Category Archives: Philosophy

Durant 1926: Pluralism (William James)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 2.3 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.

.

II. WILLIAM JAMES

3. Pluralism

Let us apply this method to the oldest problem in philosophy—the existence and nature of God. The Scholastic philosophers described the deity as “Ens a se extra et supra omne genus, necessarium, unum, infinite, perfectum, simplex, immutabile, immensum, eternum, intelligens.” (Being from itself outside and above every genus, necessary, one, infinite, perfect, simple, unchangeable, immense, eternal, intelligent.) This is magnificent; what deity would not be proud of such a definition? But what does it mean?—what are its consequences for mankind? If God is omniscient and omnIpotent, we are puppets; there is nothing that we can do to change the course of destiny which His will has from the beginning delineated and decreed; Calvinism and fatalism are the logical corollaries of such a definition. The same test applied to mechanistic determinism issues in the same results: if we really believed in determinism we would become Hindu mystics and abandon ourselves at once to the immense fatality which uses us as marionettes. Of course we do not accept these sombre philosophies; the human intellect repeatedly proposes them because of their logical simplicity and symmetry, but life ignores and overflows them, and passes on.

A philosophy may be unimpeachable in other respects, but either of two defects will be fatal to its universal adoption. First, its ultimate principle must not be one that essentially baffles and disappoints our dearest desires and most cherished hopes. … But a second and worse defect in a philosophy than contradicting our active propensities is to give them no object whatever to press against. A philosophy whose principle is so incommensurate with our most intimate powers as to deny them all relevancy in universal affairs, as to annihilate their motives at one blow, will be even more unpopular than pessimism. …That is why materialism will always fail of universal adoption.

God is the earliest generalization of the fact of this universe. But if you assign to it an ultimate cause, its effect is to turn man into a puppet, subject to a predetermined destiny. The same test applied to mechanistic determinism issues in the same results. This universe is not entirely mechanical.

Men accept or reject philosophies, then, according to their needs and their temperaments, not according to “objective truth”; they do not ask, Is this logical?—they ask, What will the actual practice or this philosophy mean for our lives and our interests? Arguments for and against may serve to illuminate, but they never prove.

Logic and sermons never convince;
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul. …
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions.
They may prove well in lecture rooms, yet not prove at
all under the spacious clouds, and along the landscape and
flowing currents.

The “objective truth” of philosophy arrived at by logic is trumped over by what the actual practice of that philosophy mean for the lives and interests of men.

We know that arguments are dictated by our needs, and that our needs cannot be dictated to by arguments.

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. … Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises.

We know that arguments are dictated by our needs, and that our needs cannot be dictated to by arguments.

These temperaments which select and dictate philosophies may be divided into the tender-minded and the tough-minded. The tender-minded temperament is religious, it likes to have definite and unchanging dogmas and a priori truths; it takes naturally to free will, idealism, monism, and optimism. The tough-minded temperament is materialistic, irreligious, empiricist (going only on “facts”), sensationalistic (tracing all knowledge to sensation), fatalistic, pluralistic, pessimistic, sceptical. In each group there are gaping contradictions; and no doubt there are temperaments that select their theories partly from one group and partly from the other. There are people (William James, for example) who are “tough-minded” in their addiction to facts and in their reliance on the senses, and yet “tender-minded” in their horror of determinism and their need for religious belief. Can a philosophy be found that will harmonize these apparently contradictory demands?

There is demand to have religious beliefs, and yet there is also a demand to be skeptical. Can a philosophy be found that will harmonize these apparently contradictory demands?

James believes that pluralistic theism affords us such a synthesis. He offers a finite God, not an Olympian thunderer sitting aloof on a cloud, “but one helper, primus inter pares (first among equals), in the midst of all the shapers of the great world’s fate.” The cosmos is not a closed and harmonious system; it is a battle-ground of cross-currents and conflicting purposes; it shows itself, with pathetic obviousness, as not a uni- but a multi-verse. It is useless to say that this chaos in which we live and move is the result of one consistent will; it gives every sign of contradiction and division within itself. Perhaps the ancients were wiser than we, and polytheism may be truer than monotheism to the astonishing diversity of the world. Such polytheism ”has always been the real religion of common people, and is so still today.” The people are right, and the philosophers are wrong. Monism is the natural disease of philosophers, who hunger and thirst not (as they think) for truth, but for unity. “‘The world is One!’—the formula may become a sort of number-worship. ‘Three’ and ‘seven’ have, it is true, been reckoned as sacred numbers; but abstractly taken, why is ‘one’ more excellent than ‘forty-three,’ or than ‘two million and ten’?” *

* Pragmatism, p. 812. The answer, of course, is that unity, or one system of laws holding throughout the universe, facilitates explanation, predictIon, and control.

