A few years ago, I had occasion to supply an essay for Yale’s new edition of Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States and “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy.” Looking at the display of petulance that is our political life today, I thought it might be worth posting an edited (though still longish) version of that essay, and accordingly, do so herewith.
I called the piece “Mental Hygiene and Good Manners,” implying that we could do with a bit more of both. Santayana, by and large, is a good source for those virtues, and our public life, as well as our private satisfaction, can benefit from a little more Santayana and a little less CNN, MSNBC, etc., not to mention the hysterics of such unedifying spectacles as that provided by the January 6 Committee.
George Santayana was one of the most urbane philosophers ever to put pen to paper. He was also one of the sanest practitioners of the philosopher’s craft and (as it often is) sullen art.
Admittedly, that may not be saying a great deal. You do not have to read far in the corpus of philosophical speculation to appreciate that neither urbanity nor sanity—especially not sanity—has generally been much prized by homo philosophicus. There are exceptions, of course. Plato and Descartes were nothing if not urbane; Hume was commendably sane. But as a rule philosophers have demonstrated by their practice—if not always by their prescriptions—that they adulate other mental and moral qualities: profundity, for example, or at least the appearance thereof, as well as a certain ferocious verbal dexterity and obtuse cleverness in the juggling of concepts. (“Anyway, I’d rather be right than clever,” said a brittle English clubman. “I’d rather be both than neither,” came the withering rejoinder.)
Whether all this speaks well of philosophy is a question that we can (as the phenomenologists say) bracket. My point is only that Santayana—the Spanish-born, Boston-bred, Harvard educated cosmopolite—stands out as an unusual specimen in the philosophical fraternity. He wrote beautifully, for one thing, commanding a supple yet robust prose that was elegant but rarely precious or self-infatuated.
There was a time when Santayana’s work was part of the normal furniture of educated discourse. His poetry, essays, and wide-ranging philosophical writings were eagerly read and digested, flowering in turn in the sentiments and opinions of several generations of readers. At Harvard, where he taught from 1889 until 1912, Santayana’s official and unofficial students included Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Witter Bynner, Walter Lippmann, Wallace Stevens, Scofield Thayer, Max Eastman, Van Wyck Brooks, Felix Frankfurter, and James B. Conant, many of whom (conspicuously excepting Eliot) registered their profound debt to his teaching. Until yesterday, it seems, Santayana’s influence was woven into the living tapestry of intellectual life.
In our amnesiac day, his influence seems to have been reduced to the literary equivalent of a geometric point: a single epigram, to wit, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Not a great deal else survives from Santayana in the chapbook of public memory. More’s the pity, for he is deliciously quotable, nowhere more piquantly than in Character and Opinion in The United States:
The milk of human kindness is less apt to turn sour if the vessel that holds it stands steady, cool, and separate, and is not too often uncorked.
Free government works well in proportion as government is superfluous.
The romanticist thinks he has life by virtue of his confusion and torment, whereas in truth that torment and confusion are his incipient death, and it is only the modicum of harmony he has achieved in his separate faculties that keeps him alive at all.
Santayana was often at his most memorable not in his “official” philosophical works—the five-volume Life of Reason, for example, or Scepticism and Animal Faith—but in more avocational endeavors: the poignant Soliloquies in England, say, or The Last Puritan, his “memoir in the form of a novel.” Santayana’s letters—he was a tireless and engaging correspondent—also sparkle with that dry but tonic light. Character and Opinion and “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” belong to this exalted company. If they lack the sweep and political urgency of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, they make up for it in charm and mental buoyancy. Together, they stand as one of our most penetrating reflections on what is American about the American spirit.
As far as I have been able to determine, Santayana never met the English aesthete Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947). But he would have delighted in Madan’s observation that “Americans go deeply into the surface of things.” But where Madan would have meant it to sting, Santayana would have extracted an element of compensating commendation. Only a very shallow person, Oscar Wilde once observed, doesn’t judge things by appearances. A typical Wildean quip, true, but how loaded with wisdom!
Hegel said that Minerva’s owl flew only with the coming of the dusk. But Santayana’s America—he lived here from 1872, when he was nine, until 1912—was (is it still?) a country of the morning. Morning may be a time for thoughts, but few second-thoughts, which is where Minerva comes in. “Until yesterday,” Santayana wrote in Character and Opinion, America “believed itself immune from the hereditary plagues of mankind.” Tocqueville had long before noted that Americans paid less attention to philosophy than any civilized country in the world. Yet nowhere, he said, were the precepts of Descartes more widely applied.
