NUMBER 1619 July 28, 2004
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Ethics of Mind 

Dear Unknown Friends: 

e are serializing the lecture Eli Siegel gave on April 22, 1966 under the title Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things. In it he discusses psychiatric terms from an alphabetical list published in the 1966 Reader’s Digest Almanac. His discussion has a casualness, a great ease, and has liveliness, charm, humor. But Mr. Siegel is pointing out the most important thing about the human mind, which he is the philosopher to show, and about which the psychiatry of now, like the psychiatry of then, is ignorant: “The greatest fight man is concerned with,” he wrote,

is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality that has taken place in all minds of the past and is taking place now. [TRO 151]
I love the way Aesthetic Realism sees the human mind and explains it, in both its grandeur and cheapness, its compassion and viciousness. Mr. Siegel has shown that what mind does—including our own ever so individual mind with its thoughts and feelings—is always a matter of ethics, and a matter of aesthetics. That is, there are two opposites that constitute our life all the time: our self and the outside world. Our great, constant need is to make these one: to take care of ourselves by being fair to the world different from us. From the desire to do so come all art, kindness, real intelligence. 

However, Another Desire

ut there is a huge desire not to make those opposites one—because the easiest way to make ourselves important is through lessening, disliking, and looking down on other things. This false self-importance through lessening other things and people is contempt. And Mr. Siegel identified contempt as the damager of the human mind. He explained, and gave extensive evidence for the fact, that “both nervousness and insanity are caused by the common human inclination for contempt” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 8).

We Punish Ourselves

nd here is the ethics of mind, which Mr. Siegel made clear: When we are unfair to the world, we cannot let ourselves get away with it—not in terms of our own feeling and thoughts and life. We punish ourselves in various ways. One way is through nervousness, a deep ill-at-easeness. Another way we punish ourselves for contempt is through an unshakable self-dislike.

     People need to know that their inner discomfort and low self-esteem do not come from their genes or, principally, from not being appreciated by others. This trouble within comes from something in themselves of which they can be infinitely proud: an insistence, which is as much of them as their cells, that they be just to reality with its things and happenings and people. Mr. Siegel writes, in a quiet sentence that I see as beautiful:

When we are unfair to the world, it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it. [Self and World, p. 45]

Some Recent Statements

ince the lecture we’re serializing is of 38 years ago, I am going to quote and comment on some recent statements about one of the big terms Mr. Siegel looks at: anxiety. He says that we can be anxious about two things, ourselves and what’s not ourselves, and the first is what he accents in this discussion. Meanwhile, whatever we seem to be anxious about, there is always a judgment of ourselves in the anxiety.

      Using the Internet, I see that the Anxiety Network International has the following about “generalized anxiety disorder” (which corresponds to the sort of anxiety Mr. Siegel is largely speaking of):

Excessive thinking and dwelling on the “what ifs” characterizes this anxiety disorder.... Feelings of worry, dread, lack of energy, and a loss of interest in life are common. Many times there is no “trigger” or “cause” for these feelings and the person realizes these feelings are irrational. Nevertheless, the feelings are very real.
The National Women’s Health Information Center notes in its website:
When a person has GAD, they worry all the time, even when nothing is wrong. A person with GAD always expects the worst will happen.


he various therapists and counselors do not see the following crucial, fundamental fact: however painful this anxiety is, it’s clear from these descriptions that “generalized anxiety disorder” happens to be unjust to the outside world. Nothing bad is happening; there’s no evidence something bad will happen; but you have decided something bad will occur—no facts can persuade you otherwise. It’s like saying to a person (we can see the world, for the moment, as a person): “So what if there’s no evidence you’ll hurt me; so what, even, if you may be kind. I’m going to see you as against me anyway. You’re guilty in advance—and I won’t let any facts interfere with my seeing you that way. No matter what good you do, I’m going to be constantly suspicious of you. I’m going to be constantly afraid of you—that is, constantly see you as fundamentally mean and hurtful!”  

Is There a Triumph?

he question is: Is there any kind of triumph in being anxious? Can a person feel, in all her misery, “I’m too sensitive for this world”? A world that we’re sure will hurt us is a world unworthy of us—which means we’re better than it, too good for it, quite superior.

