The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

War—What Is the Fundamental Cause?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize Contempt & World War I, a lecture Eli Siegel gave in November 1975. It is about the fundamental cause of war. This cause, he explained, is contempt: the feeling, had by everyone, that we are more if we can lessen what’s not ourselves. Mr. Siegel identified contempt, in all its ordinariness, as the hurtful principle in the human self. It is behind all cruelty. And while having contempt can make a person feel temporarily important, even mighty, it is the thing that makes us pervasively ashamed, depressed, agitated, lonely—because it’s against the deepest desire we have: to express ourselves through being beautifully just to the outside world.

There is in this landmark lecture a leisureliness, and also humor, as Mr. Siegel looks at his subject. Meanwhile, something of the utmost magnitude and urgency is being presented. He intermingles various texts, which look at the First World War from different angles. He began with Vachel Lindsay’s poem “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight in Springfield, Illinois,” and his discussion of it is in our last issue, TRO 1783. Next, he speaks about Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 request for a congressional declaration of war, then about a 1915 essay of Freud, then a passage by a German historian, and then he goes back to Wilson and to Freud again. Through that almost symphonic intermingling, we have a sense of the huge, horrified, international puzzlement: how did all this killing across Europe come to be?

Mr. Siegel once said that humanity still hasn’t gotten over the shock of World War I. It had seemed to people in England, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, that they were in a civilized time, that things were generally peaceful and quiet. Then suddenly there came to be the trenches, gas warfare, burning towns, young men maiming and killing each other. In his Outline of History H.G. Wells, writing in 1920, describes the feeling in 1914 as war began:

On the night of August 2nd, while most of Europe, still under the tranquil inertias of half a century of peace, still in the habitual enjoyment of...a widely diffused plenty..., was thinking about its summer holidays, the little Belgian village of Visé was ablaze....

All Europe still remembers the strange atmosphere of those eventful sunny August days....It was like a man still walking about the world unaware that he has contracted a fatal disease which will alter every routine and habit in his life.

Was Contempt There?

Various “causes” of the war are listed in textbooks, but they haven’t seemed to account sufficiently for the butchery at the Marne, Verdun, the Somme, and, as Mr. Siegel said, “what would make an American bookkeeper want to kill a German bookkeeper.”

One of the causes given for the war is imperialism: there was a rivalry among European nations as to who should own various parts of Africa. That is so. But imperialism is an aspect of something larger and more determinative. Imperialism is a form of contempt. For persons in Europe to see the continent of Africa, with its wealth and its living, breathing, hoping human beings, as existing to be owned by one’s nation and to supply profit for industrialists, is sheer contempt.

Another cause given for World War I is the growth of nationalism. But pride in one’s nation is dangerous only if it is also a desire to show that other nations are inferior—to look down on them and humble them. In other words, “nationalism” is very often contempt. And so it was in 1914.

In the part of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel quotes from Woodrow Wilson’s speech to Congress calling for a declaration of war. He contrasts it with, for instance, America’s waging of the Vietnam War without a congressional declaration. This contrast is about contempt too. Whatever Wilson can be criticized for, he had at least a respect for the U.S. Constitution. Those responsible for the Vietnam War had contempt for the principal law of the land, and in their disobedience of it were, strictly speaking, criminals.

In this lecture Mr. Siegel looks at the first two paragraphs of Freud’s “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” To help place what Mr. Siegel says here, I’ll quote a statement that appears later in Freud’s essay. In the midst of writing which can seem impressive even as it’s often unclear and illogical, Freud slips in an admission: he says he does not know what causes the enmity that culminates in war:

Actually why the national units should disdain, detest, abhor one another, and that even when they are at peace, is indeed a mystery. I cannot tell why it is.

A Poem on the Subject

“The War Song of Dinas Vawr” is a humorous poem written in 1829 by Thomas Love Peacock. It is part of his satiric novel The Misfortunes of Elphin. Dinas Vawr is the castle of a fictitious medieval Welsh king, and the warriors who conquer it are the speakers, or singers, of the poem. In the novel, Peacock says this chorus “is here put upon record as being the quintessence of all the war-songs that ever were written, and the sum and substance of all the appetencies...of military glory.” Though he is being jocular, we can see in it instances of the cause of war—explained, for the first time in history, by Eli Siegel. Here are the first and third stanzas:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,

But the valley sheep are fatter;

We therefore deemed it meeter

To carry off the latter.