What Tocqueville had in mind was less the speculative than the practical side of Descartes. Not “cogito ergo sum” but that simple yet powerful method that would render man “the master and possessor of nature.” How much thought, and how much deliberate thoughtlessness, must be taken on board to prosecute such a plan? In America, Santayana wrote, “Every system was met with a frank gaze. ‘Come on,’ people seemed to say to it, ‘show us what you are good for. We accept no claims; we ask for no credentials; we just give you a chance. Plato, the Pope, and Mrs. Eddy shall have one vote each.’”
Do we still live in the America Sanatayana described? An American’s instinct, Santayana said, “is to think well of everybody, and to wish everybody well, but in a spirit of rough comradeship, expecting every man to stand on his own legs and to be helpful in his turn. When he has given his neighbour a chance he thinks he has done enough for him; but he feels it is an absolute duty to do that. It will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America.” Tocqueville, in his famous paragraphs on Democratic Despotism, showed how the hammering would proceed. It was left to the later 20th century to forge the instruments and the policies that prescribed their use.
But already in the early part of the last century Santayana discerned other, contrasting currents in American culture. Mornings come in Autumn as well as Spring. At the beginning of “The Moral Background,” the opening chapter of Character and Opinion, he evokes the fragile, evanescent, and barren beauty of an Indian summer. In the middle of the 19th century, he writes,
New England had an Indian summer of the mind; and an agreeable reflective literature showed how brilliant that russet and yellow season could be. There were poets, historians, orators, preachers, most of whom had studied foreign literatures and had travelled; they demurely kept up with the times; they were universal humanists. But it was all a harvest of leaves; these worthies had an expurgated and barren conception of life; theirs was the purity of sweet old age.
What follows is a quiet tour de force of intellectual portraiture, wry and dispassionately affectionate.
Well, partly affectionate. It is also partly admonitory. Santayana wrote Character and Opinion in England in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, not exactly an allegro moment. Casting his glance not only at America but also at the civilization of which it was the latest outcrop and heir, Santayana speculated that “Civilisation is perhaps approaching one of those long winters that overtake it from time to time. A flood of barbarism from below may soon level all the fair works of our Christian ancestors, as another flood two thousand years ago levelled those of the ancients. Romantic Christendom—picturesque, passionate, unhappy episode—may be coming to an end.”
The jury is still out on that prognostication, but it is worth noting that Santayana’s assessment of the American temper did not require the displacement of war to wax somber. Something of the sere and russet quality he diagnosed in 1918 was already part of what he called, in 1911, “the genteel tradition,” one of the most mellifluous phrases ever to have been enlisted in the armory of rhetorical diminishment. That enlistment, it is worth noting, represents a curious semantic shift. To judge from the dictionary, “genteel” is largely a flattering adjective. “Refined in manner, polite”: nothing wrong with that. “Free from vulgarity or rudeness”: OK there, too. “Elegantly fashionable or stylish in manner or appearance”: who could object? Only the last definition in my dictionary—“Marked by affected and somewhat prudish refinement”—would give most of us pause.
And yet “the genteel tradition,” a lecture title that matured into an all-purpose intellectual indictment (and wore itself out in the process), is no commendation. We have Santayana to thank for that: or maybe we should thank the many who came after him and gleefully seized upon the phrase to decry whatever they thought vulgar, stuffy, philistine, or behind-the-times. But it is worth noting that, although Santayana speaks of “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” the tradition he invokes is neither peculiarly philosophical nor distinctively American.
The “genteel tradition” is the dominant tradition of establishment opinion, whatever it may happen to be at a given time. Thus Santayana speaks of the genteel tradition in Europe that was “handed down since Socrates.” Surely that yawning historical vista puts a crimp in the criticism the phrase is meant to imply. In his famous essay—and, 20 years later in “The Genteel Tradition at Bay”—Santayana provides an anatomy of received opinion as it then operated in American culture. It is part of what he meant when he said (and said more than once) that “America is a young country with an old mentality.” Commercially, in practical matters, America was vibrant, adventurous, “masculine.” In matters of culture she was cautious, “feminine,” “not high-and-dry, but slightly becalmed.”