      People have been asked in Aesthetic Realism consultations, “When do you feel more important—not happier, more important—worrying that something bad will occur, or feeling that things are friendly?” And through discussion, as a person sees that she has gotten a fake, miserable importance worrying inaccurately, she no longer feels compelled to do so.

      There is also in anxiety the criticism of self which Mr. Siegel describes so compassionately in this lecture: we feel deeply that we don’t deserve to be at ease, because we have been unfair to things. And so the Anxiety Network International quotes a person saying: “I just dread being alone at night. I don’t know why, but I do.” When we are in our own company, we can feel that this company does not look good to us—is not a person who has been, as Mr. Siegel says, honest, just. And if, at the same time, we don’t want to be exact about ourselves and change, we feel very agitated and have dread.

What People Are Looking For

The National Women’s Health website says: “It’s important to know that when a person has this illness, it’s not her or his fault.” While the word fault is not so useful here, it does happen that anxiety comes from something in oneself. And it comes from something which can change if one is able to be a critic of it. People are thirsty to hear true, kind, respectful criticism of themselves, and to learn to be accurate self-critics. Aesthetic Realism makes that possible. It is the knowledge people thirst for. We want more than anything to have the best thing in us—our need to be fair to the world—understood, so that we don’t have to honor it through murky self-punishment, and so that it can really win.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

Always: Like & Dislike

By Eli Siegel 

he next term, following aggression, is one of the old-fashioned words:

Amnesia: Loss of memory. It may be of organic, emotional, or mixed origin.
     The run of amnesia films has ceased. There were a few ladies who were in pictures which couldn’t go by without their having amnesia. Amnesia is a way of killing two birds with one forgetfulness: one, you forget who you were, and the other, you forget the world of the time. So there’s a double dislike, and you extinguish your personality historically as you extinguish various facts.

     This is a kind of dislike of the world. It says, “At least up till now, I don’t want to remember anything. I don’t like what’s happened to me. Maybe in my new personality I’ll look at some things, but I don’t want to remember what happened. I don’t want to remember myself as undergoing it.”

     So amnesia is an obliteration. Therefore the unconscious itself has aggression in it. To repress is almost like to aggress.

     I’m not praising the descriptions in this list, and there’s much more to say about them than I’m saying now. The thing that I would like persons to think about is whether Aesthetic Realism can cope with any expression used in a psychiatrist’s office tonight or today or this morning or yesterday, or for that matter anything said under auspices that are different from the present cultural or aesthetic auspices.*

We Come to Anxiety

Anxiety, like aggression, is a fairly customary word—some of the terms in psychiatry are just in the dictionary. The word anxiety has been getting a large burden lately. It’s been around for a long time, but what’s happened to it in the last years is something. It’s like the poor little word-girl become a princess with a bad temper.

Anxiety: Apprehension, the source of which is largely unknown or unrecognized. It is different from fear, which is the emotional response to a consciously recognized and usually external danger.
     Three words have to be related: anxiety, alienation, and despair. It happens that in the last years in the field of anxiety going towards despair, Kierkegaard has displaced Freud. Freud didn’t use the word despair. Anxiety he did use, although most often as a kind of noun-adjective with the noun neurosis: anxiety neurosis. The word, with its simplicity, has more meaning than is given in this definition, and one can only begin saying what it means.

The First Thing

he first thing in anxiety is the anxiety about whether we’re going to do right to ourselves. This anxiety can take the form in religion of being right as to Christ or to God. Then, a worker, for example, is anxious—is he going to please his new boss? Anxiety is always uncertainty. What did the impresario say?—did he like the way I got to the high notes in that song? It’s always uncertainty, from the very beginning. I’m anxious about those cuffs—will they stand the hard treatment that this professor gives them when he makes a point? Anxiety is doubt as to whether a thing will be strong enough for a felt purpose. It is a mingling always of hope and fear. It can go very deep. And it can be shown that we have a hope and a fear about the same thing.

     But our anxiety deeply is the feeling that somewhere we are wrong as to what concerns us most. There’s a great deal of talk about it. But to understand it, it would be necessary to see that general feeling, that vague feeling, that we are wrong about something—something is not being done right by ourselves. It can also be about someone else: Will he be able to run that machine? Can he manage that yacht?

