GEORGE SANTAYANA (Thinkers of Our Time Series)
By Noël O’Sullivan
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“Catholic freethinker” was the playful label Bertrand Russell affixed to George Santayana, and a back-handed tribute to the readiness of the Spanish-American to examine, respectfully, many other systems of thought – Eastern as well as Western – systems quite different from his own Catholic position. And an equal readiness to examine Catholic doctrine itself, its philosophy, its history and his own religious point of view.
Santayana was in fact a close friend of Russell’s older brother, J.F.S. Russell, the Second Earl, when at Cambridge. The two philosophers were worlds apart philosophically, temperamentally and in the ways the lived their lives.
Santayana, born in Spain in 1863, was taken to America when nine. He seems to have been largely reared by his father for the next six years, while his mother looked after the children of an earlier marriage, her first husband having died.
Santayana said that the unifying thread running through his life was solitude. Not loneliness, or alienation, he insisted, but “the sense of belonging elsewhere, or rather of not belonging where I lived”. His parents had lived in the same way, he said, so he did not find it anomalous.
He never lost his love for Spain, nor his nostalgia for his home town – Avila – a small and ancient place. He went on a pilgrimage to Spain every year until he was 70. This town “remained the centre of my deepest legal and affectionate ties … and gave me a most firm and distinctive station”. Life there was sad, but also more natural than in modern societies. People were simply resigned to the realities of Mother nature and human nature; and in its simplicity, their existence was deeply civilised “not by modern conveniences but moral traditions”.
Dying as he did in 1952, I think he might have been saddened by contemporary Spain. And he missed the exuberant joy of the Spanish carnival and its Catholicism – for the thing he found most difficult about America was the ubiquity of Calvinist moralism; and its religion of duty and material success.
Santayana did brilliantly at school and at Harvard, joined the Harvard Philosophy Department but, at the height of his powers and with a devoted following, he in 1912 gave up his Chair in Philosophy (he was 49), travelled and lived in Europe for years and then settled in Rome in 1924 where he remained.
In 1941, he took rooms in the convent of the Blue Nuns where he died a decade later.
For most of this time, Santayana was writing and a remarkable corpus he has left us. I can only point out some peaks in the noble landscape.
Santayana thought that the basic crisis in civilisation – and he saw it as one that had been steadily mounting for a long time, was not due to the rise of capitalism, the decline of Christianity or the worship of science, but rather “that the modern world has turned its back on even the attempt or even the desire to live reasonably”.
And not from caprice, but from folly. The folly of modernity – a dream whereby the growth of science and extensive social and political reform can make all mankind rich, free and happy. “A delusion because rational beings must have a clear, sanctioned, ultimate aim.” Modern man has none, so there can only be the “cry for vacant freedom and indeterminant progress”. This leads to a bottomless pit.
Rather than modern man widening, ever-widening his experience – as the modern story is supposed to go – he is dogged by three deeply established sources of closure of experience. Each helps to alienate man from himself and his world. These are called realism, moralism and rationalism by Santayana.
1. Realism holds that all true knowledge involves the description of an external reality. All great intellectual systems up to date, he says, have been dominated by this principle.
2. Moralism equates the real with the good – occurring when the moral perspective is raised to an absolute. He calls it the “great vice” of both Classical and Christian traditions – emerging at first systematically with Plato and Aristotle. Whereas realism implies a certain contempt for imagination and emotion, moralism pushes things back too far the other way.
3. Rationalism, according to our philosopher, is characteristic of the West, because reason seems supremely important to man: therefore, it must be supposed to rule everything in the universe. At least ideally. As Santayana says, “the greatest illusion of the human mind is the illusion of its own importance” and elsewhere he observed the equation of reason with power. As my father used to say, knowledge is power.
This gross overestimate of the power of the human intellect leads, for example, to the belief that we can grasp the causes of historical change, thereby being ably to bring history under the control of the will.
All this is the veriest shorthand of what Santayana had to say and O’Sullivan makes it more explicit. But Santayana’s critique of liberalism cannot go unmentioned. To use O’Sullivan’s taxonomy, there are five illusions of liberalism, each attacked by Santayana:
1. That true freedom is “vacant liberty”. That is, man is radically indeterminate, hence to be credited with limitless possibilities.
2. The individual is the ultimate social reality. This is to ignore the material roots of man’s life as an animal or an embodied being.
3. The belief in the power of the directive imagination. So … the world is seen as a “sphere in which little except designs and desires occupy the stage”. A sphere in which ideas, principles, isms, disembodied values contend, rather than do flesh-and-blood creatures who are radically constrained by the world in which they actually live.
4. Self-government automatically means good government.
5. The fifth illusion of liberalism: the belief that liberal-democratic progress consists in the creation of a society in which power has been eliminated in favour of rule by reason.
This again is shorthand for some very fundamental critiques of modern Western belief with its roots stretching back to the ancients, but now having produced an enormous, intolerable gap between what we various said we were seeing, and what we really were seeing. This belated realisation is greatly disturbing to Modern Man.
Santayana can only suggest a philosophy of humility, of acceptance and … a comic view of the universe.
This is a remarkable, idiosyncratic man, to whom O’Sullivan does far more justice in 112 pages than I can do here.
George Santayana writes beautifully, so much so that you find yourself accepting, almost too easily, his paradoxical accounts and exposés. But it is a journey well worth taking.