The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Philosophy, a Famous Song, & You

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the great lecture Philosophy Consists of Instincts, which Eli Siegel gave in 1965. And we publish here too part of a paper by sportswriter Michael Palmer, from a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “The Mix-up in Men about Coldness & Warmth.”

In his lecture Mr. Siegel explains what no other philosopher has: the biggest conflict in every person, he says, the turmoil that goes on in people every day, corresponds to the largest matter in philosophy:

There is an instinct on the part of everyone to see or be honest; there is also an instinct to be comfortable....Perhaps the best way to see what this conflict is, is to see how it is present in the history of...American philosophy.

The fight between our desire to see, know, give things justice, and our desire to be comfortable, has many forms in everyone’s life. And then, there is what Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy to show—the only way we will be proud, at ease, happy, is to see these opposed desires as deeply the same, as one: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” To comment on that landmark principle and the fight Mr. Siegel speaks about, I’m going to look at a poem which is also an ever so famous song.

On New Year’s Eve

This issue of TRO will appear on the last day of 2014. And that night, men and women throughout the English-speaking world will again sing words Robert Burns wrote in 1788. His poem “Auld Lang Syne” is beautiful. But people have been puzzled; they haven’t really known what it’s about, though they’ve felt it has to do with the past. The Scottish title literally means old long since, and can be translated “Old Times Past.” The poem, sung to an old Scottish melody, begins:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And auld lang syne?

This is a poem passionately, tearfully, firmly, joyfully against one of the biggest ways people have gone after comfort: the putting of things aside, the making them not matter. The poem is for knowing, seeing meaning. It says, If something of the past had value, you should want to see that value; you should want it to stay with you, be part of you.

“Auld Lang Syne” has to do with memory, that big matter which troubles people a lot. Throughout their lives, they can feel the way to be comfortable is to be not much affected by the confusing world—to get rid of it in various ways. For instance, people so often go to sleep at night with the desire to get rid of the world they had to deal with during the day. There is a big, ongoing feeling that: the outside world makes unkind demands on me, doesn’t appreciate me, has the nerve to mix me up; and the way to have comfort, peace, real pleasure is to put aside all (or at least most) of it and have myself to myself (with perhaps the company of somebody who’ll give me a lot of praise).

Memory is the world, experience, retained in oneself. But as the years pass, a person can have such an industry of putting aside the world that after a while this putting it aside is out of her control: she can’t remember.

To get away from the world can seem innocent, but it is a form of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the most dangerous thing in humanity: contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” “Auld Lang Syne” is against contempt. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” no. The world—including the world of your past—is for you to see, to know, to make part of you. There is the famous chorus:

For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne,

We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,

For auld lang syne!

“A cup o’ kindness” is a toast to the kindness one met, and a pledge to continue kindness. Along with memory as such, this poem has to do with something related to it, which people see as a terrific interference with comfort: gratitude. They’ve felt that to have gotten tremendous good from what’s not themselves, lessens their own superiority and perfection. This feeling is one of the ugliest, most hurtful things in the world.

When There Has Been Difficulty

The two greatest stanzas are in the middle of the poem. Twa means two; braes are hillsides; gowans are daisies; burn is brook; dine is dinnertime. In semi-anglicized Scottish, the stanzas are:

We twa have run about the braes,

And pulled the gowans fine;

But we’ve wandered many a weary foot

Since auld lang syne.


We twa have paddled in the burn

From morning sun till dine,

But seas between us broad have roared,

Since auld lang syne.

That is: we seemed so carefree once—but so much has happened since; there’s been weariness. People have used the difficulties they’ve met to feel they should put aside the goodness, the wonder, the value they saw. But the lines of Burns have, along with poignancy, that electricity and reverberation which is Life. They are saying: I don’t want to use any difficulty to make less of what I saw as good; I want to keep seeing and valuing—not get to some shadowy, conceited, miserable comfort in myself by feeling cynically “what does it all come to?”

The last stanza uses a charming phrase to affirm the desire to know and honor: a “good-willy waught,” which means a drink to represent our good will. “And we’ll take a right good-willy waught / For auld lang syne.”

