Realms of BeingRealms of Being by George Santayana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mind was not created for the sake of discovering the absolute truth.

George Santayana wrote the four volumes of The Realms of Being over a period of about twenty years. The first volume, The Realm of Essence, was published in 1927 after several years of work; and the last volume did not appear until 1942. When published together, the work fills some 850 dense pages, making it comparable in bulk and bearing with The Phenomenology of Spirit, Being and Time, Being and Nothingness, and other metaphysical monsters. And yet the book received a lukewarm reception during Santayana’s lifetime and has not found a more receptive audience since. So what is in here that Santayana found worthy to devote his final years to?

On the surface The Realms of Being is a metaphysical system. Like a philosopher king, Santayana divides up Being into four territories: Essence, Matter, Truth, and Spirit. Each book is devoted to one of these lands, attempting to delineate its borders and chart its geography. Santayana begins with “essence.” For my part I think this term poorly chosen, since his doctrine has nothing to do with essentialism. Rather, Santayana means “form” in the Aristotelian sense. An essence is any form at all—whether given in sensation, defined in thought, or manifested in the universe. Essence is just pure distinction, any and every quality that differentiates one thing from another. So the look of the Mona Lisa under bright lighting is one essence; the look of the same painting under dim lighting is another essence; and so on, for every distinction imaginable.

According to Santayana, essence does not and cannot “exist”—that is, be a part of the physical universe. Yes, an essence can be temporarily manifested in the universe; but its real being consist purely in its qualities, purely in the fact that it can be distinguished. Mathematics and logic, for Santayana, are just systems of essences; they have no existence save their defined qualities. Since essence consists in pure distinction, the realm of essence is infinite and eternal. Form must be possible before any real thing manifests form. Thus essence logically precedes existence, and is unaffected by existence. And since the vast majority of possible forms will neither be manifested nor imagined, the realm of essence is mostly unexplored and unguessed at.

Matter is precisely the opposite. Matter is the very thing that an essence cannot capture, since it consists of substance, change, and duration. Matter takes up space and morphs through time. Matter is not controlled or guided by any essence, though some essences—such as the equations of physics—may help us to understand how matter behaves, at least locally. But why matter exists in the first place is inexplicable; and whether matter might behave otherwise in other circumstances is unknowable. If the realm of essence is like a shop full of empty dresses, matter is like an impatient child who tries on every dress in an unpredictable order, thus momentarily bringing the essence to life. Matter is the principle of existence.

The historical path that matter charts through essence is Santayana’s realm of truth. It is all the essences that have been, are, and will be manifested in the material universe. Again, Santayana’s choice of term is puzzling, since most philosophers would call this “reality,” reserving the name “truth” for the quality of being correct about reality. But Santayana thought it important to use historical terminology, which is why he called his last realm “spirit,” when his meaning is far closer to “consciousness.” Spirit is the awareness of any creature alive in the universe. Now, for Santayana consciousness has no function in the survival of an organism, since spirit is entirely impotent. Thus the task of spirit is merely to observe and enjoy the world.

This is Santayana’s system in a nutshell. I consider the above paragraphs a fair summary of the basic facets of his realms, and they took me about half an hour and barely a page of writing. So why did Santayana need twenty years and 800 pages? This is because the book is not quite what it at first purports to be—that is, a metaphysical system. Santayana himself disavows having written an ontology of the world: “I am not concerned in these Realms of Being with alleged separate substances or independent regions. I am endeavoring only to distinguish the types of reality that I encounter; and the lines of cleavage that I discern are moral and logical, not physical, chasms.”

Putting aside for the moment whether this can be accepted, let us look at what else The Realms of Being might be. Santayana’s style is certainly not that of a Kant expounding his system. As always, he is suave, eloquent, and cultured. The organization of the book is also not exactly systematic—one part building on the other, with appropriate subdivisions and appendixes—but thematic, tackling different subjects chapter by chapter. All together, The Realms of Being seems more like a series of humanistic essays on metaphysical themes rather than a system of ontology itself. Seen in that light, the book has considerable merits. Santayana was a penetrating cultural critic, and here serves as a sort of critic on the highest planes of abstraction.

Aside from the metaphysical and the humanistic, there is a third aspect to this book: the spiritual. In this way, