|NUMBER 1882.—August 27, 2014||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
It was fifty years ago this month that Eli Siegel gave the lecture we are serializing, Intelligence Is You and More. The knowledge in it is fresh, great, and tremendously needed—because there is, including among the supposed “experts,” so much fakery, ignorance, and cruelty about what it means to be intelligent. Mr. Siegel defined intelligence as “the ability of a self to become at one with the new.” And in the lecture he shows that intelligence is always a oneness of opposites—such as precision and scope, fact and imagination, oneself and the outside world in its width and particularity. Intelligence is described centrally in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
The present section is about the fact that intelligence and foolishness have been so intertwined in history—and in individual lives. What Mr. Siegel shows is about all of us, because every bright person has also felt, with much pain, “How could I have been so stupid!” And people have been disgusted by the brutal unintelligence of various persons who govern nations. Mr. Siegel quotes an instance of powerful prose about ancient Rome. And through it and how he speaks about it, we feel that this matter of intelligence and foolishness in nations and people can, in all its confusion, be seen with grandeur and beauty.
What Kind of Thought?
A recent New York Times article (July 27) was about a fundamental aspect of intelligence—though the writer and those she quotes don’t present the subject as having to do with intelligence at all. Under the headline “No Time to Think,” Kate Murphy says that a big reason people keep so busy, especially with electronic devices, is: they don’t want to think, because they don’t like what happens when they do. The article, then, is about something Aesthetic Realism has taken with great seriousness and has explained: people do not like their thoughts.
There is, really, nothing more important in intelligence than that we think in a way that makes us proud—that we be proud of our thoughts. You can score high on an IQ test, speak 12 languages, be a mathematics whiz, but if you hate your thoughts when you’re alone, there is a huge intellectual amissness. This amissness of mind is with millions of people, including the seemingly best educated. The article cites
a study published...in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.... The majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.
And the Times writer and the researchers don’t know why. The explanation begins with this fact, shown by Aesthetic Realism: “The large fight...in every mind...is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151).
The reason people don’t like their thoughts—indeed, as the article says, are tormented by their thoughts and want to get away from them—is threefold: 1) They do not use their thoughts to see other things and persons justly, to see value in them and comprehend them, to respect and like the world.
2) They use their thoughts to have active contempt for reality and people. That is, so much “introspection” is a going over how one has (as one sees it) been hurt by other people. So much of one’s thought is about how one is unappreciated, how people are mean and not good enough for one. So much of one’s thought is competitive—am I better than she is, so I can successfully feel superior? So much of one’s thought is about how can I make this person succumb to me?
We come to the third reason people dislike their thoughts. 3) We’re made in such a way that we inevitably judge ourselves on whether we’re just to the world. This fact is beautiful; yet people don’t know it, and don’t welcome the idea of criticizing themselves accurately. So they’re driven to punish themselves for their contempt through thoughts of a self-despising kind. People’s inner life consists a good deal of making the world seem mean so as to feel superior; also thinking of how one can have power over chosen aspects of the world; then punishing oneself for this contempt, sloppily. The decisive factor making us like our thoughts or dislike them is our purpose: are my thoughts in behalf of seeing meaning in the world, or having contempt for it?
The article describes an experiment: numerous people, left alone for that 15-minute period, chose to give themselves painful electric shocks rather than engage in their own thoughts. The writer notes, “They just didn’t like being in their own heads.” She surmises: “It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives.” Well, people’s thoughts have been gloomy. But it hasn’t been seen that people can prefer to have gloomy thoughts—because through these you prove to yourself you’re better than the world, too good for it.
Like Mrs. Gummidge in David Copperfield, one would rather call oneself “a lone, lorn creetur’” than find reality stirring, vibrant, meaningful. The reason: if things have value, you can’t feel superior to them. You have the burden (as your ego sees it) of respecting them. So what with the contempt victory of finding the world gloomy, and the pain of such thoughts—also the pain of disliking yourself for them—you can want to get away from thought altogether. You can want to distract yourself with an electric shock, or your smartphone.
Absent from the article and the study it tells of is this: People don’t know how to think in a way that would make them proud. Just as we need to learn how to read so written words can come truly into our minds, or how to calculate so quantities can, we need to learn how to look at things, people, our own feelings, even our confusion, exactly.
An assignment given in the study of Aesthetic Realism is: every day, look at an object and write three sentences about it. This is in behalf of respecting the world—and oneself. It is in behalf of seeing the reality of things other than oneself—reality that’s specific in each object.
