The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Why Don’t People Like Themselves?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing a discussion by Eli Siegel—definitive on the tremendous subject of why people are displeased with themselves—from a 1953 Aesthetic Realism class.  And we print a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Joseph Meglino presented last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Does a Man Think Too Little of Himself—and Too Much?” 

This issue of TRO is about a fundamental difference—a great, beautiful difference—of Aesthetic Realism from the various current approaches to self.  Why don’t people like themselves, esteem themselves?  Why do they feel anxious, or low?  What people hear today, in the media and from practitioners, is that the cause of one’s self-discomfort is outside oneself.  It’s the fault of heredity, which gave you depression-inclined genes or a chemical imbalance.  Or there was a time in your childhood (the memory of which you have repressed) when someone was abusive of you, and that’s why you get so unsure of yourself now. Or your mother or father didn’t give you emotional support, make you feel special, and bond with you—etc. People are hearing, from persons whom the press designates “experts,” dressed-up versions of what they hear from their own egos: that their self-displeasure doesn’t come because there’s anything to be truly criticized in themselves—it exists because the outside world has cruelly made a wonderful person feel bad. 

The real answer is much more beautiful, honorable, and pride-giving; and Aesthetic Realism has been presenting it, greatly, these many years. To describe it, I comment on a short poem by Eli Siegel, which I love. This poem, which he wrote in 1927, appears in his Hail, American Development (Definition Press, 1968):

This Seen Now

This seen now: a fly

Is all the world to a fly,

And a lady crossing a street

Is all there is, has been ever

To lady doing the crossing.

And the world has so many,

Many, many

Flies and ladies,

Crossing streets, ladies, flies.

We Make the World Less

Mr. Siegel wrote this poem 14 years before he began to teach Aesthetic Realism, but it is a prelude to the principle at the basis of this philosophy: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The life of every person is composed of the big opposites that are our Self and a wide, complete World other than our self.  Both are real; but the beginning mistake of everyone is to see one’s own dear, intimate self as more real than other things.  The need of our lives is to put those opposites together: to feel, “I take care of me by seeing other things and people as having the full reality I have. I have value the more I see the value of what’s not me. I want to be endlessly just to human beings, happenings, objects, history, earth, words; being fair to them is the same as my being important!”

But that is not what people usually feel. What people usually go after, what the lady in the poem has gone after, Mr. Siegel has described in the following principle: “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.” Our lessening of other things and people in order to make ourselves comfortable and important, is—he explained—the reason we dislike ourselves, feel nervous, centrally unsure, ashamed, depressed. 

The technique of the immensely musical poem I quoted is the answer to, the aesthetic alternative to, the way of seeing it criticizes. So let us look at the first two lines: “This seen now: a fly / Is all the world to a fly.”

A fly may have no other choice than to feel its precious being makes up the whole world. It can’t help being uninterested in foreign affairs or medieval literature; though occasionally, as Mr. Siegel writes in his note to the poem, it has to see as real something not itself. “A subjective fly, “ he writes, “would be interested in some quick motion towards it....[Still,] the fly’s objective apprising is in behalf of its subjective security.”

However, our tendency to see things and people in terms of ourselves, in terms of whether they praise us, give us our way, make us important—our feeling that we are the center of the universe, and other things matter much less than we do—is the beginning of every instance of cruelty. It is primal unintelligence and brutishness, and everyone has it. It is what racism comes from, and domestic meanness. Eli Siegel’s seeing and showing this fact is great in human history. It is the means for people to stop being unkind to each other—and also to stop disliking themselves. He said, with his magnificent oneness of passion and logic:

There is only one thing that is immoral in the world: liking oneself too much and the outside world too little....Once you feel what is owing to yourself is more and what is owing to other people is less, you can rob people’s purses, tell lies, keep back things that would do good to people, start wars.

The Aesthetic Answer

Together in the first two lines of the poem are the things people have kept apart: a hugging of their so specific self; and the wideness of things. The words in the first line have tightness, concentration; all except the fourth are accented; yet the line ends with a feeling of incompleteness and a reaching for more: “This seen now: a fly...” Then the second line has wonder, with the wide, rolling, large sound of “all the world”: “Is all the world to a fly.” Though the lines are about narrow self-love, in their music they make contraction and vast expansiveness one. And that, Aesthetic Realism shows, is what we need to do! 

In the next three lines, the oneness of confinement and respectful wideness continues. The sound of the second of these lines is snug, cozy, as its consonants seem to rub each other in a self-caress: “Is all there is, has been ever.” Yet the lines also have wonder, largeness, a dignity-in-motion: “And a lady crossing a street / Is all there is, has been ever / To lady doing the crossing.”

It is our dignity, Aesthetic Realism shows, that we were born to be just to what is not ourselves. Our self-despising, our deep discomfort, comes because we have not been just. Our self-dislike is a tribute to what Eli Siegel called the force of ethics in the world and in ourselves, demanding reality’s rights from us. 

The next lines of this beautiful poem, in the music of their statement, make the vastness of the world feel also warm: “And the world has so many, / Many, many...” And the final lines, interweaving ladies, flies, streets, show that things which seem unalike are connected in this limitless yet intimate world: “Flies and ladies, / Crossing streets, ladies, flies.”

