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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1802.—August 3, 2011

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

What Makes Our Emotions Right or Wrong?

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 3 of the 1970 lecture You Can Gossip Philosophically about Psychology, by Eli Siegel. And we print portions of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Joseph Meglino, from a public seminar of this spring titled “What’s the Big Mistake We Make about Other People?”

In his lecture Mr. Siegel is giving evidence for this fact, which Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy to state: the human self, the self each of us walks around with every day, is a philosophic, aesthetic matter. That is: our hopes, drives, confusions, woes, regrets, delights, angers, longings all have in them the opposites that make up reality itself and that are one in art. “All beauty,” Aesthetic Realism explains, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

What Mr. Siegel does in the section printed here is great. He defines what it is that makes any emotion right or wrong. There’s nothing more necessary for people to know.

The Mistake about Our Emotions

We are having emotions all the time. And generally what goes with them is the assumption, “I feel this; the feeling comes from me and is mine—therefore it’s correct.” That commonplace assumption is monumental conceit. Centuries of cruelty have arisen from it. Every lynch mob has been based on it. But so have more ordinary choices. For example, right now millions of people feel hurt by others—and simply assume they are correct.

Also, for example: A woman feels that she’s in love with a man—and that it must be true because she feels it passionately. She doesn’t see that some purpose of hers—to own a person, to make herself important through someone’s flattery, to get rid of the everyday world through a man’s adoration—could make for a sweeping, throbbing, yearning, though deeply ugly, feeling she wrongly calls “love.” Because she assumes her emotion is right, she’ll come to feel miserable. She’ll be fighting with the man and asking herself, “How could I ever have loved him?!”

Aesthetic Realism explains that the criterion for the rightness or wrongness of any emotion—whether anger, love, hope, determination—is this: is one’s purpose to respect the world more or have contempt for it?

Poetry about Wrong Emotion

A poem by the Irish writer James Stephens is about wrong emotion of a very ordinary kind. “The Rivals” begins:

I heard a bird at dawn

Singing sweetly on a tree,

That the dew was on the lawn,

And the wind was on the lea;

But I didn’t listen to him,

For he didn’t sing to me.

This bird, of course, stands for much more. People feel for or against hundreds of things, based on: do they make much of me, make me important? People see someone else as good or not good depending on whether that person likes them, praises them. However frequent, this is a fake and foul basis for an emotion. The bird in the poem is lovely; it is welcoming the world—the dew, the wind. But the speaker doesn’t feel the bird is worth listening to, because it didn’t make him special: “For he didn’t sing to me.”

One form this false criterion takes is snobbishness. And every day there are thousands of emotions—of feelings for or against—that arise from snobbishness: “I like this restaurant, or film, or artwork, because it’s praised by the right people and therefore liking it makes me a big shot. Something that doesn’t have a certain cachet, something the liking of which won’t bring me prestige, isn’t worth my attention. It leaves me cold. And if I find I do like it, I’ll lie to myself and say I don’t; I’ll resent liking it.”

In the Stephens’ final stanza we have another form of that fundamental wrongness which is contempt:

I was singing all the time,

Just as prettily as he,

About the dew upon the lawn

And the wind upon the lea;

So I didn’t listen to him

As he sang upon a tree.

This is a melodious description of one of the ugliest states of mind: competition with what’s not yourself; the feeling that putting yourself forward is at war with liking what’s good in another. That’s the meaning of the poem’s title, “The Rivals.” If we see our value, our expression, our glory as in rivalry with value, expression, glory elsewhere, we’ll respond to things accordingly, have emotions accordingly.

Emotions based on contempt, wrong emotions, go on all the time. But it’s a beautiful fact that every person, knowingly or not, is profoundly ashamed of having unjust emotions. Mr. Siegel once said that the purpose of life is to have emotions you are proud of. Aesthetic Realism makes that possible.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

What Is a Wrong Emotion?
By Eli Siegel

Note. The passages Mr. Siegel quotes are from Elements of Psychology, by Krech and Crutchfield.

The writers say something bold: “The physical body is the most visible aspect of the self.” They have the rather abstract nerve to call the physical body an “aspect of the self.” It wouldn’t be put that way by others, and it’s against behaviorism.

