The Life of Reason by George Santayana
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
George Santayana, in both his life and mind, was the embodiment of several contradictions. He was a European raised in America; a Spaniard who wrote in English; a philosopher who despised professional philosophy. He was an atheist who loved religion, a materialist who loved ideals. His writings seem somehow both strangely ancient and strikingly modern; he cannot be comfortably assimilated into either the analytic or continental traditions, nor dismissed as irrelevant. He stands alone, an intellectual hermit—like an embarrassing orphaned child that history can’t decide what to do with.
What is, at first, most conspicuous about Santayana is his writing style. His prose is elegance and balance itself. His style is, in fact, so supremely balanced that it seems to stand stock-still; the reader, instead of being drawn from sentence to sentence by the usual push and pull of connectives, must guide her own eye down the page, just as one might guide one’s eye across a painting. Will Durant summed this up quite nicely when he called Santayana’s writing “statuesque”; I can think of no better word it. Yet if his prose be a statue, it is a beautiful one; like a Greek nude, Santayana’s writing seems to both represent something real, as well as to capture the ideal essence hidden within—and this, you will see, is a feature of his mind as well as pen.
A dream is always simmering beneath the conventional surface of speech and reflection. Even in the highest reaches and serenest meditations of science it sometimes breaks through. Even there we are seldom constant enough to conceive a truly natural world; somewhere passionate, fanciful, or magic elements will slip into the scheme and baffle rational ambition.
This book, his most influential, is about the Life of Reason. It is a simple idea. We all know from experience that every desire we possess cannot and will not be satisfied. Even the richest and most powerful are saddled with unrealizable dreams. And these dreams and desires, Santayana notes, are not in themselves rational; in fact, there is no such thing as a rational or irrational desire. All desires, taken on their own terms, are simply givens.
Rationality comes in when we must decide what to do with our various wishes and wants. The Life of Reason consists in selecting a subset of our desires, and pruning off all the rest; more specifically, it consists in selecting the subset of our desires that consists in the greatest number that do not thwart one another. No single desire is itself rational, but a combination of desires may be:
In itself, a desire to see a child grow and prosper is just as irrational as any other absolute desire; but since the child also desires his own happiness, the child’s will sanctions and supports the father’s. Thus two irrationalities, when they conspire, make one rational life.
This is what we all already do—at least, to a certain extent. The key is to think of everything we desire, and to select those desires which go harmoniously together, neglecting all discordant impulses; and this harmony is our ideal towards which we strive. There is, indeed, a certain tragedy in this, for the Life of Reason requires that we choke off all incompatible desires, and thus eliminate a part of ourselves; yet this tragedy is unavoidable. All life, even exceedingly happy life, has some tragedy; our lives are too short and the universe too indifferent to satisfy our every whim:
Injustice in this world is not something comparative; the wrong is deep, clear, and absolute in each private fate.
All this seems very commonsensical, and it is. But note that this commits you to a certain type of moral relativism: relativism of the individual. Santayana is in agreement with Aristotle in thinking that happiness is the aim of life: “Happiness is the only sanction of life; where happiness fails, existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment.”
And since happiness is achieved by satisfying certain desires—somatic, sensual, or spiritual—and since desires spring from irrational impulses that we cannot control, every person’s happiness will, or at least might, be different. What would be the ideal Life of Reason for one man is a living nightmare for another. We can only prune and harmonize the desires we are given; we cannot manufacture desires and change our natures. We are given a set of propensities and potentialities, and it is the task of a reasonable life to realize them as best we can.
This, I think, is the core of this book; yet it is far from being the only attraction. Santayana’s mind is curious and roving, and in this volume he covers a huge territory. Just as Santayana’s style transforms imperfect bodies into perfect statues, so his mind is concerned with finding the ideal form in all things human. He commences a survey of governments, and concludes that a timocracy (or meritocracy) is the best form. Santayana would have total equality of opportunity, not in order to establish a perfect communism, but to select those whose natures are the best fitted to advance. Thus, he advocates a kind of natural aristocracy. (Not being a very practical man by nature, Santayana doesn’t speculate how such a perfect state could be realized.)
Santayana explores the history of morals and the morals of history; he discusses science and its purported rivals. He is an ardent naturalist, and espouses a rather pragmatic view of truth: “Science is a bridge touching experience at both ends, over which practical thought may travel from act to act, from perception to perception.” Yet I think Santayana is most refreshing when he discusses religion.
When Santayana wrote this book, he was living in a time that was, in one respect at least, very similar to our own: there was a bitter clash between science and religion. Like now, there were several thorny atheists ridiculing and dismissing religion as nonsense; and, like now, there were dogmatists who took their myths literally. Santayana is at home in neither camp; he thinks both views miss the point entirely.
Religious rituals and myths should be treated like poetry; they do not represent literal truths, but moral ones. To mistake the story in the Book of Genesis for a scientific hypothesis would be as egregious as mistaking Paradise Lost for a phonebook. The myths and stories of religions are products of culture, which express, in symbolic guise, deep truths about one’s history, society, and self. Thus, both the bilious atheists and the doctrinaire devotees were overlooking what was beautiful in religion:
Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.
This brings me to my original point: that Santayana was the embodiment of several contradictions. He holds no supernatural beliefs, yet admires religions for their deep artistic power. He is a materialist, yet thinks that life must be organized around an ideal. He is a naturalist in thinking that science is the key to truth; but he holds that science is a mere efficacious representation of reality, not reality itself. He seems antiquated in his love of aristocracy, yet modern in his relativism. He seems, from a modern point of view, analytic in his pragmatic attitude to truth and his emphasis on reason; yet he is, unlike analytic philosophers, greatly preoccupied with aesthetics, ethics, and history.
Certainly, Santayana is not without his shortcomings. Although his prose is beautiful, his concern for beauty often leads him to select a phrase for being tuneful rather than clear; the reader often expresses the half-wish that Santayana would write with less prettiness and more directness. His concern for beauty affects the content as well; he very seldom puts forward careful arguments for his positions, but more often resorts to putting them forth as attractively as possible. But I cannot help forgiving him for his faults.
For me, reading this book was a sort of thoughtful meditation; one must read it slowly and with great attention, carefully unwrapping the germinal thoughts from the flower petals in which Santayana enfolds them, so that they may bloom in your mind’s soil. Santayana may indeed be a hermit of history; yet because of his solitude, reading him is an escape from the bustle and noise of the world, a reprieve from the normal tired controversies and paradoxes, a diversion as refreshing and revitalizing as cool water.