The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Shame, Pride, & Economics

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we begin a serialization of the historic lecture Shame Goes with It All, by Eli Siegel. The “It” is the profit system: economics based on seeing one’s fellow humans in terms of how much financial profit one can extract from them—how much money one can get from them and their labor while giving them as little as possible.

Shame Goes with It All, of October 1970, is one of the lectures in Mr. Siegel’s Goodbye Profit System series. In May of that year he explained that the profit way of economics had reached the point at which it was no longer able to succeed. Though it might be made to continue, it would do so with more and more difficulty and would never flourish again. In his lectures he gave the reasons why and provided evidence from history and the immediate moment, from economic texts and from world literature. He explained:

There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.

One can find in that statement—which the years have ratified—one of the major differences between Mr. Siegel and other economists: he saw the main thing in economics as ethics. He described ethics as “giv[ing] oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things.” The profit system has been unethical at its very basis these many centuries. And what will have to replace it is not some already existing economic way. The only economy that will now work, Mr. Siegel showed, is one arising from the honest answering of the question “What does a person deserve by being alive?”

It is nearly four and a half decades since Eli Siegel gave the lecture we’re serializing. And much has been done to keep the profit way grinding on, all of which efforts have brought increasing pain, increasing poverty, to millions of people.

What Is It About?

In keeping with the lecture’s title, I am going to comment on a word used very frequently these days. It’s a word that Americans can hear and think they’re simply hearing something descriptive, having to do with economic methodology. However, one of the most shameful things in human history is what that word is now being used to decorate. The word is austerity. One hears it mainly in relation to the European Union, but what it’s being used to justify there certainly has its likeness to matters here.

There’s nothing wrong with the word itself. Austere has with it an idea of strict, stern, serious, unembellished. Théophile Gautier uses it in a stanza of his 1857 poem “L’Art.” He has just said that art, which is strict, is the one thing permanent, and he gives an example: a medallion on which an emperor’s picture was imprinted far outlasts the emperor himself. The word austère comes in beautifully:

Et la médaille austere

Que trouve un laboureur

Sous terre

Révèle un empereur.

Literally: “And the medallion, austere, / Which a laborer finds / Under the ground / Reveals an emperor.”

Another notable use is by Bertrand Russell. He says mathematics has a beauty that is “austere, like that of sculpture.”

Today, the word austerity is being used as a euphemism for making people homeless, impoverishing them, forcing children to be hungry and malnourished, making infants die of disease. That is: the word is being used to cover a desperate and vile attempt to keep the profit system going. This is one of the foulest instances of euphemism in any language.

Austerity, as we find it in the press and statements of economists and government officials (particularly European), is the cutting down on government expenditures, as a means of lessening government debt. And the expenditures to be slashed are for such things as school lunches, assistance to the unemployed, medical aid, pensions. Many of these expenditures are part of what has been called “the safety net.” Now, “the safety net” in itself is an admission that the profit system is a failure: that profit economics cannot provide the people of a nation with that which they need to live. So in an attempt to make up for some of the suffering inflicted by the profit system, various governments provided ways of having people get a bit of the money, food, housing they need.

But a nation cannot go on trying to make up a little for the cruelties of profit economics, and at the same time maintain and back an economy based on private profit: the relation between the nation’s expenditure and its income will be disproportionate. That is true of the US, France, England, Japan. It is true of two nations much in the news: Greece and Spain; and we can look awhile at them.

The Lenders & the People

To support a private profit economy yet try to mitigate a little of the pain it causes, Greece and Spain had to borrow. And they could not repay their debt. So the lenders—mainly the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—insisted that for Spain and Greece to be “bailed out,” these nations had to privatize various government assets and institute “austerity measures.” The austerity was to be inflicted on people who did not have wealth. They would lose their “safety net.” They would be without government sustenance, lose their homes and somewhat decent-paying government jobs, go hungry. The babies of Greece and Spain; the children; the old people, their pensions made worthless, who now must scrounge in garbage dumps; the middle class people, middle class no longer: it is on them that “austerity” has been imposed, in order to keep the profit way going.

You children who go to bed with aching empty tummies so corporate owners can continue to profit—how proud you should be to take part in this noble effort! There could, after all, be “austerity” demanded of corporations: they could be taxed at a rate of, oh, say 85% of their profits; they might then have to become owned somewhat by the nation’s people, and how terrible that would be! How much better to let you, the little ones, be malnourished!