To have the body an aspect of the self is, well, in the abstract and somewhat idealist field. But that is what the writers say. And it is quite true. As soon as a person says, “I would like to run down the block,” the self is giving orders to the whole body. If you do a little chinning, you’re also giving orders. There are many other ways. But it is interesting to see a physical thing called an aspect.

Emotion: Ethics & Psychology

Then, in this sentence we are in the midst of trouble: “Depending upon their strength and the conditions under which they are aroused, emotions may prove either helpful to the organism’s adaptive behavior or harmful.”

This means that emotions can be had wrongly and can affect wrongly, or even guide wrongly. We come to the question What makes an organism wrong? As soon as we ask Why should an organism go wrong? we are in the midst of the problem—which is philosophic and ethical—of evil, because as soon as a person has a chance of having the wrong emotion, and also thinking it’s the right one, what can’t happen? This problem makes for a relation of ethics to psychology.

We have to begin at the beginning. Along with just seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, is there a purpose in all this? Aesthetic Realism definitely says there’s no sensation too small to have a purpose. Every one does. We don’t crook our little finger without having a purpose about everything. An emotion can be seen as going wrong because of a specific situation or because of the source of all emotion, which is the self as such—to use a word the authors use, the possibly integrated but also possibly not integrated self. To have a non-integrated self and insist on having emotions, offhand looks like bad business, but a lot of it goes on.

Meanwhile, the sentence I just read is not true: “Depending upon their strength and the conditions under which they are aroused, emotions may prove either helpful...or harmful.” The words here are “strength and the conditions.” But another word, which psychologists and most people in the field of science would avoid, is purpose. Aesthetic Realism says that any emotion that doesn’t go for liking the world is a wrong one. Any emotion that doesn’t go for liking the self and the outside world in an aesthetic relation is wrong. The writers don’t say anything like this. They simply say that harmful emotion doesn’t have the right “conditions” and “strength.”

But can an emotion, long before a specific situation, be wrong? And what would constitute the wrongness? At that time, psychology changes into ethics. Any emotion that doesn’t go for liking the world is not only a waste of time—it hurts one. The purpose is to relate self and world in such a fashion that both look better because of how you feel and what your purpose is. If you have any other purpose, you are hurtful to yourself.

They Think Their Emotion Is Right

What we have in this passage is that there is such a thing as wrong emotion. So again, What is a wrong emotion? We know that when people are in a fit, they are just as selfish as when they are not in a fit. When people are angry they feel they have the answers. When people are sly they feel they have the answers. Any emotion seems right to the person having it while he has it. When a person is unjust and inaccurately angry he doesn’t say, “I have the wrong emotion.” He feels he’s protecting himself like nobody’s business. He’s in a great state of sweating nobility. So what makes it wrong?

That becomes a philosophic matter. As soon as you have to decide between a wrong emotion and a right one, you have to be philosophic. So far there have been two answers. First: the wrong emotion is one that makes you unpopular, and if it’s too wrong it puts you in an asylum. The other answer has been: it doesn’t make for good results. For instance, a salesman starts cursing his prospect. We would say that is bad salesmanship because it won’t get him an order. The idea is that the result is that which makes a thing bad. And if a person has wrong emotions and can hide them and give the appearance of good ones and make a lot of sales, it’s thought that this is good for the person: all quiet along the Potomac, so the Potomac is lucky. Well, at some time the Potomac wants to be other than quiet.

A man is at a party and has the wrong emotion: he suddenly says, “I don’t like this party. I’m going to get out of here,” and he runs down the steps. That person is not going to fare well with the other people, who, maybe, didn’t want to leave yet. So emotions are always chancy things—mostly, it’s felt, if you show them. And there’s the question of: what does it mean if you don’t show them?

If there is a wrong emotion, are there any criteria other than the fact that it makes for bad results? For example, persons are against anger because the goddamned anger made for their goddamned ulcers. That’s why they become ethical scholars: not that they dislike anger; they dislike ulcers. Other people have made the association that if they pretend too much they’ll get hives, so they’re against a certain kind of pretending. The reason is not that they’re against pretense but that hives are inconvenient.

What is a wrong emotion? is a philosophic matter. “Depending upon their strength and the conditions under which they are aroused”: it isn’t the strength of emotion that makes it right or wrong. It’s the direction; it’s what it’s based on. And what is an emotion before it’s “aroused”? It must be something. If a horse is in a stable, we feel there’s some connection between the horse in the stable and the horse on the track. An emotion that has not been aroused can be seen as like a horse munching in the stable. It’s still the horse.

