Durant 1926: Reason in Society (Santayana)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 1.5 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

5. Reason in Society

The great problem of philosophy is to devise a means whereby men may be persuaded to virtue without the stimulus of supernatural hopes and fears. Theoretically it solved this problem twice; both in Socrates and in Spinoza it gave the world a sufficiently perfect system of natural or rational ethics. If men could be moulded to either philosophy, all would be well. But “a truly rational morality or social regimen has never existed in the world, and is hardly to be looked for”; it remains the luxury of philosophers. “A philosopher has a haven in himself, of which I suspect the fabled bliss to follow in other lives … is only a poetic symbol; he has pleasure in truth, and an equal readiness to enjoy the scene or quit it” (though one may observe a certain obstinate longevity in him). For the rest of us the avenue of moral development must lie, in the future as in the past, in the growth of those social emotions which bloom in the generous atmosphere of love and the home.”

The great problem of philosophy is to devise a means whereby men may be persuaded to virtue without the stimulus of supernatural hopes and fears. Man is naturally attuned to the stimulus of reward and punishment instead of rational ethics.

It is true, as Schopenhauer argued, that love is a deception practised upon the individual by the race; that “nine-tenths of the cause of love are in the lover, for one-tenth that may be in the object”; and that love “fuses the soul again into the impersonal blind flux.” Nevertheless, love has its recompenses; and in his greatest sacrifice man finds his happiest fulfilment. “Laplace is reported to have said on his deathbed that science was mere trifling, and that nothing was real but love.” After all, romantic love, despite its poetical delusions, ends normally in a relationship—of parent and child—far more satisfying to the instincts than any celibate security. Children are our immortality; and “we commit the blotted manuscript of our lives more willingly to the flames, when we find the immortal text half engrossed in a fairer copy.”

Nevertheless, love has its recompenses; and in his greatest sacrifice man finds his happiest fulfillment. Even romantic love ends normally in a relationship—of parent and child—far more satisfying to the instincts than any celibate security. 

The family is the avenue of human perpetuity, and therefore still the basic institution among men; it could carry on the race even if all other institutions failed. But it can conduct civilization only to a certain simple pitch; further development demands a larger and more complex system in which the family ceases to be the productive unit, loses its control over the economic relations of its members, and finds its authority and its powers more and more appropriated by the state. The state may be a monster, as Nietzsche called it; a monster of unnecessary size; but its centralized tyranny has the virtue of abolishing the miscellaneous and innumerable petty tyrannies by which life was of old pestered and confined. One master pirate, accepting tribute quietly, is better than a hundred pirates, taking toll without warning and without stint.

The family is the avenue of human perpetuity, but the development of the society demands a larger and more complex system in which the family finds its authority and its powers more and more appropriated by the state. 

Hence, in part, the patriotism of the people; they know that the price they pay for government is cheaper than the cost of chaos. Santayana wonders whether such patriotism does more harm than good; for it tends to attach the stigma of disloyalty to advocates of change. “To love one’s country, unless that love is quite blind and lazy, must involve a distinction between the country’s actual condition and its inherent ideal; and this distinction in turn involves a demand for changes and for effort.” On the other hand, race patriotism is indispensable. “Some races are obviously superior to others. A more thorough adjustment to the conditions of existence has given their spirit victory, scope, and a relative stability.” Hence intermarriage is perilous, except between races of acknowledged equality and stability. “The Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the English, were never so great as when they confronted other nations, reacting against them and at the same time, perhaps, adopting their culture; but this greatness fails inwardly whenever contact leads to amalgamation.”

People know that the price they pay for government is cheaper than the cost of chaos. Patriotism must involve a distinction between the country’s actual condition and its inherent ideal, that spurs the effort for changes. The intermarriage between races should spur changes as well.

The great evil of the state is its tendency to become an engine of war, a hostile fist shaken in the face of a supposedly inferior world. Santayana thinks that no people has ever won a war.

