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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.

Santayana did not believe in God or immortality any more than Nietzsche or the existentialists did, but unlike them he was not traumatized by the resulting view of the universe and human life--and death. In a 1914 letter (written before the outbreak of World War I) Santayana supposes that, even without belief in immortality, human beings are capable "of accepting death gladly" without losing interest in the "career of the race after them." Santayana comments in a 1949 letter that he finds it hard to sympathize with existentialist Angst "as if it were unnatural to exist, to have bones in your body, eyes in your head, and accidental occasions for knocking about in the world. It is all natural, stale, and a matter of course, and not anything to be 'anxious' about." Commenting on the death of an old friend in a 1941 letter, he reflected that "the death of Mrs. Toy is sad, but only as all death is sad. .  .  . I shouldn't want to live longer myself, except for unfinished or unrevised books that I should like to leave in order."

On other occasions the same philosophic view of death is used to rationalize what seems mere cynicism, as in his 1917 letter to Bertrand Russell about the destruction of the war: "As for deaths and loss of capital, I don't much care. The young men killed would grow older if they lived, and then they would be good for nothing; and after being good for nothing for a number of years they would die of catarrh or a bad kidney or the halter or old age--and would that be less horrible?"

Quite possibly Santayana exaggerated his lack of concern about the war dead to underline the contrast between Russell's utopian pacifism and his own realism. (The essays in Soliloquies in England, like the sonnets of its prologue, A Premonition, The Undergraduate Killed in Battle, and The Darkest Hour, reveal a Santayana who cared a great deal.) His 1913 essay "The Philosophy of Mr. Bertrand Russell" demonstrates, politely but definitively, the extent to which Russell's "estrangement from reality" renders his ethics, logical though they may be, irrelevant to human life. He quotes Russell's proof of the folly of egoism: "It is, indeed, so evident that it is better to secure a greater good for A than a lesser good for B, that it is hard to find any still more evident principle by which to prove this. And if A happens to be some one else, and B to be myself, that cannot affect the question, since it is irrelevant to the general question who A and B may be."

Irrelevant, that is, until one deals with actual human beings in life rather than on paper with A and B. Santayana notes that the world Russell's logic ignores includes "the inertia of nature, the ferocity of beasts, the optimism of mystics, and the selfishness of men and nations." As he observes in a 1913 letter, he and Russell had very different goals as philosophers: "He wants certainty, and the narrowest deepest possible foundations for thought; I want judicious opinions and a just balance in the imagination." In 1939 he wrote that Russell's union of clarity and certainty allowed him to perform a valuable service for philosophy--though not the kind Russell himself believed he was providing:

He is a born heretic or genial madman, like John Knox or Giordano Bruno: yet he is preternaturally intelligent, penetrating, and radical; so that the more wrong he is the clearer he makes the wrongness of his position; and what more can you expect a philosopher to prove except that the views he has adopted are radically and eternally impossible? If every philosopher had done that in the past, we should now be almost out of the wood.

In the 1930s Russell, though heir to an earldom and a fortune, had become almost penniless, while Santayana had become unexpectedly wealthy when The Last Puritan, his "Memoir in the Form of a Novel," became a book-of-the-month club selection and bestseller. Santayana made arrangements to send "Bertie .  .  . $5,000 a year for three or four years, but anonymously." Determined not to allow his generosity to disturb Russell's bad opinion of him, Santayana explained in a 1937 letter to George Sturgis, who handled his money, that "[Russell] and his friends think of me as a sort of person in the margin, impecunious, and egoistic; and it would humiliate Bertie to think that I was supporting him."

The combination of generosity and tact Santayana displays in this episode recurs throughout the eight volumes of letters, as he repeatedly helps relatives in Spain, assures his occasional assistant and companion Daniel Cory of an income after Santayana's death, gives money to old friends in need, and sometimes sends money to strangers like Carl Sadakichi Hartmann, an "old wreck of a poet .  .  . an old beggar" to whom Santayana regularly sent $100 checks simply because Hartmann wrote that he needed money.

Though Santayana could be unfeeling in writing about human beings in general, in practice he was kind to those he knew or somehow encountered--in contrast to "Bertie" and his family: "How inhuman these high-principled self-righteous people are," he writes to Daniel Cory about the Russells in a 1946 letter.

