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Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1668. — June 14, 2006
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Adam Smith—& Humanity's Kindness & Cruelty

Dear Unknown Friends: 

ere is the 4th part of Good Will Is in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. This 1972 lecture is historic in its comprehension of the renowned economist Adam Smith, whom Mr. Siegel shows to be warm and ever so likable too. He makes clear the relation between two works of Smith that have been seen as so different, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And he explains that Smith and the poet Shelley were going after the same thing—good will.

     The good will Mr. Siegel speaks of is not the mawkish stuff of greeting cards. It is solid, tough, practical, critical, exact. Good will is "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121). In the section of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel comments on passages by Smith about the drive in the human self to identify with other people, to feel what another person may feel. This identification is part of good will.

The Big Fight

Right now, the big, constant fight within every person, whether we're aware of it or not, is between good will and contempt. And the urgent need of everyone is to understand this fight. Because it hasn't been understood, there have been much grief, anger, shame, cruelty in people's relations with each other, including in love; and there has been cruelty internationally too.

     We can look at a terrible occurrence that is in the news as I write. The May 26th New York Times article on it begins:

A military investigation into the deaths of two dozen Iraqis last November is expected to find that a small number of marines...carried out extensive, unprovoked killings of civilians.

These killings by US marines in Haditha, Iraq, are described as "methodical in nature," "a sustained operation over several hours," "a massacre," "an atrocity."

     If the massacre did occur-and massacres like it have certainly occurred-it is necessary to see that this slaughter, by American servicemen, of children and mothers and other innocent people, did not begin in the heat of war or even in Iraq. It began with something that was present in representative young men in the ordinary moments of their lives.

Good Will vs. Contempt, in Ronny

et's take an imaginary young man named Ronny—a person, who, at age 23, takes part in a massacre like that in Haditha.

     When he was a boy in Kansas, Ronny had two ways of seeing, as everyone does. There was his little sister, Jillian. On the one hand he wanted to strengthen her: he felt proud walking her to school in the morning; he taught her to play softball. But he also liked feeling superior to her. He felt he went up a notch when he said to himself and others, "That stupid Jillian-she's such a jerk! She can't figure out anything for herself!"

     And he felt important because he could boss her around-like the time before church when they were in the backyard and he made her go and bring him down three pairs of his shoes, one after another, telling her each didn't fit just right. Did he feel like a big shot then!-though he felt sort of sick after. He also liked scaring her: telling her there were monsters under the bed, or that he saw a spider go down her shirt. He got a kick out of seeing the terror in her face.

     Ronny didn't know he was in a fight between having good will for his sister and having contempt-that way of mind which Mr. Siegel defined as "a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself." It is from this ordinary desire for contempt that every cruelty comes.

The Big Absence

hough Ronny wanted at times to be kind to his sister, the huge thing he didn't do, even when he was "nice" to her, was see her as being as real as he was. He didn't see her as having feelings as vivid, large, constant, intricate, interesting as his own. This big absence, this not seeing another as deeply like oneself, is the continuous absence in people's lives, and it is primal contempt. It is the opponent in everyone of the drive to identify, to sympathize, which Adam Smith describes, and it stops that drive from coming to fulness.

    In the last issue I quoted this statement by Eli Siegel from James and the Children:

As soon as you have contempt, as soon as you don't want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person.

It may seem shocking to say that Ronny was preparing to take part in a massacre years later and thousands of miles away, through the way he was with his little sister. But it is true.

     As Ronny grew older, the fight between good will and contempt continued, as it does with everyone. He was eager to do favors for his friends, like helping them move and lending them his car. Meanwhile, he did not think of them as having an inner life the way he had, or tumultuous thoughts; so he was not interested in knowing those thoughts.