These apparently contradictory demands cannot be the result of one consistent will.  It gives every sign of contradiction and division within itself. Harmonization may be accomplished by accepting the pluralistic universe of the polytheist.

The value of a multiverse, as compared with a universe, lies in this, that where there are cross-currents and warring forces our own strength and will may count and help decide the issue; it is a world where nothing is irrevocably settled, and all action matters. A monistic world is for us a dead world; in such a universe we carry out, willy-nilly, the parts assigned to us by an omnipotent deity or a primeval nebula; and not all our tears can wipe out one word of the eternal script. In a finished universe individuality is a delusion; “in reality,” the monist assures us, we are all bits of one mosaic substance. But in an unfinished world we can write some lines of the parts we play, and our choices mould in some measure the future in which we have to live. In such a world we can be free; it is a world of chance, and not of fate; everything is “not quite”; and what we are or do may alter everything. If Cleopatra’s nose, said Pascal, had been an inch longer or shorter, all history would have been changed.

This is an unfinished world where we can write some lines of the parts we play, and our choices mould in some measure the future in which we have to live. In such a world we can be free; it is a world of chance, and not of fate; everything is “not quite”; and what we are or do may alter everything.

The theoretical evidence for such free will, or such a multiverse, or such a finite God, is as lacking as for the opposite philosophies. Even the practical evidence may vary from person to person; it is conceivable that some may find better results, for their lives, from a deterministic than from a libertarian philosophy. But where the evidence is indecisive, our vital and moral interests should make the choice.

If there be any life that it is really better that we should lead, and if there be any idea which, if believed in, would help us to lead that life, then it would be really better for us to believe in that idea, unless, indeed, belief in it incidentally clashed with, other greater vital benefits.

It is conceivable that some may find better results, for their lives, from a deterministic than from a libertarian philosophy. But where the evidence is indecisive, our vital and moral interests should make the choice.

Now the persistence of the belief in God, is the best proof of its almost universal vital and moral value. James was amazed and attracted by the endless varieties of religious experience and belief; he described them with an artist’s sympathy, even where he most disagreed from them. He saw some truth in everyone of them, and demanded an open mind toward every new hope. He did not hesitate to affiliate himself with the Society for Psychical Research; why should not such phenomena, as well as others, be the object of patient examination? In the end, James was convinced of the reality of another—a spiritual—world.

I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history, the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangent to the wider life of things.

There are endless varieties of religious experience and belief. There is some truth in everyone of them. They all should be an object of patient examination. There is much more to this universe than what we understand.

Nevertheless he did not think of philosophy as a meditation on death; no problems had value for him unless they could guide and stimulate our terrestrial career. “It was with the excellencies, not the duration, of our natures, that he occupied himself.” He did not live in his study so much as in the current of life; he was an active worker in a hundred efforts for human betterment; he was always helping somebody, lifting men up with the contagion of his courage. He believed that in every individual there were “reserve energies” which the occasional midwifery of circumstance would bring forth; and his constant sermon, to the individual and to society, was a plea that these resources should be entirely used. He was horrified at the waste of human energy in war; and he suggested that these mighty impulses of combat and mastery could find a better outlet in a “war against nature.” Why should not every man, rich or poor, give two years of his life to the state, not for the purpose of killing other people, but to conquer the plagues, and drain the marshes, and irrigate the deserts, and dig the canals, and democratically do the physical and social engineering which builds up so slowly and painfully what war so quickly destroys?

James did not live in his study so much as in the current of life. He believed that in every individual there were “reserve energies” which the occasional midwifery of circumstance would bring forth. Such energies must be put to productive use.

He sympathized with socialism, but he disliked its deprecation of the individual and the genius. Taine’s formula, which reduced all cultural manifestations to “race, environment, and time,” was inadequate precisely because it left out the individual. But only the individual has value; everything else is a means—even philosophy. And so we need on the one hand a state which shall understand that it is the trustee and servant of the interests of individual men and women; and on the other a philosophy and a faith which shall “offer the universe as an adventure rather than a scheme,” and shall stimulate every energy by holding up the world as a place where, though there are many defeats, there are also victories waiting to be won.

A shipwrecked sailor, buried on this coast,
Bids you set sail.
Full many a gallant bark, when we were lost,
Weathered the gale. *

* Quoted by James (Pragmatism, p. 297) from the Greek Anthology.

We need a state which shall understand that it is the trustee and servant of the interests of individual men and women. But we also need a philosophy and a faith which shall offer the universe as an adventure rather than a scheme.