But the irony is that the genteel tradition need not be genteel, i.e. polite, refined, circumspect. Today, for example, the genteel tradition in American academic and cultural life thrives by repudiating those very virtues. It is an irony that Santayana would have savored even as he would have disapprobated the behavior and attitudes that made the irony so pointed.
As the historian Robert Dawidoff noted in a perceptive essay on “The Genteel Tradition,” Santayana “would have been amused but unsurprised that . . . the genteel ended up endorsing free-speech relativism, obscenity, and anti-social behavior (and many other things) in its helpless pursuit of cultural control through misapplied moralizing.”
The indispensable thing about the genteel tradition turns out to be the moralizing pressure toward conformity, not the substance of the governing strictures.
Although Santayana thrived on such vertiginous reversals, he did so quietly, with the utmost discretion. Santayana never hectored. Indeed, he rarely even bothered to argue. Instead, he observed; he described; he slyly took readers into his confidence. This is not to say that there isn’t a didactic side to Santayana’s philosophy. There is. It is just that, like all the best teachers, Santayana understood that arguments are a less effective catechism than a vision of the world. (“Men,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “are guided by type, not by argument.”) Most modern philosophy puts a premium on argument and analysis. But the Australian philosopher David Stove was right when he noted that “Some of the best philosophers never argue, or even pretend to. Santayana, for example. He simply tells you how he thinks the world is, and delicately makes fun of some other philosophers, almost always unnamed, who think there is more to the world, or less, than he does.”
Santayana was a curiously amphibious creature. He tarried more as a guest than a citizen in institutions, in countries, even in the world at large. He titled the last section of Persons and Places, his posthumously published memoir, “My Host, the World.” What does that tell us? In the Fall of 1911, Santayana traveled to California to gaze upon the Pacific and deliver his famous lecture on the genteel tradition at Berkeley. The following year, he left for Europe and never set foot in the United States again. Santayana was not without affection for America—he endeavored, he said, to understand it “as a family friend . . . who has a different temperament”—but he liked to say that his love for it, like his love for Spain, was “manifested . . . by living there as little as possible.”
Santayana enjoyed aspects of college life. He liked the semi-cloistered existence, the intellectual intimacy with burgeoning young minds, the easy proximity to handsome young faces. But he always loathed the academic industry. Indeed, no sooner had he started teaching than he began plotting his escape. Being a teacher, he remarked in Persons and Places, was forced upon him by the necessity of earning a living, “but being a student was my vocation.” He lived frugally, saved diligently, and was finally able to announce his departure in 1912, just shy of 50, when his mother died leaving him a legacy of $10,000 (more than $200,000 today). At Harvard, too, he was always more a tourist than a citizen. The university, Santayana thought, had been ruined by people like Charles Eliot, the ambitious president from 1869-1909, who strove to transform Harvard College into a great modern—which meant Germanic—university. Eliot and Santayana were like oil and water. Early in his teaching career, Santayana chanced to encounter the president; asked about the progress of his classes, Santayana explained that he had finished with Plato and was moving on to Aristotle. “No, no, Santayana,” Eliot said, “what I mean by my enquiry is, how many students have enrolled for your lectures?”
It wasn’t just a matter of administrative expansionism that bothered Santayana, though. The very discipline of academic philosophy rubbed him the wrong way. “That philosophers should be professors is an accident,” he wrote, “and almost an anomaly. Free reflection about everything is a habit to be imitated, but not a subject to expound; and an original system, if the philosopher has one, is something dark, perilous, untested, and not ripe to be taught, nor is there much danger anyone will learn it.”
Looking back on his Harvard days in Character and Opinion , he spoke of the new breed of philosophy professor who was “very professional in tone and conscious of his Fach,” “open-minded, whole-hearted, appreciative,” but also—scarifying phrase—“toasted only on one side.” It is a devastating portrait:
His education has been more pretentious than thorough; his style is deplorable; social pressure and his own great eagerness have condemned him to overwork, committee meetings, early marriage, premature authorship, and lecturing two or three times a day under forced draught. He has no peace in himself, no window open to a calm horizon, and in his heart perhaps little taste for mere scholarship or pure speculation. Yet, like the plain soldier staggering under his clumsy equipment, he is cheerful; he keeps his faith in himself and in his allotted work, puts up with being toasted only on one side, remains open-minded, whole-hearted, appreciative, helpful, confident of the future of goodness and of science. In a word, he is a cell in that teeming democratic body; he draws from its warm, contagious activities the sanctions of his own life and, less consciously, the spirit of his philosophy.
