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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1837.—December 5, 2012

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Instinct, Ethics, & an Election

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the next section of Eli Siegel’s 1965 lecture Instinct: Beginning with Shelley. It is one in a landmark series he gave on the subject of instinct. And in this talk, he says, “I am trying to point out...that every instinct has something to do with the most popular of all, love.” He uses as text the essay “On Love” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, discussing not only statements in it, but individual words.

This Aesthetic Realism principle is true about instinct: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In the present section of his lecture, for example, Mr. Siegel speaks about instinct in relation to the opposites of wide and narrow, closeness and distance, for and against, self and world. And while being exact, learned, deep, indeed definitive, he has casualness, grace, humor (as when he points out, with respect, Shelley’s “complaining”).

A 1965 Lecture Meets the 2012 Election

The United States has just gone through an election that has big meaning for this nation and the world. I’ll comment on that meaning, in relation to some of what Mr. Siegel says in the present section of his lecture on instinct. Toward the end, he makes this statement:

The great artistic question of all time is:...How much can you have sympathy and still affirm yourself? That’s the big question in art and also in life.

Those are opposites—making oneself important and having feeling for what’s not oneself. It’s been hard for people to feel the two could be together. Aesthetic Realism explains that the most dangerous thing in everyone—contempt—is the ugly yet ordinary pitting of our self-importance against valuing truly what’s not ourselves. Contempt is the “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” The desire for contempt has given rise to every injustice in human history and in life today—from snobbishness to racism, from self-absorption to carpet-bombing a city. And in the field of economics, it has given rise to the profit system. In fact, by definition the profit motive is contempt—because it is the looking at other human beings, not with the purpose to understand and be fair to them, but to squeeze as much as you can from them while giving them as little as you can. That, after all, is what profit is.

In the 1970s, Mr. Siegel explained that a point in history had been reached: the profit system could no longer succeed. He gave the reasons in a series of lectures titled Goodbye Profit System. Economics based on using human lives for some individual’s profit, he said, might grind on, with difficulty, for quite a few years, but it was a moribund thing. It would never recover. And now, as I’ve described in other issues of this journal, the one way profit economics can continue at all is by making more and more people poorer and poorer.

Which brings us to the 2012 presidential election. I speak of it here not in terms of politics, but in terms of ethics and history. I consider it to be one of the most important elections America has had. It’s important not because the person elected was someone voters believed in—they didn’t very much—but precisely because Americans elected someone in whom they were disappointed. I’ll explain.

In the midst of a very bad economy, Americans did the highly unusual thing of electing the incumbent. They voted as they did because, while disappointed in Obama, angry with Obama, they thought the alternative was worse. The meaning of the election is: the American people are against the profit system. The 2012 election ratifies what Eli Siegel explained four decades ago: “The profit system of America is trying to go on while individual psychology in America is now against the profit system.”

In other words: Americans are displeased with a person, Barack Obama, who represents the profit system with some mitigation of it, some offsetting of it, some delicate shaving down of some aspects of it. But Americans are even angrier with, and fear, persons who represent the profit system more fully. Americans have been suffering economically—which means suffering. Millions are jobless. Millions of children go to bed hungry. People are scared. They want something different from what has been these four years—oh, do they ever. But they do not want the alternative offered by Messrs. Romney and Ryan. There was a huge attempt to make that alternative look considerate and practical, but enough Americans didn’t buy it. They saw, whether they articulated it or not, that more complete profit economics meant even more failure and pain.

What Americans are looking for, the alternative that they do want, is an economic basis new in history. They want an economy based on ethics and aesthetics: on a oneness of those opposites justice to all people and the affirmation of every individual person. The economy America wants, the only economy that will now work, is one based on an honest answer to the question asked by Mr. Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”


In the part of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel talks about the relation of instinct and opportunity: how an instinct needs an opportunity to show itself. This is one of the ways the profit system has been brutal. People have had within them various abilities that could never develop because the people were poor. As Mr. Siegel wrote at age 20, “their lives were forced to be led so, to get food enough for their stomachs, was all that they could do” (Modern Quarterly, Dec. 1923). I remember his reading in one of the Goodbye Profit System lectures, lines from Gray’s Elegy about men and women now in their graves whose abilities had been stifled:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,

Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.


