The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Interferes with Justice

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing a work of philosophic, historic, and immediate importance: Eli Siegel’s 1968 lecture We Are Unrepresented. Quoting John Stuart Mill, Aristotle, and articles from current newspapers, he describes what that tremendous, needed thing, representation, is. It is “to have the power that is in things and people bring out, with respect, what is in a person or persons.” He speaks about the need of people to be represented in the workings of their nation, and about the interference—the fact that so much throughout the centuries, people have stopped others from being represented.

America then was in the midst of the Vietnam War; and Mr. Siegel speaks about the feeling in Americans which he saw intensifying and increasing: that the war did not represent America; its purpose was not to protect America nor to make anyone free.

In the present section, he comments on an instance of horrible misrepresentation in judicial history: the ordeal of Sacco and Vanzetti, from their arrest in 1920 to their execution seven years later. There were protests and appeals for justice by persons of thought throughout the civilized world, because it seemed plain that the immigrant shoemaker and fish seller were being convicted of a murder they did not commit. It seemed clear that the judge, Webster Thayer, was wrongly instructing the jury and had predetermined that two persons with backgrounds and political beliefs he disliked should die.

In this section of the lecture, Mr. Siegel describes the thing in the human self which makes a person cruel to other people—whether that person is wearing judicial robes or everyday garments. To explain it, he quotes his translation of and note to La Fontaine’s poem “The Wolf and the Lamb,” published in Mr. Siegel’s book of poems Hail, American Development. And we print both the translation and note here too.

Every instance of cruelty, Aesthetic Realism shows, arises from contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined in the following principle: “There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” From this disposition, ordinary but always ugly, comes the inter-belittling by husband and wife in the kitchen, and also all racial prejudice; come wars, and also the ganging up by children against another child in a playground.

In Massachusetts, 1920-27, it was contempt that had various people of wealth and position feel their state should be owned by only the “right” people. Contempt had them feel that any way of seeing the world which seemed to lessen their comfort and supremacy should be wiped out, along with the persons who espoused it.

A Study in Contempt

Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, has been much condemned. But he has not been seen as a study in human contempt, a means of understanding the dangerous, hurtful thing in everyone—because without Aesthetic Realism, people have not known what contempt is. “The fact,” Mr. Siegel writes,

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. [Self and World, p. 3]

In Herbert B. Ehrmann’s careful book The Case That Will Not Die (1969), we find much evidence that Judge Thayer saw the radical immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti as affronting his notion of who should own Massachusetts and the world. And because he took them as a personal insult to his comfort and self-importance, he wanted them punished, no matter what the facts of the case were.

Ehrmann quotes Boston Globe reporter Frank Sibley as saying of Thayer: “His whole manner, attitude seemed to be that the jurors were there to convict these men” (p. 464). Ehrmann quotes others who tell how Thayer talked in social settings while the case was in progress; and the contempt Mr. Siegel describes—the making one’s sense of self more important than the facts—is within all the quoted remarks. For example, the writer Robert Benchley describes Thayer saying to companions at the Worcester Golf Club

that a “bunch of parlor radicals were trying to get these guys off and trying to bring pressure to bear on the Bench,” and that he “would show them and would get those guys hanged,” and that he, Judge Thayer, “would also like to hang a few dozen of the radicals.” [P. 469]

A Dartmouth professor, James P. Richardson, quotes Thayer as saying to him: “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while” (p. 472).

Ehrmann describes the fact that it was not just the judge who behaved so reprehensibly, but people in the highest positions in Massachusetts:

Those in authority were well alerted to the growing conviction among responsible men and women that the case was a departure from the fair procedures required in a criminal prosecution. This fact and the protest were both ignored. Among those who closed ranks against all criticism were seasoned lawyers, university graduates, trial and review judges, college presidents, and a governor who had previously served as a Congressman. [P. ix]

Ehrmann does not understand why. And that is because he does not understand contempt, with its desire to expunge anything—any fact, any evidence, any person—that threatens one’s self-importance.

What We Need to Learn

In 1977, on the 50th anniversary of the execution, the governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, issued a proclamation which is really a statement of regret. It indicates that the trial was unfair and declares that

any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti,...and so, from the name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Yet to be against the cause of that disgrace and so many others, we need to learn what Aesthetic Realism teaches: that we take care of ourselves, are truly selfish and important, by seeing justly what’s not ourselves. That is what happens in all art, including the La Fontaine poem and Mr. Siegel’s translation. And that is what Mr. Siegel himself embodied in all his life and work.


Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Conceit vs. Representation

By Eli Siegel

The ugliest occurrence in the misrepresentation of America through law before Vietnam, which is both governmental and legal, was the Sacco-Vanzetti matter, ending in 1927 with the execution of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco. Those who look at the matter from the beginning see that conceit was working in Massachusetts terribly. Massachusetts hasn’t recovered since, and there’s a confusion there now. And that conceit did some murdering.

The Garrison document* is important in the history of the desire of the American self or soul or mind to be represented, and also the desire of ourselves truly to represent others, which means truly to respect them. While including the Garrison statement in his Documents of American History, H.S. Commager also includes a document concerned with the execution in August 1927.

