from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar, including a discussion of the life of Queen Isabella of Spain
For the first time in history, Aesthetic Realism explains the deepest purpose of every person: to like the world. In the issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known subtitled “Justice, Near and Far,” Eli Siegel writes:
It can safely be said that every person…is looking for something called justice: wide, possibly immediate….The most beautiful thing a person can do is to be interested in justice so much that his care is a deep cause of his happiness. However idealistic it may sound, a person not caring enough for justice cannot be definitely happy.
The reason is that we come from the world, which is, Aesthetic Realism teaches, the other half of ourselves. Therefore, justice to the world—to people and things—is the one way to really like ourselves. But we also have an opposing purpose—to feel we’ll take care of ourselves by doing whatever we please, and justice be damned. To scorn people, defy them, act as if nothing but ourselves has value, is contempt—and is, Eli Siegel showed “the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world.”
I know with my own very happy and grateful life how true this is. I learned that my unjust contempt was what made me lonely, mean, hopeless about the future. I have had the privilege of learning in consultations, in classes for consultants and associates taught by Eli Siegel and now by Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss, how to see people—including the students in my English classes, the things I meet, the subjects I care for as having the opposites in them—the same opposites I am trying to put together in my own life. This education has given me a heart and mind so much more interested in justice, and a true reason to be proud.
Early Choices about Justice
As a young girl in Brooklyn, I wanted to have a good effect on people. I liked babysitting, creating new dishes for family dinners, trying to be useful when my sister or a friend asked me about school work.
Also, from as early as I can remember, I was very interested in language and words; I’m grateful to my father for encouraging this as he would often tell me a new word and what it meant, and ask me to spell it. In the 7th grade, I loved learning how the sounds of Spanish were like English, but different, too. I didn’t know it, but I was liking the oneness of sameness and difference, and other opposites, including those Eli Siegel showed are central in the Spanish language: force and tenderness. I especially liked the way the d is pronounced in Spanish—softer, lighter than in English—as in the word madrileño, “a person from Madrid.” And I liked trying to be exact about how two words looking alike except for an accent mark, are pronounced differently—changing where the most forceful syllable will be: for instance, esta, meaning “this” and está, “he is.”
But my satisfaction in trying to be just to words was utterly opposed to my pleasure in asserting myself by having power over people. This kind of power, Mr. Siegel explains,
consists of proving to yourself that this thing that you are using power on…will do as you want it to….To want a person to do something and not respect that person if he or she consents is contempt.
With my family, I often had a tone that was excessively tender, as I tried logically to convince them to do what I wanted. When I was 8, three years older than my sister and, I thought, infinitely smarter, I remember thinking: “I bet she thinks a nickel is worth more than a dime because it’s bigger.” To test my theory, I asked: “If I give you a nickel, could you give me two dimes?” She did, and I thought she was so stupid. But despite my handsome profit, I felt awful: I knew I had been mean and unjust to her. Later, I was unfair to men in a similar way; I felt clever getting a man to do things for me, while I treated him scornfully. I found out, after a lot of pain, that men didn’t like being seen this way.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that we have an ethical unconscious, and when we are unjust to people, we often—as a punishment—feel they will hurt us. I thought people would take advantage of me if I showed they mattered to me, so I tried to act as if nobody did. At a friend’s sweet sixteen party, I was really looking forward to seeing Danny Forrester. I had liked him in the 4th grade, but he liked Susan, and I felt hurt. Then, we moved away. Now I thought I had another chance; but when he greeted me in a very friendly way, I looked at him and said, “Do I know you?” He was flustered, and though I felt I’d paid him back, I felt like such an idiot, and also mean; I didn’t understand why I had done this. I felt like a failure in my relations to people.
In a Saturday General Lesson I had the honor to attend in February, 1977, Eli Siegel asked me what I was afraid of. I said, “People.” He asked me, “Do you think everyone is?” And he asked, “Do you think fear is related to despising?” “Yes,” I answered. I told Mr. Siegel about a recurrent dream in which I went to the top floor of the apartment building I lived in as a child. There was a door I was not supposed to touch, because it led to the roof. In the dream, I opened the door, and found instead a long, dimly-lit hallway. I walked down the hall, hearing my footsteps echoing. Mr. Siegel asked:
ES: Do you feel you were trying to make loftiness humdrum? Have you found people dull?
ES: Do you think they are?
