The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

We—& Children—Are Philosophic

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the magnificent 1965 lecture Philosophy Consists of Instincts, by Eli Siegel. And we include here too part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Nancy Huntting, from a recent seminar titled “How Can Selfishness & Generosity Make Sense in a Woman’s Life?”

In his lecture Mr. Siegel shows that the big battle going on in people’s lives every day is also the continuous conflict in a field that seems so different: the history of philosophy. This conflict is about fact and a notion of value, and it takes many forms in both philosophy and us. Centrally, it takes the form in us of the desire to see, to know, versus the desire to have things make us comfortable and important.

Reality: Definite & Illimitable

In the present section of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about two opposites in thought: reality as definite, immediate, the objects right before one; and reality as indefinitely wide, expansive—as illimitable. In each of these opposites, the fight he has been describing is present: we can use each in behalf either of knowing or of making ourselves contemptuously comfortable. I am going to comment on them briefly in relation to a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson from A Child’s Garden of Verses, because this Aesthetic Realism principle is true about people of every age: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” I love Eli Siegel’s seeing that the questions of children are philosophic all the way. And I love his showing that, at any age, the big interference with our lives, the corrupter of the philosophic opposites in us, is contempt: our desire “to be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”

A boy of 5 wants to see widely. He’d like to say “Ooh!,” see mystery in things, feel there’s meaning he can’t run. Yet the same boy, Jonah, can also get mad if he meets something he doesn’t understand: he’d like to feel he’s in a world he can limit and manage. On the other hand, he can also use the “wide” contemptuously: he can like going into a world far away from the people he knows; he can close his eyes and get rid of everything, or be somewhere apart in his mind when people are talking. “Where are you, Jonah?” his mother asked last night at dinner, when he was right across the table from her.

“Foreign Lands”

In many of Stevenson’s poems, a child is going after one (or both) of those two things, the expansive or the definite—sometimes with respect, sometimes with contempt. The very fine poem “Foreign Lands” begins:

Up into the cherry tree

Who should climb but little me?

I held the trunk with both my hands

And looked abroad on foreign lands.

This lively stanza meets a mightily philosophic and achingly human hope: it makes love to the expansive and strange, and—simultaneously—to the definite, confined, near. There are climbing and looking abroad, and at the same time “little me” and the holding on to a trunk.

We find that “foreign lands” can include something very close:

I saw the next door garden lie,

Adorned with flowers, before my eye,

And many pleasant places more

That I had never seen before.

The verbal music of this poem is a oneness of that which comforts—as in the lapping line “And many pleasant places more”—and a reaching, a sense of wonder, as in “That I had never seen before.” The desire for wideness continues:

If I could find a higher tree

Farther and farther I should see,


To where the roads on either hand

Lead onward into fairy land,

Where all the children dine at five,

And all the playthings come alive.

That last couplet, with which the poem ends, has in it the boy’s looking for a strange world that is at one with the matter-of-fact. Dinner at a definite, to-be-counted-on hour joins in a rhyme with reality as mysterious and as having fuller life: “Where all the children dine at five, / And all the playthings come alive.”

It’s a beautiful couplet. And it expresses a beautiful hope: that the everyday be inseparable from the wide, surprising, vivid. Aesthetic Realism meets that hope. It shows reality is a oneness of opposites, the very opposites which make up our longings and battles and lives.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Everyday & the Grand

By Eli Siegel

Note. The passages Mr. Siegel quotes are by Morris Cohen, in The Cambridge History of American Literature. Here, Cohen mentions writers who affected American philosophy at the time of “the controversy over evolution”:

The evolutionary philosophy was flanked on the left by the empirical or positivistic philosophy of Comte, Mill, Lewes, Buckle, and Bain, and on the right by the dialectic evolutionism of Hegel.

These represent aspects of discomfort for a person. On the one hand, man has to look at objects more closely. The philosopher Mill; Lewes, who wrote on the meaning of physiology; Buckle, the materialist historian; Bain, who was a pretty down-to-earth psychologist; and Comte, who tried to make history and religion secular—these do stand for the need to honor what is next to one’s toes. We like to step among things and away from things, but not step in such a way that we recognize the oneness of our toes with what we step among. That, to the ego, is self-stultifying.

Then, there’s the other aspect: the idea that our world is part of some inexorable thing called the absolute, and that what’s happening to us is really the absolute following its own idea. This doesn’t seem to be very laudatory of ourselves. To get into philosophy at its largest is to feel that we are a momentary concept in a mind that doesn’t care anything for us. That is the Hegelian absolute. And it is not gratifying.