     And with his friends, he mocked persons of a different race. He got a quick sense of being Somebody when he sneered at persons "different" from him-as he'd felt like Somebody when he'd sneered at Jillian. He certainly didn't see them as having insides as real as his own. Sometimes when he and his buddies were particularly raucous in making fun of such people, in making them seem low and stupid and strange, Ronny got a sense of exhilaration. He felt like he'd put the whole confusing world in its place and was on top of everything.

The Soldier

Ronny, at age 23, was in a country far away, a soldier in a war. The reasons given for the war didn't really make much sense to him, but he wasn't too interested in thinking them through. What he was in the midst of was terrible. He knew that people at home would not understand how terrible.

     Meanwhile, there was an assumption in him and his fellow soldiers. They took it to be in accord with the way of seeing at "the highest levels" and it seemed inseparable from their very presence in that far-off land. Though unspoken, it was that "We-our country and we who represent it-are Superior, have Power. Others are beneath us; therefore we can do pretty much anything we want-with anybody or anything!" Ronny liked this assumption and the feeling that came with it. A Times article quotes a troubled soldier home from Iraq as saying, "I miss the power....We were the king of the road."*

     The power Ronny felt was like what he'd felt when he'd ordered Jillian around, but more continuous and intense. It seemed at times to submerge the deep unsureness he had. But the unsureness would return, accompanied by a self-dislike increasingly strong and painful. Ronny didn't see, as he hadn't earlier, that his unsureness and self-dislike were the results of his contempt.

     One day, when a buddy of his pointed to some nearby houses and said to Ronny and others, "Let's get those sons-of-bitches, every one of them!!"-there was something in Ronny that this appealed to. It was the thing in him that had liked humiliating his sister, seeing fear in her face; that had liked belittling people different from himself; that did not see the full reality of anyone. So this young man from Kansas went with others and shot women and old men and children. As he did, he felt he was evening a score with the world itself, he was showing everything who was boss, he was triumphantly on top.

     If Ronny, for years, had not welcomed contempt-if he had been able to learn about it and oppose it-he could never have done what he did that autumn day.

     We should learn about the fight between contempt and good will, because it is dangerous not to; hurtful not to. But we should also learn about it because it is the most pride-giving, kindness-making, intelligence-heightening, interesting, truly beautiful study in the world.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

Is It Good Will?
By Eli Siegel

go now to the earlier work of Smith that is about good will, only in terms of person to person. The big matter in The Wealth of Nations is the relation of what a person does in a shop or in a field to how the world sees itself. The less known work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, could have the subtitle "What Do I Think of You?" In the life and appraisal of Adam Smith by one of the most likable of philosophers, if not one of the deepest, Dugald Stewart, we have the following description of what The Theory of Moral Sentiments is about:

The fundamental principle of Mr. Smith's theory is, that the primary objects of our moral perceptions are the actions of other men; and that our moral judgments with respect to our own conduct are only applications to ourselves of decisions which we have already passed on the conduct of our neighbors.

     Through the many examples of Smith, one sees how much we are affected by what we think other people see in us or how their thoughts are related to our own. No book presents this so richly and, I may say, so gracefully.

A Dramatic Feeling

ccasionally Smith has a dramatic feeling. Take the story that I mentioned yesterday, of Damon and Pythias, where Pythias has made a promise that he'll return to a certain place at a certain time so that Damon won't be punished instead of him by the tyrant. Why does his returning affect us so much? Why does a promise kept, under difficulty, mean so much? When Pythias runs in order to be there to undergo the punishment his friend would otherwise have, it is very affecting. And it is dramatic. One of the earliest Elizabethan plays is on the subject: Damon and Pithias, by Richard Edwards.

     Smith says as he talks of drama:

Whatever is the passion which the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator.

That means that if there weren't sympathy, there could be no drama, because we have to become the persons on the stage, particularly the hero or heroine, and we have to undergo their misfortunes and their hopes.

Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as sincere as our grief for their distress, and our fellow-feeling with their misery is not more real than that with their happiness.

This is the reason people cry at a cinema, or in the old days occasionally even at 4 o'clock in the afternoon at one of the radio serials.