But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;

Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.

That is still true. As people are forced to work long hours for little money (if they have a job at all), what they could be is choked, unborn. The massive college debt that’s such a big matter in America is really a protest against being stifled by the profit system. The debt comes from this feeling: “I deserve an education; I deserve the opportunity to learn and be more of what I can be. Even if I don’t have the money to pay for it, I’m going to get it.”

Meanwhile, something else Mr. Siegel says about opportunity in the 1965 talk on instinct has to do with why the profit system can never recover. He points out that a person with a mechanical instinct would not be able to have it flower so well before the age of machinery. Then he notes: “Right now in Asia, instincts for machinery are being aroused. It’s found that many young people in Cambodia have a good instinct for machines.” Five years later Mr. Siegel would explain that this more widespread development of people’s abilities is a chief reason profit economics is ailing:

America is not the only country now with industrial know-how....The people in South America and in every one of the African countries, want to know about machinery. So there is more competition with the American product.... It doesn’t help the profit system.


After the election, a Huffington Post article reported:

Mitt Romney advisers have described what it was like to be with the former governor as he came to terms with his loss. “He was shellshocked,” one adviser told CBS News....Romney also told reporters on his campaign plane earlier this week that while he had written a victory speech, he hadn’t prepared concession remarks.

The reason for the “shellshock” was that the Romney campaign did not see as real the American people’s deep hate of the profit system. Mr. Obama and his friends don’t see that as real either, and they need to. But the electorate did equate Romney/Ryan with the profit system in its completeness—in all its ugly sheerness—despite the campaign’s trying to present itself as somehow compassionate. Enough Americans saw that Mr. Romney, for all his reassurances, was looking out for rich people, not for them. And Americans’ anger at a way of economics which sees them as existing to enrich a few individuals, had them send back to the White House a man, Obama, who had disappointed them: at least he did not absolutely embody profit economics!

The pro-Obama voters turned out in much larger numbers than various pundits expected. Those voters didn’t have the enthusiasm for him that they’d had four years ago, and so, the Romney people judged, they wouldn’t turn out. What was not seen was the enormous enthusiasm against the unalloyed profit way. It drove millions of people to the polls, even when they had to overcome various tricks geared to suppress their vote.

It’s important to be plain: The reason for the disappointment in Obama is, he himself and his administration haven’t been enough against the profit way. He’s been too impressed with and too much guided by persons who feel the big aim for the US economy is to ensure that certain rich people keep making profit and go on owning most of America. This way of seeing is not only guaranteed to have our economy fail, it has made for a large resentment in the American people. Yet Americans felt Obama’s opponent was more for the profit system and therefore could not be permitted to win.

“Gifts” or Rights?

After the election, Mitt Romney gave the following as a crucial reason for his loss: Obama promised “gifts” to various groups, “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people” (New York Times, Nov. 15). These “gifts” included assistance repaying college loans, and healthcare. With that Romney statement we come to a matter as important for humanity as any. It’s described in the question I quoted earlier: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”

We have to distinguish between a right and a gift. Years ago, if some kindly person taught a poor little boy the alphabet, it was seen as a gift. Then it came to be seen, and to be made law, that every child has the right to an education. Some employer’s condescending donation to a worker of a few extra cents at Christmas has been seen as a gift (and a rare gift indeed). But the existence of union contracts says there’s such a thing as the right every worker has to a certain rate of pay. There are persons in America who would like to turn people’s rights into “gifts.” They are the persons who most are trying to save, on the backs of the American people, the unsalvageable profit system.

In Self and World, Eli Siegel describes the overarching right of every person this way: “The world should be owned by the people living in it....All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.” That is what the 2012 election was deeply about. The winner and all Americans need to know it.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Instinct, Opportunity, Sympathy
By Eli Siegel

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

Shelley says that when he has tried to show “my inmost soul” to others, “I have found my language misunderstood”:

The more opportunities they have afforded me for experience, the wider has appeared the interval between us, and to a greater distance have the points of sympathy been withdrawn.

Shelley did complain a great deal; he complained as much as any poet did. The two great complainers in the field of the western lyric are Heine and Shelley. There are others that do pretty well, but they just loved it. Still, Shelley is saying something that man has found useful.