So the small, the seemingly disgraceful, attacks us; and the ever so large attacks us. What is man to do? If he starts thinking about the two he may get more involved with them because every time you think about things you can’t help being a little involved. Then there is the desire to go into oneself. Or one can get to a notion of religion that is much more comforting—where God, on the one hand, is big enough for any sensible man’s desires and, on the other, isn’t in any way in partnership with an awful thing called the absolute or pantheism. Pantheism is very distressing, because as soon as you say everything is God—well, you don’t know what company you’re keeping. So you get to some idea of God which is more comforting, or you go into yourself.

Philosophy Has These

The work of John Fiske, the leader of the evolutionary host, of Chauncey Wright, who nobly represented scientific empiricism, and of William T. Harris, the saintly and practical minded Hegelian, united to give American philosophy a wider basis.

Fiske, with reasoning that is stronger than sometimes has been thought, associated the idea of God with a cosmic process. Science was used as the means of justifying this cosmic procedure, and God and the cosmic procedure came to be the same thing. This pleased people. He saw something like evolution in the whole universe, including astronomy.

Chauncey Wright is one of the most interesting figures. He is praised here. William James knew him and Fiske wrote about him. He is one of the most nonchalant people who ever lived. He made a whole business of not being taken in. As soon as he found value in anything—as soon as he found the lizard pretty—he felt he was joining the church and he couldn’t stand it. He felt science has nothing to do with value: it describes leprosy in the same way as it does a child’s smile; it describes an earthquake in the same way as it does a harvest.

Knowledge & Pleasure, Fact & Value

Cohen says that Fiske, Wright, and Harris “united to give American philosophy a wider basis.” That philosophy consisted of these two things: how can we know what we want to know?; how can we satisfy our desire?

The aspect of philosophy which is ontology, the study of the nature of things, is obviously factual. So is epistemology: what is the nature of knowing and truth? But as soon as we get to ethics and aesthetics, we’re getting to value. The three aspects of philosophy (if the third can be included) that are factual—that is, about what is there—are ontology, epistemology, and logic. The other two are about value: aesthetics and ethics. Then, something that has been related to philosophy, theology, is arrantly about value: it says that something called God is running things. Value become personal, seen as managing the universe or having an attitude to the universe, is God.

So we’re in the midst of value and fact. If a person wants to see things, obviously he’s in the world of fact. As soon as he wants to be comfortable, he’s in the field of value. And the proposition in this talk is that the deepest conflict of instincts we have, the conflict between seeing and feeling good, is also the largest, most persistent question in philosophy.

Generous or Selfish?

By Nancy Huntting

Growing up, I wanted to think I was good, but I can’t remember being generous in any deep or steady way. I did have kind feelings for animals. And I helped my mother by setting the table (grudgingly) and generally behaving. But I liked being served, and got nearly everything I wanted in terms of toys, clothes, ballet and piano lessons, and lots of praise.

I liked school, and it was there I gave myself most: to learning. I remember wanting to be fair to words—spell them correctly, use them grammatically—and I loved to read. When we try to be fair to something, I later learned from Aesthetic Realism, we’re truly selfish, truly take care of ourselves.

However, I mainly felt the world was a harsh, competitive place I had to hide from and outwit. While I had friends and was fairly popular, I saw myself as superior to most people and had a self-centered, unjust way of seeing that made me cold to others’ feelings. Writes Eli Siegel:

The chief reason for the winning out of selfishness so far is man’s feeling that he is accompanied by a world hostile to himself and which he has to defeat....Once we are clear that it is not sensible for us to fight the world the way we have, selfishness will have received a central blow. [TRO 173]

In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked what I thought of the world, and my initial response was: “I don’t think about it.” I added: “I’m mostly concerned with myself.” Later, I said I was afraid of the world, and my consultants asked: “Do you think you came to a picture of things that had too much contempt in it?”

NH. I don’t think I would have seen it as contempt.

Consultants. People don’t, but contempt is a separation of ourselves from the world. Do you think there’s any relation between contempt and fear?

NH. There could be.

Consultants. If you’re fair to something, would you be less likely to feel afraid of it? Is there a greater chance of being afraid if one is unfair?

Yes! I saw the logic right away. It was the beginning of a central change in me: to wanting to be fair to people and more critical of myself.

