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 vs. 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.
Selective Justice is Unkind
Thaddeus Stevens took many ethical stands he was rightly proud of but, like other people, he didn’t always feel kindness was prudent. So he put limits on what others deserved, particularly those close to him. He had a few trusted friends, but Fawn Brodie, his biographer, writes that he “seems to have kept a barrier always between himself and [them].” When he became father to his two orphaned nephews, Stevens seemed more interested in their obedience than in what they felt. I believe this is a reason why, despite his justice elsewhere, he felt lonely, bitter, and unhappy. Thaddeus Stevens needed to know what Eli Siegel wrote in the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO), #76: “the seeing of other persons rightly, familiar or strange, cannot be dissevered from seeing the world rightly. Seeing is continuous.”
This is what I have the good fortune to be studying in Aesthetic Realism classes taught by the Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss, in which international ethics is seen as continuous with ethics in the kitchen. In a class some years ago, my wife Barbara Buehler expressed concern about the way I dismissed things—like a pot of homemade broth she asked me to keep an eye on, which I quickly forgot, causing much broth to boil away.
Ms. Reiss asked Barbara: “Do you think Dale Laurin can feel that he’s given so much value to things not himself that he’s got to recoup by showing things are meaningless—like chicken stock?” And she asked me: “Do you think you have to have your way of shrugging things off?” Yes, I answered. “Do you think Barbara Buehler is treacherous because she’s excited about too many things. If she could [just] be nice and dull and worship you?” I’m grateful to Ellen Reiss for her incisive, kind criticism. I’m glad to tell you there is greater kindness, respect and happiness between Barbara and me, which grows with every week!
Criticism is Kind and Strong
Thaddeus Stevens served in the US House of Representatives during the time of the great struggle in American history over whether freedom and justice were the rights of ALL people. Ellen Reiss explains with passionate clarity in TRO #916:
“The great cause of the Civil War…was slavery. And slavery is a form—utter, elemental—of man’s seeing man with contempt: it is the epitome of the feeling, You are different from me; therefore you are less; I do not have to see you as real; and I have pleasure looking down on you….[T]he fight, Shall I see the world and people with contempt or respect? is the fight within every individual right now.”
Every consultation I am honored to teach with my colleagues is about this. For instance, we have asked men: “You don’t like the way your supervisor sees you, but have you also gotten pleasure ‘lording’ it over another person?—your wife, for instance? You say that you listen to her opinions, but ‘when push comes to shove’ do you let her know who’s the boss? Can you say three things you respect her for that have nothing to do with you? Does thinking about this have you care for her more, and also have you like and respect yourself more?” I know for myself—and from the many men we have spoken to—answering these questions does encourage honest pride and deeper trust and love between husband and wife.
In the first speech Stevens gave in the House, opposing passage of the Compromise of 1850—sanctioning the western extension of slavery—his anger was beautiful and kind. He said:
“You and I…are free, while we fasten iron chains and rivet manacles on four million of our fellowmen, tear their wives and children from them…sell them, and doom them to perpetual eternal bondage. Are we not, then, despots…as history will brand, and God abhors?… [Any] Northern man…who would directly or indirectly, by omission or commission, by basely voting or cowardly skulking, permit [slavery] to spread one rood over God’s free earth, [is] a traitor to liberty and a recreant to his God.”
House speaker Howell Cobb of Georgia, a supporter of slavery, was heard to say: “Our enemy has a general now.…He does not want higher office, therefore we cannot allure him….He is earnest. He means what he says. He is bold. He cannot be flattered or frightened.” This is such a tribute, for it shows that standing up for what people deserve always commands the highest respect, even from those whose comfort and egos are threatened.And how true and relevant this is today!
Stevens was hated by many, but what people deserved was more important to him than being liked. “I would sooner lose every friend on earth than violate the glorious dictates of my own conscience,” he said. “There can be no fanatics in the cause of genuine liberty.” Yet he unknowingly worked against this kind cause in his support of laws promoting business interests—high tariffs, canals, railroads, and, as some accused, his own ironworks. Eli Siegel is the historian who showed that our profit-based economic system—of which slavery was a most pernicious form—is, by its very nature, unkind and weakening to the self of man. “Only contempt,” he wrote, “could permit a man to make money from the work of another—as man has done these hundreds of years.…I have seen the unhappy, painful, often unendurable consequences of ill will in economics from the time of…Themistocles to Abraham Lincoln.”
It is important that when the Civil War broke out, Stevens decisively chose kindness over profits. As Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he took command of financing the Union war effort and publicly denounced bankers who demanded gold as interest on loans to the government—putting greed above the very survival of the nation. And when Confederate armies, heading for what would be the decisive Battle of Gettysburg, made a detour to vengefully loot and destroy Stevens’ iron foundry, his response was beautiful. “It was just about the savings of my life,” he said, but if “the government shall be re-established over our whole territory, and not a vestige of slavery left, I shall deem it a cheap purchase.”
In 1865 the war against slavery was won, but not against injustice: 1866 saw the highest number of black lynchings, a Ku Klux Klan membership of 500,000, and the pardoning of 14,000 Confederate prisoners by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson—74 of whom were elected to Congress. Stevens felt the only way to stop Johnson from selling out the Union victory and to win full rights for African Americans was to strictly monitor the readmission of Southern states.
As leader of the Republican-controlled House, Stevens—74 and in failing health—became, in effect, the most powerful man in the nation. He spurred the House to pass laws, override every presidential veto, and finally vote to impeach Johnson himself. Most of what Stevens fought for was beautiful, including what I believe is one of the kindest pieces of legislation in US history—a bill he submitted calling for the division of all plantations over 5,000 acres into 40-acre farms—one for every family of a former slave.
In an essay titled “36 Things About America: An Arithmetical Assemblage of Notations on the Persisting,” Eli Siegel has this deep, surprising sentence showing something of Stevens’ permanent meaning: “Thaddeus Stevens is still trying to bring out good things in Robert E. Lee and the other way round.” This bringing out of good things describes as well the kind purpose of Aesthetic Realism itself and the consultations my colleagues and I are so proud to give. In bringing out the best thing in every person—our desire to like the world—and in criticizing the worst—contempt, Aesthetic Realism enables people to feel on a solid basis, truly strong, truly kind.
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.