It is sometimes suggested that William James, Santayana’s teacher and then colleague at Harvard, had been instrumental in poisoning the academic atmosphere for Santayana. This is emphatically not the case. Everyone quotes James’ description of Santayana’s early work as exhibiting a “perfection of rottenness” and “moribund Latinity.” Few supply the context: “The great event in my life recently,” James wrote to a colleague in 1900,
has been the reading of Santayana’s book [Interpretations of Poetry and Religion]. Although I absolutely reject the platonism of it, I have literally squealed with delight at the imperturbable perfection with which the position is laid down. . . . I now understand Santayana, the man. I never understood him before. But what a perfection of rottenness in a philosophy! I don’t think I ever knew the anti-realistic view to be propounded with so impudently superior an air. It is refreshing to see a representative of moribund Latinity rise up and administer such reproof to us barbarians in the hour of our triumph.
James ends by asking that his letter be passed along to Santayana, adding: “He is certainly an extraordinarily distingué writer. Thank him for existing!”
Temperamentally, the two men were complete opposites—James bluff, hearty, the thorough New England pragmatist in manner as well as philosophical outlook: Santayana the super-refined, sonnet-writing, exquisitely disillusioned Catholic Spaniard. In many ways, Santayana was closer in spirit to William’s brother Henry. They met only once, in England, toward the end of Henry’s life. “In that one interview,” Santayana recalled—sadly, I think—he “made me feel more at home and better understood than his brother William ever had done in the long years of our acquaintance. Henry was calm, he liked to see things as they are, and be free afterwards to imagine how they might have been.” High praise from that apostle of clarity animated by subjunctive dispensation.
Despite their differences, however, there was no contemporary to whom Santayana owed more, intellectually, than William James, whose “sense for the immediate,” “for the unadulterated, unexplained, instant fact of experience” Santayana celebrated. The problem with Harvard was not William James but the increasing professional drift of the institution.
Santayana regularly allowed his gaze to wander toward the empyrean. But his feet, and his allegiance, he kept anchored firmly on the ground. In one sense, he was the most worldly of philosophers—worldliness, in fact, was one part of his urbanity. By the same token, “superstition” was one of his favorite deflationary epithets. But his worldliness was highly, exquisitely cultivated. There was nothing gross, reductive, or triumphalist about it. He was vigorously, even brutally, disillusioned, yet with an irony so scrupulous that his chilliness seems Olympian, not cruel or self-serving. As Robert Dawidoff noted, he was “as detached from what he cherished as from what he criticized.”
Many people who know Santayana only from anthologies are surprised to discover how thoroughly naturalistic a thinker he was. Santayana’s naturalism—what he describes in one essay as “the open-air materialistic setting” of his philosophy—was the well-spring of the great attribute that complemented his urbanity: his unshakeable sanity. It somehow seems strange for a poet of his sometimes trembling fervency. But right from the start Santayana’s primary philosophical inspirations were radical materialists like Lucretius and Spinoza (Spinoza, he said, “in several respects laid the foundation of my philosophy”).
Santayana’s naturalism assured his implacable hostility to supernaturalism: the patent variety—his native Roman Catholicism, for example—as well as the covert versions populating many schools of philosophy—German idealism, say, in both its original and transplanted-to-England-and-America forms.
In 1890, when he was in his late 20s, Santayana wrote to William James that “I doubt whether the earth supports a more genuine enemy of all that the Catholic Church inwardly stands for than I do,” and he later noted that he had “never been what is called a practising Catholic.” It was a position from which he never wavered. It is worth stressing this. Santayana spent the last 12 years of his life at the Blue Sisters’ clinic in Rome. This has tempted some commentators to suggest that his atheism softened or even evaporated with age. But this was not the case. During his last illness, Santayana took pains to advise his friend Daniel Cory that if he were unconscious and the sacrament of Extreme Unction were administered, no one should interpret that as a deathbed conversion.