I know of no person in all the centuries who was more critical than Eli Siegel, and no one kinder. That complete oneness he had of criticism and kindness, uncompromising justice and unceasing warmth, was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. And it is alive and permanent in Aesthetic Realism. Because of Mr. Siegel’s knowledge and integrity, people no longer have to be afraid to look at ourselves: we can at last learn how to criticize ourselves and feel that criticism is joyous love and pride.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Where Self-Criticism Begins

By Eli Siegel

If we want to know ourselves, and if we find out in a proportionate way why we are displeased, we become pleased. But persons are afraid of that. For a woman who is married to admit that maybe she is unhappy, except perhaps to her mother, comes hard. She doesn’t know how to do it; she can’t do it, even to herself. So people want to go on not looking at the fact that they aren’t pleased. However, if the job were neat and in proportion and related, a person could feel good.

I read a letter recently in which a person said, “Oh, everything is going fine. Of course, there are private thoughts, but I don’t see why I have to tell those.” If you don’t feel good in your private thoughts, you might as well say there is something amiss. In fact, your private thoughts ought to be your happiest thoughts.

Persons will not look at their being displeased, because if they find out they are displeased, particularly if it’s from a choice they made, it means maybe they aren’t so good. Then they begin punishing themselves in some other fashion.

The sense of criticism begins with the fact that you can accept less from yourself than does please yourself. In seeming to go after something you are very much for, you may have let go of something you were even more for. Out of that comes criticism.

Does a Man Think Too Little of Himself—and Too Much?

By Joseph Meglino

Aesthetic Realism ended a torment I felt would be with me my whole life: between feeling superior one moment—that I was smarter, deeper, better than other people—then feeling I was inferior. Men have cursed ourselves—the same men who have walked around conceited and arrogant.

Aesthetic Realism is the kindest, most necessary knowledge, because it gives humanity the ability to see ourselves accurately. Eli Siegel writes:

The only way, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, to approve of oneself is consciously to like the way one sees things in the world and the world itself....The worst unconscious tendency in man is to think that the less he respects in existence, the more he has made a case for himself. Honest respect for something else...[is] the most beautiful, largest achievement of man. [TRO 154, 115]

It is a tremendous fact that if we have unjust contempt, we cannot like ourselves: we feel separate, alone, unloved, and incapable of loving. The large reason, therefore, men have thought little of themselves is that they have made themselves big through contempt. I know, from my own fortunate life, that when a man uses his mind to see the value of things, be just to what is not himself, he won’t go from the attic to the pit of self but will have self-respect. Aesthetic Realism makes this possible for every person.

I Felt Superior—and Inferior

Growing up in an Italian family, I received a great deal of praise for being the only son, for getting good marks in school, and for being well-behaved and not getting into trouble like other boys. In Catholic school, where I was a favorite of many nuns, I was voted “cleanest boy” and had the job of rating the hygiene of the other boys.

Yet I told myself my biggest problem was that I thought too little of myself. Though people saw me as on the road to success, I felt inferior and wished I were someone else. When I was with friends, I would strategically praise people to get their approval; but while I built a person up outwardly, I relished thinking the person was selfish, lazy, or insincere. Underneath my mildness, I gloried in feeling I was a noble, kind creature surrounded by brutes. It was this ugly desire secretly to wipe the floor with people that made me despise myself—and for a good reason. I was betraying the best thing in me: my desire to like reality. In an Aesthetic Realism consultation I was fortunate to have when I was in college, I said I had trouble making friends because I suffered from shyness. I was so surprised when I was asked, “Do you think there is snobbishness in shyness? These people whom you are too afraid to speak to—in any way do you think you are better than they are?” When I said I always waited for someone to talk to me first, I was asked, “Underneath all your shyness, do you feel people should serve you, come to you? You are saying people should appreciate your special, sensitive nature. But how do you do about appreciating others?”

The truth was that I was terrible about appreciating other things. Through Aesthetic Realism, I came down from my self-constructed pedestal and for the first time began to be interested in people. I saw that things deserve something from me—respect—and that the best thing in me wanted to give it. For instance, I was given the assignment to write a soliloquy of my father, with whom I had been angry most of my life because I felt he (unlike my mother) didn’t make enough of me. For the first time, I thought about what he felt growing up; how he saw his parents, who had emigrated from Italy; how he saw his work and my mother. And we began to have conversations like we’d never had before!

Superiority versus Love

When I began to know Pauline Fanning, now my wife, I made the mistake most men make: I saw love as a means for me to get pleasure and glory.When Pauline wanted me to be deeper about her and all people, I got annoyed. In an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel said to me, “Men like to be loved, but at the same time they don’t like too much to be asked of them. Is Pauline Fanning too demanding? Do you think that because [she] looks for things from you, you are discontented with her?”

“Yes, I think so,” I answered. And Mr. Siegel explained, “There is a self that says, ‘I should be loved without doing a damn thing, because I am I. All I do is collect feminine dividends.’ That is one aspect of self we are disposed to be faithful to. Then, there is another: ‘I must be true to my desire to like reality through caring for this person.’”

I am so grateful to be married to Pauline! Her desire to know and strengthen me has made me a kinder, less conceited man. I am proud to need her perception—as we talk about a story in the news, or how to understand my mother or our son. I love Aesthetic Realism, as all people will!