The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Caused the Wars


Dear Unknown Friends:

It is necessary to see that while the contempt which is in every one of us may make ordinary life more painful than it should be, this contempt is also the main cause of wars. It was contempt that made for the trenches of France in 1915; it was contempt which made for the labor camps of the Second World War. It was contempt which made for that awful mode of retaliation called Nazism. Contempt has made Christians and Muslims fight daily, or want to fight daily, in Lebanon. Contempt causes terror in the Middle East. Contempt makes Bolivia a perilous place in which to live.

In the unconscious, dear unknown friends, it is the other person who will have accomplished contempt for you unless you have first contempt for him. There are two lines that I, years ago, sang with others in a school in Baltimore. The lines are from James R. Randall’s “Maryland! My Maryland!” and read:

Thou wilt not cower in the dust,


The constant fear of being insulted by some power other than oneself; the constant belief that one is insulted by some power not oneself, is in these words from the Civil War song. Randall’s “Maryland! My Maryland!” points to contempt as a large cause of the impetus to war: fear of contempt for ourselves making for an accelerated desire to have contempt for someone else. How thoroughly, dear unknown friends, this matter should be looked at!

1. Churchill and World War II

The desire for contempt and the fear that it may be shown to ourselves were in Maryland in April 1861. This desire for contempt and fear of it were all over Europe in the summer of 1939: earlier and later, too. Was contempt the main thing in the cause of the war which technically began on September 1, 1939? I believe that in the writings of one of the world figures of recent years, Winston Spencer Churchill, one can see clearly enough that it was contempt which made Nazis march across France and take Paris. Offensive contempt was well organized, embodied as dive bombers, tanks, exultant, impelled infantry.

It is well, then, to consider some sentences of the man who became Prime Minister of England, taking the place of Neville Chamberlain, who seemed, the English people thought, not to care for mighty clear Britannic action. The following sentence is from Churchill’s Preface, dated March 1948, to The Gathering Storm:

The human tragedy reaches its climax in the fact that after all the exertions and sacrifices of hundreds of millions of people and of the victories of the Righteous Cause, we have still not found Peace or Security, and that we lie in the grip of even worse perils than those we have surmounted.

Churchill was a keen person; but like most persons, he knew little about contempt. Churchill did not see contempt as a definite reality with definite force, affecting every human being every hour. Churchill, like Freud, did not see contempt as the imbedded, continuous temptation of man; the vile, cruel, unfeeling presence in the nature of man. It is the temptation of man to lessen humanity.

These words of mine are certainly strong, and can be sustained only after close criticism of them. Therefore, let us be textual, so that present words be validated by seeing past words truly. What do some words of renowned people and unrenowned people mean?

2. Words of a Prime Minister

Churchill uses the phrase, rather common by now: “the human tragedy.” Just what is this tragedy? Churchill does not say. A great deal has been written of this tragedy. Christ, surely, was interested. It is what Percy Bysshe Shelley writes of in the final chorus from Hellas:

Oh, cease! must hate and death return?

Cease! must men kill and die?

And W.H. Auden, less poetically than P.B. Shelley—Auden was not a poet—continues the thought of Shelley in often-quoted lines of Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” written when people were feeling the presence of World War II:

In the nightmare of the dark

All the dogs of Europe bark,

And the living nations wait,

Each sequestered in its hate.

Shelley and Auden, then, comment on Prime Minister Churchill’s use of the phrase, “the human tragedy.” The human tragedy, a person can rightly infer, is the persistence of that hate among men and women of the world which made for war in the past and, Mr. Churchill says in 1948, may make for war again.

Consequently, what Shelley said in 1821, W.H. Auden said in 1940, and W.S. Churchill said in 1948, make it necessary to look at that word Hate, with a capital letter or no capital letter. Hate has been regarded as the immovable psychological culprit in the cause of war. What, then, is this hate? What is its purpose?

3. Hate Looks for Contempt

Hate, a most powerful psychological possibility, has a goal of its own. Hate is anger looking for release, ego-repose. The purpose of hate is to justify contempt for the thing hated by having a victory over it. All mental or emotional victory has contempt ensuing. If it is a victory over injustice, contempt for injustice is affirmed. If it is a victory over other people, there is a great pleasure in seeing these enemies abject, with less power.

Whatever the victory is about, the impulsion of hate is rewarded by contempt as accomplishment. Man has to have a victory over something not himself. The victory of art is always something of a victory over ourselves: something we should want to love less. However, it is much easier to hate something we do not see as ourselves.

 It is not easy for someone to see cheapness in oneself and to say to oneself: “I hate the cheapness in me and which is me; and if I defeat it, contempt for ugliness, this time a good contempt, will have won.” Unless man has contempt for what is not lovely in himself; unless he has a true joy in defeating what is not lovely in himself, wars will go on.