Santayana’s philosophical sanity, delicately on view throughout Character and Opinion, is somewhat more bluntly stated in Egotism in German Philosophy, first published in 1916. In one central passage, writing about thinkers like Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Santayana notes that “the more profound they are the more content and even delighted they are to consider nothing but their own creations. Their theory of knowledge proclaims that knowledge is impossible. You know only your so-called knowledge, which itself knows nothing; and you are limited to the autobiography of your illusions.” Santayana’s description of Hegel’s dialectic as a futile attempt to make “things conform to words, not words to things” says everything one needs to know about that intellectual monstrosity.
In Character and Opinion, Santayana extends that criticism to Transcendentalism—that odd confect of displaced religious yearning and psychological boisterousness—as well as the two great streams of 19th-century American philosophy: empiricism and idealism. It was Santayana’s singular achievement to perceive the manifold ways in which these schools, so different in tone and the “face” they presented to the world, were in fact children of the same parent. “Even the most emancipated and positivistic of the latest thinkers—pragmatists, new realists, pure empiricists—have been bred in the atmosphere of German idealism; and this fact should not be forgotten in approaching their views.” This paternity is obvious in a self-declared idealist like Emerson or Santayana’s Harvard colleague Josiah Royce, whose maddening prolixity was a matter of substance as well as style: “in spite of his comprehensiveness, he seemed to view everything in relation to something else that remained untold.” The afterlife of idealism was less obvious in James, whose studied posture of hard-headedness concealed the many filiations that his brand of “radical empiricism” maintained with idealism.
The key, Santayana saw, was James’ understanding of experience, which had the effect of “turning psychology into metaphysics.” “Experience,” Santayana wrote, “seems to most of us to lead to conclusions, but empiricism has sworn never to draw them.” If, as James argued, “experience is taken to be in itself the only real existence” then we come to the “the remarkable conclusion that the human spirit was not so much the purpose of the universe as its seat, and the only universe there was”—a conclusion, Santayana observes, that “sums up idealism.”
Given his patent aversion to idealism and all its works, it is curious that, in “The Genteel Tradition,” Santayana should pause to caution readers that he regarded transcendentalism (a.k.a. “systematic subjectivism,” a.k.a. idealism) not only as something “unforgettable,” “the chief contribution made in modern times to speculation,” but also, considered “as a method,” “correct.” Perhaps he meant nothing more than the tautology that our experience of the world is, after all, our experience of the world. But if transcendentalism “as a method” is somehow “correct,” as a matter of substance it is something perilous indeed, for it inculcates the “the conceited notion that man, or human reason, or the human distinction between good and evil, is the center and pivot of the universe.” (It is also worth pausing over his observation that “Incapacity for education, when united with great inner vitality, is one root of idealism.”)
Santayana provides a bracing hygienic antidote to the intellectual virus of idealism. His inestimable contribution is to remind us, pace idealists of whatever stripe, that when we speak of trees, it is trees of which we speak: not “trees in the mind,” consciousness or experience of trees. In the end, his interest in philosophy was for the reality it revealed—and for the relief that it promised. In an important reply to his critics from 1940, Santayana summed up the nature of his interest in philosophy:
I have never been curious to make more accurate the rough views that common information gives us of the physical world and of human history. Increase in such world knowledge may enlarge and strengthen the mind, or may distract and confuse it. The use of philosophy . . . is to distill the wine out of those trodden grapes, in order that in whatever kind of world we may be living, we may live freely in the spirit. The relief that I find . . . does not come, as in religious faith, through trust in any higher facts. It comes through liberation from anxiety, from the need of faith, and from the very problem of knowledge. I then espouse precisely the transcendental logic that [one of Santayana’s interpreters, Antonio] Banfi recommends; only it never crosses my mind to mistake this play of ideas for knowledge, or to suppose that it miraculously reveals to me the logic of history or the necessary problems of all thought.
Santayana was a generous purveyor of that most uncommon benefice, common sense. But if in his metaphysics he was a thoroughly naturalistic thinker, he came armed with a remarkable aesthetic sensibility and native appreciation of the imaginative resources that religion offered. Religions, he insisted, “are the great fairy-tales of the conscience.” Nevertheless he also believed that religions are indispensable, not least because they nurture the emotion of piety, “Man’s reverent attachment to the sources of his being and the steadying of his life by that attachment.” Santayana was the enemy of religion considered as dogma, as a repository of moral commandments or “literal” truth. (Santayana had little time, probably too little time, for what he dismissed as “literal truth.” “My matured conclusion,” he wrote, “is that no system is to be trusted, not even science in any literal or pictorial sense.”)
