Durant 1926: Reason in Religion (Santayana)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 1.4 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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I. GEORGE SANTAYANA

4. Reason in Religion

Sainte-Beuve remarked of his countrymen that they would continue to be Catholics long after they had ceased to be Christians. This is the analysis of Renan and Anatole France, and of Santayana too; He loves Catholicism as one may still long for the woman who has deceived him—“I do believe her though I know she lies.” He mourns for his lost faith, that “splendid error, which conforms better to the impulses of the soul” than life itself. He describes himself at Oxford, in the midst of some ancient ritual:

Exile that I am,
Exile not only from the wind-swept moor,
Where Guadarrama lifts his purple crest,
But from the spirit’s realm, celestial, sure,
Goal of all hope, and vision of the best.

Catholicism is loved even when people cease to be Christians.

It is because of this secret love, this believing unbelief, that Santayana achieves his masterpiece in Reason in Religion, filling his sceptical pages with a tender sadness, and finding in the beauty of Catholicism plentiful cause for loving it still. He smiles, it is true, at “the traditional orthodoxy, the belief, namely, that the universe exists and is good for the sake of man or of the human spirit”; but he scorns “the enlightenment common to young wits and worm-eaten old satirists, who plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion—something which the blindest half see—but leave unexplored the habits of thought from which those tenets sprang, their original meaning and their true function.” Here, after all, is a remarkable phenomenon—that men everywhere have had religions; how can we understand man if we do not understand religion? “Such studies would bring the sceptic face to face with the mystery and pathos of mortal existence. They would make him understand why religion is so profoundly moving and in a sense so profoundly just.”

Here is a remarkable phenomenon—that men everywhere have had religions; how can we understand man if we do not understand religion? 

Santayana thinks, with Lucretius, that it was fear which first made the gods.

Faith in the supernatural is a desperate wager made by man at the lowest ebb of his fortunes; it is as far as possible from being the source of that normal vitality which subsequently, if his fortunes mend, he may gradually recover. … If all went well, we should attribute it only to ourselves. … The first things which a man learns to distinguish and repeat are things with a will of their own, things which resist his casual demands; and so the first sentiment with which he confronts reality is a certain animosity, which becomes cruelty toward the weak, and fear and fawning before the powerful. … It is pathetic to observe how lowly are the motives that religion, even the highest, attributes to the deity, and from what a hard-pressed and bitter existence they have been drawn. To be given the best morsel, to be remembered, to be praised, to be obeyed blindly and punctiliously—these have been thought points of honor with the gods, for which they would dispense favors and punishments on the most exorbitant scale.

It was fear which first made the gods.

Add to fear, imagination: man is an incorrigible animist, and interprets all things anthropomorphically; he personifies and dramatises nature, and fills it with a cloud of deities; “the rainbow is taken … for a trace left in the sky by the passage of some beautiful and elusive goddess.” Not that people quite literally believe these splendid myths; but the poetry of them helps men to bear the prose of life. This mythopoetic tendency is weak today, and science has led to a violent and suspicious reaction against imagination; but in primitive peoples, and particularly in the near East, it was unchecked. The Old Testament abounds in poetry and metaphor; the Jews who composed it did not take their own figures literally; but when European peoples, more literal and less imaginative, mistook these poems for science, our Occidental theology was born. Christianity was at first a combination of Greek theology with Jewish morality; it was an unstable combination, in which one or the other element would eventually yield; in Catholicism the Greek and pagan element triumphed, in Protestantism, the stern Hebraic moral code. The one had a Renaissance, the other a Reformation.

The poetry of myths helps men to bear the prose of life. In Catholicism the Greek and pagan element triumphed, in Protestantism, the stern Hebraic moral code. 

The Germans—the ”northern barbarians,” Santayana calls them—had never really accepted Roman Christianity. “A non-Christian ethics of valor and honor, a non-Christian fund of superstition, legend and sentiment, subsisted always among medieval peoples.” The Gothic cathedrals were barbaric, not Roman. The warlike temper of the Teutons raised its head above the peacefulness of the Oriental, and changed Christianity from a religion of brotherly love to a stern inculcation of business virtues, from a religion of poverty to a religion of prosperity and power. “It was this youthful religion—profound, barbaric, poetical—that the Teutonic races insinuated into Christianity, and substituted for that last sigh of two expiring worlds.”

The warlike temper of the Teutons raised its head above the peacefulness of the Oriental, and changed Christianity from a religion of brotherly love to a stern inculcation of business virtues, from a religion of poverty to a religion of prosperity and power. 

Nothing would be so beautiful as Christianity, Santayana thinks, if it were not taken literally; but the Germans insisted on taking it literally. The dissolution of Christian orthodoxy in Germany was thereafter inevitable. For taken literally, nothing could be so absurd as some of the ancient dogmas, like the damnation of innocents, or the existence of evil in a world created by omnipotent benevolence. The principle of individual interpretation led naturally to a wild growth of sects among the people, and to a mild pantheism among the elite—pantheism being nothing more than “naturalism poetically expressed.” Lessing and Goethe, Carlyle and Emerson, were the landmarks of this change. In brief, the moral system of Jesus had destroyed that militaristic Yahveh who by an impish accident of history had been transmitted to Christianity along with the pacifism of the prophets and of Christ.

Nothing would be so beautiful as Christianity if it were not taken literally; but the Germans insisted on taking it literally. 

Santayana is by constitution and heredity incapable of sympathy with Protestantism; he prefers the color and incense of his youthful faith. He scolds the Protestants for abandoning the pretty legends of medievaldom, and above all for neglecting the Virgin Mary, whom he considers, as Heine did, the “fairest flower of poesy.” As a wit has put it, Santayana believes that there is no God, and that Mary is his mother. He adorns his room with pictures of the Virgin and the saints. He likes the beauty of Catholicism more than the truth of any other faith, for the same reason that he prefers art to industry.

There are two stages in the criticism of myths. … The first treats them angrily as superstitions; the second treats them smilingly as poetry. … Religion is human experience interpreted by human imagination. … The idea that religion contains a literal, not a symbolic, representation of truth and life is simply an impossible idea. Whoever entertains it has not come within the region of profitable philosophizing on that subject. … Matters of religion should never be matters of controversy. … We seek rather to honor the piety and understand the poetry embodied in these fables.

Santayana likes the beauty of Catholicism more than the truth of any other faith, for the same reason that he prefers art to industry.

The man of culture, then, will leave undisturbed the myths that so comfort and inspire the life of the people; and perhaps he will a little envy them their hope. But he will have no faith in another life. “The fact of having been born is a bad augury for immortality.” The only immortality that will interest him is that which Spinoza describes.

“He who lives in the ideal,” says Santayana, “and leaves it expressed in society or in art enjoys a double immortality. The eternal has absorbed him while he lived, and when he is dead his influence brings others to the same absorption, making them, through that ideal identity with the best in him, reincarnations and perennial seats of all in him which he could rationally hope to rescue from destruction. He can say, without any subterfuge or desire to delude himself, that he shall not wholly die; for he will have a better notion than the vulgar of what constitutes his being. By becoming the spectator and confessor of his own death and of universal mutation, he will have identified himself with what is spiritual in all spirits and masterful in all apprehension; and so conceiving himself, he may truly feel and know that he is eternal.”

He who lives in the ideal and leaves it expressed in society or in art enjoys a double immortality. 

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