And, so kindly, he asked, “Did anybody ever give you grief?” I told Mr. Siegel several men had hurt me, and he asked, “Do you think along with wanting them to mean a lot to you, you wanted them to mean as little as possible?”
ES: What, then, is the best thing here? Aesthetic Realism has a phrase: the miracle of exactitude. The idea is to see a person exactly as he is.
What I was so fortunate to learn from Eli Siegel—that much of my pain came because I had taken the life out of people, and that seeing them justly, exactly, with the depth and meaning they truly have, would have me respect myself—is the greatest kindness any person could receive.
The choice for contempt hurts every person making it, and when someone is in a position to affect many people, it can affect the course of history. This is true of the woman I write of now, who lived over 500 years ago: Isabella, Queen of Spain. Her life shows the emergent need—which, in our century, Aesthetic Realism can meet in everybody—to see other people justly, exactly as they are.
Justice and Injustice in Isabella of Castile (1451-1504)
The two things for which Queen Isabella is most known arise from the two opposing desires in her. She supported and financed the voyages of Christopher Columbus to find the East by sailing West across the Ocean Sea. She was also behind one of most massively brutal events ever: the Spanish Inquisition, in which thousands of people were tortured and executed in the name of religion. Described by the noted 19th-century American historian William Prescott as “certainly one of the most interesting personages in history,” Isabella has been compared to Joan of Arc, and there is a movement in Spain even now to make her a saint; yet for centuries, people have seen her as what biographer Peggy Liss calls “a hopelessly jumbled mass of both admirable and deplorable qualities”—and I am sure Isabella did not understand them in herself. Aesthetic Realism does understand them. In issue 1000 of The Right Of , Mr. Siegel writes:
The unconscious is chiefly about whether one is going to…have good will for the world or be contemptuous of it, whether one is going to try to see the world justly or put it aside and have power that way.
Isabella’s desire to be just showed itself during her 30-year reign in the fact that she unified Spain and helped make it, for a time, the most cultured nation in Europe. But her desire to “put the world aside and have power that way” made for some of the greatest cruelty the world has known.
Isabella was born in April, 1451 to Isabel of Portugal and Juan II, King of Castile and León—the largest kingdoms in what is now Spain. When Juan died, Isabella’s half-brother Enrique inherited the crown, and Isabella, age 3 ½, her mother, and infant brother moved to the countryside. She loved to hunt and ride horses, and developed the great physical strength and intelligence for she was admired. In the book Queens of Old Spain, by Martin Hume, a copy of which is in the Eli Siegel Collection, Mr. Siegel marked this passage with the note: “Isabella’s speed”:
Her strength and activity of body matched her prodigious force of mind, and she constantly struck awe in her potential opponents by her marvellous celerity of movement over desolate tracts of country…, riding often throughout the night distances that appear at the present day to be almost incredible.
Like most girls of Castile’s aristocracy, Isabella received less formal education than a boy would have. She later made up for this by studying Latin and reading avidly. She loved music and the paintings of Flemish and Italian artists, which were present in her court. Several new universities were established at this time, and learned women were welcomed. With the recent invention of the printing press, Isabella eagerly established a publication industry in Castile, so that books could be widely available. She created an atmosphere of education—whose purpose I have learned from Aesthetic Realism is on behalf of justice to reality; this attracted European scholars, including the philosopher Erasmus, and was the impetus for Spain’s Golden Age of art and literature.
Isabella also wanted to do good for the people of Castile: she worked to establish hospitals and set aside money from the treasury to give to widows and orphans.
However, though much detail cannot be given here, she was very cunning and, some historians believe, participated in or condoned cruel acts in order to win the crown. Writes Hume, “She never flinched at inflicting suffering for what she considered necessary ends.”
In 1469, she married Ferdinand, Prince of Aragon and King of Sicily; she was 18 and he a year younger. Their marriage was mainly a political one, but the fact that Ferdinand was handsome and energetic, intelligent and a skillful soldier, affected Isabella very much. On her brother Enrique’s death, Isabella was crowned Queen of Castile and León. Enrique’s reign had left the government in shambles, and Prescott writes that Isabella
endeavored to bind together the disjointed fragments of the state, to assign to each of its great divisions its constitutional limits, and, by depressing the aristocracy to its proper level and elevating the commons, to consolidate the whole under the lawful supremacy of the crown.
