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Alive in the Mind

Santayana's world is a reasonable place.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By JAMES SEATON
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The Letters of George Santayana

Volume V, Books 1-8

edited by
William G. Holzberger, et al.

MIT Press

George Santayana (1863-1952) was not only one of the great American philosophers, he was also an important presence in American intellectual life throughout the first half of the 20th century. Today those who know more about Santayana than one or two quotations usually associate him with The Life of Reason (1905-6), a five-volume exposition of human culture in the light of a conception of reason not as natural law but as "interest in harmony." Bringing society, religion, art, and science--all of culture--before what he called "the court of reason," The Life of Reason stands as a summation marking its author as one of the most significant thinkers of his time. But for Santayana himself it was only a beginning.

He went on to originate the concept of "the genteel tradition" and analyzed it in The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy (1911) with a precision that eluded most later commentators who picked up the phrase only to use it as a blunt instrument against what Mencken called the "booboisie." Santayana expanded his analysis beyond philosophy in Character and Opinion in the United States (1920), a study of American culture worthy of comparison to Democracy in America. In the 1930s he wrote a bestselling novel, The Last Puritan (1936), while working on Realms of Being (1927-40), the four-
volume work he considered his true philosophical summa.

In the forties he again hit the bestseller lists with his autobiography
Persons and Places (1944), and published two major works on religion and politics, respectively: The Idea of Christ in the Gospels (1946) and Dominations and Powers (1950).

Santayana began Scepticism and Animal Faith, his book-length introduction to Realms of Being, with the proud declaration that he stood "in philosophy exactly where I stand in daily life," in pointed contrast to the philosophical idealists who, anticipating the postmodernists, rejected material reality in their books but acknowledged it in their lives. Yet Santayana, an adamant materialist or naturalist, argued that human beings could find their highest and most satisfying fulfillment in "immaterial objects and harmonies" such as "affection, speculation, religion, and all the forms of the beautiful." His seminal lecture on The Genteel Tradition ends with a call to "be content to live in the mind" since "what you can do avails little materially, and in the end nothing."

In Character and Opinion in the United States, observing that Americans "usually say that thought is for the sake of action," he replied that "reflection is itself a turn, and the top turn, given to life." The change of heart, or metanoia, Santayana underwent in his thirties left him, he wrote in his autobiography, with an awareness that "to possess things and persons in idea is the only pure good to be got out of them; to possess them physically or legally is a burden and a snare." Santayana's letters leave little doubt that such sentiments were not only his "official" philosophy but also his way of life. What makes the letters so interesting, however, is not only Santayana's intellectual integrity but the range of emotions and attitudes compatible with that integrity.

From the viewpoint of a philosophy that places a higher value on the idea of a person than on the person in the flesh, physical death is a relatively unimportant occurrence, especially if the same philosophy believes that human beings should "be content to live in the mind." In a 1901 letter to a young friend, Lawrence Butler, he employs this philosophy to offer a moving consolation on the death of Butler's father:

This is an irreparable loss for you but not a bitter one. . .  . The world is so ordered that we must, in a material sense, lose everything we have and love. .  .  . The truly unfortunate are those persons .  .  . who have never known anything worth living for, any noble and natural characters. . .  . But those who have known such things and grown like them can never be truly unhappy.