Saturday, February 19, 2005

Eli Siegel: A Brief Biography

I am glad to reprint this biographical information about Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism, with whom I studied from 1968-1978. I want this information, which is exact although it is brief, to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. And so I am reprinting it on this weblog to add my voice to many others.


ELI SIEGEL (1902-1978), poet, critic, philosopher, educator, grew up in Baltimore, Maryland.* In 1925 his "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" won the esteemed Nation Poetry Prize. "I say definitely," William Carlos Williams was to write of it, "that that single poem, out of a thousand others written in the past quarter century, secures our place in the cultural world." Beginning in 1941, the year he founded the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, Mr. Siegel gave thousands of lectures on poetry, history, economics — all the arts and sciences. And he gave thousands of individual lessons to men, women, and children, which taught a new way of seeing the world based on this principle: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."

These lessons are the basis of Aesthetic Realism consultations now given at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York and by telephone worldwide. There are also public seminars and dramatic presentations, and classes, including a workshop in the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method — the educational method used with historic success for over 25 years in classrooms from elementary school through college.

Among Mr. Siegel's many published works are Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism; Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1958 (John Henry Faulk, speaking of the poems in this book, said on CBS radio, "Eli Siegel makes a man glad he's alive"); Hail, American Development, containing 178 poems, including 32 translations; James and the Children: A Consideration of Henry James's "Turn of the Screw"; and Goodbye Profit System: Update.

Eli Siegel taught how crucial it is for people, in order to like themselves, to want to know and respect other people and the world. The following passionate, logical, musical lines from "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" stand for that just way of seeing — which he had all the time:

The world is waiting to be known; Earth, what it has in it! The past
is in it;
All words, feelings, movements, words, bodies, clothes, girls, trees,
stones, things of beauty, books, desires are in it; and all are to
be known;
Afternoons have to do with the whole world;
And the beauty of mind, feeling knowingly the world!



Saturday, February 12, 2005

Rev. Wayne Plumstead Writes on the Aesthetics of Religion

Over the years I have had many conversations with Rev. Wayne Jack Plumstead of the United Methodist Church. How he sees the aesthetics of religion is important in the history of religious thought. The junction of religion and art is a deeply traditional junction, honored by people for thousands of years. There is religious painting in the Sistine Chapel and in the spacious underground temple chambers of the Hopi in Oraibi, New Mexico; religious dancing not only among the ancient Greeks but among the ancient San people of the Kalahari Desert, South Africa; religious singing not only in Irish monasteries of the 14th century but Egypt, the Congo, India, China, Tibet since time immemorial.

And yet what Reverend Plumstead says about the relation of religion and aesthetics is new. In his education with Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, and with Ellen Reiss, the Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, Rev. Plumstead has been encouraged to see with ever greater width and and scope just how much that relation takes in.

To inform you as well as I can about his work, I place the following links on this weblog:

  • "How Much of the World Does Jesus Ask Us to Include?" by Wayne Jack Plumtead. This was published in The Circuit Rider, the national journal of the United Methodist Church.
    [Another link to this article is in the United Methodist Publishing House online index to the Circuit Rider.]
  • In his weblog, "The Aesthetics of Religion" Rev. Plumstead writes a message to his visitors which begins: "On this blog I will be posting writings of mine and others that tell what I have learned from the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, founded by the American educator and poet Eli Siegel in 1941, about the relation of religion and aesthetics. What I learned has revolutionized not only my way of seeing religion, but my entire life as well. I am pleased and very excited to share it with you all."
  • In an article announcing a Parenting Workshop in Bloomfield Life, Rev. Plumstead is quoted as saying that the panel of Aesthetic Realism consultants "will speak about what parents need to know in order to get the true respect of their children." -- A most crucial subject!
  • Also in Bloomfield Life, Rev. Wayne Plumstead writes about the student massacre in Littleton Colorado, under the title "Contempt Kills." Here he tells of the deadly effects of that lessening of other human beings, and the world itself, which Aesthetic Realism explains. And states: "I have seen vividly that no person can commit an act of violence against another if they see the depths of that person’s feelings as real as their own. " That kind of seeing--to see as real others' feelings--is one of the most essential things in successful art.
I hope everyone sees the immediate practicality of aesthetics for religion--in the striking meaning given to it by Rev. Plumstead.

Sincerely, Arnold Perey

Friday, February 04, 2005

On Socrates' Death. An allegory concerning Eli Siegel and an unimportant liar.

