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What Makes a Man's Life Large or Small? 

Looking at the Life of Charles Darwin and Men Today

By Arnold Perey 
Part 2
This paper was first presented at a seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City on September 19, 2002.

Does Respect for Reality Make a Man's Life Important?

The world Charles Darwin saw, was, as Eli Siegel put it, "a world...that man can truly like" (The Aesthetic Nature of the World, p. 151). It is a world of wonderful similarity and change among all living things; where the tiniest flea is directly, organically related to the most massive elephant; where struggle and even death make for progressive evolution in which good, useful characteristics develop to benefit every species. Seeing this way made him large. He had the passion which made him a discoverer. "The way Darwin saw," Mr. Siegel wrote, "made him feel or have emotion. The way he had emotion made him want to see more and more clearly" (p. 117).  

When The Origin of Species was published it was 1859, 24 years after Darwin set foot on the Galapagos Islands. The storm of objection from the academic world and the conservative clergy was horrific. There was a "savage onslaught" against Origin at the Philosophical Society of Cambridge (note, pp. 247-8, Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Francis Darwin, ed.), where his letters from the Beagle had once been read and admired (p. 31). His former professor and friend Sedgwick's "comments were scathing" (p. 342). The press and reviewers, as might be expected, were largely hideous; the one big exception was the London Times which asked Thomas Huxley, Darwin's good friend and defender, to write a review of Origin. And this was an honest piece of work, an eloquent piece of work, in the biggest newspaper of England.  

"The word large" wrote Mr. Siegel,  

    has taken on an ethical meaning in the phrases "large mind," "large vision," "large heart," or big heart," "large book" or "big book."
Darwin rose to meet the onslaught with a largeness of vision. He wrote to his friend and famous supporter T.J. Hooker,  
    As for the old fogies in Cambridge...I look at their attacks as proof that our work is worth the doing. It makes me resolve to buckle on my armour....If we all stick with it we shall surely gain the day. And I now see the battle is worth fighting. I deeply hope that you think so. (15 May 1860) [F. Darwin, pp. 247-8]
The objection to evolution, wrote Mr. Siegel with saving humor, was:  
    man felt he was superior to all other living beings, and Darwin, that rude Victorian, said that he was related to other beings, some of whom never went to Oxford. [TRO 397, 12 November 1980]
In 1837 - the year he started his notebook of evidence for evolution - Charles Darwin began to be chronically ill. It was to take many forms: " disorders...rheumatoid pains..." [White and Gribbin, p. 108] The cause was never diagnosed; the pain was debilitating. The ailment came and went all his life. [P. 110]  

What way of seeing may have contributed to it? Darwin wrote once, with an unsureness that is so understandable, "Often and often a cold shudder has run through me, and I have asked myself whether I may not have devoted my life to phantasy" (p. 342). I believe there was a desire in him to retreat, which weakened him. During the four years of hard work writing on evolution 1855-59 - which led to the Origin of Species - he was healthy.  

But two months after publication, he wrote wearily to the geologist Lyell, "I care more about Drosera, [the Sun-Dew plant he was studying] than the origin of all the species in the world" (F. Darwin, pp. 340-1).  

The man who had loved music so much "that my backbone would sometimes shiver"; and loved Shakespeare (Barlow, p. 61); felt that he could no longer care for them. In later years, even affection seemed to diminish. A "grievous loss of feeling has gradually crept over me," he wrote at age 67 (p. 115).  

Studying his large and wonderful life, I have felt again and again how much he, as scientist and kind human being, would love the logic and beauty of Aesthetic Realism.  

The Urgent Everyday Meaning of Large and Small for a Man

James Petrillo, a supervisor at an after-school program for teenagers, is studying in Aesthetic Realism consultations. Like all men, he has had two ideas of what being large is. He has felt expansive when singing with a doo-op group he practices with on the weekend. But he also told us about another way of thinking that he's big: "Something impels me all of a sudden to make fun of people." At work, he was seen as the office humorist. With his children from a former marriage, he felt important when he could charm and lecture them. When his daughter asked, "Dad, will you ever be serious?" he was very upset. We asked him, "Do you see her feelings as real, including those that made her sad?" He said, "No, I guess I really don't."  

We asked, "Do you prefer affecting people or being affected by them?" Mr. Petrillo saw that wanting to affect - while really being unmoved - was a form of contempt. It is a preference for a small life, self-satisfied while unaffected by the depths of people, and it made him dislike himself despite his comfortable circumstances.  

I learned about this when, at a time that I was seeing a woman who objected to my desire to be complacent and rest on my laurels, Mr. Siegel wanted me to see where I was making myself less. He asked if I was aiming high enough, or whether I was too satisfied with myself. He said with critical humor:  

    When the tea is simmering low, you can make [the world] small, not exist.
And he suggested that I be more like "the Rocky Mountains in an ethical uproar."  

Like me, Mr. Petrillo needed more ethical fervor. We asked, "Do you try to have a good effect on people - your girlfriend? your children - moment by moment?" He said, "I haven't done that," surprised and grateful to see it. Among the assignments we gave him to encourage exactness and depth, was this: "What is your daughter proud of in herself? What in herself does she dislike?" "You'll see," we told him, "that you feel larger as you're interested in what other people really feel - including the people at work." As he chooses to respect rather than diminish and superficialize, Mr. Petrillo is warmer, and a better friend; and it has been seen, gratefully, by the people he is close to.  

How Should a Man See Largeness in Another?

There is a likeness between the reaction to Darwin and the response to Eli Siegel, a fury at large, new seeing. Darwin saw all living beings as having a biological relation. Even more widely and deeply, Eli Siegel saw everything in reality - including people - as related to all other things through the opposites. "The world, art, and self explain each other," he wrote in a great scientific principle: "each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."  

To the confined and brutal ego, whose importance is based on grabbing what one can, hanging onto convention, and feeling one is BETTER than anything else - these larger ways of seeing the world and oneself are hateful. I regret to say that I, who had similar egoistic notions of what made me important, was angry at the great respect I felt for Eli Siegel and his work. I have come feel, passionately, that it is being able to respect - not scorn - that gives a man importance.  

Darwin never stopped working and writing courageously. "There is grandeur in this view of life," he wrote at the end of the Origin of Species,  

having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved. Yes, respect is what makes a man's life large, not small. The study of Aesthetic Realism encourages that respect as nothing else does, and men everywhere in this world deserve, and need, to know this.  


Sources Include:   

Marston Bates and Philip S. Humphrey, The Darwin Reader. Scribners: 1956. Excerpt from "The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms" 1881; Darwin's last book.  

Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle. 1840.
____________, The Origin of Species . 1859.
____________, The Descent of Man. 1870.

Francis Darwin, ed., Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters . New York: Dover, 1958. Republication of 1892 work.

Nora Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. With original omissions restored. New York: Norton, 1993.

Ellen Reiss, ed., The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known.

Eli Siegel. The Aesthetic Nature of the World. New York: Definition Press, 1971.
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