George Santayana: Literary Philosopherby Irving Singer
George Santayana was unique in his contribution to American culture. For almost sixty years before his death in 1952, he combined literary and philosophical talents, writing not only important works of philosophy but also a best-selling novel, volumes of poetry, and much literary criticism. In this fascinating portrait of Santayana’s thought and complex personality, Irving Singer explores the full range of his harmonization of the literary and the philosophical.
Singer shows how Santayana’s genius consisted in his imaginative ability to turn various types of personal alienation into creative elements that recur throughout his books. Singer points out that Santayana was a professional philosopher who addressed immediate problems of existence, a materialist in philosophy who believed in both a life of spirit and a life of reason, a product of American pragmatism who nevertheless rebelled against it, a Spaniard who wrote only in English, an American author who spent the last forty years of his life in different European countries. Against the grain of most twentieth-century philosophy, Santayana kept in view questions that matter to us all in our search for meaningful and satisfying lives.
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George Santayana, Literary Philosopher
By Irving Singer
Yale University PressCopyright © 2000 Irving Singer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Pilgrimage to Santayana
WHEN HISTORIANS in the twenty-first century assess the nature of twentieth-century philosophy from their own perspective, they may have some difficulty in placing the mind and works of George Santayana. There are two ways in which we might appraise his contribution. We could take him as a writer about the human condition who also did philosophy; or else as a theorist in various branches of philosophy who wrote essays, literary criticism, history of ideas, social commentary, volumes of poetry, a best-selling novel, and so on. Both approaches to his talent must be employed, and interwoven, in order to attain a clear idea of what Santayana accomplished in his books.
More than any other great philosopher in the English language, Santayana not only harmonized the two types of writing-the literary and the philosophical-but also made harmonization of this sort a fundamental resource in his doctrinal outlook. In the preface to Scepticism and Animal Faith he writes that if the reader is tempted to smile at the idea that he is offering "one more system of philosophy," he smiles as well. Despite its systematic structure, Santayana's philosophy was intended to be an expression of the author's personal experience and imaginative interpretation of his life as he lived it. Neither in his works nor in anyone else's, he thought, could a reader find the certitude and objectivity that so many others promised.
In taking this attitude, Santayana believed that philosophical speculation was inherently a literary pursuit and therefore a branch of the humanities rather than of the sciences. Santayana sought to further humanistic acuities that would permeate philosophy as they also permeate fine arts and the various forms of criticism that interpret and evaluate them. He denied that these different facets of human inspiration could be reduced or rendered subservient to technical procedures that science (correctly) employs for its own expertise. He recognized that the life of the mind, above all in the humanities, becomes stunted when artificial barriers are reared between philosophy and literature or between philosophy and history or, in a different dimension, between creative and critical insights. Ideally these would not be separated from one another. To the extent that they establish a harmonious interpenetration, they enrich each other.
Above all in the United States, but now in most other countries, intellectual and academic fields have become increasingly splintered in the twentieth century, even split into hermetically distinct compartments. The long humanistic tradition that linked the early Renaissance to the art and history of the ancient world, and then continued to evolve for the next five hundred years, has suffered disabilities from which it may never recover. In the past few decades, the danger to the humanistic spirit has accelerated greatly. As a reminder of what we have had, and as a model for what we may yet regain as a supplement to the new achievements on which we can rightly pride ourselves, Santayana's books merit the renewed study that some scholars are now giving them. Though far from completed, the new critical edition of his works has already encouraged this return to Santayana and what he represents as a philosopher.
In a book published in 1949, Somerset Maugham laments the fact that it was in the service of philosophy that Santayana used his "great gifts, gifts of imagery, of metaphor, of apt simile and of brilliant illustration." Maugham doubts that philosophy needs "the decoration of a luxuriance so lush." He regretfully concludes: "It was a loss to American literature when Santayana decided to become a philosopher rather than a novelist."
In saying this, Maugham fails to recognize that Santayana's literary gifts were not employed for mere decoration, even when his prose was lush and luxuriant, but rather as the means by which he could express his view of the world in a way that transcends any preconceptions about what either literature or philosophy "ought" to be. Santayana's fusion of the two disciplines was an enrichment, not a loss, to both American philosophy and American literature.