.

Durant 1926: Pragmatism (William James)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 2.2 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.

.

II. WILLIAM JAMES

2. Pragmatism

The direction of his thought is always to things; and if he begins with psychology it is not as a metaphysician who loves to lose himself in ethereal obscurities, but as a realist to whom thought, however distinct it may be from matter, is essentially a mirror of external and physical reality. And, it is a better mirror than some have believed; it perceives and reflects not merely separate things, as Hume supposed, but their relations too; it sees everything in a context; and the context is as immediately given in perception as the shape and touch and odor of the thing. Hence the meaninglessness of Kant’s “problem of knowledge” (how do we put sense and order into our sensations?)—the sense and the order, in outline at least, are already there. The old atomistic psychology of the English school, which conceived thought as a series of separate ideas mechanically associated, is a misleading copy of physics and chemistry; thought is not a series, it is a stream, a continuity of perception and feeling, in which ideas are passing nodules like corpuscles in the blood. We have mental “states” (though this is again a misleadingly static term) that correspond to prepositions, verbs, adverbs and conjunctions, as well as “states” that reflect the nouns and pronouns of our speech; we have feelings of for and to and against and because and behind and after as well as of matter and men. It is these “transitive” elements in the flow of thought that constitute the thread of our mental life, and give us some measure of the continuity of things.

William James is a realist to whom thought, however distinct it may be from matter, is essentially a mirror of external and physical reality. It perceives and reflects not merely separate things but their relations too. It sees everything in a context; and the context is as immediately given in perception as the shape and touch and odor of the thing. 

Consciousness is not an entity, not a thing, but a flux and system of relations; it is a point at which the sequence and relationship of thoughts coincide illuminatingly with the sequence of events and the relationship of things. In such moments it is reality itself, and no mere “phenomenon,” that flashes into thought; for beyond phenomena and “appearances” there is nothing. Nor is there any need of going beyond the experience-process to a soul; the soul is merely the sum of our mental life, as the “Noumenon” is simply the total of all phenomena, and the “Absolute” the web of the relationships of the world.

Consciousness is a flux and system of relations; it is reality itself that flashes into thought. The soul is merely the sum of our mental life. The “Noumenon” is simply the total of all phenomena. The “Absolute” is the web of the relationships of the world.

It is this same passion for the immediate and actual and real that led James to pragmatism. Brought up in the school of French clarity, he abominated the obscurities and pedantic terminology of German metaphysics; and when Harris and others began to import a moribund Hegelianism into America, James reacted like a quarantine officer who has detected an immigrant infection. He was convinced that both the terms and the problems of German metaphysics were unreal; and he cast about him for some test of meaning which would show, to every candid mind, the emptiness of these abstractions.

Brought up in the school of French clarity, James abominated the obscurities and pedantic terminology of German metaphysics.

He found the weapon which he sought when, in 1878, he came upon an essay by Charles Peirce, in the Popular Science Monthly. on “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” To find the meaning of an idea, said Peirce, we must examine the consequences to which it leads in action; otherwise dispute about it may be without end, and will surely be without fruit. This was a lead which James was glad to follow; he tried the problems and ideas of the old metaphysics by this test, and they fell to pieces at its touch like chemical compounds suddenly shot through with a current of electricity. And such problems as had meaning took on a clearness and a reality as if, in Plato’s famous figure, they had passed out of the shadows of a cave into the brilliance of a sun-lit noon.

To find the meaning of an idea, we must examine the consequences to which it leads in action; otherwise dispute about it may be without end, and will surely be without fruit. 

This simple and old-fashioned test led James on to a new definition of truth. Truth had been conceived as an objective relation, as once good and beauty had been; now what if truth, like these, were also relative to human judgment and human needs? “Natural laws” had been taken as “objective” truths, eternal and unchangeable; Spinoza had made them the very substance of his philosophy; and yet what were these truths but formulations of experience, convenient and successful in practice; not copies of an object, but correct calculations of specific consequences? Truth is the “cash-value” of an idea.

The true … is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as “the right” is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient is almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole, of course; for what meets expediently all the experiences in sight won’t necessarily meet all further experiences equally satisfactorily. … Truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it. The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.

Truths are but formulations of experience, convenient and successful in practice; not copies of an object, but correct calculations of specific consequences. Truth is the “cash-value” of an idea.

Truth is a process, and “happens to an idea”; verity is verification. Instead of asking whence an idea is derived, or what are its premises, pragmatism examines its results; it “shifts the emphasis and looks forward”; it is “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities, and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” Scholasticism asked, What is the thing,—and lost itself in “quiddities”; Darwinism asked, What is its origin?—and lost itself in nebulas; pragmatism asks, What are its consequences?—and turns the face of thought to action and the future.

