The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What’s the Relation of Justice & Comfort?

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 4 of the great lecture They Go Away from Something, which Eli Siegel gave on January 22, 1971. It is from his Goodbye Profit System series, in which he explained something huge that other historians and economists have not understood—something that today is being lived amid worry and suffering throughout America. We have come, he showed, to the point at which economics based on seeing people in terms of how much profit can be gotten from them no longer works. Ethics, he said, is a force in history, and

there will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.

There Is a Fight

In the section printed here, Mr. Siegel explains an exceedingly ugly thing in American history, some of which is still going on: hypocrisy about civil rights and law. As he does, he speaks about two desires in every person that have been intensely at odds: the desire to look good to oneself, respect oneself—and the desire to be comfortable. A person wants to see himself as for what Plato called “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful” and ready to stand up for these. But to do so, one feels, can be so inconvenient! What most people go by is the feeling, “Ethics, justice, honesty are all well and good, but they jeopardize some other things I want.”

This difficulty is a form of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the biggest fight in every individual, and in history itself: the fight between respect for the world and contempt for it. It is a great fact, a fact showing the ethical nature of the self, that we can respect ourselves only if we’re just to what’s not ourselves. Meanwhile, being just interferes with something else we’re fiercely after: contempt, the feeling we’re more through looking down on and lessening what’s other than us.

Unless we can see the opposites concerned as one—unless we can see that we’re important and take care of ourselves through being fair to what’s not us—we’ll pretend and be hypocrites. So people have pretended to a concern for others that they didn’t have. Often they’ve pretended to themselves. For instance, they’ve acted as though they were devoted to someone, told themselves they were, when a large part of the “devotion” was a desire to manage the person’s life.

An American Anniversary & the Facts

The matter of looking good to oneself and contempt is very much present as Americans commemorate the Civil War on its 150th anniversary. There is an effort in various Southern places to continue what has gone on for a century and a half: to make the purpose of the Confederacy look good, justifiable, even glorious. To do so, one has to lie about something foul.

There are various articles like the one I’ll comment on, which appeared in the New York Times this February. It’s about a reenactment in Montgomery, Alabama, celebrating “Jefferson Davis’s swearing in as president of the Confederacy.” This article is about history, but it’s also about something that can go on in every individual: changing the facts in order to make oneself look good, and in order to continue having contempt by calling it something else.

The reenactment was “organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” who present the Civil War as “an act of unwarranted Northern aggression upon a sovereign republic.” And here I’ll say plainly what I have said in other issues of this journal, and what I heard Mr. Siegel state with ringing clarity and passion. The Southern cause, no matter how many magnolias and weeping women and supposedly daring deeds are associated with it, consisted of one thing only—the “right” to own other human beings and use them any way one wished, including the “right” to sell them, beat them, work them to death. The whole purpose of the Confederacy was the “right” to slavery.

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy that explains what racism and slavery come from. They come from contempt: that feeling “I’m big because I can look down on what’s different from me.” We won’t understand racism until we understand its relation to things that are quite ordinary: for instance, how a family can gossip at dinner about the neighbors. The members of the gossiping family feel smug and self-important because they can look down on those people next door, sneeringly degrade them, make them seem ridiculous.

We won’t understand how slavery could be until we understand how “nice” people diminish each other’s humanity every day and see human beings as existing to serve oneself. In social life and marriage, for instance, a woman can see a man first and foremost in terms of whether he praises her enough and does what she wants him to do. A man can see a woman that way. And both can call it love.

Racism and slavery are extensions of that self-aggrandizement through lessening another which is everyday contempt. They are hideous extensions. But to be truly against them, we need to see contempt itself as hideous and be against it everywhere, including in us. There is that in every person which wants the world and other people to be subject to him, be managed by him, glorify him. That contempt is where slavery begins. Contempt will never say straight what it is: it tries to make itself seem noble. And so the Times article says: “The Sons’ principal message was that the Confederacy was a just exercise in self-determination.”

