The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Two Kinds of Cleverness

Dear Unknown Friends:

We have come to section 4 of Eli Siegel’s wonderful 1949 lecture Poetry and Cleverness. Offhand, cleverness does not seem one of humanity’s biggest concerns. Yet how our very lives go depends on how we see cleverness, on how we’re affected by it, on how we try to be clever.

Cleverness is immensely diverse. And in this lecture Mr. Siegel describes what all cleverness has in common, from the kind that’s ridiculous, to the charming, to the kind much present in politics. Cleverness is always a dealing with the opposites of ease and difficulty. “Somebody who is clever,” he explains,

seems to be doing something that people would think hard, with ease....If anybody in a tight spot can tell such stories that he gets out of the tight spot, he’s clever....The word has come to be most often on the shady side....[But] whenever you can do that which most people would look on as difficult, or as hardly to be done at all, with some ease, you’re clever.

Since cleverness may be that of a cruel deceiver but also that of a brave firefighter who discerns a way to extricate someone from a blazing building, we need to know the difference between bad cleverness and good. Aesthetic Realism is the first body of knowledge to make the distinction clear. The nature of the cleverness depends on the two desires that, Eli Siegel has shown, are fighting in everyone: the desire to respect the world versus the desire to have contempt for it.

From the desire to respect comes all truly useful, beautiful, kind cleverness. From contempt comes the cleverness that’s hurtful, ugly, truly dumb, though it may temporarily seem oh so bright. In fact there’s a feeling in people that contempt as such—the getting an “addition to self through the lessening of something else”—is cleverness: that it’s the cleverness one needs to protect oneself and prosper in the world. Yet this “clever” thing, contempt, in its various forms, is the reason the person having it feels empty, anxious, dull, painfully unsure, hiddenly self-despising.

Humanity Has Invented

I’ll comment a little on a field through which we can see the fight in people between the two kinds of cleverness. It is the field of inventions. Every invention that has succeeded has done what Mr. Siegel described cleverness as doing: it has brought an ease to what was difficult or even seemed impossible. That is true of inventions from the wheel to electric illumination, to plumbing, the automobile, musical instruments, the vacuum cleaner, glass windows, the internet, life-saving drugs, machines for production. Every successful invention has been deeply clever. And it has come from a respect for reality, an honoring of reality, and from that form of respect which is good will: the desire to strengthen other people, have them be in a better relation to the world.

Then, so often through the years, the new invention has been met with that other cleverness, the cleverness of contempt, in the form of: “Hmm! People want this thing. They feel they need this thing, or what it can give them. I bet there’s a lot of money to be made from people because of this thing. If I can get in on the producing of it, or the selling of it, I’ll squeeze as much money as I can out of people.” This is the profit motive: the seeing of objects and human beings in terms of how much money one can wrest from them, how much one can aggrandize oneself through them. The profit motive has seemed tremendously clever to people. Various phrases, like “He’s a shrewd businessman” or “She’s a cutthroat competitor” or “That was a slick sales pitch,” point to the cleverness of the profit motive and simultaneously make for the queasy feeling that it’s an ugly cleverness, a contemptuous, mean cleverness.

There has been a big effort to link the coming to be of inventions with the profit motive—to say that inventiveness could not be without that motive. This is completely untrue. Further, the two motives—the motive to make the difficult easier for people, enable them to do the seemingly undoable with grace, and the motive to enrich oneself from people’s needs regardless of the pain this may cause them—are entirely different and fundamentally at odds.


For over 200 years, the matter of invention and of the two kinds of cleverness that can accompany it, has involved those things called “labor-saving” machines and technology. On this subject I’ll quote an important English writer: William Morris (1834-96), poet, revered designer, and fighter for justice.

His 1885 collection Signs of Change includes an essay titled “Useful Work versus Useless Toil.” And there Morris says that those very clever “labor-saving” machines are not being used in keeping with their name: to save labor. They should be, he says: they should enable people not to have to spend so much of their time working miserably—and millions of people in England were working under hideous conditions, for long hours and horrible pay. But, he explains, instead of the inventions’ being used to assist those who labor, they’re being used for something else. They’re being used instead to increase profits for bosses, because 1) now, with machines, the employer doesn’t have to pay as many workers, and 2) since so many people are thrown out of work, there’s even more desperation for jobs and persons will labor for even less pay than before. Morris writes, for example:

Our epoch has invented machines which would have appeared wild dreams to the men of past ages....They are called “labour-saving” machines....[But] what they really do is to reduce the skilled labourer to the ranks of the unskilled, to increase the number of the “reserve army of labour”—that is, to increase the precariousness of life among the workers...while they pile up the profits of the employers of labour....