We made an expedition;

We met an host and quelled it;

We forced a strong position

And killed the men who held it.


As we drove our prize at leisure,

The king marched forth to catch us:

His rage surpassed all measure,

But his people could not match us.

He fled to his hall-pillars;

And, ere our force we led off,

Some sacked his house and cellars,

While others cut his head off.

In Self and World, Eli Siegel writes this about the basis of contempt:

The first victory of contempt is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please.... The fact that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form.

The warriors in Peacock’s poem represent millions of soldiers who have agreed to fight in unjust wars. They simply feel, as “most people have felt,” that they have “the right to see...pretty much as they please.” They feel, There are things we want, my country and I, (for instance those sheep) and we don’t have to think about what other people deserve. From this “contempt in its first universal, hideous form” arise other forms of contempt, including what’s celebrated in the following lines:

We there, in strife bewildering,

Spilt blood enough to swim in:

We orphaned many children

And widowed many women.

For thousands of years, soldiers have done this kind of thing, and gotten some of the satisfaction in these lines. Later they feel awful. They have “post-traumatic stress disorder.” But what impelled them?

A Way of Seeing the World

There is a feeling in people, before they become soldiers, that the world itself is an enemy. It confuses you. It doesn’t bow to you, give you what you want, permit you to feel smugly and confidently superior to it. And so a person is looking for a chance to punish that world, make it humiliate itself before him. He is looking to have the world show at last that he is running things. This is contempt. In ordinary life, a “well-behaved” citizen may go after a retaliatory victory over what’s not himself through mocking another person, through uttering some racial or sexual epithet, through thoughts in which personal enemies are humiliated at last. But the same drive has also impelled war, and happenings in war.

Peacock’s celebrating warriors did not see the people whose blood they spilt as having the full reality they, the warriors, had. Further, they saw those people as standing for a disliked world they could rule, beat, and look down on utterly at last. This contempt is the cause of massacres. It is the cause of Nazi atrocities. It is the cause of My Lai. It is the cause of Abu Ghraib. It is the cause too of planes leveling the World Trade Center towers in New York.

Peacock’s poem is art—the opposite of contempt. It presents a crude, ugly state of mind with a matter-of-factness that also is poetic music. We hear in the vowels and consonants and the deft rhyme and meter, a oneness of the world’s sameness and difference, force and delicacy, terror and humor. And so we feel both the ugliness of the warriors’ state of mind and the beauty of reality.

It is an understatement to say that Aesthetic Realism’s explanation of contempt is great. Because of it, people can finally be just to each other. And finally war can end.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

What Was in People’s Minds?

By Eli Siegel

In American history there are two very visible, obvious, tremendous requests for a declaration of war. The first and clearest is Woodrow Wilson, April 2, 1917, talking to a joint session of Congress, representatives and senators. The other is Franklin Delano Roosevelt in December 1941, just after Pearl Harbor. In both instances, it was clear that America was going to be in a war. Other wars—well, they weren’t declared as clearly.

No official declaration of war with George III. He wouldn’t have understood it anyway. The War of 1812 is somewhat clearer; there is a declaration, but we don’t have the full formality. It’s called “Mr. Madison’s War.” There is something like a confused declaration of the war with Mexico. With the Civil War, Mr. Lincoln called for volunteers. The Indians never got a declaration of war: they weren’t seen as important enough; I think they still resent it. Something like a declaration of war occurred in 1898, but it was very confused: was it Cuba or Spain that was doing all this? The great declaration of war occurred in 1917—and another in 1941. I’ll read Woodrow Wilson’s first paragraph:

Gentlemen of the Congress. I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made, and made immediately, which it was neither right nor constitutionally permissible that I should assume the responsibility of making.

This means that Mr. Wilson felt Congress should declare war, not himself. And he was quite right. He understood the Constitution, which is more than some later presidents did. Mr. Wilson went through all the right procedures, while I can mention a few presidents who did nothing of the kind.