So much of people’s thought to themselves simply makes most of reality a dull, if not inimical, wash. That is contempt, everyday and ugly. People’s thoughts do not give what art always gives: specific, scintillating, wide justice. The assignment I mentioned is in behalf of what Matthew Arnold described as the purpose of criticism: “to see the object as in itself it really is.” When one is seeing that way, one likes one’s thought.
Further, a big reason people’s thoughts to themselves are hurtful is: they don’t see outside things, including people, as really having to do with them. They see themselves as in some separate sphere, miserable but special. Aesthetic Realism shows that the opposites, which comprise our intimate selves, are in all things. Learning this, a person can have thought that’s accurate, large, pride-giving. “The structure of what thing,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “cannot illuminate our own structure? Does not a sheet of paper in its wideness and narrowness bring some essential likeness to us, to ourselves?”
The article quotes a psychologist as saying you shouldn’t suppress your “negative feelings”—you should think about them. But how should you think about them? People won’t know how until they are learning from Aesthetic Realism about that fight in them between contempt for the world and their desire—the deepest they have—to like the world through knowing it.
Thought & Beauty
Is there such a thing as beautiful thought? Will we ever like our soliloquies, our inner lives, unless we are learning what it means for thought—thought about anything—to be beautiful? It does seem that the thought making for art is beautiful, and so is that in authentic science. The thought of Shakespeare that became Hamlet was beautiful. The thought of Marie Curie that discovered radium was beautiful—as she said science itself was. Thought that is beautiful—whether about a feeling, a friend, a world happening—is intelligence. It is always a oneness of sharp attention to the object and wide relation; of who we are and justice to what’s not us. That the ability to have this kind of thought is learnable through Aesthetic Realism, makes me grateful without end.
Included in this issue is a poem that Eli Siegel wrote in 1926: “Beauty with the Poets.” It is about thought. The writer gives to 19 poets a sentence each, expressing something of how that poet saw beauty. Mr. Siegel certainly did not mean the sentences to be conclusive, about either beauty or how those poets saw it. He would say, and had seen already, much, much more about it, them, and so many others. But the sentences are immensely musical, have wonder, have accuracy about each person’s particular way of seeing. The most puzzling statement is that given to Shakespeare, whom Mr. Siegel did see as the poet who loved beauty most. (I won’t comment now on what I think it means.)
This poem is beautiful thought about others’ beautiful thought about beauty itself. It is, eminently, intelligence.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
A Message of History
By Eli Siegel
One of the messages of history is: the most intelligent persons have also been stupid; the wise guys have been dopes. Jesse James, for example, was very good in some things and not so good in others. The same can be said of railroad owners. The same can be said of emperors. Kaiser Wilhelm was seen as awfully wily; but after the ending of the First World War, stupidity after stupidity was found in the poor emperor. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t wily.
To show how the world as history is a compound of intelligence and stupidity, I’ll read a passage from one of the best written histories of all time, Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History. It has been shown that this work of 1681 is not really a history: its purpose is to show that God was present, hoping that his son would be recognized in all the doings of history. But while Bossuet is always pointing this out, he does have a narrative style. I agree that this is not the history to read for the facts—hardly—so there is some point in denying it is a history at all. But it has some of the swiftest writing and, all in all, I don’t know of any history that is better written. I think of Macaulay, Gibbon, Carlyle, Michelet; and Bossuet has something as good as any of these.
Confusion, Caesar, & More
Bossuet has come to what he calls the Ninth Epoch, the epoch in which the Roman republic changed to an empire. There were Marius and Sylla, and there were the Gracchi, and there was a good deal of confusion in Rome. But around the 7th decade bc we become acquainted with Caesar and Pompey. And Caesar comes to be the biggest person in the world then known—which didn’t include, as has been pointed out, such places as North and South America. But the world as then known was ruled by Caesar. It is at this point that I am reading from Bossuet.
Julius Caesar, in the 6th decade bc, has done very well in Gaul, and does quite well in Britain. He takes Gaul for the Romans. And Brutus and Cassius kill him in the Forum. Then there’s a fight of Brutus and Cassius against Octavius (or Octavian, the grand-nephew of Caesar and his adopted son) and Antony. Then there is a fight between Octavius (later Augustus) and Antony. Octavius—being smarter than them all, more astute, more adept than any other in pacifying men and persuading them—did not read Dale Carnegie. He didn’t have to. He knew all that Dale Carnegie was going to say centuries later. He is, in a way, the wisest, coolest man who ever lived.
