Aesthetic Realism and Learning
By Eli Siegel
We introduce Eli Siegel’s lecture Aesthetic Realism and Learning through portions of the commentaries by Ellen Reiss from the issues of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known in which this lecture was serialized.
Introduction by Ellen Reiss
The lecture Aesthetic Realism and Learning was given by Eli Siegel in 1950. He is the educator who explained what learning is. He is the philosopher who discovered and explained that in everyone which is against learning: contempt, the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world”—and he showed that contempt is the most dangerous thing in the life of man. And it is Eli Siegel who explained the purpose of learning: to like the world by seeing that the world and the things in it have an aesthetic structure—they are a oneness of opposites.
Because he saw all this, Aesthetic Realism exists. And in classrooms where the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is used, young people learn successfully who could not learn before. This teaching method is the answer to the crisis in education.
What Kind of Feeling?
In this lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks, greatly, on the relation of knowing and feeling and about the kind of feeling people are looking for. Aesthetic Realism is education in how to know the world and ourselves rightly so we can feel rightly. This education has been needed for centuries. In every year in every place of the world, people have had the pervasive pain of not being proud of their feeling, because it was not large enough, deep enough, accurate enough. We see that grief even in people who sometimes had feeling so rich and true that they are part of lasting culture. There is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writing in his “Dejection: An Ode” about stars, clouds, sky: “I see them all so excellently fair, / I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!” There is Matthew Arnold, in a letter to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough: “I am past thirty, and three parts iced over.”
Today, the education in how to see and feel the world rightly is an emergency. There is no ugly thing a person does that is not preceded by feeling and accompanied by feeling. The things the municipalities are so worried about—crime, racism, the taking of drugs, teenage suicide—all arise from a certain kind of feeling. They will not change until the feeling they come from changes. This feeling is contempt. Through Aesthetic Realism a person can learn to have another feeling, beautiful and powerful enough to combat contempt.
This feeling is like of and respect for the world. Our deepest desire, Aesthetic Realism shows, is to like the world, and the reason people are lonely, empty, and angry is that they don’t like the world. What we want most is to feel that the world is made well, and the things and people we meet—however puzzling or imperfect—are a means of seeing that it is. We want to feel that what is different from us can tell us what we are. It is through studying this principle of Aesthetic Realism that we will feel what we were born to feel, aesthetic like of the world: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
Liking the world is the most diverse, critical, passionate, careful, proud feeling there is. It arises from knowledge. Eli Siegel exemplified it, and we see it here. We see, for instance, what he enabled people, enabled me, to know and feel: that the largest matters of culture are also warm, are respectfully, grandly intimate.
Reality Wants to Be Known
The final section of Aesthetic Realism and Learning is majestic. In it is the very basis of Aesthetic Realism: “Unless one likes the world, one doesn’t like oneself.”
In my opinion, there has been no greater learning in human history than that of Eli Siegel. He himself had in the highest degree that which he describes as necessary for learning: “To be interested in learning, there must be some kind of courage.” He wrote in his “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana” of 1924, “The world is waiting to be known”; and he went after knowing that world, rather than the fame and accolades he so easily could have gotten. Through a desire to learn that was equivalent to respect for reality—that was passionate and exact, vast and tender, unwavering yet tremendously flexible, and so brave—he saw what came to be Aesthetic Realism. He saw that the world—with all its “despairs, defeat and hate, / Ugliness, terror, shocks”—can be liked and demands to be liked, because its structure is aesthetic. In the conclusion of this lecture Mr. Siegel reads a passage from his 1930 poem “A Marriage.” He discusses the meaning of the lines; I wish to comment on why they are beautiful. Those lines, with their rhymed and rhythmic neatness, are so orderly—but within that order is something that trembles and pulsates and yearns, that has wonder. Within structure is force that propels, and this force is heard as musically one with delicacy, lightsomeness. In those lines about the eye and the rose, are knowledge and feeling as one thing: that is what all poetry requires, and what Eli Siegel had with such fulness that the education he founded is immortal.
—ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism
Chairman of Education