We enter into their gratitude towards those faithful friends who did not desert them in their difficulties; and we heartily go along with their resentment against those perfidious traitors who injured, abandoned, or deceived them.

     Why is that so? Why do we have this feeling? Why does the drama persist? If any person feels that Genet and Beckett have superseded the good old drama where we cheer a noble impulse, it is not so.

In every passion of which the mind of man is susceptible, the emotions of the bystander always correspond to what, by bringing the case home to himself, he imagines should be the sentiments of the sufferer.

     Shelley goes toward something like this in the poem "The Sensitive Plant," and also in "The Revolt of Islam," and quite a few other poems.

We Become Uncomfortable

ccasionally if someone is rude and behaves badly, we become uncomfortable ourselves. Smith says:

Sympathy, therefore, does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it. We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself seems to be altogether incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality.

     Let's say we saw somebody, in a great access of fellow feeling, pinning a medal on Einstein sort of awkwardly and saying, "Hello, Einstein! How are you today?" We'd get a feeling of discomfort-such gaucherie!

We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behavior-

     I remember when a person in the cinema, like Jack Carson, would do something particularly rude, or Red Skelton-he'd do some gaucherie-and everybody would groan a little. They still do.

-because we cannot help feeling with what confusion we ourselves should be covered, had we behaved in so absurd a manner.

That is why in seeing a Marx Brothers picture, when somebody, let's say, had cream pie on the back of his suit and we knew it though he didn't, we'd still feel a certain way.

     The question is: does this identification, which occurs, as Smith shows, in manifold ways, scores of ways, and really hundreds of ways-does this have to do with good will?

     For example, let's say a person is born unfortunately in some way or other. The parents are elsewhere. He doesn't have enough money. We know that he doesn't have anything in this world; he doesn't know it. He'll just gurgle with his oatmeal as much as anybody, as much as any rich boy-but we suffer for it; the child does not. A lot of that happens. Sometimes it happens in a hospital, where a child has an ailment that doesn't indispose him too much: the people around him know but he doesn't. Yet we feel for him.

A Child & Mother Are Told Of

mith writes about a situation concerning a child. This is the mighty Smith of The Wealth of Nations :

What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant, that, during the agony of disease, cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder....

     It should be pointed out that Shelley had a tremendous power of identifying himself, even with a flower in distress. He identified himself even with the difficulties of a cloud. This power of identification is in people, as let's say somebody cuts off the head of a flower and you wince a little.

...and out of all these, [the mother] forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete image of misery and distress. The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant.

     The question which should be seen is whether the feeling that Smith writes of here is good will. And there's more of it shown in this book, I must say, than in any other work on ethics. Kant wrote on ethics, and so did Aristotle, but there aren't these instances of strict feeling.

With regard to the future, [the infant] is perfectly secure, and in its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an antidote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will in vain attempt to defend it, when it grows up to be a man.

     There's a famous American story which is about this matter. It is a very good story-"A Trip to Czardis," by Edwin Granberry. It's about a child who is taken to be around when his father is executed. He doesn't know what's going on. And there is a question: should the child be near or not?

     In all writing we have the need to identify. If a woman is writing about men, she has to become a man for a while. This matter of sympathy, with its relation to good will, is very much in both Smith and Shelley. I shall give quotations from Shelley, but in the meantime, since the work of Smith I am now reading from is much less well known, we should have quotations from this book of 1759.

About Jokes

mith talks surprisingly about mortification. One of the greatest tragedies is that when we tell a joke we think it's funny but it seems that other people just are too dull. This is in chapter 2:

A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks around and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself.

So, laugh and the world laughs with you, but tell a joke and it may not.

     There are a good many little bits of description having to do with good will-some of which I'll get to, I hope-in The Wealth of Nations, outside of its main idea: that countries should love each other commercially. It calls for love among trading communities.     

*NY Times Magazine, 28 May 06, p.43.
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
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Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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