Durant 1926: Comment (Santayana)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 1.6 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

6. Comment

There is in all these pages something of the melancholy of a man separated from all that he loves and was accustomed to a man deracine (uprooted), a Spanish aristocrat exiled to middle-class America. A secret sadness sometimes breaks forth: “That life is worth living,” he says, “is the most necessary of assumptions, and, were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.” In the first volume of “The Life of Reason” he talks of the plot and meaning of human life and history as the subject of philosophy; in the last volume he wonders is there a meaning, or a plot? He has unconsciously described his own tragedy: “There is tragedy in perfection, because the universe in which perfection arises is itself imperfect.” Like Shelley, Santayana has never felt at home on this middling planet; his keen esthetic sense seems to have brought to him more suffering from the ugliness of things than delight in the scattered loveliness of the world. He becomes at times bitter and sarcastic; he has never caught the hearty cleansing laughter of paganism, nor the genial and forgiving humanity of Renan or Anatole France. He stands aloof and superior, and therefore alone. “What is the part of wisdom?” he asks; and answers—“To dream with one eye open; to be detached from the world without being hostile to it; to welcome fugitive beauties and pity fugitive sufferings, without forgetting for a moment how fugitive they are.”

Santayana has never caught the hearty cleansing laughter of paganism, nor the genial and forgiving humanity of Renan or Anatole France. He stands aloof and superior, and therefore alone.

But perhaps this constant memento mori (remember that you must die) is a knell to joy; to live, one must remember life more than death; one must embrace the immediate and actual thing as well as the distant and perfect hope. “The goal of speculative thinking is none other than to live as much as may be in the eternal, and to absorb and be absorbed in the truth.” But this is to take philosophy more seriously than even philosophy deserves to be taken; and a philosophy which withdraws one from life is as much awry as any celestial superstition in which the eye, rapt in some vision of another world, loses the meat and wine of this one. “Wisdom comes by disillusionment,” says Santayana; but again that is only the beginning of wisdom, as doubt is the beginning of philosophy; it is not also the end and fulfillment. The end is happiness, and philosophy is only; a means; if we take it as an end we become like the Hindu mystic whose life-purpose is to concentrate upon his navel.

To live, one must remember life more than death; one must embrace the immediate and actual thing as well as the distant and perfect hope. A philosophy which withdraws one from life is as much awry as any celestial superstition in which the eye, rapt in some vision of another world, loses the meat and wine of this one. 

Perhaps Santayana’s conception of the universe as merely a material mechanism has something to do with this sombre withdrawal into himself; having taken life out of the world, he seeks for it in his own bosom. He protests that it is not so; and though we may not believe him, his too-much protesting disarms us with its beauty:

A theory is not an unemotional thing. If music can be full of passion, merely by giving form to a single sense, how much more beauty or terror may not a vision be pregnant with which brings order and method into everything that we know. … If you are in the habit of believing in special providences, or of expecting to continue your romantic adventures in a second life, materialism will dash your hopes most unpleasantly, and you may think for a year or two that you have nothing left to live for. But a thorough materialist, one born to the faith and not half plunged into it by an unexpected christening in cold water, will be like the superb Democritus, a laughing philosopher. His delight in a mechanism that can fall into so many marvellous and beautiful shapes, and can generate so many exciting passions, should be of the same intellectual quality as that which the visitor feels in a museum of natural history, where he views the myriad butterflies in their cases, the flamingoes and shell-fish, the mammoths and gorillas. Doubtless there were pangs in that incalculable life; but they were soon over; and how splendid meantime was the pageant, how infinitely interesting the universal interplay, and how foolish and inevitable those absolute little passions.

Perhaps Santayana’s conception of the universe as merely a material mechanism has something to do with this sombre withdrawal into himself; having taken life out of the world, he seeks for it in his own bosom. 

But perhaps the butterflies, if they could speak, would remind us that a museum (like a materialist philosophy) is only a show-case of lifeless things; that the reality of the world eludes these tragic preservations, and resides again in the pangs of passion, in the ever-changing and never-ending flow of life. “Santayana,” says an observant friend,

had a natural preference for solitude. … I remember leaning over the railing of an ocean liner anchored at Southampton and watching passengers from the English tender crowd up the gang-plank to the steamer; one only stood apart at the edge of the tender, with calm and amused detachment observed the haste and struggle of his fellow-passengers, and not till the deck had been cleared, followed himself. ‘Who could it be but Santayana?’ a voice said beside me; and we all felt the satisfaction of finding a character true to himself.

Perhaps the reality of the world eludes these tragic preservations, and resides again in the pangs of passion, in the ever-changing and never-ending flow of life.

After all, we must say just that, too, of his philosophy: it is a veracious and fearless self-expression; here a mature and subtle, though too sombre, soul has written itself down quietly, in statuesque and classic prose. And though we may not like its minor key, its undertone of sweet regret for a vanished world, we see in it the finished expression of this dying and nascent age, in which men cannot be altogether wise and free, because they have abandoned their old ideas and have not yet found the new ones that shall lure them nearer to perfection.

Santayana’s philosophy is a veracious and fearless self-expression; here a mature and subtle, though too sombre, soul has written itself down quietly, in statuesque and classic prose. 

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