Mr. Wilson’s prose still has a quality. You can be quite sure he wrote this himself. He is a literary person. He wrote on Burke. He wrote on Bagehot. He wrote an essay called “Mere Literature.” He wrote a history of the United States. He wrote on congressional government. He wrote on “The New Freedom,” which is so new it hasn’t occurred yet. But it’s one of the important documents of American history.

“I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made.” They were very serious. The event that has stood out in people’s minds is the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915—May 7th. And there was something less known now: the sinking of the Sussex in 1916. Then, in February 1917, Imperial Germany said it was going to resume submarine warfare and gave reasons. It said, The blockade of Germany has not stopped and it is an inhumanity toward the German people. England ruled the seas, but it didn’t rule what was under the seas: that is, it didn’t have more submarine power than Germany.

This resumption of submarine warfare annoyed Americans a good deal. They wanted to be able to go to England without suddenly having a submarine rise at them. Then, there was commerce. That should be remembered, because the cause of America’s entering the war was given very often as the need of J.P. Morgan to collect the debts owed to him by England.

The first sentence of the address is important. And it’s a well made sentence, and definitely shows that Woodrow Wilson deserved to be president of Princeton. He was literate. I’ll come back to his statement, but I now go to some other paragraphs on the same subject.

Freud, War, & Evasiveness

It seems that in 1915 Sigmund Freud felt there was something going on in man other than the desire for expression in sex. I’m reading from a sourcebook published by Columbia University Press, Man in Contemporary Society. Freud is here, writing in 1915 about the war, and he does not relate what he is saying to the things he said earlier. I’ll read first the head note given by the editors, who are “the Contemporary Civilization Staff of Columbia College”:

…During the first two decades of his work in psychology, Freud established the essential directions for the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. However, he continued to widen the scope of his theoretical evaluations.... This evolution of ideas is evident in his essay “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” (1915), which comprises the following selection....[ A] motif to be found in [it,] which was further articulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1922), Ego and Id (1923), and the Problem of Anxiety (1936), explores the... struggle between the forces of life and death.

Sometimes contempt takes the form of protecting something unjustly. It happens that Sigmund Freud, as he wrote this in 1915, could have been aware that he was saying something different from what he had said in earlier works, including the work on dreams, and Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and in many papers. There is a great difference between saying that man, unless he has a sex life that can be praised, cultivates neurosis—which Freud said before this—and what is said in this particular paper.

If man can find himself killing other people, there must be something pretty strong impelling him. People didn’t go to the trenches in order to add to their sex life. Sometimes that did happen: there’s a strange story by a Croatian writer who tells of a rat being caught in the trenches and used for illicit purposes. I won’t read the story—don’t worry. Occasionally there was a celebration: that can be seen in the most famous play of the First World War, Journey’s End, by R.C. Sherriff.

But I think the editors here are much too easy on Freud. As soon as Freud dealt with his death principle in any way, the question of its consistency with what was earlier said should have been asked about. Freud had a contempt for truth in not asking about it himself.

What Is the Essential Thing?

“Freud established the essential directions for the theory and practice of psychoanalysis.” It is quite clear that Freud made the essential thing in man his attitude to sex and his procedures about it. This can be covered up. You can be weasely about it. You can say, “We meant more by the word libido. We meant even the excitement of a baseball game,” and that kind of thing. But the fact remains that in the early work of Freud, as later was maintained by Reich, sex and its fullness or paucity or mishaps or deviations was the large thing.

It does seem that if man goes to war, that is not the cause. It’s true that often a soldier was able to be more lewd than he had been at home. Still, the first reason for his being at war was not to conquer Babylonian girls or Athenian girls. And no one said that Bethmann-Hollweg fought Viscount Grey because of hidden sexual desires.

“However, [Freud] continued to widen the scope of his theoretical evaluations.” The chief thing that he got to was the desire for death, the death instinct.

“This evolution of ideas is evident in his essay ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ (1915),... [which] reveals Freud’s abiding concern for the travails of contemporary civilization.” This is a use of weasel words. Freud, up until the war, did not write about economics and what was happening to people generally. He didn’t want to see that now he was saying something different.

His Problem of Anxiety, of 1936, is mentioned. Freud changed about anxiety. The anxiety neurosis was usually ascribed by him to some inability to express something sexual.

I have to say this head note is cowardly. It hasn’t been asked why Freud took another track, and what that means.