The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Aesthetics of Equality

Dear Unknown Friends:

In the present section of his great 1949 lecture Poetry and Unity, which we are serializing, Mr. Siegel speaks about that aspect of unity which is equality. The two biggest inequalities in America today—and they are horrible, fake inequalities—are economic inequality and racial or ethnic inequality. I mean by inequality here, the seeing of people as unequal, the treating of them as though they were unequal, and the forcing people to live in a way that is unequal.

There is, of course, awareness that people don’t want to see someone of a different race as equal to themselves. What is much less talked about is that there exists in America a terrific determination to have people not be equal economically.

The fact that persons of the media and politics see economic equality as completely unnecessary, is in their continual proclamations that the economy is “booming.” To say our economy is “robust” while they admit that the gap between rich and poor is growing, poverty is increasing, and hunger is forcing over 26 million Americans to seek nourishment at community food pantries, shows that press and politicos do not consider the lessening of poverty an economic aim of America. They do not consider the inability of an increasing number of America’s people to pay for food, in any way a measure of her economic health.

Aesthetic Realism explains why humanity has been so much against equality. This againstness includes a girl’s hope right now in an Iowa kitchen that her sister not be equal to her, in intellect or charm. It includes the smug but false assumption of a Delaware wife that her husband is simply inferior to her in sensitivity and depth.

The Opposition to Equality

Mr. Siegel identified the thing in every person which most weakens our own mind and is the source of all meanness and cruelty. This thing hates the idea of human equality. It is contempt: the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is the feeling we are more if we can look down on what is not ourselves; that the way to be and enhance our self is to see other things and people as less than we are, to be used for our comfort and glory. In issue 162 of this journal, Mr. Siegel explains: “There is a feeling that if we couldn’t make things less, despise them, we should be nobody in a large, intricate, and dark world.” Contempt has a person see the idea that another is equal to oneself as insulting and desolating: if all those people are equal to us, then “we [are] nobody”! The desire for contempt is the beginning of every manufactured inequality, from a man’s thinking his clothes make him better than someone, to slavery in all its massive horrors. Contempt, Mr. Siegel showed, is infinitely ordinary; but it is the filthiest thing in the world.

A second reason humanity has had a hard time about equality is explained in this great Aesthetic Realism principle: All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves. Unless, Mr. Siegel showed, we see equality as an aesthetic matter, we will not fully welcome it: we have to see that equality is the oneness of sameness and difference, not just sameness. It is the oneness of complete relation to other people and complete individuality. We have to see what various societies and governments that have gone after equality have not seen and so have not acted on sufficiently: that real equality honors the enormous distinctiveness of every person, doesn’t stifle it.

As I comment on the tremendous question of equality—about which, because it is not seen truly, there is so much brutality and misery in the world—I say this, with gratitude and love: Eli Siegel was passionate on the subject, beginning early and throughout his life. He wrote, at age 21, the essay “The Equality of Man,” published in the Modern Quarterly, December 1923. It began with this sentence: “The world has always been carried on as if men were unequal.” He stated his purpose: “This writing will aim to show that Men Are Equal—in the clear and full meaning of the words.” I quote these resounding, tender sentences, great as prose and as human logic and feeling; they stand for who Eli Siegel is:

Mind needs nourishment, care and training....And the fact is plain enough that millions and millions of people...have not got this mind’s nourishment, care and training. Their lives were forced to be led so, to get food enough for their stomachs, was all that they could do....Men have not had an equal chance to be as actively powerful as they might be. And if they had been given an equal chance to use all the powers they had at birth, they would be equal.

...Arguments, I believe, for the Equality of Man, are in man’s Love, History, Art and Pleasure, and in man’s most beautiful actions....I wish very much to show the Equality of Man to be true. It is my business to go on showing it to be so.

All his life Mr. Siegel lived these words—with all of himself. There was no rift between his statements and how he was with people in all his moments and days.

Thomas Jefferson and Ourselves

There has been recently much public discussion about a person who wrote about equality with historic power and importance: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights....” I am not speaking lengthily about Jefferson; but I think it necessary to comment on how Americans should use the fact that the principal author of the Declaration of Independence was unclear about how to see black persons; that he spoke against slavery yet owned slaves; that there is DNA evidence for his being the father of a child by his slave Sally Hemings.

Let us be critics of Jefferson, certainly: to own slaves, even in a time and place when to do so was the order of the day, is completely execrable. But instead of various media commentators—who are a thousand times more selfish than Jefferson and lack his courage, intelligence, and kindness—using recent findings to act superior to him, Americans should ask: “If a person as deep, brave, and respectful of humanity as Thomas Jefferson, could also have such contempt, where might I have a way of seeing that is awful which I am trying to justify?” Instead of cowardly, narrow people preening themselves as they find something ugly in Jefferson, they and everyone should ask: “If Jefferson could do this—what am I doing, what am I for that is ugly, and will look ugly to people 200 years from now?

