The Magazine

Exile at Large

The outsider’s insights on the American soul.

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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‘The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy’ AND Character and Opinion in the United States

Exile at Large

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

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,

were what they were ex-pe-rienced as being, in their capacity of faiths; these faiths, not their objects, were the facts we must respect. We cannot pass, except under the illusion of the moment, to anything firmer or on a deeper level. There was accordingly no sense of security, no joy, in James’ apology for personal religion. He did not really believe; he merely believed in the right of believing that you might be right if you believed.

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.

After graduating from Harvard in 1886, Santayana spent two years in Berlin. He returned to Harvard’s philosophy department planning to write his thesis on Arthur Schopenhauer, whose bleak view of the subjugation of the intellect to the will had become all the rage in fin-de-siècle Europe. But Josiah Royce thought this unsound and made Santayana write about Rudolf Hermann Lotze, who, in combining science and Hegel, tried to argue that the universe can be explained as a functioning of the Weltgeist. Deep down, Santayana probably never forgave Royce.

Santayana stayed at Harvard to become a socially aloof but academi-cally productive and pro-foundly cherished teacher of philosophy. His students included T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Walter Lippmann. By 1911 Santaya-na’s patience both with Harvard’s noncommittal goodness and with the “thistles of trivial and narrow scholarship” was exhausted. When the death of his mother in 1912 provided him with a small legacy, he gladly resigned from his Harvard post.

He outlined his view of America in his farewell address at Berkeley. America, he said, was a country with “two mentalities, one a survival of the beliefs and standards of the fathers, the other an expression of the instincts, practice, and discoveries of the younger generations.” The backwater mentality was at home in the “neat reproduction of the colonial mansion” while the dynamism of invention and industry produced the skyscraper.

American philosophy naturally dwelled in the fake colonial mansion. It was grafted onto Calvinism, which is “an expression of the agonized conscience.” But as America evolved into material success, “the sense of sin totally evaporated” and “good-will became the great American virtue.” Santayana then traced the rise of Transcendentalism, whose origins he located in the “colossal” egotism of the Germans. He credited Kant with having brought it “into vogue.”

Kant came .  .  . to remove knowledge in order to make room for faith, which in his case meant faith in Calvinism. In other words, he applied the transcendental method to matters of fact, reducing them thereby to human ideas, in order to give to the Calvinistic postulates of conscience a metaphysical validity.

The transcendental method, though, was “sympathetic to the American mind,” and Emerson became its premier prophet. “Emerson was a shrewd Yankee, by instinct on the winning side; he was a cheery, child-like soul, impervious to the evidence of evil as of everything that did not suit his transcendental individuality to appreciate or notice.” From Emerson it was a quick jaunt to William James, who

kept his mind and heart wide open to all that might seem, to polite minds, odd, personal, or visionary in religion and philosophy. He gave a sincerely respectful hearing to sentimentalists, mystics, spiritualists, wizards, cranks, quacks, and impostors—for it is hard to draw the line, and James was not willing to draw it prematurely.

That Santayana’s assessment of the American intellect as insufferably cheerful was somewhat hasty, if not altogether unfair, is unfolded in a superb recent study by Christa Buschendorf, a professor of American studies at Goethe University in Frankfurt. In her book she traces Schopenhauer’s impact on American intellectual life from Herman Melville to Henry Adams, via James, Royce, Santayana, and George Cabot Lodge. Her study, written in a clear and graceful German that matches the lucidity and elegance of her arguments, begins with an incisive, close reading of Melville’s story “Benito Cereno” as a Schopenhauerian allegory pitting Intellect against Will. It ends with an ingenious interpretation of Henry Adams’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams as a diptych: the first work being a contemplation of the world as Will, and the second work a contemplation of the world as Idea (Vorstellung).

No ingenuity in the world, however, can transform James and Royce into fatigued turn-of-the-century pessimists. But Buschendorf shows persuasively how close readings of Schopenhauer’s works shaped the thinking of both philosophers. She delineates them as thinkers of greater depth, substance, and interest than Santayana was willing to concede. Buschendorf also examines Santayana’s own work for traces of Schopenhauer (of which there are a great many) and adds a wonderful chapter on Santayana’s best-selling novel The Last Puritan (1935). The protagonist of this novel about the “sentimental education of a young American of the best type” resembled, in many ways, Santayana himself. Naturally, Santayana compared his novel to Adams’s Education: “My hero dies young, being too good for this world. He is an infinitely clearer-headed and nobler person than Henry Adams, but equally ineffectual.”

Santayana was always inclined to think rather well of himself. But after reading the two works James Seaton has picked out for reissue, we may agree that, like his hero, Santayana was clearer-headed than Adams, and still has a great deal to teach us.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

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