The words of Sacco and Vanzetti are embodied in a popular play, Thurber’s The Male Animal. But the meaning of conceit as killing can always be seen through looking once more, carefully, at the seven-year insistence. This is Commager’s note preceding “Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s Last Statement in Court; April 9, 1927”:

Probably no criminal case in American history attracted as much attention as did the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for the murder of Alexander Beradelli at South Braintree, Massachusetts, April 15, 1920. In the course of the trial much was made of the radical beliefs and activities of the defendants, and it was alleged that Judge Thayer had been guilty of prejudice...and of conduct unbecoming in a judge. The widespread belief that the defendants had not received a fair trial...led to extraordinary efforts on their behalf by liberals throughout the world.

I’m reading this under the head of representation, because we feel the world is just when it represents us truly. We have a case against the forces of the world too. And here American history, as it should be always, is close to philosophy at its beginning. This is from the Vanzetti statement:

What I say is that I am innocent....In all my life I have never stole, never killed, never spilled blood, but I have struggled all my life, since I began to reason, to eliminate crime from the earth....

Not only have I eliminate crimes that the official law and the official moral condemns, but also the crime that the official moral and the official law sanctions and sanctifies,—the exploitation and the oppression of the man by the man, and if there is a reason why I am here as a guilty man, if there is a reason why you in a few minutes can doom me, it is this reason and none else.

... It is seven years that we are in jail....Yet you see me before you, not trembling, you see me looking you in your eyes straight, not blushing, not changing color, not ashamed or in fear....

We have proved that there could not have been another Judge on the face of the earth more prejudiced and more cruel than you have been against us....Before you see us you already know that we were radicals, that we were underdogs....You [have]...done all what it were in your agitate still more the passion of the juror, the prejudice of the juror, against us....

I not only am not guilty of these crimes,...but my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian;...but I am so convinced to be right that if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.

Well, that’s an aspect of bad representation in American history; because whenever a judge is unjust, he misrepresents his oath and misrepresents the person he is concerned with. That is a very large thing in the history of thought. And it is concerned with the possibility of misrepresenting ourselves.

Democracy and law and justice in the fullest sense are accompanied by the desire of people to have their egos triumphant, acquisitive, unclear. In other words, this judge was much affected or twisted by contempt, with its little, sometimes unseen neighbor for the moment, cruelty.

The desire to have ego win, law or not law, feeling or not feeling, has been put in literature a good deal. But it’s strongly put in a poem of La Fontaine which I translated and wrote a note on in Hail, American Development: “The Wolf and the Lamb.”

The Wolf and the Lamb

By Jean de La Fontaine

Translated by Eli Siegel

The reason of those best able to have their way is
always the best: We now show how this is true.

A lamb was quenching its thirst

In the water of a pure stream.

A fasting wolf came by, looking for something;

He was attracted by hunger to this place.

— What makes you so bold as to meddle with my drinking?

Said this animal, very angry.

You will be punished for your boldness.

— Sir, answered the lamb, let Your Majesty

Not put himself into a rage;

But rather, let him consider

That I am taking a drink of water

In the stream

More than twenty steps below him;

And that, consequently, in no way,

Am I troubling his supply.

— You do trouble it, answered the cruel beast.

And I know you said bad things of me last year.

— How could I do that when I wasn’t born,

Answered the lamb; I am still at my mother’s breast.

— If it wasn’t you, then it was your brother.

— I haven’t a brother. 
— It was then someone close to you;

For you have no sympathy for me,

You, your shepherds and your dogs.

I have been told of this. I have to make things even.

Saying this, into the woods

The wolf carries the lamb, and then eats him

Without any other why or wherefore.

Note by Eli Siegel

From Hail, American Development

Jean de La Fontaine’s The Wolf and the Lamb is one of the cruellest instances of literature. The poem or fable is doubly cruel, for while it tells of an unjust occurrence, it also intimates that there is a way or trend in the human mind undeviatingly unkind. La Fontaine tells us that between having one’s way and being just, having one’s way is more powerful. It has been so, ever so many times.

The most dangerous and ugly possibility inherent in the individual as individual is that the desire to have one’s way seems strong, while justice seems flat and interrupting. The wolf wants the lamb and the want itself is justice. This is the way we are. If a want increases, just because it does, the want may seem the more just, well placed, accurate, right.

The unconscious tendency or likelihood of making our want the same as universal justice is the ugliest adjunct of the heart of man. It is so easy to find an inclination interesting and necessary; and it is so hard to see and care for what is proportionate, equitable, ethical—it is no wonder persons are angry with others and can see themselves with confusion, dimness, scorn, uneasiness, loathing, displeasure. Our desire may seem so powerful, beckoning; and later so unhandsome.

Were the life of La Fontaine’s wolf pursued in a novel, with the wolf, of course, endowed with the self-objecting-to system man has, we should see the wolf undergoing the doubts of a Julien Sorel or a Raskolnikov. We have the tendencies of the wolf of the fable, but also the uncertainty this particular wolf has not been able to manifest, or permitted to manifest.

*Mr. Siegel earlier read William Lloyd Garrison’s passionate statement in the Liberator (Jan. 1, 1831) in behalf of the abolition of slavery