For Example, the Profit System

I think Jefferson despised himself for his doubleness about human beings: for his desire to respect them yet use them contemptuously for his comfort. However, most of the people now chiding Jefferson are themselves advocates of, or consenters to, a horrible form of inequality and contempt, which is brutalizing millions of people in this land: profit economics, the ownership by a few persons of the means to produce what all people need. In 200 years (and less than that), people will say of individuals now, “You mean this person was for the seeing of flesh-and-blood human beings in terms of how much profit their labor could produce for somebody else?! You mean this person was for an economy based on some people being rich and others poor? on stockholders getting the money other people worked long, hard hours to produce?!”

The profit system is based on inequality, depends on it. In 1970, Mr. Siegel showed that the profit system had failed at last: it was becoming harder and harder to make profit from human lives. That is why today there is increasing economic inequality in America: in order to keep the profit system going, in order for large profits to come to various individuals, most people have to be paid less and less.

A question about contempt and economic inequality is this: If you are driving an expensive car—would you like it if every person had such a car, or is part of your pleasure your being able to have something other people can’t? Profit economics comes from that aspect of contempt which is the desire to own the world and use people to own it; but it comes also from the contempt which is the sheer desire to be superior, and be seen as superior, to other human beings.

Because of Aesthetic Realism, people can know at last what real equality is, and have it. There will be that equality among people which is like words in a poetic line: every word equally needed, but bringing out the distinction and power of every other word.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Equality and Poetry

By Eli Siegel

There is an important Englishwoman, Harriet Martineau, who wrote on travels; she wrote books on economics in fiction form, and they were good. And she wrote a poem, which I don’t see as very successful, but I think is nonetheless worth knowing, because it brings up the problem of unification in poetry and in the world. I am reading “The Fraternity of Man” from a work published by the abolitionists fairly early, Songs of the Free and Hymns of Christian Freedom (Boston, 1836):

All men are equal in their birth,

Heirs of the earth and skies;

All men are equal when that earth

Fades from their dying eyes.


All wait alike on him whose power

Upholds the life he gave;

The sage within his star-lit tower,

The savage in his cave....

The General Unifies

There are two things which are akin to poetry and have in them the question of unity: politics and religion. Plato said that when God is present in the finite, we have beauty; and it has been said that the infinite present in an object makes it beautiful. It is true. It is another way of saying the general in the specific—God being the most general thing. God, then, is the great unifier. This notion of aesthetics is that we find in St. Augustine and to a degree in Thomas Aquinas. We find it in Plato, and in those who look on beauty as representing the form of the universe, with religious connotations sometimes.

Birth and death unify all humanity. Everybody was born; and everybody has to meet the problem of death, and will die. These general notions which are so much in poetry, of birth and death and love, are unifying concepts.

Then, the fact that man is in relation to man brings about politics. So politics by its very nature is also unifying, because it deals with man aware of other men. God is a big unifier, and so is politics. These two, politics and God, are present in this poem. 

The matter has to do with poetry itself, because composition is another term for unification: to find something general which will bring out the individuality of things. And when we say that people have equal rights, we are dealing with sameness and difference, because how people can be equal and still be free is a big question of politics. People think that when other people are equal to them, they are going to lose something; and most people are afraid of that.

The two most melodious lines of this poem are “All men are equal when that earth / Fades from their dying eyes.” We see that the one unifying thing in man is that which makes a man human—it is the general thing.

There is a relation between politics and words. A word like go and a word like effulgent are very different. Go seems so proletarian and effulgent so non-proletarian. The word tub is so proletarian and the word magnificent is so non-proletarian. There are all kinds, and yet they all seem to have their usefulness.

We have, then, this kinship between “The sage within his star-lit tower, / The savage in his cave.” We call them men. You call a person who is very much aware of the subtleties of the subjunctive a man; and you call a person who is a Bushman and gets wild every time he sees a hyena because he wants to eat the hyena, a man. So somewhere there must be something that unifies them. It is their manness—it is the general, unifying difference.

Poetry: Democratic & Aristocratic

’t is man alone who difference sees,

And speaks of high and low;

And worships those and tramples these,

While the same path they go.

Poetry, as it must be, is thoroughly democratic and also thoroughly subtle and thoroughly aristocratic. It goes after the very best, in a democratic way. It goes after what is unique, in a democratic fashion. This poem is insufficient because while it wants to recognize the sameness in man, it doesn’t want to see that the problem of man is to recognize the sameness of man while also meeting the desire for difference which is in every person, and which sometimes takes a snobbish or a cruel form, but doesn’t have to.

“Ye great! renounce your earth-born pride, / Ye low! your shame and fear....” This phase of political puzzlement, how people can be equal and yet individual, is the problem we have in poetry: how we can see all words as serviceable, just as necessary as any other word, and yet give each word a specific, aromatic, distinct quality. What we feel in ordinary writing is: well, this could be other words—it runs along like a river and if you miss three sentences, all right, you still know what it is about. Poetry consists of words which you can’t afford to miss—if it is poetry.