“Emotions may prove either helpful to the organism’s adaptive behavior or harmful.” It’s put in terms of result. There is much more.

The Big Mistake We Make about People
By Joseph Meglino

At one time I would have said my big mistake about people was being too much of a nice guy, not standing up for myself. But I learned from Aesthetic Realism this surprising thing: I had difficulty with people not primarily because of how they treated me, but because of how I saw them.

The big mistake we make about other people is: we don’t want to understand them, see their feelings as real and deep. Instead, we’ve wanted to look down on people, see them either as opponents to beat out or as existing to make us important. In Self and World, Eli Siegel writes:

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. ...[This] is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world.

As a boy, I wanted everyone to like me. With my family and the nuns at the Catholic school I attended, I received a great deal of praise for being well-behaved. I made the mistake of feeling it was my due that people see me as wonderful—even while I wasn’t really interested in who these people were. As I grew older, I found it increasingly difficult to have friendships. “Why can’t I be like other people?” I thought, and saw myself as tragic, sensitive, and unappreciated.

Years later, in an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel asked me: “Is there something that chokes you, stifles you, in relation to people?”

JM. Yes.

ES. So, what do you want to get your importance from: having something to do with people or having nothing to do with people?

JM. Having something to do with people.

ES. Are you sure? The easiest and the greatest importance people have is being able to put people aside.

Studying Aesthetic Realism, I began to see that it was my contemptuous desire to look down on people that made me so ill at ease. For the first time, I looked at people with a conscious hope to learn about them and respect them, and—lo and behold—I found I could talk with them and really enjoy it! I felt in the midst of things, alive in a way I’d never been before.

For instance, for years I’d been angry with my father, feeling so sure he was against me. Now, as I asked him questions about himself and he spoke about his life, I saw he had hopes and disappointments as I did, and I felt much kinder and warmer.

One of the people I spoke with was Pauline Fanning, now my wife. I thought she was beautiful and saw right away that she wasn’t going to flatter me. In fact, she showed an honesty that I fell in love with. She spoke about the hardships of growing up in rural West Virginia, and how she came to be deeply interested in the plight of the coal miners. I was learning about a part of America I’d been only dimly aware of, and through Pauline I felt closer to all people. I remember thinking consciously that I wanted to be with her in such a way that she would respect all men more.

Contempt vs. Being a Good Critic

Everyone has the question of how to be accurately both for and against people. A man I’ll call Randy Simms, a computer software salesman, has been learning about this crucial matter in Aesthetic Realism consultations.

He told his consultants: “I get angry on a daily basis. If I’m going to work and I haven’t finished all the things I wanted to do before I’ve left, I’ll get angry. If someone cuts me off on the road, I’ll get angry.” He said he’d then feel anxious and fearful, that he had to be looking over his shoulder.

He mentioned that some weeks earlier he’d had a big argument with a customer and afterwards felt bad. We asked:

Consultants. What do you think of people? Did reality do a good job when it made people?

RS. I’ll look at a beautiful building like the Empire State Building and think, “Wow, people did that, engineers and all.” But then I think that when people get together and socialize they can tend to be phony.

Consultants. Do you use what you observe to have contempt for people or to be a critic? In other words, as you look at another person, are you hoping to respect him or her more?

RS. I think I do look for the phoniness in people—because sometimes when I don’t see it, I’m surprised.

Consultants. And the question is: if we spend our day looking for the phoniness in people, what effect does that have on us? Do you think this has anything to do with the fear you mentioned?

“Yes,” he said thoughtfully, “I see that.” Mr. Simms was seeing that it was his purpose with people—his hope to have contempt for them—that caused him to feel he had to look over his shoulder. And he saw he could make a different choice.

They Are Real

What Randy Simms was learning is in these sentences by Eli Siegel, from his lecture Aesthetic Realism and People:

The important thing about people—with all their weaknesses, hypocrisies, mistakes, meannesses, lazinesses, grudgingnesses, inertias, pretenses—is, they are real....People are simply reality when most complete; reality when aware of itself....Through seeing that reality can be people, we see what reality can do....To know what people are is very necessary, because through knowing what other people are we know about ourselves. black diamond

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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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic RealismThe Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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