But he also saw in religion an irreplaceable friend of human yearning. Its disappearance, hailed as an emancipation, actually brought forth new forms of bondage. “The absence of a positive religion,” he wrote in “A General Confession,” a late summary of his philosophy, “was very far from liberating the spirit for higher flights: on the contrary, it opened the door to the pervasive tyranny of the world over the soul.” When he looked around at the increasing secularization of the modern world, Santayana saw that the degradation of religion went hand-in-hand with the diminishment of culture. In “The Intellectual Temper of the Age,” Santayana forlornly describes the dissolution of Christianity and the rise of “an emancipated, atheistic, international democracy.”
In vain do we deprecate it; it has possession of us already through our propensities, fashions, and language. Our very plutocrats and monarchs are at ease only when they are vulgar. Even prelates and missionaries are hardly sincere or conscious of an honest function, save as they devote themselves to social work.
It goes without saying that he did not regard this development as a sign of spiritual health.
Santayana seems to have had an ingrained suspicion of almost everything beginning with “pro”: “professors,” as we’ve seen, but also “Protestantism,” “protégés,” “prophets,” and, above all, perhaps, “progress.” “Those who speak most of progress,” he wrote, “measure it by quantity and not by quality; how many people read and write, or how many people there are, or what is the annual value of their trade; whereas true progress would rather lie in reading or writing fewer and better things, and being fewer and better men, and enjoying life more.” At a time when nearly everyone—conservative as well as liberal—has difficulty dissociating the ideas of “more” and “better,” Santayana’s unorthodox remarks are worth pondering.
The philosopher Frederick Olafson noted that there exists in Santayana’s thinking “a pervasive animus against democracy and liberalism.” This is true. And it must be said that about some political matters, Santayana was naïve if not obtuse. In a letter of 1920, for example, he wrote to a former Harvard colleague that “I think to be born under Bolshevism would not be worse than to be born in Boston.” (Moscow, where Stalins speak only to Lenins, and the Lenins speak only to Marx?) But in other respects, Santayana’s traditionalist temperament and passion for individual liberty made him an astute social critic. He was especially penetrating about the contradictions of liberalism. In “The Intellectual Temper of the Age,” he noted that
Liberalism had been supposed to advocate liberty; but what the advanced parties that still call themselves liberal now advocate is control, control over property, trade, wages, hours of work, meat and drink, amusements, and in a truly advanced country like France control over education and religion; and it is only on the subject of marriage . . . that liberalism is growing more and more liberal.
In an important essay called “The Irony of Liberalism,” Santayana dilates on the element of social presumption that stands behind the liberal’s habit of coercion:
No man . . . can really or ultimately desire anything but what the best people desire. This is the principle of the higher snobbery; and in fact, all earnest liberals are higher snobs. If you refuse to move in the prescribed direction, you are not simply different, you are arrested and perverse. The savage must not remain a savage, nor the nun a nun, and China must not keep its wall. If the animals remain animals it is somehow through a failure of the will in them, and very sad. Classic liberty, though only a name for stubborn independence, and obedience to one’s own nature, was too free, in one way, for the modern liberal.
Liberalism in the modern sense (and this brings us back to the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, with which I began) is deeply hostile not only to tradition—tradition is by definition an impediment to “progress”—but also to “the wilder instincts of man”: “the love of foraging, of hunting, of fighting, of plotting, of carousing, or of doing penance.” (The inclusion of penance is a characteristic Santayana touch.) The perfect liberal society is one that excludes initiative.
The homogenizing imperative of liberalism has a psychological correlative in abstract moralism. Santayana memorably captures this in a vignette in Persons and Places. Under the rubric “A lesson in morals,” he recalls an episode after lunch one day when he was a young boy. A single piece of cake remained on a plate. He asked his mother whether he might have it. “No,” she said. “It is for the little birds.”
Though it was by no means a fixed habit of hers, she opened the window and spread the crumbs out for the sparrows. She did not care for sparrows, she never watched them or tried to tame them; and that day, having performed her act of zoological benevolence, she closed the window at once, and went upstairs to sit as usual in her own room. . . . I am sure that in her silence she felt that she had given me a lesson in justice and in universal love. She had kept the cake from her son and given it to the sparrows. She was a liberal in politics.
One is tempted to add, after the fashion of his beloved Spinoza, Q.E.D.