“The more opportunities they have afforded me...” There are two kinds of opportunities: opportunities for expression and opportunities to hide or be inert. As soon as a pigeon is tired of affecting the city dweller, it goes off somewhere and rests until it again makes a public appearance. We are looking for opportunities to expand, and for opportunities to nestle; for opportunities to be braver, and opportunities to justify our indolence and our timidity.

An instinct is looking for an opportunity to express itself. Assume that Roebling, the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, was living (as Buckle might put it) in, let’s say, India in the 7th century. First, in 7th-century India they didn’t need bridges of that kind. Second, there wasn’t the mechanism for one; there wasn’t the machinery. So while somebody may have been going around with a tremendous mechanical instinct, chances are he settled for reading the Sutras.

Right now in Asia, instincts for machinery are being aroused. It’s found that many young people in Cambodia have a good instinct for machines.

In one way or another instincts will show themselves, but they can be transmuted. That is, an instinct that showed itself in the 19th century as an instinct for machinery, might have shown itself in the 4th century bc as a desire to drill one’s schoolmates, or maybe to arrange apples or pears or whatever fruit there was in Greece in symmetrical patterns. You’ve got to have something to work with, and what an instinct works with is the world contemporary with the instinct.

“The more opportunities they have afforded me for experience...” A customary antithesis is between instinct and experience. What you know how to do without experience is instinct. A person is musical by instinct but plays Chopin by experience.

Wide & Narrow, Close & Apart

“...The wider has appeared the interval between us.” Every important adjective is a field for instinct, and wide and narrow correspond to instincts. We have a desire to fold our hands tightly, and a desire to stretch them. We have a desire to go to a nook, and a desire to view the Rockies. Wideness and narrowness are in a constant interrelation, and that is to be seen in art. One of the things art does is show that the desire for wideness and the desire for narrowness honor the same thing.

Meanwhile, in human life the tendency for spaciousness and the tendency for shelter are around. A person who says “I’d like to have a little shack of my own” may very shortly want to get away from everything and go to Nicaragua. And cutting down and expanding are customary ways of expressing the instincts for narrowness and wideness.

Shelley uses the word wider interestingly here: loneliness is the feeling of a wide interval between oneself and another human being.

“...And to a greater distance have the points of sympathy been withdrawn.” In human life, the desire to be closer to people has been accompanied by a recoil, and most lives have been wobbles. The instincts to love humanity more and to get away from it can be in the same person. That person, as I mentioned, is represented somewhat by Dostoevsky, who wanted to love mankind but wanted to get away from people. It may be one of the reasons he had epilepsy. Every person is a study in aversion and attraction to mankind.

How Much Sympathy?

We have the phrase “the points of sympathy.” The word sympathy was very popular in Shelley’s time. It was a big word in the 18th century too. One question always is: how much does one living being want to sympathize with another? Kropotkin wrote a book—Mutual Aid—in which it would seem that every living being in the jungle is trying to help every other living being.

It is true that the strangest beings have been pleased with each other. There are descriptions of how a pheasant and a horse had a wonderful friendship, or a partridge and a cow. Yet we know that birds like to peck at each other, and simply will fight. Man has used that: the cock fight is an example of it. Two roosters can be made to go at each other.

The tendency to be against and for is present, and helping someone is to be found right at the beginning. When parent birds help the little ones in the nest, come back faithfully, that is something to see. No bird worthy of its name will forsake the nest. But sympathy, the being able to have another person or being or even object in mind—that is something else. The great artistic question of all time is: What capacity has a mind for love or sympathy which will go along with its affirming itself? How much can you have sympathy and still affirm yourself? That’s the big question in art and also in life.

The word sympathy has to do with love. But in the same way as love can become hate, sympathy can become contempt. The trouble is that every instinct has a certain yearning to be worse than it is. This mixes up everyone. Sympathy can change into patronizing.

Then there is the word withdrawn. Just as everything goes forward and withdraws, so sympathy can be withdrawn, as Shelley says. The most awful thing is how we withdraw hope. The withdrawing that goes on in life is to be seen everywhere. The magnetic is accompanied by the disgusted. 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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Editor: Ellen Reiss
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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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