La Rochefoucauld & Whitman

One of the noted statements of the world is about the matter of wanting to seem ethical while going after contempt. It is this swift, poetic maxim of La Rochefoucauld: “L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu”—“Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.” The maxim stands for the fact that we cannot accept ourselves as unjust, brutal, cruel; therefore, we pay justice the compliment of trying to make our contempt look like it.

Yet the pretense never works. Whether we’re trying to act proud of the Confederate cause, or of a personal way of seeing that’s narrow, grasping, and unkind—we can never be at ease with our contempt. It inevitably makes us feel unsure, lonely, empty, ashamed. And—as I said earlier—this fact too is “un hommage,” a tribute or homage, to the power of ethics.

Aesthetic Realism says: the real opposition to contempt is in art. We can look at a person who wrote much about the Civil War, and saw it differently from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Walt Whitman, throughout his “Song of Myself,” says that he is himself, important, glorious through being affected powerfully by people and things not himself, through being fair to them. In section 33, Whitman writes about a slave trying to escape: “I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.” And in section 16:

Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,

A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,

Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity.

These lines represent what Aesthetic Realism can teach people to see and have as real in our lives: that ethics and self-importance, justice and comfort, are not contradictions we have to shuttle between or pretend about. Justice, gone after truly, is that which gives us ease, and also style, intelligence, grandeur. It was my great good fortune to see that Eli Siegel himself not only explained this fact but embodied it.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

From Conscience to Comfort

By Eli Siegel

In yesterday’s Washington Post there is an article which, while having a general meaning, is concerned with the matter we are talking of: ethics and economics. It is a large advertisement by the National Committee against Discrimination in Housing, Inc. (NCDH).

We go from ethics to comfort. We can also go from law to ethics. In the history of America in recent years, many people have felt, “This is in the law, but it’s unkind and unethical.” Then, the other feeling has been—that people high in power can call for strict observance of the law when it suits them, and when it doesn’t suit them they’ll break it.

This advertisement points out that Our Reward1 is breaking the law by not enforcing civil rights acts. It happens that tonight all twelve black congressmen are staying away from Our Reward’s address.

It is important to see that people go from a strict observance of the law to a loose seeing of the law, as they go from conscience to comfort. That is a trip taken. It’s a very frequent trip. Also, from contempt to respect and back.

The ad begins: “Mr. President: We call on you to enforce the laws of the land.” Then certain laws are quoted, and it is good to see them:

All citizens of the United States shall have the same right, in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property.

The date is surprising: “U.S. Congress; Civil Rights Act; April 9, 1866.”

This is a law that has been put aside in the South jauntily, with what I have called mobile complacency. It has also been put aside again and again above the Mason-Dixon Line, because it’s plainly too uncomfortable. But persons should be honest about it. If they have any historic allergies, they should be honest about it. It happens that in this world people don’t like people yet.

...[T]he general welfare and security of the Nation and the health and living standards of its people require...realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family....

U.S. Congress; Housing Act; July 15, 1949

1949 is the year Herbert Akers2 was born. —This was put down. People will say it because they have a notion of what looks good to them; it’s a fine thing to say. But later they realize how uncomfortable it is. People like to make speeches, and they also like to be comfortable.

Attempts to Be Fair

This is a very useful advertisement, because it lists the attempt of Congress and other bodies to be fair to some of the population.

...[T]he granting of Federal assistance for the provision, rehabilitation, or operation of housing and related facilities from which Americans are excluded because of their race, color, creed or national origin is unfair, unjust, and inconsistent with the public policy of the United States as manifested in its Constitution and laws....

Presidential Executive Order 11063; Equal Opportunity in Housing; November 20,1962


No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. —U.S. Congress; Civil Rights Act; July 2,1964

Federal assistance was a big thing in 1964. The idea of federal assistance has been around ever since the Social Security Act of the 1930s, and other acts. People seemed as if they were for it. They made speeches which they themselves could not sustain.

