Santayana as Social and Cultural Philosopher

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Lecture date: Sun, 12th Apr, 2015
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A talk on Santayana, is, I think, timely. For many years he’s suffered undeserved neglect in Britain; he doesn’t – as I believe he should – occupy a major   place on university   philosophy courses,   or in   the philosophy section of bookshops and libraries. The neglect is curious in view of the fact that in the earlier part of the century he was widely read, and comparable to Russell and Dewey in his impact on the philosophical scene. The influence of these two thinkers has undergone nothing like the reduction that Santayana’s has.

Another reason to wonder at the inattention to him is that his range as a philosopher is very wide, covering metaphysics, ethics, the arts and sciences, and social and cultural issues. He’s the author of 28 books, published between the years 1896 and 1951: a span with few equals. Also, his writing style is arguably one of the finest in the entire history of philosophy. According to Corliss Lamont, for example, he ‘writes   philosophy more beautifully than any other thinker since Plato.’ His language possesses classic clarity and eloquent economy­ virtues by no means universal among philosophers, particularly modern ones. This, one would think, should have secured him lasting appeal.

Whatever the reasons for the disregard, a revival of interest is long overdue. It may even be on the way. We’ve seen such revival in recent decades in the cases of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, philosophers with whom Santayana has quite a lot in common. Perhaps the momentum created by these developments will extend to him as well. I’ve already referred to his range as a thinker. The breadth and sweep of his writing creates a problem of selection, and I’ve decided to concentrate on his social and cultural philosophy. But before discussmg this, something needs to be said about his basic ontological position, because it’s on this that all his other perspectives rest.


Santayana is an Epiphenomenalist

Santayana is an atheist, an evolutionist and, crucially, a materialist. He regards matter as the fundamental reality in the universe, and mind as a product of matter. Mental events are always grounded in material ones. He distinguishes his materialism from the kind which regards matter as the sole reality. Mind, he insists, is as much a fact as matter but is, again, wholly dependent on the latter. As he puts it:

That matter is capable of eliciting feeling and thought follows necessarily from the principle that matter is the only substance, power or agency in the universe: and this, not that matter is the only reality, is the first principle of materialism. (1)

Hence matter, while not the only reality, is the only entity that causes things to happen (“the only… power or agency”) This view places mind in an essentially passive role. Mental happenings are always effects, never causes. Mind is therefore an epiphenomenon- a by-product- of physical   processes in the brain. Santayana conveys his view with particular vividness in the following:

Is it the mind that controls the bewildered body and points out the way to physical habits uncertain of their affinities? Or is it not much rather an automatic inward machinery that executes the marvellous work, while the mind catches here and there some glimpse of the operation,   now with delight and adhesion, now with impotent rebellion? (2)

As a materialist, Santayana sees himself as part of a broad tradition that includes Democritus, Lucretius, Spinoza and Darwin.


Santayana’s Social and Cultural Philosophy

I’ll begin with his views on religion. His atheism, evolutionism and materialism inevitably shape his attitude toward super-naturalistic styles of thought, but that attitude is by no means as negative as one   might expect. Santayana is in fact quite accommodating toward religion. In this, he’s like Schopenhauer, though not Nietzsche or some other prominent atheists such as Marx, Russell or Freud. In seeing religious thought as flowing from the source of all thought- the material human animal ­ he regards it as something to be studied with the same kind of interest and respect accorded to any major human project. For Santayana, as for Schopenhauer, religion is coupled with great art and poetry, and it’s highly significant that one of his books is entitled Interpretations of Poetry and Religion. Religious thought, quite as much as the poetry with which it is entwined, is an index of human sensitivity, imagination and emotional capacity- indeed, at its best, an index of genius.