In a true society these miracles of ingenuity would be for the first time used for minimizing the amount of time spent in unattractive labour, which by their means might be so reduced as to be but a very light burden on each individual.

So we have the two clevernesses. There are the inventions themselves, which Morris calls “miracles of ingenuity” and which have respect for the world in them. Then, there is that other cleverness, that shrewd angle on life and humanity: How can I make as much money for myself as possible from that man, that woman—yes, that child? How can I extract as much labor from them as possible while giving them as little as possible? (Morris, earlier in the essay, calls this economic method “grinding profits out of men’s lives.”)

William Morris is more respected worldwide now than he ever was. He wanted there to be beauty in the way people lived—all people. He wanted the objects they used, the fabrics, the furniture, to be not only decent but beautiful. He wanted people not to wear their lives and health away working in wretchedness—but also, Morris differs from many other writers on economics in his belief that economics should enable people to see and feel beauty in the world itself. The following passage from a long sentence of his has both toughness and loveliness, practicality and wonder. An economy will be right, he says,

if the cripple and the starveling disappear from our streets, if the earth nourish us all alike, if the sun shine for all of us alike, if to one and all of us the glorious drama of the earth—day and night, summer and winter—can be presented as a thing to understand and love.

In this passage and others, I see Morris both ratifying and looking for Aesthetic Realism, which says that the purpose of every human being is “to like the world through knowing it,” and that all the institutions we have should be for that purpose—from economics, to education, to marriage.

What is real cleverness in economics? is now an urgent matter. The “cleverness” which is the profit motive, Mr. Siegel showed in the 1970s, no longer works. We see evidence of that fact every day, in the struggles of people, the diminishing of the middle class, the feeling in young people that they’ll be worse off financially than their parents and grandparents. The only way of economics that will work, Mr. Siegel explained, is aesthetics, the oneness of opposites: justice to each ever so particular individual and justice to all people, at once. If humanity can come to technology, can come to space travel, can come to inventions of all kinds, it can surely come to a true means of implementing that aesthetic economics when we see it’s what we want.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Cleverness, False & True

By Eli Siegel

Going now to the way that cleverness has been dealt with in literary criticism: the first onslaught, of any note, against false cleverness was by Joseph Addison, in 1711. In The Spectator he wrote quite a few papers on what he called “false wit.” I’ll read a few excerpts from them.

First, Addison alludes to the fact that people have written in various shapes. He says some poets have been painters rather than poets—meaning that they have put their words into these shapes. In number 58 of The Spectator (May 7, 1711), he writes:

The first Species of false Wit which I have met with is very venerable for its Antiquity, and has produced several Pieces which have lived very near as long as the Iliad it self: I mean those short Poems printed among the minor Greek Poets, which resemble the Figure of an Egg, a Pair of Wings, an Ax, a Shepherd’s Pipe, and an Altar.

People spent their time doing that.

He writes of people who would compose poems leaving out a particular letter—the letter wouldn’t appear anywhere in the poem at all. These people were called lipogrammatists. He comments also on persons who wrote poems composed of various languages all together; and persons, likewise, who would write acrostics—in which the lines begin with the letters in a name. He says these things were going on in his own time, and describes how a whole bit of writing was in the whiskers of the beard in a portrait of Charles I:

I do not remember any other kind of Work among the Moderns which more resembles the Performances I have mentioned, than that famous Picture of King Charles the First, which has the whole Book of Psalms written in the Lines of the Face and the Hair of the Head. When I was last at Oxford I perused one of the Whiskers; and was reading the other, but could not go so far in it as I would have done, by reason of the Impatience of my Friends and Fellow-Travellers, who all of them pressed to see such a Piece of Curiosity.

Those people who write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin are clever, definitely. And doing something like that, one does feel one has conquered the world. You accept all those restrictions and you can do it anyway. When, for instance, in old-time vaudeville a person would write figures on a blackboard with his feet, and in the meantime would be memorizing them all, and calculating them quickly—wonderful! That is cleverness. I have never been entranced by it, but I feel, This is unusual and shows the powers of man.