Aesthetic Realism explains that the source of all injustice is Contempt, the desire in every person to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” The use of human beings for someone’s private profit is a form of contempt. Eli Siegel was passionate about this matter, and his passion was at one with logic. “Man,” he said, “was not made to be used by man for money.”

And it is contempt that has a person cloak a hideous thing with pretty nomenclature. Once, child labor was described by some as a means of teaching young people responsibility. The present use of the word austerity is in the same tradition. No matter how smoothly government leaders and economists engage in that use, it is an insult to and a mockery of humanity.

I quote, swiftly, from some press accounts of the last few years indicating what “austerity” entails. A New York Times article (9-24-12) says: people in Spain “Forage Trash Bins for a Next Meal” due to “one austerity measure after another.” A 33-year-old woman is quoted: “When you don’t have enough money, this is what there is.” A 67-year-old man says about his findings in garbage pails: “This is my pension.”

The Guardian (UK) (8-6-13) reports that Greece’s middle class is in a “Food Crisis” and “Like malnutrition,...homelessness is also on the rise.”

The Independent (UK) (2-21-14) says “austerity measures in Greece” are “leading to soaring infant mortality,...the return of malaria, and a spike in the suicide count.”

The London Times (1-23-15) describes “thousands of hungry Athenians...queued at the soup kitchen” and “people sleeping rough”—that is, outdoors, because they’re homeless.

One need not praise a particular party to see that the recent overwhelming election victory of Syriza in Greece and the popularity of the new party Podemos in Spain come from people’s huge desire to rid themselves of a brutal economic contempt. Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, called what Spain has endured an effort “to humiliate our country with this scam that they call austerity” (NY Times, 2-1-15).

I have been speaking about all this in relation to the title of Eli Siegel’s lecture: Shame Goes with It All. He is the philosopher to show that the one thing which will make us not ashamed, which will make us proud, which will work, in economics and personal life, is aesthetics: the seeing that what takes care of us and makes us important is the giving of imaginative justice to people and things not ourselves.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Shame Goes with It All

By Eli Siegel

It has been said that the existence of shame in man is as good a sign as any that there is a God. Anyway, shame is around very much. And people can have shame and not know they have it.

The relation between shame and pride is one of the great mysteries. Three big things that have to do with shame and pride are money, love, and the sense of self: these have made for a great deal of discomfort with how oneself is, and the feeling that in some way the self has sold itself out. One is not ashamed unless there is the feeling that the self has betrayed itself. If there were a betrayal of anything else without the feeling that one had betrayed oneself, the shame wouldn’t be there.

Shame has had a great deal to do with money. It still has, much more than is realized. In this talk I’ll try to show some of the ways shame can exist in relation to money.

First, there is one of the most famous essays in English literature. It is Charles Lamb’s “Poor Relations,” from his Last Essays of Elia, of 1833. As is the custom with Lamb’s essays, the whimsical has been found in it. But it is about one of the greatest unhappinesses, pains, discomforts in the world: the pain that comes because someone you’re close to has more money than you have and can look down on you. This can sometimes happen with friends, but it often happens in what can be called a family cluster—where one brother is the head of a business while another is having a difficult time working for the gas company or something of the kind.

The feeling I know people who have more money than I has been around a great deal. It has been in novels. The awful thing is, it gets related to other matters, and there is a feeling that if one doesn’t have money the world doesn’t like one and that this means one hasn’t been fair to the world. As soon as you get to feeling that, you’re in the shame, guilt, self-disesteem area.

“Poor Relations,” by that most charming of all essayists, Charles Lamb, is highly important. So I’ll look at it and say that the situation that makes for the pain described there is still in process of leaving man. The profit system has shown that it cannot work. And it is good to think that the pain present in this essay, with all its gilding, has a chance of coming to an end.

Man is in a state of shame. He doesn’t understand it. And it can come in more than one form. A person, for example, who has more money than his brother could feel ashamed too. Shame is ever so subtle.

