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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1823.—May 23, 2012

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Philosophy Is in Things, Happenings—& You

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the third section of the 1970 lecture Philosophy Begins with That, by Eli Siegel. He is illustrating something which Aesthetic Realism is the one philosophy to show: the structure of the whole world is in every individual thing. That structure is the oneness of opposites. Every object, feeling, sound, sight, happening—from a shout to a birth to a walk with one’s dog—is a simultaneity of such opposites as continuity and change, freedom and order, the strange and the ordinary, the weighty and the light. In the lecture, Mr. Siegel uses passages from a diary of the novelist Arnold Bennett to show that philosophy is what we’re meeting in each item of our lives and aspect of ourselves.

He begins this third section with a discussion of the branches of philosophy: ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. Aesthetic Realism itself is all four, and shows that they are inseparable.

Let us take epistemology (the study of knowing, of how the outside world can be in our mind), and ethics. Central in both is the tremendous matter of truth. And truth is always a oneness of the most fundamental of opposites: self and world. Mr. Siegel defined truth as “the having of a thing as it is, in mind.” How do we see truth? What is our attitude to it? This is the largest matter in every person’s life, and in nations, their economy, their government—even though most people are exceedingly uncomfortable and evasive about it.

What Lying Is About

On April 25, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the tendency of children to lie, and what parents should do when their child presents them with a falsehood. The Wall Street Journal gives examples: a boy denying he took a cookie, when he indeed did; a child asserting that it was the cat, not he, who broke the vase; and a teenage girl falsely assuring her mother that the party she’s going to will be chaperoned. The parent is supposed to say something like: “I would be disappointed if I found out you weren’t being truthful,” or “Everybody makes mistakes, but it is not OK to lie about them.”

The article, by Sue Shellenbarger, is titled “How to Handle Little Liars.” But the parental techniques recommended in it have not worked and won’t—because neither the parents nor the psychological researchers quoted know what lying is really about.

A lie does not begin with whether a cookie was eaten, or a chaperone will be present. The big question about lying, what is behind every lie, is: How do you (whether you’re an adult or child) see truth? Do you see the world as something for you to be fair to; or as something for you to use to aggrandize yourself, have your way, make yourself superior? The preference for a lie rather than for truth does not begin with a situation. What it begins with, Eli Siegel describes in the Preface to his book Self and World:

The first victory of contempt is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please....The fact that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form.

How Much Does It Matter?

There is this, in the Wall Street Journal article: “All children fib....Lying is, in truth, a milestone of normal child development.” I have to say that these statements are deeply sickening. The reason is: while of course some lies are much worse than others, lying comes from the ugliest, cruelest, sleaziest thing in the human self. It is “normal” in the same way that the ability to contract a horrible disease is normal: the human self is constructed with the possibilities of both strength and weakness, good and evil. But the sentences I just quoted make lying seem not to matter too much, when what makes a person prefer lying to truth is a life-or-death emergency.

The question is not whether “all children fib.” The question, for everyone, is: Do you see truth as beautiful, as important—or do you think the most important thing is your own comfort and supremacy? This is a philosophic question. It is about the nature of the world and the nature of the self, and about these as opposites needing to be one. It is also the most personal, pressing question there is. How our lives go depends on it. Whether we respect or dislike ourselves depends on it. Whether we are kind or mean depends on it.

The Fight in a Child

The central matter in “childhood development” has been described by Eli Siegel in Self and World:

Every child has this debate: Shall I...see the world as magnificently and as delicately as possible; or shall I see the world as the material for victories for just me?

Some forms of the debate are: Am I more important than everything and everyone else, or are other children as real as I am, with feelings as vivid as mine? Do my parents belong to me, or are they part of the whole world? These questions are not articulated in a child’s mind; nevertheless, they are burningly present there. And when parents encourage a child to feel superior to the world, they are encouraging the biggest lie, and other lies will follow. The big lie children (like adults) take unto themselves is not about a cookie. It is contempt, the making less of what is not oneself.

For the Wall Street Journal to write about lying in children is both comic and terrible. That is because the profit system, to which the Wall Street Journal dedicates itself, happens to be one of the biggest lies in human history. Profit economics is based on the huge, horrible lie that the world belongs more to some people than to others. To see another human being as a mechanism to provide profits for oneself; to see a worker as someone to pay as little as possible while taking to oneself as much as possible of the wealth his work created; to think of a human being not as someone as real as oneself, but as someone from whom to get money—this is an utter and daily lie.

