What is a Man’s True Strength?

In his 1949 lecture “Poetry and Strength,” Eli Siegel said:

The ability to be affected by true power is power. That is the thing that people have to realize—that to be unaffected by true power is weakness. 

“To be affected by true power” is a large aspect of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the deepest desire of everyone: to like the world. And it explains what interferes with our wanting to be affected: contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”

Growing up, I had two different notions of strength. I was very moved by the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought with beautiful persistence for justice. But I had another notion—asserting myself arrogantly, hardening myself to the feelings of people, and showing how cool and superior I was. This attitude hurt my life very much.

The great good fortune of my life has been that my ideas of strength, based on contempt, which affected how I saw my family, other people, knowledge, love, money, was understood and criticized by Aesthetic Realism, and my desire to see the world truly was strengthened.

1. Strength and the Purpose of Knowledge

As I attended PS 286 in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, I remember how excited I was in fourth grade learning about colonial times in America. For an assignment, I created a newspaper called the “Daily Dairy Dutch Dutchman,” for which I wrote articles and advertisements. As I used my imagination to think about the colonists’ feelings, I felt strong. But I had another purpose as to knowledge: I used the fact that I was in “Intellectually Gifted” classes to smugly look down on all the children who weren’t. Increasingly, I used learning facts, getting good grades, not as a means of liking the world, feeling more about it—which Aesthetic Realism teaches is the purpose of education—but to feel I’d beaten out other students.

By high school, I was so conceited that I thought I knew more than my teachers. Once in a biology class I acted particularly insufferable, calling out answers and not letting anyone else speak. Finally, my teacher said, “If you think you’re so smart, Steven, why don’t you teach the class?”  I actually got up, and began to but very soon it became clear how much I didn’t know.

I later learned that my superior attitude had much to do with why I began avoiding people, and spent hours in bed with a blanket over my head. And when I was with my friends, I felt nervous and ill-at-ease even as I tried to show off. Though I disliked myself, I wanted to feel I had “guts.” For instance, I felt I was too good to wait on line in stores, so I’d push my way forward; I’d walk carelessly in traffic, thinking no one would ever run me over. And if anyone dared question me, I’d stubbornly defend myself. I had, as Mr. Siegel once said of another person, the “courage of my afflictions.” 

I thought other people were hopelessly naïve and gullible, acting pleased about things, while I had the inner strength to see the world for the empty, cruel place it was. I remember seeing a book entitled A Nation of Sheep, and feeling that de-scribed all the people I knew who meekly submitted to authority.  But with all my swagger and defiance, I was really a timid and weak person, afraid of people, terrified of their depths which made me feel lonely and unsure.

Then I met the critical and kind comprehension of Aesthetic Realism. In the first class I attended, Eli Siegel saw past my bravado. He asked me: “Do you think you mean enough to people as [just] yourself? Did you ever affect a person because of what you are?” No, I hadn’t. What I had seen as a distinction was really an inability: my relations with people were shallow; I couldn’t truly affect and strengthen another person.

Then, Mr. Siegel discussed a recurrent dream in which an elderly man and I were in a house enveloped by snow. When I said I sometimes felt very old, Mr. Siegel asked me: “Do you like your attitude to education? Do you feel that your knowledge is the same as yourself personally or is apart from it?” And he explained: “One reason people could feel old is that they are good in education but all this knowledge has not yet become part of them.” 

And he continued: “Do you have a tendency to vanish?” “Yes,” I said. He asked: “When you vanish from the world, you vanish from yourself too?” I did. I learned that in lessening the world we lessen ourselves, and therefore will feel weak, like a shadow of a person; and that the more contempt we have, the more jaded and aged we feel. I love Mr. Siegel for understanding me, and for enabling me to change my mind about what real strength is!

2. True Strength in Early American History

I tell now about aspects of the life of William Bradford who led the Pilgrims to America, and later became governor of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. 

Mr. Siegel cared very much for Bradford. In his poem, “Americans Have Tried to See What They Felt, Some of Them,” he wrote these lines:

Take William Bradford who came on the Mayflower to somewhere in America, now New England, now Plymouth.

Certainly William Bradford did not see all he could feel.

He missed a few things that Voltaire didn’t miss, and a few things Titian didn’t miss.

But he felt he owed something to a large, causing force he didn’t know which he called God and which he read of in a book from the Hebrew.

The desire to be just to other men, men in Holland, men here in Massachusetts we call Indians, this was in William Bradford.

This feeling that he owed something, and his desire to be just is, I believe, what impelled Bradford’s writing of the Mayflower Compact, the basis of government for Plymouth Colony.  It states in part:

We do solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, and by virtue, hereof, do enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws for the general good of the colony.

These words, so radical for 1620, are some of the most important in history. At that time, the laws monarchs made were not just and equal, and certainly not for the purpose of strengthening people. Rather, they existed to exploit workers and to enrich the noble class. But Bradford saw that all people deserved justice and were capable of self-government. 

3. Strength in the Young William Bradford

In ”Poetry and Strength,” Mr. Siegel said: “The ability to endure, the ability to remain the same amid much vicissitude is a phase of strength.”

William Bradford was born to a wealthy farming family in Austerfield, England in 1590, about the time Shakespeare wrote his first plays. Before he was seven, the three persons closest to him—his mother, father, and grandfather—died. This must have made for great sadness in the young William but from what I have read, he didn’t use these deaths to be against everything. Instead, he made a choice that remained with him throughout his life—to be more interested in things, and what other people deserved. One sign of this is that at a time few people did, William learned how to read. 

