Comfort or Justice: What Does a Man Want Most?

Eli Siegel has described the great battle in everyone. It is:

“a…fight between comfort and the desire to know more and see more clearly….Since man as an individual is first impelled towards feeling good, feathering the nest of his singular felicity, the desire to see other things, other living beings, is secondary. This makes for a contest between the desire to soothe oneself, caress oneself, make oneself distingushedly belligerent, and the desire to see justly, comprehensively, gracefully, beautifully.”

And Aesthetic Realism makes clear that “to see justly, comprehensively” is the one way we will like ourselves and feel truly comfortable in the world. But men have also gone after a different kind of comfort–being unbothered, concentrating selfishly only on what we want. Yet if, as Class Chairman Ellen Reiss explains in The Right Of, “our notion of comfort is not the same as the desire to be just to people and things (and it usually isn’t)–we will be deeply unsure.”

I. The Fight in Myself

As I grew up in Brooklyn, I went after two things. I remember, for example, how thrilled and composed I felt as I learned in math class how to tell if a number was divisible by three: by adding up its digits, and seeing if its sum could be divided by three. As I tried to be exact and was excited by what numbers are and can do, I respected the world: I saw it as having logic and making sense.

But at home as I observed my parents angry and cold to each other, my purpose was not to “see justly, comprehensively,” to try to understand what they felt, but to feeling the world was messy and cruel, and I was better than it.

I felt that other people–including teachers who I thought did not make enough of me–were the cause of my feeling bad and unsure, and that therefore, I had the right to “soothe” and “caress” myself. As a child, I couldn’t wait to get home after school, change into pajamas, climb into bed, and get away from all those “mean” people.

I also thought I was ill-at-ease because my family lived in a small apartment, while many children I knew had nice homes, went on vacations and to private camps in the summer. I felt the world had given me a raw deal and I had the right to “feather my own nest.”

I came to feel the goal of life was to set up the most comfortable existence for myself I could which included being able to buy a lot of things. This made me cold and snobbish: I judged people not on how fair they were, but on how much money they had. In general, I kidded people along, told them what I thought they wanted to hear so that things would be easy rather than really trying to know them.

My life changed when I learned that the desire to be just, to see what other people deserved from me, was not the sacrificial thing I thought it was, but the one way of being good to myself.

In Aesthetic Realism classes, Eli Siegel encouraged justice in me as he taught me what interfered. In one class, he asked:

“What do you want to be–serious with people or play with them? What are you doing?”

“I think I’m playing with people,” I responded.

ES: Is that best for you? The purpose of life is to have the greatest emotions. Do you think you’d rather have a minor feeling about people as long as it’s smooth? It is hard for you to see another [person] fully or in depth.

I began to see that my choice for comfort, to have “minor” and “smooth” feelings about people, not to see them “fully or in depth” had made for large loneliness and ill-at-easeness in me. And I saw that as I thought more deeply about people, asked them questions about themselves, and tried to speak about what I felt, I became more sure of myself.

II. A Great American Lawyer

In The Right Of, Eli Siegel explains:

“Justice is the great opponent of contempt; justice, loved and studied, can in time have a victory over contempt. However, justice now is not seen as sufficiently real except where the law is concerned. Man has so far seen himself as hindered by justice, not expressed by it. This is man’s greatest misfortune; that he has come to see justice as a restriction, not as the largest way of being or becoming himself.”

I will speak about aspects of the life and career of the attorney Clarence Darrow who lived from 1857 to 1938. Because of the way he used the law to oppose the contempt of our country’s unjust economic system, Darrow is one of the loved persons in American history.

His life shows that a man respects himself most when he is trying to be just. Meanwhile, Darrow was also turbulent–he was troubled by not being able to understand how he could be so passionately for justice, and then also go for narrow comfort.

Darrow is perhaps most famous for the Scopes trial in which he defended the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools. For over forty years, and against odds that sometimes seemed insurmountable, he fought and won cases for labor unions that brought new justice to the working people of America. Darrow was also one of the first white lawyers to represent African-Americans.

