Kindness, Cruelty, & Competition
Dear Unknown Friends:
In the conclusion, printed here, of his 1947 lecture The Necessity of Aesthetics, we see Eli Siegel speaking to an audience at Steinway Hall and illustrating the principle at the basis 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.” He was the philosopher to show that the human self is an aesthetic matter. We are composed of the opposites that are in art, and the one way for us to be happy, mentally thriving, truly ourselves, is to make a one of those opposites—the largest of which are care for Self and justice to the outside World.
We publish here too an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Ernest DeFilippis. It’s from a paper he gave in March at a public seminar titled “Competition in Men: What Makes It Good or Bad?” Mr. DeFilippis shows that hurtful competition—of which there’s an enormous amount—comes from contempt: the feeling we’re more through making what’s not us less. Contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the big weakener of our lives and the cause of every cruelty.
It was 32 years ago this month that Eli Siegel underwent the operation that led to his death. I have written about it every year. That terrible operation, with its devastating aftermath, had centrally to do with competition, and so I’ll comment on competition in relation to it and to Aesthetic Realism itself.
In a Poem & Human Life
In 1731, in important poetic lines, Jonathan Swift wrote jocularly about the competition that is contempt. He speaks about even resenting the goodness of his friend Alexander Pope:
What poet would not grieve to see
His brethren write as well as he?
But rather than they should excel,
He’d wish his rivals all in hell.
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
If with such talents Heaven hath blessed ’em,
Have I not reason to detest ’em?
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In Pope I cannot read a line,
But with a sigh I wish it mine:
When he can in one couplet fix
More sense than I can do in six,
It gives me such a jealous fit,
I cry, “Pox take him and his wit!” . . .
Swift is playful and musical—and courageous in looking at what’s really the ugliest state of mind in every person. In fact, we’ll either want to look at it and criticize it in ourselves, or we will treasure and nourish it.
In my many years of studying Aesthetic Realism, I have seen people tremendously angry that Eli Siegel knew more than they did. I never met or heard of a scholar more widely, lovingly, keenly learned. He was interested in every field. And he developed the philosophy that shows the relation among all the items and aspects of reality. His intellect—comprehensive and warm—was apparent to anyone who heard him speak.
Even now, three decades after his death, there are individuals who are foamingly mad that Mr. Siegel was, and Aesthetic Realism is, so intellectually thorough and fine: that is the cause of their anger. Mr. Siegel met such anger throughout his life. In 1951, the poet William Carlos Williams wrote about Mr. Siegel’s being subjected to “the extreme resentment” of persons with “fixed, sclerotic mind[s].” And I have seen in some people a fury that Mr. Siegel was completely honest: they felt his ethics showed them up.
I have seen various individuals enraged because many people respected Eli Siegel so much: they, the angry individuals, felt they should be the focus of people’s admiration. And again and again, I have seen people angry that they needed to learn so much about themselves from Aesthetic Realism. They felt: If I need to learn a lot, it should at least be from something that’s famous and that therefore makes me important!
The most horrible competition is this, which goes on within a person’s mind: “I should be able to look down on anyone and anything I please! If I respect someone, unless I can find some way also to feel superior to that person, I’m furious, and will try to get my revenge!” From this contemptuous competition arise particular forms of competition. One form is the awful competition that is racism: the feeling that one’s own “race” must be treated as superior to another.
Aesthetic Realism, in its principles and all its aspects, represents respect for the world and people. Not only is it that which explains contempt, but it is contempt’s greatest opponent. That has made some individuals exceedingly angry, because they have equated their personalities with their ability to have contempt.
Competition & Surgery
The operation Mr. Siegel underwent in May 1978 was supposed to be “routine” surgery for an enlarged prostate. The doctor who performed it had visited Mr. Siegel a week or so earlier and, in their lengthy discussion, had had something of an Aesthetic Realism lesson: Mr. Siegel had understood and explained large matters in the doctor’s own life. Then, in the operation, the doctor used general anesthesia, unusual for such surgery. Mr. Siegel would later call it “the operation so disastrous to me”—because after it, his life was ruined. “I have lost,” he wrote, “the use of my feet.”
In the summer of 1978, the surgeon, questioned by me and others, admitted that he had been angry at his large respect for Mr. Siegel. Anger at respecting someone has ugly competition in it: one wants to be superior to the person—and one may try to accomplish that with a scalpel in one’s hand.
I have written often about my own brutal role in that operation. Mr. Siegel did not want the surgery. He said he would rather die than have it. When his wife, Martha Baird, sought the opinion of some of his students, we all answered rapidly that we thought he should have the procedure. The doctors had been urging it and had said Mr. Siegel would die without it. I was frightened for his life; but, shamefully, I didn’t want to think deeply about the person I respected and loved most in the world. The reason, I now see, is that, like the others, I too was competitive with Mr. Siegel, resented how much I needed to learn from him, and welcomed feeling superior to him. We felt: we know more about what’s good for him than he does! He agreed to the surgery. How hideously and tragically wrong we were.
In the summer, and then the fall, the effects of the operation intensified. Mr. Siegel endured, with agony, his body’s becoming weaker and weaker. By the end of July, he could no longer write with his own hands. He dictated poems, and issues of this journal. Through it all, his kindness, intellect, scope and freshness of vision never abated. He lectured on many writers, including Coleridge, Scott, Vachel Lindsay, Milton—until mid-October, when the state of his body made him unable to do so. He made it clear that he was thinking about how to be in the most dignified, respectful relation to the world he loved—for the relation to it he had then was unendurable. On November 8, he died.
To Love What’s Beautiful
Eli Siegel himself was the least competitive person I ever knew. He was always glad to see and value good wherever it was. His own life, and the philosophy he founded, and the events causing his death have taught me this: There is nothing uglier, and also stupider, than the competition of contempt. And to love what’s beautiful and honest not only is the greatest pleasure, but makes oneself intelligent and strong.