In his book The Founders of New Plymouth, the Reverend Joseph Hunter writes that by the age of twelve, William had a “deeply contemplative and religious turn of mind.” It was at that age William read the Scriptures, and compared them to what he observed in the church he attended, the Church of England.  He objected to its elaborate ceremonies and rigid dogmas, feeling they were not in keeping with the true power and sincerity of the Bible. Despite the danger of being labeled a heretic that could have gotten him killed, he joined a radical separatist church that he felt honored God more truly. His relatives were outraged and threatened disinheritance but Bradford would not be dissuaded.  At the age of sixteen, he said:

To keep a good conscience and walk in such a way as God has proscribed in his Word is a thing I must prefer before you all, and above life itself.  Yea, I am not only willing to part with everything that is dear to me in this world for this cause, but I am also thankful that God has given me a heart to do so. 

Commented, Mr. Siegel: “Persistence is related to strength because the ability to do something with all sorts of opposition is a kind of strength.” Because Bradford had a beautiful persistence, he had an energy and an ability to meet some of the harshest things a man can endure.

4. Strength Across the Atlantic

In 1608, the Separatist churches in England came under severe attack, and Bradford’s congregation, with much difficulty, moved to Holland for greater religious freedom. In 1620, there was a large threat of Spain attacking Holland. For this reason, and because many Pilgrims had difficulty earning a living, Bradford urged his congregation to move to the new land of America which he wrote was “fruitful and fit for habitation.” 

Many church members were fearful and pointed to the disasters other New World settlers had met—casualties at sea, famine, and disease. Bradford replied, “All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties and must be both met and overcome with answerable courage.”

On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower with 102 passengers set sail from England. The conditions were horrible: no sanitation or privacy, much sickness, and a storm so severe that one of the ship’s main beams cracked. Instead of weakening, Bradford chose to learn about the workings of a ship, and encouraged his fellow passengers not to give up. The Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod on November 11.

In History of the Plymouth Plantation, one of the significant documents in American history, Bradford described the brutal conditions of the Pilgrims’ first winter which caused the deaths of half the colonists, among them Bradford’s young wife, Dorothy. Mr. Siegel said that in one passage the writing was so honest, it became poetic. He put it in line structure and gave it the title “It is So, New England, 1620”:

Which way so ever they turned their eyes

Save upward to the heavens

They could have little solace or content

In respect of any outward object.

For summer being done

All things stand upon them with a weather-beaten face

And the whole country full of woods and thickets

Represented a wide and savage hue.

If they looked behind them

There was the mighty ocean which they had passed

And was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them

From all civil parts of the world.

5. What is True Strength in Love?

While most men today don’t have to face what William Bradford did, a large question every man needs to ask is: How much do we want to be fair to, and affected by what is not ourselves? 

At a time turbulent time in my life, I felt weak because I could not sustain a deep care for a woman. Mr. Siegel spoke to me in a class in a way that centrally changed me. He asked: “What do you think constitutes courage as to a woman?” And he gave five crucial questions every man should ask, and which I will now say some of what I’ve seen about each:

1) Am I afraid to know women as they really are?  Most men are afraid as I was. I thought women were too complicated and puzzling, and if I got too involved in a woman’s depths, I’d be lost. How wrong I was! I’ve seen that the feminine mind is a beautiful, subtle thing, and one of the most masculine, macho things a man can do is to try to understand what a woman feels. 

2) Do I want women to have the effect on me that they can have, or do I want to limit it? Even as men have been much impelled towards women, there is that in us against this, that feels outraged that a woman can have such a big effect. This anger comes from the weakest thing in us: our desire to love only ourselves. And it is part of our true strength to be a critic of this in ourselves.    

3) Do I want to see where women and I have the same questions?  Men and women are not from different planets; in fact, Aesthetic Realism says, and I’ve seen this as true, that the sexes are more alike than different. Every man and woman is in a battle between respect and contempt, between feeling strength comes in two opposed ways: by caring for things, or by being coolly above the world and people.

4) Why in hell do I need a woman? Because she represents reality in a very dramatic, stirring way! And this is a need that should make a man proud because it comes from the strongest thing in us: to have large, true emotions.

5) Can a woman affect my mind well? The answer is YES. My mind has been strengthened, made keener, richer, and reality is seen with more wonder and subtlety by me because of what I’ve learned about the world and myself, including from such great writers as George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte; from Class Chairman Ellen Reiss who has spoken to me very deeply about many different aspects of my life; and from other women I’ve known.

It means a great deal to me that today I feel I can strengthen a woman, Frances Finch, and that I have a conviction that, as Eli Siegel stated in “Poetry and Strength”: “Real love does make one strong.” 

6. He Made Other People Stronger

I believe that what impelled William Bradford as governor of Plymouth colony is that he had a “desire to be just to other men.”  This is good will, which Aesthetic Realism describes as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”

Led by Bradford, laws were passed which insured greater respect and equality to all the citizens of Plymouth. For instance, men did not have to own property or belong to a church in order to vote, and were guaranteed trial by jury. And there were statutes that protected families who went bankrupt, and workers who were mistreated by their employers. 

With all his goodness, Bradford was in danger of being prejudiced against persons of other religions, including the Quakers. Nevertheless, to a large degree he tried to be fair, including in his relations with the Native Americans so unusual for that time. “In strength,” Mr. Siegel said, “We have to have permanence and flexibility.” In many ways, Bradford had both of these qualities.  While all other attempts to settle New England had failed, it was greatly due to him that Plymouth endured. He had a flexibility, a sweetness and good cheer as he tried to strengthen the colonists. They were deeply affected by this and showed it by reelecting him governor for over thirty years. 

Because of my study of Aesthetic Realism, my life gets stronger and happier with each year. Different from my cold, hard self of once, I now feel it is my strength to care passionately that other people get what they deserve. 

Aesthetic Realism can make true strength possible in every man’s life.