Let’s take, for instance, a father in Victorian England who chided his little boy for telling a fib. Meanwhile, this paterfamilias owned a factory in which other boys and girls labored hour after hour of their stifled lives. Child labor, sweatshops, the profit motive itself, all come from that lie which Eli Siegel described: the “see[ing of] other a way that seemed to go with comfort....It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form.”

Why Are They Fooled?

“Parents,” the article notes, “are remarkably bad at detecting their children’s lies....[They] have what researchers call ‘a truthfulness bias.’” Certainly, parents want to think their offspring are more honest than other people. However, a big reason children are able to fool them is that the main interest of most parents has not been in how their children see truth: how fair they are in their minds to reality near and far. Historically, parents’ larger interest has been in having the child behave well—and bring glory to the household. If you are more interested in having your way than in what’s true, another person can fool you more easily than if you have had a steady, beautiful, loving interest in truth.

There is much more to say about this great subject of children and truth. It is a philosophic subject, and also a subject as human as a child crying to herself in bed at night. One big instance of what the psychologists cited in the article do not see is: when a child lies, she despises herself for doing so, because her deepest desire is to be fair to the world. And every child longs to see real honesty in the adults around her.

While people don’t see truth as that which makes them important, or takes care of them, they will lie. Aesthetic Realism is the study of how seeing reality truly is the same as being gloriously fair to yourself. It shows that all art is the oneness of justice to the world and full self-expression. Aesthetic Realism, then, is the most needed education, and the most magnificent. It arose from a person, Eli Siegel, who, I saw, loved truth with his whole heart and mind.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

We Look at Ourselves & the World
By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is commenting on passages from Arnold Bennett’s Journal 1929.

Philosophy is generally divided into four phases. The first, which is rampant now, is epistemology: How do we know anything?; or Do we know anything?; What is truth? The second, which is catching up, is ontology: What is the nature of existence, matter, and such things, including space and time? The third is What should I do? or ethics. And the fourth is What makes a thing beautiful?—aesthetics. So we have epistemology, ontology, ethics, and aesthetics. Then, you can add things. There’s the philosophy of history, the philosophy of economics, the philosophy of religion—some people get in theology. But those four are fairly well accepted.

In aesthetics, we come, of course, to the dealing with art, although even now most critics and most persons who collect paintings have a kind of discomfort with aesthetics straight. Collectors feel they didn’t buy any aesthetics with Renoir; they just bought Renoir.

In ethics we have the field most important for a person: What should I do? We have the self there, because the study of ethics is: What is the best possible relation between a hoping self and a rather complacent world, or a rather fixed world? The subject then gets into psychology. And we get into psychiatry as soon as we ask, What should a person do? Psychiatry for a couple of decades kept away from ethics, but now finds that harder.

We Look at Ourselves

There is our attitude to ourselves: as I say in “Ralph Isham,” “What was he to himself? / There, there is something.”* That is a statement about existence in the first place, because a human being is a being who can see himself as an object, and therefore he has an attitude to himself. There have been persons who entertained their friends by drawing themselves—without a mirror—and people found the drawing was fairly good. You can draw your wrist if you want to. But then there is, What shall I do with this thing called myself?—aside from just drawing it. Here we have ethics in ever so many possibilities. And Bennett writes about it.

It seems that every human being has tried to think well of himself. Even the saints, the ascetics, the flagellants tried to think well of themselves, and those who went into the forest and sought wanness. The mortification of self and the expansion of self have been things.

It would seem, also, that as soon as evolution got to man, reality got to beings that could talk about it. While beings were still in the stage of Eohippus and such, reality couldn’t have anybody talk about it. But when it got to man, it could hear itself being described. So it would seem that one of the reasons for the coming of man is to have existence commented on. The human being is a person who can comment on himself and his great adversary, the world.

So we have attitudes to ourselves. Bennett wrote about these in novels. Stendhal did. At this moment, in their novels, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, as Françoise Sagan did earlier, have attitudes to themselves. In other words, novels have philosophic things: a novelist has to have an attitude to himself.

Chance, Self, & Value

Bennett writes about going to the races, and here we have the element of chance. One of the titles in American philosophy is that of Charles Sanders Peirce: Chance, Love, and Logic. What is chance? What is fate? What is will? What is casualty?