Santayana's letters are full of political opinions, but he never writes as a partisan for any party, cause, or country. He lived in England during World War I, and his sympathies were all for the English but not for liberalism or democracy. Writing from Oxford on August 16, 1914, just after the beginning of the war, he makes it clear that detachment has its own price: "My plans are upset and my sympathies are lacerated. Happy the man with a country, and faith that it is of course always in the right, and will of course be victorious!" In a letter to his sister later that month he describes his own feelings, but also his doubts: "My natural sympathies are anti-German, but I can't help admiring the sureness and the immense patient effort which characterizes their action. If they overpower 'us,' I am not sure that the world will be ultimately the worse for it."

Santayana rarely expressed moral outrage in commenting on two world wars and the rise of fascism, Nazism, and communism. He rejected Nazism as "romanticism gone mad," but often, like a more philosophical Mencken, regarded politics as a spectator sport, as in this 1933 letter: "It is most entertaining living in these times. This Roosevelt is more Caesarian than the spluttering Theodore; we are having Fascism under another name rising in France, in Germany, and in the U.S.!"

His frequent irony makes misinterpretation easy, especially when passages are taken out of context. After World War II, Life magazine promoted an image of Santayana as a starry-eyed philosopher unable to discern any differences between, say, the politics of the United States and the Soviet Union. And indeed, in a number of letters from 1946, he praises Stalin--as an author: "I am reading Stalin, and like his honesty and frankness." And later: "I am also reading Stalin .  .  . excellent, and refreshingly dogmatic." But in another 1946 letter Santayana makes it clear that he is well aware what Stalin was being clear about: "Stalin is very clear and frank. We are all to be liquidated. The question is whether somebody won't want to liquidate the liquidaters."

In a 1950 letter he protests that the New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews has, in misquoting him, given the impression that Santayana saw little difference between American and Russian plans for the rest of the world:

I certainly never said that the U.S. were "trying" to "impose" their form of government on anybody; and what the Russians are trying to impose is not only their form of government .  .  . but their own government as it exists in Moscow and is exercised over the Satellites by the Comintern, that plans insurrections and police governments for other nations. The American system cannot be imposed in this way because it conceives "democracy" to mean government by the majority, and respects elections fairly carried on.

His point is all the more significant because he does not think of democracy as the ideal form of government. In the same letter he emphasizes that he himself believes that "trust in majorities" could be "a dangerous and unjust method," and in any case, he does not believe that "the same form of government can be good for everybody," whether it is democracy or anything else.

He was suspicious of political democracy, but his letters demonstrate a democratic readiness to respond to all correspondents, famous or obscure, those he knew and those he did not, with equal courtesy and, even more impressively, with the same readiness to discuss serious philosophical questions seriously. Santayana does not adopt the pose of a sage or celebrity to whom ordinary people come for advice, but writes on the assumption that he and his interlocutors are, alike, searchers for truth. He begins a 1946 letter to a "Lieutenant Garcia" by emphasizing their philosophical agreement: "That you should think Plato good but not true, and should at the same time follow Darwin with approval would seem to indicate that you instinctively think as I think."

He is not willing, however, to be merely polite, and engages the lieutenant in a philosophic colloquy:

What is the difficulty? You don't tell me or give me any hint of where it lies. Why is Plato good in spite of being wrong? I should say because his ethics and politics are right in principle, but his cosmology is mythical and made to fit his humanism miraculously, having been planned on purpose to an ideal Athens and a perfect set of Athenians.

In an 1887 letter he distinguished between the dreaming and the talking philosophers. Dreaming philosophers may provide incomparable intellectual adventures, he wrote, but they "should be read as one reads the confessions of converts and the plaints of lyric poets. It may be very beautiful and very profound, but it has only the interest of autobiography." The talking philosophers "come to you as one man to another, on the basis of everyday facts and life." They may be little help in exploring the depths of the inner self, Santayana wrote, but "to find out what may be known about the world common to us all, we must go to those who have thought it worth their while to talk about it."

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of a new edition of Santayana's The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States (Yale).