However, as a psychologist of the religious mentality, Santayana is careful to differentiate between the fruits of that mentality and its origins. He follows Feuerbach in arguing that the whole conception of God or gods results from man’s tendency to project from himself,   to locate outside himself the ideals and values which he actually originated. Deity, something super-human, then becomes their source and champion. Santayana may have Feuerbach in mind when he writes: ”what men attribute to God is nothing but the ideal they value and grope for themselves, and … the commandments, mythically said to come from the Most High, flow in fact from common reason and local experience.” (3)

Also, he concurs with Lucretius in regarding the emotion of fearas a fundamental factor in the formation of God-ideas. This, however, doesn’t lessen his respect for religion as a cultural creation; and his complex, many-sided attitude comes across when he asserts:

‘That fear first created the gods is about as true as anything so brief could be on so great a subject.’ (4)

What, then,   has religion’s essential contribution been to human progress? In answering this question, Santayana separates the ontological from the ethical aspects of religious thought, and examines their respective truth-claims. Religion has erred when it has tried to perform the function of science and propounded doctrines about the origin and nature of the universe. In this area, its tenets, usually dogmatic, have impeded the development of true science. Its ontological claims, then, have no scientific value. On the other hand religion does make a valid truth-claim in the sphere of ethics. This validity lies in its ‘symbolic rendering of that moral experience which it springs out of and which it seeks to elucidate.’ (5) Through symbols, metaphors, parables and allegories, religion has presented the facts about our ethical emotions and our ethical interaction with each other. It has conveyed the lessons of experience; and so both stimulated and educated our moral nature.

But, of course, for the atheist Santayana, religion must now hand over that role to secular agencies. The removal of moral education from the religions sphere involves a full acceptance of science, plus a change of focus for the feeling of reverence which religion has traditionally channelled in a direction away from man, nature and the world. That feeling must now be focused on nature -which, for Santayana, means on matter, its powers and processes. He writes:

When the heart is bent on the truth, when prudence and the love of prosperity dominate the will, science must insensibly supplant divination, and reverence must be transferred from traditional sanctities to the naked power at work in nature, sanctioning worldly wisdom and hygienic virtue rather   than the maxims of zealots or the dreams of saints. God then becomes a poetic symbol for the material tenderness and the paternal strictness of this wonderful world. (6)

We’re back, then, to the basis of Santayana’s philosophy – materialism; and ethics is seen as ministering to matter’s creative dynamic. This outlook places Santayana firmly in the camp of evolutionary ethics, where he joins, among others, Nietzsche, Spencer, Russell and Dewey.

His evolutionary standpoint in ethics is germane to his social philosophy. Social ideals, like religious ones, express evolved biological processes and natural functions. The link between the natural and the ideal is emphasised when he says: ‘no natural function is incapable, in its free exercise, of evolving some ideal and finding justification’.(7)

Santayana’s social outlook is many-faceted, and is perhaps most completely expressed in Reason in Society, a book from which all my subsequent quotations, unless otherwise stated, will come. Having affirmed the animal basis of human society, he discusses individual and communal values, aristocracy and democracy, government and industry. All in all, the ideas in this book are among the most insightful in modern social thought, and are certainly as worthy of our attention now as they were when first published in 1905.

Let’s begin with his treatment of individual and communal values. He strikes a fine balance between concern for the individual sphere – for privacy, novelty and experiment, and concern for the public sphere – for cultural centrality and collective heritage. On the side of the individual, he declares:

Individualism is in one sense the only possible ideal; for whatever social order may be most valuable can be valuable only for its effect on conscious individuals. … It would be a gross and pedantic superstition to venerate any form of society in itself, apart from the safety, breadth or sweetness which it lent to individual happiness.

In fact, he regards a highly developed individualism as the hallmark of a civilised society, and recognises, with Hegel, that increase in personal freedom has been one of the most significant features of modern history. Barbarous societies, by contrast, are essentially uniform; they crudely subordinate the individual   to the status quo, and prohibit questioning of it. The more civilised a society becomes, the more the whole exists for the sake of the parts. In these arguments, we find a defence of the generally liberal course that Western society has taken since the   Renaissance, particularly with regard to the decline of patriarchal authority in the family.

Santayana feels that a full personal development directly contributes to society. It enriches the social scene and satisfies ‘the need men have of distinction’ because it fires the imagination. Hence the vital importance of genius and any extraordinary human quality. Santayana avers:

There is no greater stupidity or meanness than to take uniformity for an ideal, as if it were not a benefit and a joy to a man, being what he is, to know that many are, have been and will be better than he. Grant that no one is positively degraded by the great man’s greatness, and it follows that everyone is exalted by it. Beauty, genius and holiness … radiate their virtue and make the world in which they exist a better and more joyful place to live in.