Writing in 1937, John Crowe Ransom said: "Among philosophical personalities probably the most urbane and humanistic since Socrates is Mr. Santayana." In one of his letters Santayana remarks: "In my old-fashioned terminology, a Humanist means a person saturated by the humanities: Humanism is something cultural: an accomplishment, not a doctrine." In renouncing humanism as a doctrine, Santayana was asserting his usual belief that the imagination must never be constrained by any fixed or codified tenets. By serving as an accomplishment, humanism would illustrate the fact that virtually all areas of learning can find a home within the mentality of a person who is truly cultivated and radically enlightened. Santayana's writings themselves embody the highest aspirations of this humanistic faith, and throughout its subtle modulations his thought serves to buttress even the most diversified types of humanism.
Nevertheless, Santayana's philosophical novel The Last Puritan was generally neglected by professionals in literature as well as philosophy for almost sixty years after it was first published, and during most of that time there existed no inexpensive edition that English-language readers could readily acquire. For the most part Santayana's other works were ignored not only by the prevailing tendencies in contemporary thought but also by the popular culture. His ideas survived mainly in a few well-turned epigrams, such as the famous line (often misquoted) from Reason in Common Sense: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." These words were traced in large letters on a placard just behind the altar in Jonestown, Guyana. After the massacre they were visible in photographs of the site that appeared in newspapers. They were, in fact, the only text to be seen-like holy script wrenched out of context.
This desecration of Santayana's perceptiveness, and the unfriendliness toward his philosophy in academic circles, may yet be rectified. My hope is partly based on healthy changes that are now occurring. More than at any time since Santayana's death in 1952, work is being done in the kind of humanistic approach that Santayana favored. In various ways, though not massively as yet, American philosophy is returning to questions about the nature and quality of human experience, of living the good life, of creating or discovering values and expressing them in action as well as works of art. In Santayana's day the subject matter would have been called morals. The French still use the word moralite in this fashion, though the practice itself seems to be almost as imperiled with them as it is in the United States. The study of morals includes what philosophers currently categorize as "normative ethics." It is best investigated by thinkers who are at home in all the areas of the humanities-in history, literature, and the other arts, as well as in the broadest spectrum of philosophical speculation.
In this realm of the intellect Santayana's contribution is, I believe, superior to the efforts of any other American philosopher. I do not minimize the importance of his work in more technical branches of philosophy-in ontology, epistemology, aesthetics proper-but Santayana's achievement as a humanistic thinker is what I admire most of all.
* * *
Concentrating on that aspect of Santayana's productivity, my chapters cluster about his insight into the nature of imagination. In book after book, beginning with The Sense of Beauty in 1896 and continuing throughout his career as a philosopher, Santayana charted the ever-present functioning of what he called "the constructive imagination" in human existence. "The systematic relations in time and space," he wrote, "and their dependence upon one another are the work of our imagination.... Unless human nature suffers an inconceivable change, the chief intellectual and aesthetic value of our ideas will always come from the creative action of the imagination." The work he did in this area primarily interested the two persons to whom my book is dedicated. From these mentors at Harvard, I first learned how to appreciate Santayana's thought. Their enthusiasm eventuated in my pilgrimage to the man himself, and that propelled me into the explorations embodied in later pages of this book.
When I studied at Harvard shortly after the Second World War, Henry David Aiken was the most dynamic teacher in philosophy there at the time, and virtually the only one whose interests ranged through all the fields of the humanities. He was the resident aesthetician and a former student of David W. Prall and Ralph Barton Perry. Prall had taught courses similar to Santayana's, and Perry had been a disciple of William James. Through this derivation one could feel that Aiken, at his best, exemplified the spirit and many of the ideals of the Golden Age of Harvard philosophy to which Santayana belonged.
As an undergraduate I had the good fortune to meet Walter Jackson Bate and to become one of the students he befriended. His specialty was English literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but he saw in Santayana's belletristic style a living proof that philosophy could still express itself in vibrant and graceful writing. For Bate as for Aiken, philosophy remained a humanistic activity rather than a conglomeration of inquiries into logic, linguistics, or the foundations of science. They revered Santayana as one of the last humanists in this sense of the word. Aiken and Bate were both convinced that liberal education attains its greatest sustenance in writing such as his.