As I read from Bossuet, I am pointing to the fact that here are men: they have done ever so many things. They can build bridges. They can mine gold. They can make jewelry. They can make clothes. They have some wonderful food, because dining in Rome in the first century bc was quite good: they knew all about lampreys, let alone some other delicacies. Still, there’s this fury, this abattoir feeling that Bossuet gives with enough delineation. It’s the confusion plus the separation of details that makes Bossuet as good a writer on history as any person:
Julius Caesar, in conquering the Gauls, brought to his country the most useful conquest it ever made....This enabled him to establish his domination over his land. First he wished to equal, and then to surpass Pompey.
The immense wealth of Crassus made Crassus believe he could share the glory of these two great men....Temerariously he undertook war against the Parthians, a war disastrous to himself and to his country. The Arsacides, victors, insulted with cruel jests the ambition of the Romans....
But the disgrace of the Roman name was not the worst effect of the defeat of Crassus. His power had counter-balanced that of Pompey and of Caesar, whom he kept united despite themselves.
With the defeat of Crassus, that which held them back was broken.The two rivals...decided their quarrel in a bloody battle at Pharsalia.
Caesar, victorious, seemed to stand for the universe, in Egypt, in Asia, in Mauretania, in Spain:...he was acknowledged as master at Rome and in all the empire.
Brutus and Cassius believed they would bring citizens liberty in killing him as a tyrant, despite his clemency.
Rome now fell into the hands of Marc Antony, of Lepidus, and of the young Caesar—Octavian, grand-nephew of Julius Caesar and his son by adoption. They were three insupportable tyrants, whose triumvirate and whose proscriptions still horrify when they are read of....
Everything yields to the fortune of [Octavian] Caesar..., who remains, with the name of Augustus, and with the title of emperor, the one master of the extensive empire.
He conquers near the Pyrenees...; Ethiopia asks for peace;...India seeks an alliance;...Germany is impressed by him, and the Weser accepts his laws.
...The whole universe lives peacefully under his power, and Jesus Christ comes to the world.
You take a person like Crassus, who was one of the richest men of all time, and he seems so stupid. You find in the biography of Augustus by Suetonius that Augustus also had foolishness. He’d go to sleep in a battle, for example. But he always knew how to recoup. We find that Julius Caesar had the falling sickness, and also could have known Brutus a little better.
It Is Always the Opposites
Intelligence is the ability to be on guard along with having rapture. It is two things: it’s the ability to conserve, along with the ability to be brilliantly acquiring. So much of what Bossuet describes doesn’t seem to be intelligent. His purpose, of course, is to say: with all this going on—these triumvirates and these proscriptions—it was about time that God should send his son to the world in the form of man.
Many things that Christ says are in the field of what it means to be intelligent—for example, when he talks about the lilies and tells people not to be so fussy: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” Well, there’s a good deal of wisdom in Christ, a good deal of intelligence. That intelligence has to be related to the other possibilities of intelligence.
Intelligence has taken many forms and, I say again, it has had in it two ways in every field whatsoever. For instance, it’s pointed out that the bold person is the one who gets ahead. It’s also pointed out that the patient person is the one who becomes vice-president. What can you do? Every precept has something else opposing it: “A rolling stone gathers no moss”; “Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits.” It’s in all languages, this matter of the opposites in intelligence. Intelligence is, then, the ability to put opposites together in a specific situation.
Beauty with the Poets
By Eli Siegel
Chaucer: Beauty, hello, how are you?
Spenser: I like you so much, I’d give the world for you.
Shakespeare: When I need you, I’ll take you.
Pope: I’ll have you as long as you come in the right fashion.
Milton: O, great, high beauty, I will use you in your greatness.
Gray: I meditate and I grieve and I come to you.
Shelley: See how fast you fly and move.
Keats: Death is in thee; thou art autumnal.
Tennyson: How bright and taking you are.
Browning: I shall bring you out of strange depths and yet leave you there.
Coleridge: You are the greatest light, coming in darkness, to me.
Donne: I’ll go at you my way; you are dark and fast; so will I be; but that way rest comes; the rest of intellect.
Dryden: I get along well with you, and I’ll use this power.
Crashaw: I desire you much, servant of creating, shining depths.
Herrick: Neat, neat and needed.
Wordsworth: God, you are beauty: what you do is beauty.
Goldsmith: So delightful you are.
Swinburne: Speed, sound, fury and all.
Scott: You are mighty, mighty; I love you.
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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