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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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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.”

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