All art comes from the desire to know—to see and feel with fullness, depth, accuracy. And in all art, the sharpness and stir of justice are the same as composure, comfort in the truest sense. We hear these as one in the poetic music, as well as the melody, of “Auld Lang Syne.” And so, as people sing it, they will be singing about the biggest conflict in themselves—and also the beautiful and urgent aesthetic answer.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

There Are Comfort & Change

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing passages from the chapter “Later Philosophy,” by Morris Cohen, in The Cambridge History of American Literature.

While I am commenting on many things in American philosophy, I think it will be seen that they are all illustrative of the two instincts in man: the desire to see, and the desire to commend oneself, or to be comfortable, or to say that one has done enough and now deserves to be happy. —Another passage:

The storm which broke the stagnant air [of earlier American philosophy] and aroused many American minds from this dogmatic torpor came with the controversy over evolution which followed the publication of Lyell’s Geology, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Spencer’s First Principles.

I’m quite sure persons would say, “What’s that got to do with my conflict?” If Aesthetic Realism is true, all conflict is an exemplification of the possibilities of philosophy. For example, let’s take someone who at last feels that he has his house or apartment to his liking. He has bought many things, given a great deal of care. He’s even taken a trip to Connecticut to get an antique. His apartment is crackerjack, and now he can sit in his carefully chosen chair and bask. We know that the basking does not go on too long, that along with the desire to say everything is fine there is also a desire to raise hell, which is another term for changing. So just at the moment when everything is to one’s liking, comes the other phase of the philosophic matter: change.

“All’s Well”

Earlier American philosophers were thought to have found the world too good too quickly. They were likened to that aspect of Hegel which was thought to have come to terms with the absolute—to say: The absolute is present in the Prussian state and therefore the Prussian state should not be objected to. Or: The absolute is present in a poor section of Berlin, and therefore these working men acting so roughly don’t follow Hegel, because if you followed Hegel you would find perfection with the help of the absolute wherever you were in Germany.

The tendency to see philosophy as the logical all’s well signal is tremendous. And the tendency to think we’re all well, is there. The ideal deep in mind is being on a lagoon called by your own name, smoking a cigar with the puffs sent out into the blue. (You can substitute another property for the cigar.) The tendency to say that all’s well is philosophic insofar as existence at any one time is what it is. So in terms of itself, existence is now perfect: it is what it is. However, it may look a little different tomorrow.

Dogma in philosophy is a desire to say all’s well, with the help of concepts and the absolute. But the desire to say that all’s well is present everywhere. It’s present in the Board of Supervisors of Rockland County. It comes from the fact that we do want to give ourselves certificates. You’ve suffered enough; get your reward this evening: everybody’s longing to hear that. And one way of feeling you’re entitled to this certificate is to stop thought on any matter that’s really difficult, because if you are still thinking it means you have work to do.

Evolution, Creation, & Thought

“The storm which broke the stagnant air and aroused many American minds from this dogmatic torpor came with the controversy over evolution.” Evolution is change, as opposed to the static. There are two phrases of a reassuring kind: everything is good as it is and everything will turn out all right. As soon as you accent everything will turn out all right, you are something of an evolutionist. If you’re satisfied that everything is good as it is, then you are a creationist: God made everything right from the beginning and all we have to do is enjoy God’s handiwork. That species should evolve makes things a little rougher.

Still, the word evolution can be used reassuringly: things will evolve in your favor. So there are two modes of comforting: one, that things are all right as they are; and two, they’ll turn out all right. Both can be used as a pretext to stop thinking. At one time, evolution was used the way earlier God had been used: things are in evolution, and they will come out all right, and we can’t hasten them, and therefore we have a right to be in torpor.

Lyell’s Geology showed that the crust of earth was right now going through changes. Geology has these two things: it’s either getting hotter or cooling down—which is just the way man’s life is. We are asked, “Why don’t you get excited?” and “Why don’t you cool down, take it easy?” Thought is that way: thought is intense and it’s also arranging.

Then there is Darwin’s Origin of Species. When it first appeared, most people didn’t care because they didn’t even think about it, and some cared much later. There are still people who feel that evolution should not be taught in schools. And as late as 1926 we had the trial of a person teaching evolution. Everyone would like to think that he is complete, and if he finds he’s only part of a process, it’s exceedingly humiliating. We’d like to get ahead but we don’t like to be part of a process. How one can get ahead without being part of a process is hard to see.

The Origin of Species, then, was against the comfort of people. But it happens that the desire to be uncomfortable is part of man. Man is a restless being and very often prefers the discomfort of tackling something he hadn’t seen to the comfort of being just where he was. Artists and inventors are seen as the restless beings. The others go along later.