Thus the pursuit of high reputation and lasting fame is perfectly valid; and Santayana gives examples of cultures which in his view encouraged this pursuit: ancient Greece and Rome, Renaissance Italy and Elizabethan England.   He also argues that a high level…of individual diversity precludes the growth of a collectivist mentality which is over-intense. He perceives the inhumanity of societies, whether religious or secular, which are imbued with an indoctrinated virtue. This kind of virtue, he says, can turn easily to group-fanaticism and brutal intolerance. I would only add that the 20th century has provided more than enough examples of this. Moral and ideological tyrannies with appalling consequences range from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to Pol Pot’s Kampuchea and the Ayatollah ‘s Iran.

Another aspect of his interest in the individual sphere is his concern with friendship. He sees meaningful friendship as one of the finest achievements of private life, and as a definitive feature of a liberal society. The feelings involved in friendship are, says Santayana, much more specific than those of comradeship in enforced circumstances, or of general social sympathy. They go out to ‘those among our fellow-men who share our special haunts and habitats’. And they differ from those of sexual love because they’re free of the latter’s tendency toward possessiveness and anxiety. The friend accepts what the other chooses to offer ‘and the rest he leaves in peace … for the society of friends is free’.

Profound friendship always comprises sensuous attachment to a person and spiritual attachment to the ideals that person   holds. As Santayana puts it, in words perhaps as beautiful as any ever written on the subject: ‘Friendship might thus be called ideal sympathy refracted by a human medium, or … sensuous affinity colouring a spiritual light.’

Interestingly, he expresses the view that modem society is less conducive to prolonged friendship than that, say, ancient Athens, where personal life, for men anyway, retained a public dimension for a lot longer than it does now. There was the forum, the palaestra, the camp, the theatre and the temple: all venues for forming and maintaining friendships well into   one’s mature years. In modem society, on the other hand, the claims of work, family and impersonal political allegiances reduce the space and opportunity for enjoying friendship to the full. Food for thought!

Turning now from the private to the public sphere,   Santayana focuses on the fund of cultural achievements to which the individual may contribute. He sees every outstanding attainment as an addition to the legacy which society as a whole bequeaths to each new generation. Hence the circumspect person ‘will perceive that what deserves his loyalty is the entire civilisation to which he owes his spiritual life and into which that life will presently flow back, with whatever new elements he may have added.’ That civilisation is the focus where all individuality converges, where general experience, memories and ideals are shared ; and where each person becomes integrated without violation of his idiosyncrasies. Civilisation’s continuum offers a home to all; and for an atheist like Santayana, that continuum replaces religion as the mam bulwark against social fragmentation and personal loneliness.

The need to avoid fragmentation is pivotal in Santayana, because he recognises that modem industrial and commercial society have, by their nature, an atomising tendency. The social and economic conditions of modem times are largely the product of the liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries. While, as we have seen, Santayana admires and defends that liberalism on most counts, he’s also aware of its negative side: its emphasis on economic competition and its potential for producing a general selfishness:

It was the vice of liberalism to believe that common interests covered nothing but the sum of those objects which each individual might pursue alone; whereby science, religion, art, language … would cease to be matters of public concern and would appeal to the individual merely as instruments.

Against such a belief, the sense of social heritage is a safeguard. It ennobles a man not so much because it nerves him to work or to die, which the basest passions may also do, but because it associates him, in working or dying, with an immortal and friendly companion, the spirit of his race. This he received from his ancestors, tempered by their achievements, and may transmit to posterity qualified by his own.

Santayana then considers the question of how this sense could be actively promoted at the political level. His general concern to link culture with political leadership places him in a philosophical tradition which goes back to Plato, and which includes, nearer his own time, Carlyle and Nietzsche. It’s a concern which is still valid today, given the fact that modern governments see their main role as supervising economic systems: a role   that   far outweighs any interest they may have in emphasising and preserving cultural traditions.

Santayana recommends what he calls ‘timocracy’: government by men of merit in whom the benefits of civilisation have been integrated:

The same abilities which raised these men to eminence would enable them to apprehend ideal things and to employ material resources for the common advantage. They would … cultivate the arts and sciences, provide for government and all public conveniences.





Philosophy, Thinking on Sunday

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Tom Rubens is a semi-retired teacher of English and Philosophy. He has worked as a university and college lecturer, and as a private tutor, and is still active in the latter field. Linked to his teaching work is his writing activity: he has produced eight books on philosophy (seven published so…