Truth is a process, and “happens to an idea”; verity is verification. Instead of asking whence an idea is derived, or what are its premises, pragmatism examines its results.

.

Durant 1926: Personal (William James)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 2.1 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.

.

II. WILLIAM JAMES

1. Personal

The reader will not need to be reminded that the philosophy which we have just summarized is a European philosophy in everything but the place of its composition. It has the nuances and polish and mellow resignation characteristic of an old culture; one could tell from any paragraph in the Life of Reason that this is no native American voice.

Santayana’s philosophy, though composed in America, is more European. 

In William James the voice and the speech and the very turn of phrase are American. He pounced eagerly upon such characteristic expressions as “cash-value,” and “results,” and “profits,” in order to bring his thought within the ken of the “man in the street”; he spoke not with the aristocratic reserve of a Santayana or a Henry James, but in a racy vernacular and with a force and directness, which made his philosophy of “‘pragmatism” and “reserve energy” the mental correlate of the “practical” and “strenuous” Roosevelt. And at the same time he phrased for the common man that “tender-minded” trust in the essentials of the old theology which lives side by side, in the American soul, with the realistic spirit of commerce and finance, and with the tough persistent courage that turned a wilderness into the promised land.

In William James the voice and the speech and the very turn of phrase are American. He spoke in a racy vernacular and with a force and directness with the realistic spirit of commerce and finance.

William James was born in New York City in 1842. His father was a Swedenborgian mystic, whose mysticism did no damage to his wit and humor; and the son was not lacking in any of the three. After some seasons in American private schools, William was sent with his brother Henry (one year his junior) to private schools in France. There they fell in with the work of Charcot and other psychopathologists, and took, both of them, a turn to psychology; one of them, to repeat an old phrase, proceeded to write fiction like psychology, while the other wrote psychology like fiction. Henry spent most of his life abroad, and finally became a British citizen. Through his more continuous contact with European culture he acquired a maturity of thought which his brother missed; but William, returning to live in America, felt the stimulation of a nation young in heart and rich in opportunity and hope, and caught so well the spirit of his age and place that he was lifted on the wings of the Zeitgeist to a lonely pinnacle of popularity such as no other American philosopher had ever known.

William James was raised in the mysticism of the Swedenborgian church, and later fell in with the work of Charcot and other psychopathologists. He felt the stimulation of a nation young in heart and rich in opportunity and hope, and caught the spirit of his age and place.

He took his M. D. at Harvard in 1870, and taught there from 1872 to his death in 1910, at first anatomy and physiology, and then psychology, and at last philosophy. His greatest achievement was almost his first—The Principles of Psychology (1890); a fascinating mixture of anatomy, philosophy and analysis; for in James psychology still drips from the foetal membranes of its mother, metaphysics. Yet the book remains the most instructive, and easily the most absorbing, summary of its subject; something of the subtlety which Henry put into his clauses helped William James to the keenest introspection which psychology had witnessed since the uncanny clarity of David Hume.

His greatest achievement was almost his first—The Principles of Psychology (1890); a fascinating mixture of anatomy, philosophy and analysis; for in James psychology still drips from the foetal membranes of its mother, metaphysics. 

This passion for illuminating analysis was bound to lead James from psychology to philosophy, and at last back to metaphysics itself; he argued (against his own positivist inclinations) that metaphysics is merely an effort to think things out clearly; and he defined philosophy, in his simple and pellucid manner, as “only thinking about things in the most comprehensive possible way.” So, after 1900, his publications were almost all in the field of philosophy. He began with The Will to Believe (1897); then, after a masterpiece of psychological interpretation—Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)—he passed on to his famous books on Pragmatism (1907); A Pluralistic Universe (1909), and The Meaning of Truth (1909). A year after his death came Some Problems of Philosophy (1911); and later, an important volume of Essays in Radical Empiricism (1912). We must begin our study with this last book, because it was in these essays that James formulated most clearly the bases of his philosophy. *

* The reader who has leisure for but one book of James’s should go directly to Pragmatism, which he will find a fountain of clarity as compared with most philosophy. If he has more time, he will derive abundant profit from the brilliant pages of the (unabbreviated) Psychology. Henry James has written two volumes of autobiography, in which there is much delightful gossip about William. Flournoy has a good volume of exposition, and Schinz’s Anti-Pragmatism is a vigorous criticism.

James argued that metaphysics is merely an effort to think things out clearly; and he defined philosophy as “only thinking about things in the most comprehensive possible way.” 

.

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.

.

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. 

.

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.

.

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.”

.