Clarence Darrow was born in Ohio to parents who were passionate abolitionists; their house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As a young child, he heard stories about Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and later, he would often be awakened at night to ride in a wagon that concealed an escaping slave. And in the small Bible Belt town in which his family lived, his parents had “radical” and unpopular ideas such as equal rights for women, which Clarence defended in public debates. Darrow wrote about himself as a youth:

“Not only could I put myself in the other person’s place, but I could not avoid doing so. My sympathies always went out to the weak, the suffering and the poor.”

But the young Darrow was also very much affected by the fact that his father was barely able to support his family of nine. In the biography The People v. Clarence Darrow, Geoffrey Cowan writes:

“If Clarence was inspired by his father’s idealism, he was also motivated by his professional failures. He was determined to achieve economic security.”

By age 21, Darrow was practicing law successfully in a small Ohio town, and achieved the economic security he wanted. But it mattered a great deal to him that the vast majority of Americans hadn’t.

America in the 1880’s was the time of “robber barons”, men like Jay Gould and Henry Frick who made enormous fortunes in industries such as railroads and steel by exploiting thousands of men, forcing them to work long hours for low pay under dangerous conditions. When workers tried to form unions or strike, they were ruthlessly suppressed, sometimes murdered. In Self and World, Eli Siegel explains the state of mind of these industrialists which is in so many men:

“The fact that most people have felt they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal hideous form.”

Darrow wanted to fight against this injustice. He explained to a friend:

“These modern thoughts about the rights of labor, and the wrongs of the world, had just taken possession of me.

III. A Choice for Justice Changes His Life

At the age of 30, Darrow moved to Chicago where with some misgivings, he became an attorney representing the Chicago and North Western Railway.

It was at this time in 1894 that the Pullman railroad workers in Chicago went on strike after their wages were cut 25%. In support of them, Eugene V. Debs, the great socialist leader of the American Railway Union, ordered a full-scale strike stopping railroad traffic across America. When the government charged Debs and his union with conspiracy to restrain trade, Debs asked Darrow to represent him. Darrow quit his job with the railroad, and switched sides.

The railroad workers, he learned, were forced to live in a town built by George Pullman that was run “like a feudal manor, with Pullman as absolute monarch” where they were forced to buy inflated-priced goods at company stores.

What infuriated Darrow most was that the owners’ collaboration to decrease wages was not, according to the government, a criminal conspiracy, but the union’s striking to oppose their wage cuts was. In the ensuing trial, the biographer Cowan describes what occurred:

“Darrow converted the railroads into the defendants, charging that they were the real conspirators, that they had conspired to destroy the lives of the nation’s most valuable workers.”

In what Cowan called a “brilliant stroke of courtroom genius,” Darrow subpoenaed Pullman to tell the court why he cut the wages of his workers to subsistence levels when there was twenty-six million dollars in cash in his company’s coffers. Pullman suddenly disappeared. The prosecution against Debs was dropped.

IV. How Should Injustice Be Used?

This question, I have learned, is so important in every person’s life: Are we going to use the injustice we see to be against it in all its forms, including in ourselves, or use it to feel we have the right to be unjust ourselves?

I believe Darrow suffered because he, as people have, vacillated as to this question. He hated economic injustice and worked hard and steadily to have it end. His speeches, which he gave in a forceful and eloquent manner, affected people very much. In a speech of 1895, he stated:

“With the land and possessions of America rapidly passing into the hands of a favored few; with thousands of men in idleness and want; with the sight of thousands of children forced into involuntary slavery at the tender age that should find them at home or in school; and above all, with the knowledge that the servants of the people, elected to correct abuses, are bought and sold [by] corporations and individuals; with all these notorious evils, some rude awakening must come.”

But Darrow also used what he saw to have contempt, and feel he had the right to go after narrow comfort himself. He began to represent, for sheer monetary gain, corporations and individuals he once criticized. For instance, he used his political contacts to enable a private utility company to get a contract with the city of Chicago, earning it huge profits almost overnight. He tried to justify himself by saying he did so to finance his more radical work, but he also showed how much he was really against himself. He wrote:

“Judged by the higher law, I am practically a thief. I am taking money that I did not earn, which comes to me from men who did not earn it. I take it without performing any useful service to the world.”

