Exile at Large
The outsider’s insights on the American soul.
Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
‘The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy’ AND Character and Opinion in the United States
George Silk / Time & Life Pictures / Getty
by George Santayana
edited by James Seaton
Yale, 240 pp., $16
The Highpriest of Pessimism Zur Rezeption Schopenhauers in den USA by Christa Buschendorf Universitätsverlag Winter, 336 pp., 42 euros
The Highpriest of Pessimism
Zur Rezeption Schopenhauers in den USA
by Christa Buschendorf
Universitätsverlag Winter, 336 pp., 42 euros
A hundred years ago the philosopher and aesthete George Santayana traveled to Berkeley to recuperate “among her immense forces,” the mountains, forests, and Pacific surf, from the arid flatlands of Harvard’s intellectual conformism.
In an elegant essay delivered at the University of California’s Philosophical Union, he shot some smartly poisoned arrows at his colleagues in the Harvard philosophy department. Published the same year as “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” the essay turned out to be Santayana’s farewell address to America. He sailed to England in 1912. Six months later, temporarily settled in Paris, Santayana, then 48, wrote a letter to Harvard’s president Abbott Lawrence Lowell in which he expressed his unhappiness with teaching and resigned his professorship. He never returned to America.
Of pure Spanish descent, Santayana had always cultivated the stance of a visiting outsider to the culture. His sensibilities were at home in Europe even as he became one of the great stylists in the English language. Santayana’s caustic wit, his noncoercive yet keen philosophical obser-va-tions, and the musical elegance of his prose have kept most of his works in print. Nevertheless, this recent reissue in one volume of “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” and Character and Opinion in the United States, Santayana’s post-World War I lecture series delivered in England and published in 1920, is a welcome addition.
The book was edited and is furnished with an excellent introduction by James Seaton, and enriched by four illuminating essays by Wilfred McClay, John Lachs, Roger Kimball, and the editor. Seaton high-lights Santayana’s exposure of those intellectual follies in academe that mutatis mutandis have continued unabated. “Santayana’s critique . . . of the pre-tensions of idealist philosophy to an authority beyond and superior to that of the natural sciences reads today like a critique of postmodernist claims to a similar superiority available to textualists,” writes Seaton. Santayana’s critique of William James, Seaton argues, was taking issue with a multiculturalism avant la lettre.
For James it was a matter of course that one must tolerate the right of others to believe whatever they want to believe. Santayana countered that, in respecting only the faiths of others without paying any mind to the truths these faiths might point to, James condemned himself to vapidity. “All faiths,” wrote Santayana about James’s view,
Santayana always felt ambivalent about James, who had died in 1910 and left the Harvard philosophy department severely depleted. He enjoyed that James’s “romantic cosmology” had given “a rude shock to the genteel tradition.” But the noncommittal nature of James’s works irritated him. More aggravating still, James “disclaims all ante-cedent or superior knowledge, listens to the testimony of each witness in turn, and only by accident allows us to feel that he is swayed by the eloquence and vehemence of some of them rather than of others.”
So much good-natured impartiality grated on Santayana who, as a Nietzschean aristocrat, did not suffer fools gladly. But Brahmin Boston had always irritated Santayana. He had been raised in the bourgeois severity of Madrid and the austerity of Avila. In 1872, when he was eight years old, he joined his Spanish mother in Boston. She had settled in her first hus-band’s city to bring up their three children as Americans. Jorge was her only child by her second husband, Agustín Santayana. The family lived on Beacon Street, was bilingual, and the boy Santayana grew up with close ties to the Brahmin class.