Neither Aiken nor Bate found Santayana's beliefs wholly tenable. At different times in his career, Aiken preferred the philosophy of Hume, the pragmatists, English and American logical analysis, and (for a while) Continental existentialism. At an early age, Bate had fallen under the influence of Alfred North Whitehead, whom he knew in the Society of Fellows at Harvard. Whitehead's idealistic organicism plays a substantive role in Bate's work, whereas Santayana's combination of Platonism and materialism does not.
For Bate as for Aiken, Santayana nevertheless served as a model of what could be attained by literary philosophy and philosophical literary criticism. Aiken detailed Santayana's comprehensive importance in an essay entitled "George Santayana: Natural Historian of Symbolic Forms," and Bate chose him as the only twentieth-century philosopher writing in English who was worth including in his anthology of the history of criticism. Whitehead himself, when asked which living philosopher was "most likely to be read in the future," is reported to have answered: Santayana.
When I began to read Santayana, in one of Aiken's courses, books like Reason in Art, The Sense of Beauty, and Interpretations of Poetry and Religion initially seemed to me somewhat archaic and very unequal in quality. Much of their contents I could not understand, and long stretches appeared precious and overblown. I could see the many evidences of a brilliant mind, but I was not able to perceive the coherent structure that unifies Santayana's statements in even these early works. During a year that I spent at Oxford doing graduate study, I read The Last Puritan as an antidote to the philosophy of ordinary language that was practiced there in those days (1949-50). The novel left me unsatisfied, however, and it was almost out of determination to discover what I had been missing that I decided to look for Santayana himself when I would be in Italy the following summer.
* * *
I had no idea where he was living, but someone suggested that the authorities at San Giovanni in Laterano-the Mother Church of Rome-would surely know. I went there and talked to a priest who became very indignant when I referred to Santayana as an American philosopher. "He is not an American," he said. "He is a Spaniard." I muttered something about Santayana's having lived in America for forty years, but the priest continued to glower and so I turned away. But then an inner voice must have moderated his anger at my obvious ignorance. He called me back and told me that Santayana was living in the sanatorium of the English Blue Nuns adjacent to the Church of Santo Stefano Rotondo.
I was surprised at how easy it was to meet Santayana. Having learned that I was a graduate student at Harvard, he sent word that he would welcome a visit the following afternoon. I hardly knew what to expect. The only great philosopher I had ever met was Alfred North Whitehead. In December 1947, when I was still an undergraduate, Bate had pushed me into a telephone booth and insisted that I call the Whitehead residence. Mrs. Whitehead answered the phone and arranged for me to see her husband immediately. I had an hour's conversation with him two weeks before he died. Dressed in a dark suit and wearing a bright blue cravat, the eighty-year-old Whitehead looked cherubic. Having tea with him was like chatting with a modest and extremely gentle parson who had somehow been transplanted from Cambridge, England, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was reluctant to talk about himself or his ideas. He remarked that he no longer read the books and articles on his philosophy that were sent to him-"I just turn the pages occasionally," he said-but he was eager to know what was going on in the world of philosophy in general. He kept asking what the young people at Harvard were interested in nowadays.
My visit with Santayana was totally different. Since it was a hot day in August and my wife and I were bicycling through the countryside, I arrived dressed in scanty Italian shorts. When Santayana opened the door to his room in the sanatorium, his first words were: "I am so glad that you are dressed informally. For I am always, as you see, in my pajamas." For about three hours Santayana regaled us with reflections about everything that came to mind. He seemed to want to talk only about the world as he experienced it, about himself and his ideas. He asked very few questions that might encourage a response to his monologue. I later learned that in this period of his life (he was then eighty-six) Santayana was having difficulties with his hearing. Like many people who are afraid that they will not be able to catch what is being said, he doubtless spoke more continuously than he would have in earlier days. When Gore Vidal paid a visit in 1948, Santayana told him: "I shall talk and you shall listen.... You can ask questions, of course. But remember I am very deaf."
But possibly that was not the only explanation.
Excerpted from George Santayana, Literary Philosopher by Irving Singer Copyright © 2000 by Irving Singer . Excerpted by permission.
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