The next war has to be against ugliness in self. And the greatest ugliness in self is the seeing of contempt as personal achievement. Contempt must be had for contempt before squabbles grow less, terror diminishes. Respect for what is real must be seen as the great success of man.

Meantime, I look further at some words of Winston Churchill.

4. What Are “Even Worse Perils"?

Churchill says in the Preface from which I have already quoted, “we lie in the grip of even worse perils.” Mr. Churchill, as I have said, could not see a psychological state of man, present for hundreds of years, as a definite fact. It is likely that if Sigmund Freud were told longstanding contempt in man was the main enemy he had, he would have waved such a statement aside with, perhaps, the comment: “That is a metaphysical assumption, I am afraid.”

Therefore, whether contempt has existed as a corrosive force for hundreds of years; whether it does exist, as definitely as rust—this must be looked at until there is a useful answer. And as I proceed with the examination which, if need be, should go on for years, it may be mentioned that Mr. Churchill and Dr. Freud agree in not seeing contempt as a clear force. Freud saw repression, as he understood it, or “curtailed libido,” as a force; Churchill saw competition in world trade as a force—but not contempt, a quiet thing in every Englishman in Hampshire, every Frenchman in Languedoc.

Still, Mr. Churchill does not describe the perils in whose grip we are. The two mental states associated with the coming to be of war are “dominion” and “aggression.” In the histories, we often meet phrases like “an insatiable lust for dominion” and “an unchecked aggressive tendency.” Attila, Napoleon, Hitler come to mind. Alexander and Tamerlane wait. Genghis Khan and Frederick the Great are near. The persons mentioned all illustrate war in man.

Nevertheless, Aesthetic Realism states that in both Frederick the Great and Genghis Khan, Attila and Alexander, the beginning thing was contempt; and the final thing was no different. Always, evidence is appropriate.

5. Insanity Has Not Been Absent

Churchill, like others, associates the impetus of insanity with the cause of war. The way Mr. Churchill writes in The Gathering Storm shows that he relishes the mighty je ne sais quoi which again and again has been seen in whatever the cause of war is. Suppose I take a sentence from page 4 of The Gathering Storm:

The war leaders assembled in Paris had been borne thither upon the strongest and most furious tides that have ever flowed in human history.

Mr. Churchill can rightly be regarded as writing this reverberating sentence with the pleasure a boy might have in the furious uncertainty of the fourth quarter of a tense football game. Mr. Churchill throve on the vast uncertainties of human strength and human history. However, it is necessary to look at that word tides. What is in a psychological tide?

In 1919, there was the psychological tide of revenge in European history. There was the feeling that old injustices and past woes would at last be remedied. There was the feeling that old enemies would at last be crestfallen; that old adversaries would at last be humbled. Does all this have the victory and relish of contempt in it? When at last someone wins a law case, is it a time for contempt? When a family feud goes a certain way, can the favored family enjoy the advent of contempt? Was there enjoyment, in 1919, of historical enemies made less? Was the aroma of history going one’s way in one’s nostrils?

Were the contempt present from 1914 to this year seen, it would be like a great oneness of all the floods, all the forest fires, and all the unheard processes of man’s desire.

We are with insanity, for man is so impelled towards a victory over an enemy, which usefully can be called reality, that this victory submerges other considerations.

6. Contempt and Hitler

Mr. Churchill, impelled by world-occurrence, tells of Hitler. Hitler is perhaps the greatest evoker of human contempt in history. The Nazi victories in Europe, the concentration camps, the gauleiters, Lidice, the U-boats—all these instance that contempt become tangible with the Nazi coming to power in Germany in 1933. Fascism or Nazism lost at Stalingrad in 1942; but contempt has not lost. Fascism or Nazism is the geographical or historical form of contempt. That form did not win; but contempt itself is powerful in human lives all over the world.

I cannot say enough at this time to show that it was contempt which made the war of 1914 happen and also the war of 1939. At this time [1976], contempt is busy in the Middle East and in Africa. It is in Central America. It is in Thailand.

On page 9 of The Gathering Storm, Mr. Churchill matter-of-factly says:

History will characterise all these transactions as insane.

Just how did he who studied at Harrow once, come to write this? And there are other places where Mr. Churchill describes international transactions as having the mental quality of persons unfortunate in perception. I choose to see statements of Mr. Churchill questioning the mentality of noted political and business figures as not just poetic or metaphorical. Contempt for the world simply because it is different from oneself is an insane principle of great place in history. The good contempt, which is contempt of contempt itself and contempt of injustice—for that the world is still waiting.

With love,

Eli Siegel