A Dramatic and Cautionary Tale about an Unknown and Very Unimportant Person

There once was a young man of ancient Greece named Milos. And Milos knew Socrates. He did not like Socrates because the great man asked far too many questions. And even worse, though he said he knew nothing, he knew more than Milos.

Now Milos had a mother who regarded him as a gift to Greece. And she thought of Socrates as a much-overrated busybody and heretic. And Milos was not immune to either the praise his mother gave him or the blame she laid upon others.

Milos was interested in power. And when he attended the Dialogues of Socrates he felt he should be teaching the students, not that old philosopher. Listening to Socrates made him sleepy. When the youths would exclaim “What a great man!” and eagerly discuss new ideas, as they came from afternoons when Socrates conversed freely with all, Milos was angry. He wanted them to say “That Milos! What a great mind!” and discuss his exploits at gaming and not the arguments of Socrates. But they didn’t. “I should be the toast of Athens,” thought Milos, and grumbled to himself while looking as pleasant as he could.

“He forces them to attend,” he would say about the people who couldn’t get enough of listening to Socrates, the people who came again and again, the people who felt a man like Socrates was born once in a hundred years (if that often). “It’s expected of them to come,” he grumbled. “If they don’t come to 9 out of 10 dialogues they are chastised. It’s that infamous student of Socrates named Plato that makes them come. Perhaps if I blacken the name of Plato they will stay away.” And he tried.

In the Dialogues, when the students in their turn questioned Socrates, and he answered even the most difficult questions with depth and sweetness and thorough (and modest) logic, it made Milos angrier than ever. “How could he know so much,” he would say under his breath and grit his teeth.

“Perhaps,” thought Milos, “if I remove my garments and run naked through the marketplace people would see the originality of my mind.” And so he did. But the people of Athens went on buying their vegetables and fruit, and fish, and bread as always and were neither sufficiently scandalized nor sufficiently impressed to suit Milos. “Never mind, I’ll try it again another time,” he said comfortingly to himself.

Milos began to lie in earnest about Socrates. He made up offenses which had never taken place, for the great man who only had spoken to Milos a few times wished him well. He’d tried to teach Milos, but without success. Unfortunately, in asking Socratic questions of Milos, a person was addressed who hated to learn from another. “Too many questions!” said the young man sneeringly to his mother, meaning, “Too many questions for me to maintain my usual level of narcissism.”

Milos sought revenge. He told everyone he could, in the council, the marketplace, the homes of friends, that Socrates was trying to tear down the great tradition of Greece: the worship of the living gods—Apollo, Zeus, Dionysius. He told the priests how the old man believed in a higher power and had questioned the gods’ very existence, despite the fact that everyone could see them, made of marble and wood and gold and paint, in the city’s “cultus” temples of worship. He accused Socrates of leading a new and heretical cultus in which he was the object of worship himself.

There is no record as to whether the lies of the young vermin, Milos, had an effect or not. For there were already some local officials and jealous intellectuals whose lust to be superior had spurred in them a sullen and restless anger at the brilliance and plentitude of ideas coming from the philosophic school of Socrates.

And so, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, more than 2000 years afterwards, Professor Edward Taylor of Oxford and Edinburgh tells how a "half-witted" and "fanatic" prosecutor indicted Socrates for “impiety.” And at the trial vague charges like "corrupting the youth" were made. And the court, “incensed” at the great man for telling them truthfully that he “merited the treatment of an eminent benefactor”—and not a trial for crimes he did not commit— sentenced him to death by drinking the cup of poison hemlock. The greatest philosophic innovator of Greece was to pay with his life.

In the famous depiction of Socrates by the French painter David, the man of thought, condemned to death by suicide, discourses serenely in prison with his friends and students—the poisoned cup in his raised hand. In the Dialogue Crito, his friend begs him to escape, to flee Athens, and not take his life as the law has dictated. But Socrates cannot not bring himself to flee. He has done no wrong and will not break the law now.

After Athens mourned the loss of the man who reasoned nobly about beauty, ethics, life and death, and equality—the man who believed knowledge was happiness—Milos continued his campaign of revenge. He wanted to demolish utterly the contemporary who dared to know more than himself. And so he started in on Socrates’ posthumous reputation. He would whisper to known purveyors of the lowest gossip; he would grasp the collar of whomever he could in the marketplace and say, spitting ever so slightly, “How great was Socrates, really? He said self-knowledge made for a happy life. But how happy was he? He committed suicide.”

Yes, Socrates is safe in the bosom of history. And Milos is no longer remembered. The perfidy of ancient Athens, however, is remembered; and it always will be. Now, in our time, we have to ask: How much is this injustice, oh this murderous injustice, in action this very day?