Castile’s treasury was nearly bankrupt, its laws contradictory; the aristocracy abused its power, and crime was rampant. Isabella and Ferdinand worked to undo this damage, reorganizing the monetary system, codifying the laws and setting up a more efficient judicial system—she personally supervising many of the reforms. There is something admirable in this, but right next to it, her desire to have unjust power—to feel she was the only one who could do things right—was also working. Attitudes I’m grateful have been criticized in me at my worst—haughtiness, arrogance, and the desire to be hurt—are described often in Isabella.
In 1476, she rode to Segovia where people were rioting against their unjust governor. When they refused her entry at the gate, incensed and hurt, she said “I am the Queen of Castile and this city is mine….I do not need any laws or conditions set for me to enter what is mine.” Though she did listen to the grievances of the people, and try to make amends, the feeling of being insulted in not being able to have her way was great.
One reason I feel passionately that Aesthetic Realism must be studied by everyone is its explanation of the hope in people to feel hurt. I learned we can turn a seeming slight into the victory of contempt for a world we see as wounding us. Aesthetic Realism shows this victory is so attractive, we can assiduously look for hurts in order to have it, as I did—but it is cruel, and always makes for self-loathing. In an Aesthetic Realism class, when I spoke about feeling someone I knew had treated me unfairly, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss asked me: “Do you think your desire to be hurt by people is pretty big, and it began very early?”
LR: Yes, I do.
ER: Do you think if we’re hurt, then we feel we’ve got a right to do anything? It comes from the feeling that the first purpose of everyone is to please oneself, not to see the world right….It is a wonderful way of not having to see any more. It’s the same as putting a crown on your head.
And she continued, so kindly:
The relation of being imperious and being hurt is very interesting….You are very quick at seeing where injustices come to you, but there have also been injustices from you. If you were more ready to see that, [you] would [have] more ease.
I love Ms. Reiss for her good will for my life. Through this discussion, I do have more ease, and I saw more starkly the ugliness of wanting to be hurt and use that to justify being mean to the people I care for most, which I regret so much.
As a wife, Isabella’s manner was sometimes like that of a woman in a Long Island home—described as “meek grandeur”—alternately asserting her superiority and weakly giving in. Liss writes:
She could anger [Ferdinand] with her intransigence when, as happened more than once, exasperated with her counselors he threatened to leave, and then disarm him by dissolving in tears.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that both gentleness and severity can be just—but unless we want to see what each instance deserves, we may be harsh in the wrong way, or yielding in the wrong way. Isabella’s desire to know was inadequate in crucial ways. Once, when Ferdinand’s army was forced by intolerable heat and poor provisions to retreat from battle, without waiting for an explanation, Isabella angrily accused them of cowardice. She is like many women who—as I had done—can act regal showing how men have hurt them. In what Ferdinand said as he rightly protested, he sounds like many a man who has been seen unjustly:
I thought that coming back defeated I would find words of consolation and encouragement from your mouth but you complain because we have returned whole and with no glory lost? Well, we will certainly have a heavy task to satisfy you…, my lady, who can never be satisfied by any mortal man.
Evidence that Isabella herself felt she needed more humility was in her feeling for Catholicism. She spent a great deal of time in prayer—and there are stories of how, at various times, she would walk through the streets barefoot. Had this been the only way she used the Church, her life, and Spain’s history, would have been so different.
Injustice to “Life Different from One’s Own”
In The Right Of, Eli Siegel states:
A large injustice is the feeling had all over the world that a person different from oneself is a reason for anger and the contempt which soothes anger….The desire…to feel that life different from one’s own is inferior has made for war.
For 800 years, the Moors, North African Muslims, had occupied parts of the Iberian peninsula. Jews also lived in Spain, working along with Christians. Both peoples contributed greatly to Spanish culture—its architecture, language, literature, knowledge of mathematics and medicine. But by the late 15th century, while their presence was tolerated, they were seen with great contempt. Isabella was determined to rid the kingdom of both the Moors and the Jews. She fiercely accelerated a centuries-old effort to reconquer the regions held by the Moors, and in January, 1492, this terrible war culminated in the humiliating defeat of the Moors at Granada—seat of Moorish kings—and a victory for Isabella. But it was a victory based on contempt.