Where parties and governments are bad, as they are in most ages and countries, it makes practically no difference to a community, apart from local ravages, whether its own army or the enemy’s is victorious in war. … The private citizen in any event continues in such countries to pay a maximum of taxes and to suffer, in all his private interests, a maximum of vexation and neglect. Nevertheless … the oppressed subject will glow like the rest with patriotic ardor, and will decry as dead to duty and honor anyone who points out how perverse is this helpless allegiance to a government representing no public interest.

The great evil of the state is its tendency to become an engine of war, a hostile fist shaken in the face of a supposedly inferior world.

This is strong language for a philosopher; but let us have our Santayana unexpurgated. Often enough, he thinks, conquest and absorption by a larger state is a step forward toward the organization and pacification of mankind; it would be a boon to all the world if all the world were ruled by some great power or group of powers, as all the world was once ruled by Rome, first with the sword and then with the word.

The universal order once dreamt of and nominally almost established, the empire of universal peace, all-permeating rational art, and philosophical worship, is mentioned no more. … Those dark ages, from which our political practice is derived, had a political theory we should do well to study; for their theory about a universal empire and a catholic church was in tum the echo of a former age of reason when a few men conscious of ruling the world had for a moment sought to survey it as a whole and to rule it justIy.*

* Referring, no doubt, to the age of the Antonines, and implicitly accepting the judgment of Gibbon and Renan that this was the finest period in the history of government.

Santayana favors all the world ruled by some great power or group of powers, as all the world was once ruled by Rome, first with the sword and then with the word.

Perhaps the development of international sports may give some outlet to the spirit of group rivalry, and serve in some measure as “a moral equivalent for war”; and perhaps the cross-investments of finance may overcome the tendency of trade to come to blows for the markets of the world. Santayana is not so enamored of industry as Spencer was; he knows its militant as well as its pacific side: and all in all, he feels more at ease in the atmosphere of an ancient aristocracy than in the hum of a modern metropolis. We produce too much, and are swamped with the things we make; “things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” as Emerson put it. “In a world composed entirely of philosophers an hour or two a day of manual labor—a very welcome quality—would provide for material wants.” England is wiser than the United States; for though she too is obsessed with the mania for production, she has in at least a portion of her people realized the value and the arts of leisure.

Santayana is not so enamored of industry as Spencer was; he knows its militant as well as its pacific side: and all in all, he feels more at ease in the atmosphere of an ancient aristocracy than in the hum of a modern metropolis.

He thinks that such culture as the world has known has always been the fruit of aristocracies.

Civilization has hitherto consisted in the diffusion and dilution of habits arising in privileged centres. It has not sprung from the people; it has arisen in their midst by a variation from them, and it has afterward imposed itself on them from above. … A state composed exclusively of such workers and peasants as make up the bulk of modern nations would be an utterly barbarous state. Every liberal tradition would perish in it; and the rational and historic essence of patriotism itself would be lost. The emotion of it, no doubt, would endure, for it is not generosity that the people lack. They possess every impulse; it is experience that they cannot gather, for in gathering it they would be constituting those higher organs that make up an aristocratic society.

Santayana thinks that such culture as the world has known has always been the fruit of aristocracies.

He dislikes the ideal of equality, and argues with Plato that the equality of unequals is inequality. Nevertheless he does not quite sell himself to aristocracy; he knows that history has tried it and found its virtues very well balanced by its defects; that it closes career to unpedigreed talent, that it chokes the growth, in all but a narrow line, of just those superiorities and values that aristocracy would, in theory, develop and use. It makes for culture, but also it makes for tyranny; the slavery of millions pays for the liberty of a few. The first principle of politics should be that a society is to be judged by the measure in which it enhances the life and capacities of its constituent individuals;—“but for the excellence of the typical single life no nation deserves to be remembered more than the sands of the sea.” From this point of view, democracy is a great improvement on aristocracy. But it too has its evils; not merely its corruption and its incompetence, but worse, its own peculiar tyranny, the fetish of uniformity. “There is no tyranny so hateful as a vulgar, anonymous tyranny. It is all-permeating, all-thwarting; it blasts every budding novelty and sprig of genius with its omnipresent and fierce stupidity.”