Generosity & Selfishness in Love

I saw myself as wanting to please the man of my choice—I thought about him all the time, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Yet this thought wasn’t in order to know him; it was about what he could do for me.

The person in my past about whom perhaps I have the most regret, I’ll call Tad. At college, he wrote some verses to me and I was thrilled—no other man had done that! I thought he was adventurous—he’d gone across the West on a motorcycle. He’d tell people he was a Hungarian novelist named Ilya Fogarosi. I thought this was wonderfully clever; it didn’t occur to me there was anything wrong in fooling people.

Tad graduated in 1967, during the Vietnam War, and, knowing he’d be drafted, entered Navy Officer Candidate School. A year later he was sent to Vietnam. I am ashamed I didn’t protest that war but saw it only as a personal interference. I was utterly cold to Vietnamese parents and children who were being bombed, napalmed, murdered: my selfishness made them nonexistent. But Tad, whom I supposedly “loved,” wasn’t real to me either. When he didn’t write I was hurt; I didn’t think about what he was going through. That fall I got a new boyfriend, more handsome and impressive, I thought, than Tad. Then, when Tad returned from Vietnam and wanted to visit me, I agreed to see him one more time because I “felt sorry for him.” My selfishness of then is staggering to me.

Some years later I began to study in classes taught by Eli Siegel, and I saw in him a beautiful accuracy and generosity. In one discussion he asked me whether I thought there was any true love in me, and how it would show itself. He explained: “Love is defined two ways by Aesthetic Realism: 1) Love is proud need; and 2) Love is ecstasy through good will.”

By then, I’d spent three or four turbulent years with a man I’ll call Ray Martin. I had ended the relationship, yet didn’t understand why I could still feel I wanted Ray even though I was so angry with him. Mr. Siegel asked, “Is there any greater comfort than owning a person whom you desire?” “Yes,” I answered. And he said, with humor: “Do you really think so? Don’t be an idealist. We make a symbol of somebody and it’s irretrievable. Do you believe you conquer the world by having Mr. Martin need you?” “Yes,” I said.

As I came to see it was the feeling of conquest over the world that I missed, not the man, my turmoil about Ray ended.

Real love, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, is encouraging a person to care for the world. Doing this is at once generous and truly selfish.

A Woman of Our Time

Explaining how true selfishness is also generosity, Eli Siegel writes in Self and World: “To be selfish is to be the whole self; to be the whole self is to have a sense of otherness.”

Lacey Fairfield was 23 when she began learning this in Aesthetic Realism consultations. She had grown up in North Carolina, cared for music, and was now working for a real estate firm. She was pretty, and spoke in a lively way. But she told us there had been a lot of pain with men. “My friends think I’m very successful,” she said with a quick laugh—yet, she continued, there were times recently when she felt like crying and didn’t know why. We asked, “Do you think as you assert yourself and charm people, you’re at ease?” “No,” she said, “I’m not.”

She told us that early in her life she had “a feeling of being privileged” and was “stuck up.”

Consultants. Is there a sense of superiority to the world that you have? Do people feel you’re too aloof?

LF. Yes, that’s true. I am too aloof—and also afraid.

Our job was to have Ms. Fairfield see the difference between false superiority and the honest confidence she could have through knowing the world and liking things, a purpose that would make herself and others strong, including a man.

“Do you think,” we asked in one consultation, “that through your mind things have more reality or less reality?” She said often they had less—“Everyday things don’t mean enough to me.” We began to show her that the way to see more meaning was to see the opposites in reality and in people. We gave her an assignment to ask herself, as she had to do with a man, what opposites he was trying to put together.

Lacey Fairfield began seeing Daniel Hale, a science teacher. She wrote—and these represent opposites—“he gets true pleasure out of being exact.” And she told us, “He’s been critical of the way I can be mocking.”

Consultants. Do you want him to encourage you to be more accurate about other people and the world?

LF. Yes!

Lacey Fairfield is using her mind in a new way. She did other important assignments: she wrote a monologue of her mother at age 18; she wrote on “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Knowing Myself”; she read Dickens’ David Copperfield for the purpose of being sensible about men. She wrote to us:

Aesthetic Realism is the grandest and most practical body of knowledge. … Through it, I changed from an increasingly cold, jaded woman to one who wants to have a good effect on other people. … I am able to use my mind in a way I wasn’t able to before. … My life has changed, and, joyfully, I know I can continue to change!

Her life represents what people are hoping for.