I’m presenting this, again, as illustrative of two instincts: the instinct to be pleased with what we have; the instinct to think about it, or to be critical. This is related to what is called the desire to feel and the desire to know. The self is honored more—apparently—by feeling, because in thought it has to go into strange territory. Even with miserable feeling, there’s the appearance that the world one is in is still one’s own; but thought takes you among strangers, and that is perilous.

A Mix-up of Coldness & Warmth

By Michael Palmer

In issue 1276 of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, there is the following important question: “Have you divided reality into that part of it to which you will be ‘warm’ (your family, some friends, certain fields of interest), and a huge rest-of-the-world to which you are deeply cold?”

That describes me growing up. The “certain field… of interest,” which dominated my thoughts was sports. I would read all the sports books I could get my hands on and pester my father and older brother to take me to Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, I certainly did not have that feeling of warmth about people. I could act like a great guy, making friends smile with jokes and comedy routines, but I wasn’t deeply interested in their lives or in being useful to them. I felt described by these questions in The Right Of, asked by Ellen Reiss: “Have you been more interested in impressing and having your way with people than in understanding them? If you don’t want to understand people, will you have to feel cold to them—even when you want to feel warm?”

When I was about 9 or 10 and guests came to our house I was courteous, but thought, “I don’t want to be with these boring people. I’d rather listen to a ballgame on the radio,” and I’d soon go to another room. My parents were embarrassed and referred to me as shy; but the truth was, I was a cold fish. “We despise ourselves for being cold,” writes Ms. Reiss in TRO, “we ache from our coldness, because our greatest desire is to like the world, to feel our living relation to every thing and person.” I indeed did ache, but I didn’t think I could be different.

Then in 1971 I began to study Aesthetic Realism. And in the first of his classes that I attended, Eli Siegel saw the mix-up in me about coldness and warmth. “Do you think,” he asked, “you care for anything more than yourself?” That question got to my center. I answered “No.”

Later he asked, “In the field of ethics, do you think there is something that impels one to hope one has a good effect? Would you feel bad if you thought you had a bad effect on anyone?” “Yes,” I said, and added, “I had a bad effect on my parents.”

“Where do you think you hurt them?” Mr. Siegel asked. “I could have been warmer,” I said. And he asked, “If you failed to encourage people, would you feel bad? The chief thing we’re concerned with is what we might have done that we didn’t do.”

Father, Son, & a Big Change

As I thought about this discussion, my coldness became graphically clear and I felt spurred on to change. I began to think about people more deeply; I tried to know, learn from them; and I began to be truly warm. I felt like a new man! Not long after that class, I had lunch with my father, and we talked with an ease and depth we’d never had before. I asked him questions about his life. He was surprised, and told me about his childhood on the Lower East Side. He spoke about his own father, who sold secondhand clothes from a cart and, to do so, learned to converse in both English and Chinese. He also told me his father liked eating alone, apart from the rest of the family, and he said to me, “I see who you take after.” We both laughed and even cried a little. I felt a warmth for my father I’d never had.

He was so moved that he wrote to Mr. Siegel that afternoon, thanking him for Aesthetic Realism’s effect on me, saying, “I feel this one day added 20 years to my life.”

I love Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to understand the contempt that stopped me from caring for people—and to understand how I could change. I now have a life so rich and happy. This happiness very much includes my marriage to Lynette Abel, whose keen, lively seeing and perceptive criticism I’m proud to need.

Real Warmth Is Good Will

What it means to be truly warm is what every person, every nation, needs desperately to know. I’m grateful to continue learning about it in classes taught by Ellen Reiss. In one class, when I was speaking in a complacent manner about a friend, Ms. Reiss asked me, “As you think about people, is there a deep feeling ‘I want this person to succeed!’? Do you want who you are to really be engaged in having a person be all they can be?” I answered, “I like to avoid controversy.”

That answer, Ms. Reiss explained, is about what you might say, but “before you say anything there is how you think. Does Ms. Abel miss anything from you there: your staying power in terms of being deep?” I replied “Yes.” And as I thought about it, I saw that this depth about other people, this good will, was what I wanted most. Having it increasingly, with staying power, has enabled me to respect myself and be a much warmer friend and husband—still happily learning!