The first principle of politics should be that a society is to be judged by the measure in which it enhances the life and capacities of its constituent individuals. At the same time, equality and uniformity should not be the goal.

What Santayana despises above all is the chaos and indecent haste of modern life. He wonders was there not more happiness for men in the old aristocratic doctrine that the good is not liberty, but wisdom, and contentment with one’s natural restrictions; the classical tradition knew that only a few can win. But now that democracy has opened the great free-for-all, catch-as-catch-can wrestling match of laissez-faire industrialism, every soul is torn with climbing, and no one knows content. Classes war against one another without restraint; and “whoever is victorious in this struggle (for which liberalism cleared the field) will make an end of liberalism.” This is the nemesis of revolutions, too: that in order to survive they must restore the tyranny which they destroyed.

Revolutions are ambiguous things. Their success is generally proportionate to their power of adaptation and to the reabsorption within them of what they rebelled against. A thousand reforms have left the world as corrupt as ever, for each successful reform has founded a new institution, and this institution has bred its new and congenial abuses.

What Santayana despises above all is the chaos and indecent haste of modern life. The good is not liberty, but wisdom, and contentment with one’s natural restrictions. Revolutions end up restoring the tyranny which they destroyed.

What form of society, then, shall we strive for? Perhaps for none; there is not much difference among them. But if for anyone in particular, for “timocracy.” This would be government by men of merit and honor; it would he an aristocracy, but not hereditary; every man and woman would have an open road according to ability, to the highest offices in the state; but the road would be closed to incompetence, no matter how richly furnished it might be with plebiscites. “The only equality subsisting would be equality of opportunity.” Under such a government corruption would be at a minimum, and science and the arts would flourish through discriminating encouragement. It would be just that synthesis of democracy and aristocracy which the world pines for in the midst of its political chaos today: only the best would rule; but every man would have an equal chance to make himself worthy to be numbered among the best.—It is, of course, Plato over again, the philosopher-kings of the Republic appearing inevitably on the horizon of every far-seeing political philosophy. The longer we think about these matters the more surely we return to Plato. We need no new philosophy; we need only the courage to live up to the oldest and the best.

We shall strive for a form of society which would be government by men of merit and honor. it would he an aristocracy, but not hereditary. Every man and woman would have an open road according to ability, to the highest offices in the state; but the road would be closed to incompetence. “The only equality subsisting would be equality of opportunity.”

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Comments

  • Chris Thompson  On May 29, 2022 at 8:11 AM

    “People know that the price they pay for government is cheaper than the cost of chaos.”

    This seems to derive from the assumption that any order is better than less order. That any entropy is worse than less entropy. Therefore, the current authoritarian leaning in politics.

    We can observe an example of this when we look at American jurisprudence and the tomes of information used to codify our laws. Our Department of Justice has achieved a high level of entropy. Because of this, justice in this current society is difficult to achieve, and impossible to define.

    Bloated government of today is achieving the chaos that it was supposed to have organized. Having lost the narrative as defined by The Founders. Today’s government seeks its own preservation and growth rather than that of the citizenry and country.

    I how you and Jyoti had a pleasant day together and take a pause to reflect on the tremendous gift our country’s Founders and subsequent defenders gave us. 🙂

  • vinaire  On May 30, 2022 at 4:12 AM

    According to Santayana, there is need for order on a larger scale in a society. Families are suited to bring order in a smaller sphere. When it comes to bringing order on a larger scale, a government is needed.

    The best way to bring this order, according to the American experiment, is to have uniformly applicable laws to enhance the life and capacities of its constituent individuals.

    The current situation in America is that its constituent individuals do not feel that their life and capacities are being enhanced. I wonder if the Church of Scientology is getting into this arena in a hidden way. They have big money.

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