King Richard III & Everyone
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the great 1973 lecture The Scientific Method in Feeling, by Eli Siegel. It is about those two tremendous opposites in every person: knowing and feeling. Just about everyone has the sense “I’m a different person reasoning, knowing, from the person with emotions.” People have taken this rift in them for granted. Yet it has made them ashamed, and pained, also unkind. In the lecture we’re serializing and in Aesthetic Realism itself, Mr. Siegel shows that the division doesn’t have to be. In fact, feeling and knowing are always simultaneous. Feelings themselves can be known, seen accurately, and it’s necessary for us to want to know them.
In the lecture Mr. Siegel uses an anthology of English literature to show that true knowing is inseparable from feeling. And as I say this, I say too that Mr. Siegel himself embodied the oneness of those opposites, magnificently—in his teaching, writing, life. His desire was always to know. He wanted to know the world in all its fullness and immediacy. His scholarship was wide, deep, rich—truly unsurpassed—and it was always warm, vibrant with life, passionate.
In America Now
At this time, when there has been so much tumult and shock in America, it’s necessary more than ever that we want to know what goes on within ourselves and others. It’s necessary that we get to primal matters: that we ask, What kind of feeling do we want to have? What kind of feeling is best for America? Asking this is patriotism. It is also science—because to be scientific, Mr. Siegel explained, is to go after knowing, to know we’re going after it, and to see knowing as preferable to soothing or aggrandizing our ego.
In the section of the lecture included here, he quotes Thomas More on King Richard III. And now, in behalf of understanding our feelings and what America is looking for, I am going to quote from an earlier lecture in which Mr. Siegel also spoke on Richard III—and used him to describe a fight in everybody. He gave that lecture on May 29, 1970. Its title is There Are Ambition, Money, Love, and Energy.
Richard III, who reigned in England from 1483 to 1485, has been seen as a person who would do anything to get what he wanted, including kill anyone who stood in the way of his becoming king. He is a character in three plays of Shakespeare. In one of them he says, “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile” (3 Henry VI). Mr. Siegel explained:
Richard has what everyone has—the feeling the world exists so that you can have your way with it. [He] represents the ego without bars, the nude ego that is aggressive, interested in nothing but itself.
We Need to Understand the Fight
The situation of America today—the bewilderment, the whirling, the anger—is a demand that we look at what Mr. Siegel is the philosopher to explain: there is a fight in every person between two desires, one of which Richard III stands for vividly. That is: we want to have contempt for the world—which includes looking down on people and truth, and manipulating these to enhance ourselves in a spurious fashion. But the desire for contempt is at war with another desire of ours: to respect this multitudinous world we were born into, and become our full, glorious selves by being grandly just to its facts and happenings and people.
The fight is personal for everyone, and it is also historical. In 1970 Mr. Siegel explained that economics based on contempt—on seeing people in terms of how much money can I squeeze from you and your labor?—had failed and would never succeed again, despite anything that might be done to keep it going. This is not a political matter. It is a matter, Mr. Siegel showed, of ethics: the only way an economy can now succeed is for it to be based on good will, the honest asking and answering of the question “What does a person deserve by being alive?”
Shakespeare’s King Richard III is the most famous work on that monarch, and Mr. Siegel explained that it was very popular from the time it first appeared because
people felt they were Richard—how wonderful to have one’s way without any interference and if there is interference you do away with it. We are all miniature, muted Richard IIIs. Everyone is more interested in having one’s way than deserving it.
And yet, victorious contempt has never satisfied anyone, because the human self is made ethically, aesthetically: our deepest purpose is to be ourselves through being just to what’s different. That is why Richard in Shakespeare’s play about him is plagued with bad dreams. And it’s why, after many centuries, an economy based on getting “yours” by taking from people what is theirs has not been able to hum along as it once was able to do.
Mr. Siegel said in his 1970 discussion of Richard III:
People feel they can be selfish all they please. It has an effect on the corpuscles and cells. The literature of the world has tried to say, If you have anything of the world make sure you deserve it. Anytime we make money and don’t feel we deserve it, we are hurting ourselves.... Why is the phrase “I made a killing” used in business, however jestingly?
Everyone Should Ask
What Mr. Siegel explained and asked in that 1970 discussion is throbbingly needed by America today. For example, he said:
It is a good thing to see the absence of good will not faring so well. This has to do with ambition in America....Is there a good ambition and a bad ambition? There is a kind of ambition which is scornful of the world. But what is the largest thing? Is it the seeing of the world or its conquering?
Everyone should ask: “Is the way I’m going for something really liked by me?” “What kind of emotions do I want to have?” “What effect do I want to have on people?”
I think the people of America have a chance now to be deeper than ever, more honest than ever, in looking at each other and themselves. They can be, through the study of Aesthetic Realism, including through the questions just quoted, which Eli Siegel asked.