V. Love is Justice to the World

I’ve learned that a big mistake people make about love is to see it as a means to glorify oneself, “soothe oneself.”

In 1899, Darrow met Ruby Hammerstrom, an attractive and fashionable society reporter. Cowan writes:

“Ruby wasn’t like the social workers and political reporters that Darrow generally dated, who insisted on holding him to the high ideals that he set forth in his speeches. He deliberately married a woman who expected him to become a prosperous and solid citizen.”

At the time of their courtship, Darrow was representing nine hundred men and women who were on strike against the Kellogg Switchboard Company. What followed represents what many couples in America are doing right now–using each other to dismiss the pain of others and make each other selfishly comfortable. Writes Cowan:

“A court issued an injunction against picketing, and strikers were sent to jail by the carload, Violence became a daily occurrence, the plant was in a state of siege. Darrow, amidst this carnage and devastation got married. After a champagne breakfast at the home of a wealthy friend, the couple headed off for Europe where they spent three sybaritic months. It was a symbolic start to Darrow’s new life with Ruby.”

While Darrow and Ruby remained married until his death, I believe he was deeply angry with her for encouraging him to betray himself, and he punished her by spending much time away from home, and having to do with other women.

What the Darrows needed so much to know, men and women are now learning from Aesthetic Realism. In one class, Ellen Reiss was showing me why love had not fared well in my life, as she asked:

“Do you think you are afraid of the criticism of a woman?”

I responded, “I tell myself I’m all for love.”

And the Class Chairman explained,

“You’re all for love if it doesn’t criticize you. You don’t want a person questioning you all the time. It makes you feel very uncomfortable.”

I am proud to say how wrong I was to have associated a woman’s questioning with discomfort.

During the time Darrow was engaged to Ruby, he began to do what he said he never would–represent rich corporate clients in cases against their own workers and the poor. Cowan writes:

“He became the kind of lawyer he once attacked. In the process, he became more and more bitter, his conversations dark and often vicious.”

I believe Darrow’s cynicism is explained by Eli Siegel when he writes:

“There are millions of persons in America and elsewhere who have the discomfort of feeling that somehow they have stopped going after what they wholly wanted.”

In 1912 in California, after taking part in a case that was a large setback for the labor movement, Darrow was put on trial himself for jury tampering. If he had been convicted, he would have been ruined; fortunately, he was not. I was very moved to read how he used this ordeal. He said:

“I know that this sad, hard experience made me kindlier and more understanding of all who live. I am sure that it gave me a point of view that nothing else could bring.”

After having undergone this, Darrow’s ethics became stronger and he had a renewed passion about justice. He spent the rest of his years as a powerful critic of religious intolerance and racial discrimination, while continuing his fight against industrial injustice. He also defended the right to free speech at a time it was under great attack in America. This included working for the release of Eugene V. Debs who had been imprisoned for opposing America’s entry into WWI.

VI. Justice Has a Victory over Contempt

There is one more thing I want to tell of that represents Darrow at his best, where he enabled justice to come to people who were seen and exploited so contemptuously for huge profit.

A highpoint of this was in 1902, when 147,000 men, led by the United Mine Workers, went on strike for an eight-hour day and decent wages. In a commission set up by President Theodore Roosevelt to arbitrate the dispute, the UMW asked Darrow to lead their defense.

In the trial before the commission, while the operators tried to portray the miners as criminals for going on strike, Darrow brought forth hundreds of witnesses–including men who began work in the mines at the age of 12, and were broken by the age of fifty, many suffering from lung and heart diseases.

In his closing argument, Darrow said with great passion:

“When I think of the cripples, of the orphans, of the widows of the maimed who are left and neglected, it seems to me this is the greatest indictment of this business that could be possibly be made. These owners are fighting for slavery, while we are fighting for freedom. They are fighting for the rule of man over man, for despotism, for darkness, for the past. We are striving to build up man. We are working for democracy, for humanity, for the future.”

Chiefly because of Darrow the miners received a wage increase, and a shorter working day. And most crucially, this was the first time a national union went out on strike and was not broken. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, called it “the most important single incident in the labor movement in the United States.”

The greatest justice to people, and the greatest encourager of justice in people is Aesthetic Realism.