theology, from motorboats to infants, from kings to caraway seeds: he’s interested. There are works on all these subjects and many more, and they all are in the field of otherness. A great public library is a tribute to otherness.

A Human Being Is Like Yet Different

Then, in the sentence we’re looking at, there is the word men. Darwin pointed out many similarities between the instincts of men and the instincts of other living beings. What still stood out is that man is the only being who has an instinct to study the causes of the Seven Years War. With all the approaches that made man just like all other beings—and I don’t mind these approaches at all—it still wasn’t satisfactorily discerned that any being but man had an instinct to study the beginnings of Macedonian coinage. This interest, no other being in the jungle, meadow, or garden has.

Man has some instincts others don’t; maybe those instincts are useless, but at least they exist. People are animals with more instincts than other animals, and some of a kind that is worth study. As soon as an animal is impelled to ask, What am I here for? and Is the universe good or bad?, that’s nerve. That’s what man does. No other animal consciously asks questions about the universe.

Human beings, then, should be looked at in terms of instincts. If one says nineteen-twentieths of the instincts of humans are just like any other being’s, it doesn’t matter: that other twentieth is mighty interesting. The instinct to have museums, for instance: bees have hives, people have museums; but there is a difference, because bees don’t invite others to see them.

Pronouns Show Instinct

“Nor even thine.” Within the I is the word you, and yours, or, to have it very fancy, thine. Then, “whom I now address.” The pronouns show instinct. Grammatically, whom has to do with the transitive, and instincts are very transitive: that is, they go towards objects. There is an instinct to brood, which doesn’t seem to have any object whatsoever except to get one in more trouble. So we never say, “He brooded his troubles”; we say, “He brooded over his troubles,” which shows that brood, by itself, is intransitive.

“Whom I now address”: talking to is a result of much instinct. We hear all kinds of jungle calls and they all come from an instinct, but who is talking to whom we don’t know exactly. They all have a destination. But raucousness and shrillness and eeriness go on in any jungle worthy of its name, and we don’t know to whom it’s all going. Dogs have been said to bark at the moon. There seems to be some particularity, but why a dog should bark at the moon is hard to say. There must be some rivalry felt.

The words, then, in this Shelley sentence are all with the aroma of instinct.  black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.


2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.


3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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