     In this world there is uncertainty. And we begin uncertain. I have seen children who take a look and take a next step, and then, like Chicken Little, wonder if the sky is going to fall on them. This is with us all the time. But we are not honest about the anxiety, and it persists. It has ever so many points.

     However, I am using this Reader’s Digest list taken from the American Psychiatric Association: “Anxiety: Apprehension, the source of which is largely unknown or unrecognized.” Apprehension is one of the many words for fear, discomfort. It’s next to suspense. And if you intensify it, you have dismay. There’s also terror.

The Greatest Anxiety

n apprehension or fear there are two things: one is the source, and the other is, about what? The two explain each other. In order to understand anxiety we have to know what anxiety comes from, but we have to see also what it’s about.

     The greatest anxiety we have is that we won’t be honest. The reason for that is, there is a feeling that in not being honest we are not taking care of ourselves. This has been so for a long time. It can be put as simply as that. The being honest has chiefly as a subject, ourselves; it’s the being honest about ourselves. We claim things, and then we think we’ve claimed more than we should—we’ve called ourselves better than we are. And at that time we can be very anxious, because we are not sure that the good things we want to think about ourselves—and act as if we do—are really true.

     The other form of that is the feeling that maybe we’re much more awful people than we know. This uncertainty, in every instance—whether it goes for thinking we’re worse than we know, or thinking we shouldn’t have claimed the good we claimed—does concern itself with honesty. And dishonesty as anxiety will go on until it is very clear that to be honest is to be sensible.

     Occasionally we have to get to the obvious. For many, many years persons have felt that to be honest is not to be sensible. At the same time, they want to be honest. Either way, we already have a field for anxiety, because if we’re “sensible,” then we may not be honest, and if we’re honest, we may not be “sensible.” So what can we do?

Hope and Fear

“It is different from fear....” Fear and hope are two emotions which are very close to the first emotions, pain and pleasure. Fear is pain having to do with the future, and hope is pleasure having to do with the future. Anxiety is different from fear chiefly because it has within it a constant friction of fear and hope.

     “It is different from fear, which is the emotional response to a consciously recognized and usually external danger.” Well, this is very insufficient. I simply say there is so much more to be said about anxiety. In fact, this definition makes me anxious, it is so insufficient. But it is quite clear that anxiety has something to do with liking the world.

Why Do We “Block”?

The next term we have is blocking. It has also gotten to be a popular term, and people use it as if it were an accomplishment: “There’s a block with me now.” If you’re not blocked, you’re not intellectual.

Blocking: Difficulty in recollection, or interruption of a train of thought or speech, due to unconscious emotional factors.
     Unfortunately, there’s too little blocking in this world. A person who doesn’t want to think about something succeeds because there’s nobody interested in stopping him. He wants to get away from something, and who cares?—let him get away. The right to be a fool is usually not interfered with by our best friends. So there is blocking, but most often there is an absence of blocking. And the blocking is successful because we want to stop thought on the subject and we do. Do we! The brakes on thought are more successful than the brakes elsewhere. They even work when there is no danger at all.

     “Blocking: Difficulty in recollection...” That is a result of previous insufficiency of thought. If we don’t want to think about something and there’s something to recollect that is near to what we don’t want to think about, it’s likely we won’t recollect it.

     “...or interruption of a train of thought or speech...” It’s not an interruption. There is no train of thought. There might have been a train of thought but it was never even given a chance to find a track. You just stopped. If there had already been a train, you might see something; but it is a stoppage of thought, because there’s a feeling that if the thought weren’t stopped the result would not be pleasing.

     “...due to unconscious emotional factors.” Often the stoppage is very conscious. The greatest cinema success of all time, Gone with the Wind, had Vivien Leigh saying often as Scarlett O’Hara, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” She isn’t the only one. She knew she didn’t want to think about something, and why do so? To be sure, it can be a decision that you don't know. But sometimes we know that we don't want to think about something. Meanwhile, blocking is in the field of dislike.

Every Term

  n fact, every term, not only in psychiatry but even in medicine, has got something to do with an attitude to the world of like or dislike. 

*Here the editor cannot resist stating her own careful conclusion. Yes, Aesthetic Realism can “cope,” and grandly, with anything presented anywhere about the human mind. 

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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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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