Sec. 804...[I]t shall be unlawful—(a) To refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin....

The idea of a black person getting a home in a certain select part of Atlanta! Well, the idea—you can contemplate it. —Or living in a certain part of Richmond, let alone Birmingham. The whole fight about the profit system is about facility and comfort and what the ego wants, versus what may be just.

Sec. 813 (a) Whenever the Attorney General has reasonable cause to believe that any person or group of persons is engaged in a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of any of the rights granted by this title...he may bring a civil action in any appropriate United States District court.... —U.S. Congress; Fair Housing Act; April 11,1968

All this is about Our Reward’s (or, as he is sometimes called by persons less informed, our President’s) stating that there can be no “forced integration.” If there can be no forced integration, there should be no laws passed asking for it—you can’t have your nobility and your comfort too.

...[T]he freedom that Congress is empowered to secure under the Thirteenth Amendment includes the freedom to buy whatever a white man can buy, the right to live wherever a white man can live.... —Supreme Court of the United States; Jones v. Mayer Co., June 17,1968

That decision is not operating in the North either.

Something Is Recommended

The author of the present advertisement, the National Committee against Discrimination in Housing, makes the following “Recommendations to the President”:

No Administration, if it is to maintain respect for law, can be selective in the enforcement of the law. For that reason, we urge that you personally declare this Administration’s commitment to immediate, nationwide enforcement and implementation by all departments, and agencies of the Executive of the requirements of affirmative action for open housing and open communities in all Federal programs and activities concerned with housing and urban development.

One of the things that persons born in 1949 found is that hypocrisy is very much around, very powerful. It permeates space so much that space doesn’t know what it is anymore.

Then the ad quotes a question asked at a news conference, and the answer that was given to it:

Q. Mr. President, concerning [Secretary] Romney’s plan, to what extent does the Federal Government use its leverage to promote racial integration in suburban housing?

A. Only to the extent that the law requires. In two cases, as a result of acts passed by the Congress, that the Federal Government not provide aid to housing or to urban renewal where a community has a policy of discrimination and has taken no steps to remove it.

It is very unkind to Our Reward to print his answers as he gave them, because usually the English is of a very uncertain kind. The second sentence of that response is not a sentence. And it doesn’t answer the question. The next paragraph is apparently one sentence:

On the other hand, I can assure that it is not the policy of this Government to use the power of the Federal Government or Federal funds in any other way, in ways not required by the law, for forced integration of the suburbs.

That, I feel, is as obscure as Mallarmé. This evening’s State of the Union Address, I have a notion, was carefully worked over, so it will likely look like good English. But in a give-and-take discussion you can expect something else.

“Forced integration of the suburbs”: that’s a phrase! Imagine a black person wandering about, or sitting on his doorstep in the fall, in a historic place in Westchester: well, if people can’t imagine it, they shouldn’t pretend they’re ethical and have laws like that.

Law & Discomfort

The source of those statements is “President Richard M. Nixon; News Conference; December 10, 1970.” His answer continues:

I believe that forced integration in the suburbs is not in the national interest.

That’s a sentence! That sentence is making for this discussion. Something is called “forced integration,” but at the same time it’s what the law asks for. The purpose of law is very often to conquer discomfort. For instance, the reason that there is a law of contract is that people found out very early that a contract you made in February you may not like in October. If you break a contract out of discomfort, where are we if the law doesn’t say something about it? The law is in a pretty desperate state itself these days.

Then the ad says:

On January 4, 1971 President Nixon was asked the same question on open housing in a television conversation with network correspondents. The President responded in the same fashion.

That is: no “forced integration in the suburbs.” This is concerned with our subject. 

¹ I.e., Richard Nixon. He was delivering his State of the Union Address the night of this lecture.

² The person told of in the article Mr. Siegel had just discussed.