Another side of Santayana’s criticism of “egotism”—and another example of his commendable sanity—shows itself in his discussion in the last chapter of Character and Opinion of “English Liberty in America.” Just as idealism makes extravagant but unfulfillable claims about metaphysics, so in its understanding of freedom it ups the ante but lacks currency when the bet is called. What Santayana calls “English liberty” is “vague,” “reticent,” and involves “perpetual compromise.” It recognizes that “In the end adaptation to the world at large, where so much is hidden and unintelligible, is only possible piecemeal, by groping with a genuine indetermination in one’s aims.” “Absolute liberty,” by contrast—“a foolish challenge thrown by a new-born insect buzzing against the universe”—is reckless, unwavering, and dangerously impatient. The partisans of absolute liberty, Santayana writes, “summoned every man to become free in exactly their own fashion, or have his head cut off.”
As a quick summary of revolutionary ambition, that would be hard to improve upon. What Santayana saw with unusual clarity was that the actual practice of “English liberty” required a widely recognized commonality of interest. “In a hearty and sound democracy,” he notes, “all questions at issue must be minor matters; fundamentals must have been silently agreed upon and taken for granted when the democracy arose.” This is, Santayana saw, an unheroic view of freedom.
But it was a stock that had the advantage of offering real dividends as distinct from speculative capital appreciation. English liberty “makes impossible the sort of liberty for which the Spartans died at Thermopylae, or the Christian martyrs in the arena, or the Protestant reformers at the stake.” But then, Santayana drily notes, while martyrs may be heroic, “unless they have the nature of things on their side and their cause can be victorious, their heroism is like that of criminals and madmen, interesting dramatically but morally detestable.”
And what of Santayana’s own view of freedom and the meaning of life? Santayana was a curious hybrid. In one way, he was every bit as radical a thinker as Schopenhauer (whom he greatly admired) or Nietzsche (whom he did not). Ultimately, though, he was the cheerful, affirmative figure that Nietzsche pretended to be but wasn’t. (No one, I think, ever accused Schopenhauer of being cheerful.) What Santayana described as his “scepticism” ran very deep indeed. “The truth is a terrible thing,” he has the vicar of Iffley say in The Last Puritan. “It is much darker, much sadder, much more ignoble, much more inhuman and ironical than most of us are willing to admit, or even able to suspect.”
That is just the sort of thing one might expect to find in Nietzsche (“Truth is ugly,” he declared in The Will to Power). But where Nietzsche engaged in unending histrionics (“God is dead,” Zarathustra, the übermensch), Santayana behaved like a gentleman. Nietzsche described himself as “the Antichrist,” said he was “dynamite,” and presumed to instruct us about “how to philosophize with a hammer.”
Santayana was much calmer. He sought no detonations. He wished to smash no idols. He came much closer, in fact, to being the disabused spiritual aristocrat that Nietzsche admired but sweated too much to resemble. “Criticism,” Santayana said, “must first be invited to do its worst.” But only for the indelicate, he thought, did thoroughgoing criticism lead to nihilism or madness. Out of scepticism came faith, but it was an animal faith, modest, grateful, thoroughly materialistic: disillusioned but also at peace.
There were two interrelated sources of Santayana’s calm. One was his aestheticism. Santayana strove to regard the entire world as a thing of beauty, which is to say a source of pleasure. (In his early book The Sense of Beauty he defined beauty as “pleasure objectified”: inadequate as a definition, no doubt, but useful as a barometer of temperament.) “I can draw no distinction,” he wrote in a mature summing-up, “—save for academic programmes—between moral and aesthetic values: beauty being a good, is a moral good; and the practice and enjoyment of art, like all practice and all enjoyment, fall within the sphere of morals—at least if by morals we understand moral economy and not moral superstition.”
Santayana attempted to provide a philosophical justification for this thoroughgoing aestheticism with what he called his doctrine of “essences.” How do we know that what we believe is true is true? What we find beautiful is in fact beautiful? Are we not everywhere besieged by error and illusion? Yes, but Santayana proposes
to entertain the illusion without succumbing to it, accepting it openly as an illusion, and forbidding it to claim any sort of being but that which it obviously has; and then . . . it will not deceive me. What will remain of this non-deceptive illusion will then be a truth, and a truth the being of which requires no explanation, since it is utterly impossible that it should be otherwise.