I’m reading from a collection published in 1931, Essays for Discussion, edited by Anita P. Forbes. She says: “The first sentence of this essay is probably the most extraordinary one you ever met.” I’ll read that sentence as a whole, in all its complexity:

A poor relation—is the most irrelevant thing in nature,—a piece of impertinent correspondency,—an odious approximation,—a haunting conscience,—a preposterous shadow, lengthening in the noontide of your prosperity,—an unwelcome remembrancer,—a perpetually recurring mortification,—a drain on your purse,—a more intolerable dun upon your pride,—a drawback upon success,—a rebuke to your rising,—a stain in your blood,—a blot on your scutcheon,—a rent in your garment,—a death’s head at your banquet,—Agathocles’ pot,—a Mordecai in your gate,—a Lazarus at your door,—a lion in your path,—a frog in your chamber,—a fly in your ointment,—a mote in your eye,—a triumph to your enemy,—an apology to your friends,—the one thing not needful,—the hail in harvest,—the ounce of sour in a pound of sweet.

Closeness & Difference

When you have a poor relative and are fairly well off, it is annoying; you don’t know how to deal with him when you’re among your more prosperous friends. Often, you want to see him alone if you see him at all. It makes for that embarrassment which is one of the forms of shame. That there are poor relations, I think most people would grant. There are persons who are closer to you in terms of what is called kin or genealogy than in terms of money.

A poor relationis the most irrelevant thing in nature.” He is “irrelevant” because how can a person who is so close to you be so different from you? That is a justification of the use of the word irrelevant.

...a piece of impertinent correspondency...” He is like you and he is also unlike, so there is “impertinent correspondency.” Lamb uses these more complex words with great care. In fact, these first three terms—“the most irrelevant thing in nature,—a piece of impertinent correspondency,—an odious approximation”—are three ways of saying the same trembling and ugly thing.

...a perpetually recurring mortification...” It is a mortification. And this year, all kinds of money things are making families hate each other more than they might.

In that complex opening sentence, with a good many static phrases brought together with surprise and swiftness, we have this one fact: that having a poor relation and having to meet him, you’re embarrassed and you feel like cursing. Let’s say your sister has married someone you see as a nebbish and you have to meet her sometimes in company with her husband. Well, you can, if you have some energy, have a little sympathy for your sister, and even, if you’re very imaginative, a little sympathy for your not-so-well-doing brother-in-law. In the meantime, there can be all kinds of disagreeableness.

And it shouldn’t be at all. No person in this world ought to be ashamed because of how little money he has. He may not be able to buy everything, but there ought to be no shame.

It is a tremendous attack on the meaning of man that this situation should be. It exists very much. And if the profit system goes, people will have disagreements but not just in this way. This is a kind of piddling disagreement. It’s very interesting, and it gets into novels: Oh, your brother is coming from Minneapolis—the one who, shall we say, is unfortunate?

He Comes, & There’s Embarrassment

Then Lamb describes the poor relation:

He is known by his knock. Your heart telleth you “That is Mr. ——.” A rap, between familiarity and respect; that demands, and, at the same time, seems to despair of, entertainment.

The poor relation doesn’t know what to do. When people have less money than the people around them, they don’t know what to do. There are some girls in a Junior League whose bankroll is junior too. And there are persons in the Ivy League to whom money hasn’t clung as well as the ivy.

“He entereth smiling, and—embarrassed.People know that maybe he wouldn’t be visiting if he didn’t have to.

He holdeth out his hand to you to shake, and—draweth it back again. He casually looketh in about dinner time—when the table is full. He offereth to go away, seeing you have company—but is induced to stay. He filleth a chair, and your visitor’s two children are accommodated at a side table....He calleth you by your Christian name, to imply that his other is the same with your own. He is too familiar by half, yet you wish he had less diffidence.

This embarrassment, which has occurred ever so often in what is called society, needn’t occur. There’s a phrase very well known in English, shabby-genteel. It’s in the title of a long story by Thackeray, “A Shabby Genteel Story.” Gissing deals with the subject, and I may read one of his stories in which there’s a rift between one’s education and how much money one has. It was a favorite theme of Gissing.


“He calleth you by your Christian name.” This matter of first names is related to being a name-dropper. Often there is something so sad about that. A person is not doing so well but some of the names he knows are magnificent: I have been among those, / The well-heeled magnificos.

When he goeth away, you dismiss his chair into a corner, as precipitately as possible, and feel fairly rid of two nuisances.

It’s an awful thing, but it’s hard for people to like the unlucky. In Latin, the word for unlucky, infelix, is taken to mean almost wicked.

It is very hard to bear the idea that people still want to uphold a way of making money and having money and distributing money that makes for a situation like this.