Through Study of Aesthetic Realism
What Makes a Man's Life Large or Small?
Looking at the Life of Charles Darwin and Men Today
Does Respect for Reality Make a Man's Life Important?
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,
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
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:
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?
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,
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.
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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