How convincing is this? Not very. The fact that we embrace an illusion as an illusion does not automatically grant it the patent of truth. But it is worth noting that Santayana’s criterion of trustworthiness is a quality often accorded to aesthetic and religious experience, namely the conviction that contingency, if but momentarily, had been defeated. It is also worth noting that it is not an attitude peculiar to Santayana. His old student, Wallace Stevens, for example, advocated something similar when he wrote that “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and you believe in it willingly.”
There are many problems with Santayana’s (and Stevens’) aestheticism. The chief problem is its subjectivity. By locating the criterion of morality and truth in a species of pleasurable sensation, Santayana in effect denies them any public measure. This means that—I won’t call it the validity, but the attractiveness of Santayana’s ideal depends largely on the quality of the individual espousing it. In the delicate hands of a Santayana this doctrine might provide a workable philosophy of life. Not everyone has the sensibility, the discipline, the restraint to make “all practice and all enjoyment fall within the sphere of morals.”
The relation between enjoyment and restraint brings us to the other source of Santayana’s calm, his Epicureanism. Colloquially, “epicurean” is often used to mean “devoted to sensuous pleasure.” In fact, though, Epicureanism is a deeply ascetic philosophy. It is devoted to pleasure, but pleasure understood as the absence of pain. The goal is ataraxia: privative tranquility: at peace because not disturbed by emotional tumult. Not so much happiness as invulnerability. “I have the Epicurean contentment,” Santayana wrote to one of his correspondents in 1936, “which is not far removed from asceticism.”
Santayana early on learned to regard the world as a threat that could be best countered by holding it at bay. The phrase “a detached observer” recurs frequently in his writings. It names not simply an intellectual ideal but an emotional imperative. “The moral pageantry of this world,” Santayana wrote, “is calculated wonderfully to strengthen and refine the philosophy of abstention suggested to Epicurus by the flux of material things and by the illusions of vulgar passions.”
Which passions were not vulgar? Those that did not collude to involve us emotionally—the dispassionate passions of observation, retrospection, and amused noninvolvement. In the 1890s, one of Santayana’s colleagues at Harvard noted that “Santayana impressed us as an onlooker in the world more than a sharer in its struggle.”
It was an impression that Santayana was careful to cultivate, and it nurtured the reputation he had (despite his conspicuous financial generosity) for emotional chilliness. Daniel Cory reports that in 1931 when he told Santayana about the death of his old friend Frank Russell, the philosopher “reacted not at all.” Taken aback, Cory asked: “Mr. Santayana, if I dropped dead in front of you at this moment, would you be emotionally moved at all?” To which Santayana replied: “You should not ask me personal questions.” Santayana later added that he had known Russell “long ago,” etc., but the impression of glacial noli me tangere persisted.
Santayana’s distance from involvement was a leitmotif of his character. By disposition, he was homosexual, though it is not clear that he was ever sexually involved with anyone. Reflecting on a meeting he had with A. E. Housman, Santayana mused to Cory that “I think I must have been that way in my Harvard days—although I was unconscious of it at the time.”
Santayana’s biographer, John McCormick, regarded that as deliberately coy, but supplied no evidence to gainsay it. Santayana regarded sex the way he regarded emotional entanglements generally, as temptations to be avoided. “Carnal pleasures,” he wrote, “are but welcome pains, [they] draw the spirit inwards into primal darkness and indistinction.” Perhaps it was fortunate that Santayana was, or made himself, unsusceptible to such pleasures. “Love has never made me long unhappy, nor sexual impulse uncomfortable,” he wrote in a letter of 1924. Burdens, responsibilities, emotional ties: these sutures of ordinary life are among the chief evils in the Epicurean’s lexicon. Disturbing tranquility, they remind us of our essential poverty, our lack of self-sufficiency. But of course such entanglements are also our most reliable sources of joy. I suspect that this is something that Santayana understood, even if he refrained from indulging it. “It takes patience to appreciate domestic bliss,” he wrote in The Life of Reason; “volatile spirits prefer unhappiness.”
Santayana did not at all prefer unhappiness. But he was reluctant to wager on a bliss burdened with the imperfections of the domestic. In a letter of 1924, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., put his finger on something essential about Santayana. “In a general way,” Holmes wrote, “his thinking more than that of other philosophers coincides with mine. But he has a patronizing tone—as of one who saw through himself but didn’t expect others to.”