It is a privilege to study and teach the education which asks and definitively answers the kindest question in history: “What does a person deserve by being alive?” Aesthetic Realism, founded by the great poet and critic Eli Siegel, explains that—along with such fundamental needs as a home, food, and health care—what all people deserve is to be seen truly, which is aesthetically. “When we see people rightly,” Mr. Siegel wrote in the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO), “we have been concerned—and successfully concerned—with the question of sameness and difference as it is in aesthetics.” I learned that kindness begins when we see people different from ourselves as also like ourselves—with thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, and rights as real and deep as our own. So thinking about what they deserve, we are simultaneously taking care of ourselves. This is why true kindness is always strong.
Before meeting Aesthetic Realism, I saw people as very different from myself and wasn’t interested in what they deserved. I set myself above a world I saw as existing to provide me with the same importance I got from my family. If this didn’t happen, I saw people as mean and I retaliated by being cold and mean myself. I liked architecture but didn’t think about what people deserved from the projects I designed. I was intent on bowling over professors and classmates with my “creative genius,” yet my unkindness to people made for rigidity and dullness in my work—and in me. After I got the job I always wanted, I soon felt bored, unsure of what I was doing or why, and increasingly, I didn’t care. I felt numb.
When I began to study Aesthetic Realism, I learned that my deepest desire was the same as every person’s—to like the world on an honest basis. I also learned about the human desire to have contempt, the “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” The reason I didn’t like myself was because in wanting to have contempt for people, I was undermining the large, kind purpose of honestly liking the world. Aesthetic Realism enables a person to become kinder and to see he’s not a weakling, a dupe, a “softie”—he’s really strong. That is what happened to me and to the men I have the honor to teach in Aesthetic Realism consultations.
What People Deserve Mattered to Him
An American who is not so well known today but who should be, a man who thought deeply about what the world and people deserve, who worked diligently to secure it, and who had a beautiful strength of ethics was Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868).
His life richly illustrates Eli Siegel’s definition of kindness, “that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased.” As a lawyer, abolitionist, state legislator, and US Congressman, he was a force for education and civil rights. During the 1850s and 60s, Stevens was one of the few voices of conscience in the House of Representatives. He determinedly guided through the 13th and 14th Constitutional Amendments, prohibiting slavery and granting full representation for every freed slave who had previously been deemed three-fifths of a person by law, and less than human by millions of “God-fearing” citizens. A bill he drafted led to the 15th Amendment, giving the right to vote to men who once had no rights because as slaves, they were the property of other men. In his seventies, ill, and unable to walk, Stevens was carried to Congress—worried he would die before he had won political, economic, and educational justice for all Americans.
What the World Deserves v. What We Think We Deserve
Thaddeus Stevens was born 214 years ago in a village in northern Vermont. Like children before and since, he had this ethical debate explained by Mr. Siegel in TRO #916: “To find out what is not ourselves is the big thing in knowledge… [This] has to go on in some manner once we are born.” However, Mr. Siegel continues:
everyone has been disappointed with what is not himself….Our problem comes to this: how, though we are pained by the world, can we not be so disheartened that our desire to find out about it be lessened. Our problem includes the making of a just relation between knowledge and comfort…between ourselves intimately and that great outside with which we have to get along.
Thaddeus was the son of Sarah Stevens and her husband Joshua—a poor farmer, surveyor, and shoemaker. Tragically, like his brother before him, Thaddeus was born crippled, with a club foot. He was greatly pained by his handicap and the taunts it provoked, but his hope “to find out about what is not himself” was not disheartened. He became expert at swimming and riding and, writes Fawn Brodie in her fine biography Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South: “took to books thirstily. He was a bright student, with an encyclopedic memory and a fine talent at debate….[He had a] burning desire to secure an education.”
Yet, like most young men then and now, Thaddeus Stevens didn’t think kindness was strong; he often used his acerbic wit to put people in their place. He felt that thought about what others deserved interfered with getting what he deserved. He wanted to be a rich, successful lawyer, and within a few years of opening his practice in the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he was.
But something occurred in 1821 that shows Stevens’ deep organic need, as Mr. Siegel wrote, to make a “just relation between knowledge and comfort…between ourselves intimately and that great outside [world].” He was hired by a Maryland man to reclaim his “property”—an escaped slave. Stevens won the case, writes Brodie, but “The victory seems to have been ashes in his mouth. This slave, whose hopes of freedom he had smashed, apparently taught the twenty-nine year old lawyer something he had not learned in books—that the law can be an instrument of terror as well as justice.”
Aesthetic Realism is new in showing that guilt is our friend. It’s the world’s ethics within us saying we have been unjust—something we’ll use either to be more just or to be angry. Stevens made the first choice and his regret beautifully changed the course of his life and many others. He now defended fugitive slaves, often without pay, and applied his keen mind to free his fellow man. According to an account in the 1886 History of Cumberland and Adams County, on a trip to buy law books in Baltimore, Stevens “saw a slave parent and child being sold to be separated; he spent all he had and purchased the slaves [to free them] and returned to Gettysburg with these instead of his promised books.”
Reading this, I was moved and so ashamed of the ugly, patronizing way I saw African-Americans as I grew up in Pennsylvania 140 years later. While I was inwardly repulsed by the racist talk of some of my classmates, in never objecting to what they said, I silently agreed with their view that people of another color were inferior. My regret for my injustice is as large as my gratitude to Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to respect myself for how I see people and to learn from courageous people, including Thaddeus Stevens. He shows what Mr. Siegel writes in the comment to his definition of kindness, “a person is kind who feels a sense of likeness to other things; who accepts accurately his relation to other things.” A colleague of Stevens said, “[He] felt that every wrong inflicted upon the human race was a blow struck at himself.”
This included the children of Pennsylvania ‘s poor, who could not attend school, but were forced to work in fields and coal mines. As a state legislator from 1833 to 1845, Stevens fought for a free-school law that quickly faced repeal when affluent districts refused to fund it. Then Stevens rose to speak: “Heredity distinctions of rank are sufficiently odious,” he said, “but that distinction which is founded on poverty is infinitely more so. Such [a repeal] act should be entitled, ‘An act for branding and making the poor.’…“Build not your monuments of brass or marble,” he pleaded, “but make them of everlasting mind!” When he finished, the House members broke into cheers [and] amended the repeal bill into an act actually strengthening the school law. “That,” Stevens told a friend shortly before his death, “was the proudest effort of my life.” Here Stevens gives stirring evidence for what Mr. Siegel wrote in TRO #925: “[Man] cannot respect himself unless he has meant something good to what is outside himself.” And since self-respect is clearly a strengthening emotion, the logic is irrefutable: kindness is strong.
Dale Laurin, RA, is a consultant on the faculty of the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, where he has spoken in public seminars about architecture and works of literature, as well as about important persons in American history. He has been a speaker in the Artists Talk on Art Series at the School of Visual Arts and the “Architecture and You!” series sponsored by the Flushing Branch of Queens Borough Public Library. He is a co-founder of Housing a Right and a speaker in this organization’s groundbreaking presentation, “Housing: a Basic Human Right—Aesthetic Realism Explains the Cause of America’s Housing Crisis and the Solution!” at numerous conferences, including at New York University, Harvard, Boston College, Vassar, and the national convention of the American Institute of Architects. A New York State registered architect for over 25 years, he worked as a team leader for the NYC Department of Design and Construction, and an Assistant Adjunct Professor in the Architectural Technology Department of CUNY College of Technology.