I speak now of the most heinous injustice of Isabella’s life and one of the most horrible in history: the formation of the Holy Office, better known today as the Spanish Inquisition. It came from the feeling Eli Siegel described: that people “different from oneself [are] a reason for anger and the contempt which soothes anger.” The Jews, seen as heretics and impure, could no longer live safely in Spain. Many left and others converted to Catholicism—though often only outwardly. Some of these conversos held positions of power and accumulated great wealth. By the late 1470s, anger at those who maintained Jewish customs was so great, the monarchs requested a papal bull to allow an Inquisition to seek out and punish those suspected of heresy. In 1481 tribunals began, and within the first year in Andalusia alone, 2,000 people were executed.
The methods were cruel and secretive, and suspects—presumed guilty unless proven innocent—never knew their accusers. They could confess to practicing Judaism, repent and be “reconciled” to the Church. To get them to confess, they were brutally tortured under the eyes of priests—including the infamous Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada. People were bound with tight ropes that cut into their flesh; hung from pulleys so that their limbs were dislocated; they were flogged, dismembered. Those who refused to confess were burned at the stake. “No one was spared,” writes Nancy Rubin, “old women as well as young pregnant women, [teenage boys], men into their eighties and nineties.” The fact that these were human beings as real as herself—who, perhaps, loved the same God she said she loved—Isabella would not think about. “Once having made the decision,” Rubin writes,
she had steeled herself to its unpleasant consequences. Economic ruin, even the prospect of torturing and burning heretics, horrible though it was to a usually compassionate woman like Isabella, was a relatively minor price to pay for the glory of purifying the church.
“Injustice,” writes Eli Siegel,
begins often with the feeling that you have a right to see what you want to see and disregard…anything which makes you uncomfortable. This [has] been a continuing cause of the unkindness, cruelty, and injustice of the world.
Many people in the Catholic Church, including the Pope, were horrified at the cruelty being inflicted. Isabella, determined to have in Spain la limpia sangre—clean blood—and Ferdinand, who welcomed with greed the gold and property of the executed Jews, expanded the Inquisition to all of Spain. What was driving Isabella is like what drove the people in Germany in the 1930s and 40s who murdered millions of people to establish a “master race”; and like the “ethnic cleansing” which has gone on in other nations. It is, Mr. Siegel showed, “contempt in its first universal, hideous form.”
The Inquisition lasted for another 300 years. During Isabella’s reign, an estimated 8,800 people were executed; many thousands more were punished in other ways, and in 1492 an Edict of Expulsion forced all Jews who refused baptism to leave penniless, never to return. The injustice in this is incalculable. I know, from having been unjust in ways much more ordinary than these, that a person cannot bear herself for being cruel. But Isabella’s fight between wanting to be just and wanting to justify her brutality was fierce. Rubin writes, “She would never allude to any of these acts as sins.” Eli Siegel explains:
Unjust people have excused themselves with the thought that they were taking care of themselves. Those who are inclined to be unjust always make injustice seem to be the rule of the world.
In this same year, 1492, Isabella showed her greatest desire to be just to the possibilities of reality when, despite the objections of Ferdinand and many scholars and advisors, she authorized the voyages of the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus across the Ocean Sea. She was greatly affected by the relation of knowledge and passion in Columbus, whose careful studies had convinced him there was more of the world to be known—in the words of historian Bartolomé de las Casas as the desire “to disclose what was locked away to which the Ocean…held the keys.” Her faith in Columbus and in what he might discover never flagged, and she financed four voyages across the ocean, through which the land we now inhabit became known to the people of Europe and beyond.
Yet even here, Isabella’s desire for unjust power interfered with the best thing in her. She had wonder as she learned of the native peoples and growing things of the Americas—but instead of feeling respect for their difference was pleasure enough, she wanted to claim new souls for the Church and new lands and wealth for Spain. The horrible exploitation of the indigenous people of the Americas by many Spanish explorers is being written of increasingly today. It was one of the things that, Rubin writes, “weighed heavily on Isabella’s conscience,” and in her will, she insisted that they not be enslaved, and that they be treated well.
Over the next decade, Isabella, whose physical strength had been so great, grew steadily weaker—a fact attributed to many personal tragedies, including the deaths of two of her children, and the misfortunes of two others. However, I believe that the fight in her between wanting to be fair, and the massive injustice she had committed, wore her down. Eli Siegel writes,
Man will not be fully human until he is interested in justice with the great intensity and with the comprehensiveness which does not wish to miss any of its forms.
I love Mr. Siegel with all my heart for his intense and comprehensive desire to be just to all reality, and for making it possible, through Aesthetic Realism, for all people to come, to have the just, happy lives they were born for.