The Magazine

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 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).