Addison deals also with how persons would take hold of a word or an idea and just work it. One of the persons who did that in his worst moments was Abraham Cowley, and in this passage Addison writes about him as working the comparison of love to fire:

The Passion of Love in its Nature has been thought to resemble Fire; for which Reason the Words Fire and Flame are made use of to signify Love. The witty Poets therefore have taken an Advantage from...the Word Fire, to make an infinite Number of Witticisms. Cowley observing the cold Regard of his Mistress’ Eyes, and at the same Time their Power of producing Love in him, considers them as Burning-Glasses made of Ice; and finding himself able to live in the greatest Extremities of Love, concludes the Torrid Zone to be habitable....His ambitious Love is a Fire that naturally mounts upwards; his happy Love is the Beams of Heaven, and his unhappy Love Flames of Hell....His endeavouring to drown his Love in Wine, is throwing Oil upon the Fire....Sometimes he is drowned in Tears, and burnt in Love, like a Ship set on Fire in the Middle of the Sea. [The Spectator, number 62, May 11, 1711]

The bad mingling of words as words, and words as standing for things, goes on a great deal. This, therefore, is an important annotation on a kind of false cleverness.

A Good Adroitness

Then, there can be a dealing with cleverness—or a clever dealing with things—that is of some importance. I have felt that in a deep sense one of the most clever poems extant is a poem of Charles Dufresny, of the 17th century chiefly. It’s called “Les Lendemains,” “The Days After.” I’ve translated it:

Phyllis, more acquisitive than tender,

Gaining nothing if she refuse,

One day got from Sylvander

Thirty sheep for one kiss.


The day after, a new way of things;

The shepherd did some good bargaining:

For he obtained from the shepherdess

Thirty kisses for one sheep.


The day after this, Phyllis, more tender,

Fearing to displease her shepherd,

Was happy while giving him

All her sheep for one kiss.


The day after this, Phyllis, not so wise,

Would have given sheep and dog

For a kiss which the wavering shepherd

Gave to Lisette for nothing.

This represents the downfall of the unconscious, really. And in the French it is neat—through the way it’s in the quatrain, and has rhymes, and delicacy. To deal with words, which, after all, are sounds, as if they were very light is one of the things poetry should do—just as a dancer deals with feet as if they weren’t feet, in dancing. And the cleverness here is that a state of emotion has so much to do with sheep. This is a pastoral. Here is the first quatrain in French:

Philis, plus avare que tendre,

Ne gagnant rien à refuser,

Un jour exigea de Silvandre

Trente moutons pour un baiser.


Phyllis, more acquisitive than tender,

Gaining nothing if she refuse,

One day got from Sylvander

Thirty sheep for one kiss.

In other words, she doesn’t know what her feelings can be, and therefore goes through some arrangement that she thinks is wise for the moment. But her feelings go on. And so the next day the shepherd “obtained from the shepherdess / Thirty kisses for one sheep.” Phyllis, with the sheep concerned, is getting deeper and deeper. And the third day she gives him “All her sheep for one kiss.”

But since in getting deeper there hasn’t been an accurate process in this going from acquisition to the feeling nearer to love, she goes too far the other way. From a sharpie she becomes a dope, which very often can happen: the next day she “would have given sheep and dog / For a kiss which the wavering shepherd / Gave to Lisette for nothing.”

There hasn’t been a true transition of feeling, so Phyllis hasn’t done well for herself.

This is a very famous French poem, and the way the sheep get in with the change of emotion, and how all these big events seem to go on patteringly and lightly, is a phase of the cleverness. To be able to deal with words as if they were thistledown, to be able to deal with thoughts as if they were mighty serious and yet so lightsome—that is good adroitness, good agility.

The Naïve & the Clever, a Musical Oneness

There is the cleverness that seems to come from the unconscious and has to do with the “folk.” This is a French folk poem that, on the one hand, is very naïve and on the other seems to be so adroit*:

If the king had given to me

His great city, Paris,

But for it I’d have to leave

The love of my sweetheart,

I would say to Henry the King:

Keep your Paris.

What I love most is my sweetheart,

What I love most is my sweetheart.

This man is saying that he would rather have his loved one than all of Paris: “Keep your Paris.” The way this is put, the relation between a girl and the whole world, a girl and Paris, is done with that lightness. Somehow Paris gets to be light, just as thirty sheep were light.

*We do not have Eli Siegel’s translation of this poem, so the translation given here is by the editor, ER.