Bennett goes to a race and he describes a woman who won. She is very much for herself. We come, then, to a problem of value. If a human being is for himself, he may do something like putting his thumb under his armpits. A comic film that did very well some years ago is the one based on Bennett’s novel Denry the Audacious, or The Card (its British title). It’s about an ever-so-sure man of England. In this entry, Bennett is talking to his host, an owner of race horses:

He described the woman who, when she had won, talked to herself the whole time as she drove home, saying nothing comprehensible, just babbling and gabbling, half-unconsciously.

Which means that if you win on a race, you can think so well of yourself you become incoherent. This has a philosophic basis, but then, it’s what’s called la vie. La vie always begins with something that is not la vie, always begins quietly, like Ravel’s Bolero.

There is also philosophy here because people want to solve the problem of the world in various ways, and one way is through being interested in the races. Sherwood Anderson has stories about people who follow the races from Kentucky to Pimlico to Saratoga. At least you keep out of greater trouble: you follow the races, and the ponies will keep your soul intact. Bennett is talking to his host:

He said that the betting “system” of most of these people was to back (what they deemed to be) absolute certainties, and then by way of embroidery to make a few very long shots—50 to 1 affairs. He said that they lived for nothing but racing. They talked to all the jockeys, all the trainers, and even all the stable-boys whom they could come across.

These are the opposites, security and chance. We want the world to be dangerous, to have adventure. People want to live perilously. There’s such a thing as Russian roulette. But also, Bennett says, people want to bet on something that’s sure. They get all the dope (and there have been people who, no matter what is happening, read only the racing form). Then they satisfy another part of themselves, the Nietzschean part, the desire to live dangerously, take a big chance. The two desires are in everyone. What do they come from? Is the world itself security and chance at one? That is an aesthetic situation.—Bennett writes about something his host told him:

He named a very famous and experienced owner and said that this middle-aged cosmopolitan celebrity literally shook with excitement in such circumstances.

That is, you can shake if you have a bet on a race and you’re watching it, because it seems to be criticizing yourself. The world is seen as a critic of oneself.

What is chance? And how did we come to be what we are? Why we should be as we are, for all the discussion of family, does seem to be so much a matter of chance. Our very selves seem to come from the unknown as unplanned.

How We See the World

Then there is the matter of attitudes, which was the large thing in Socratic philosophy: How should we see the world? Aristotle didn’t give so much room to the subject. He wrote a work on ethics, but his Posterior Analytics is not about ethics, and his Physics and Metaphysics are not. Socrates, though, was given largely to ethics. And where does that begin? Do things outside of man have an attitude to themselves? Bennett has some statements implying that things do:

Later, the host took us out to see a “promising colt” which was loose in a field. A stableman...came up to the host and broke to him the news that the promising colt had “damaged hisself against wire.” Then we saw the colt being led back to the stable. The babyish animal limped a bit, had lost some hair in various places, and a small piece of skin from the off hind-leg. Also the animal was in a nervous state and pranced around at the slightest noise.

It does seem as if animals had an attitude to themselves. The dog, in particular, has a mechanism for self-approval and self-disapproval. But it is presumed even that a bee has, and maybe a caterpillar has little quivers of self-doubt. It’s hard to see. But those that used to be called the nobler animals quite clearly have: the horse, the dog, and, of course, the pussycat, definitely a nobler animal. But others do too. Occasionally they find the world not to their liking. Mad dogs have recently been studied and given the complexity Stendhal gives to Julien Sorel: Why did that dog become mad? Why did he have to froth? The change in a dog, and sometimes the sudden strange desire of a colt or a horse—there is an attitude to the world there. It seems anything that lives can say, “I don’t like what’s going on.” Bennett continues:

Then we made a muddy tour of the fast field to find traces of equine hair and blood on the wire. We didn’t find any. But the stablemen found them and directed us to them. There they were, plainly enough. The colt had dashed itself against the fence with such force as to bend one of the standards.

Well, the swine in the New Testament are seen as having a world point of view: they are possessed, and dash into the sea. It seems anything that lives can be affected by the world as it is seen. black diamond

*From “Ralph Isham, 1753 and Later,” Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems.

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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Third Saturday of each month, 8 PM: Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations
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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

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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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