"The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites," — Eli Siegel
The Same Mistake Concerning Human Nature -- No!
In 1961, when America was about to begin the most unjust war of our history, the Vietnam War, Robert Ardrey came out with the book African Genesis, making vastly popular the untrue and unsubstantiated notion that our ancient ancestors were "killer apes." And therefore our deepest instincts as human beings were violent. So, it was no use to think of peace. Dispite the absurdity of the premise, and its utter unprovability, the idea caught on because it seemed to ratify our worst hopes about the human race. Later (1966) came his Territorial Imperative. And through the hullaballoo about both, many people latched onto the idea that humans are in the grip of genetically-determined instincts that made war inevitable. It appealed to the desire to make less of reality and see the world as a flop.
Ardrey was, seemingly, a respected anthropological scholar—and the Western world , seemingly, agreed he was right. While the American military was bombing a small Asian land, dropping napalm, killing civilians, the last thing we needed was a scholar who made it seem that it was biologically inevitable for us to be murdering our own kind.
All along, Aesthetic Realism showed this view of humanity to be untrue. Eli Siegel had begun in the 1930s to show with philosophic and scientific documentation, "Man's deepest desire, his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis." But did people know this? People did not.
This completely different, this resplendently fair, this thoroughly scientific way of seeing people can and should replace that "predatory" conception of humanity which is so narrow and hurtful.
In the atmosphere of our time NOW just how important is it for people to understand and respect their own deep, ethical drive--and criticize the aggression toward nations and the economic injustice at home that is limping along but has not yet been openly and consciously repudiated? I can think of nothing more important and more urgent.
In these three principles Mr. Siegel delineates clearly what the best and worst in humanity are. And that the best thing in us is also the deepest thing:
These three great concepts represent humanity truly. The ways of mind they describe in people grew richer as humanity evolved from our early ancestors, who were, after all, pretty much like ourselves some two million years ago. There's no "killer ape" in the picture.
If we begin with trying to imagine how an early person saw the world, how that person was for and against it, we get a clearer picture of ancestral hominids than the "mindlessly aggressive" view of them. Let's take a fossil ancestor from East Africa who may be discovered in the next few months. You'll see, perhaps, photographs of bits of skull, a few finger bones, a limb bone. I hope you'll be thinking how that skull, those bones, belonged to a person who thought, and ran, and loved and fought, and had feelings akin to yours.
What were those feelings like? Did this person delight in meeting the world in many ways—a delight in speed as he or she ran across the ground; a delight in being accurate as he or she threw a stone or stick at a target and hit it; a delight in drinking clear water on a hot day and giving water to another? These are ways of liking the world, seeing meaning in it, wanting other people to be stronger.
But did this person also want to defeat presumed enemies? Did he or she have volcanic thoughts, unjust suspicions; strut in a superior way to show off; add to onself by making less of other people and things? These are ways of having contempt for the world and the things and people in it.
We see these two conflicting ways of seeing the world in every one of us, in tribal folk, even in a less "formed" way in the primate stock we came from.
It was in classes taught by Mr. Siegel, which I had the great privilege to attend from 1968-1978, that I learned about these elemental forces in our own minds, our own ethics. These forces propel us every day as we love, fight, have a cup of tea, read a paper, lift weights, do yoga exercises in St. Paul or San Diego or Newark. And we can choose which represents us.
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson on anthropology, Mr. Siegel said to me, "The purpose of Aesthetic Realism as to anthropology is to show that every person is at once primitive and sophisticated, or now. A working definition of anthropology is the study of mind where it begins and in the places where it begins."
Our primal beginnings are in us as we feel depressed or joyful in our sophisticated, 21st century way. They are the same in every tribal man, woman, and child. Knowing this changed me as an anthropologist and as a man. Without knowing anthropology, explained Mr. Siegel, we can't understand our very selves with the fullness and richness we're hoping for. I have seen this to be true.
Mission Statement How can people of diverse cultures understand and respect one another?