The Magazine

Alive in the Mind

Santayana's world is a reasonable place.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By JAMES SEATON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."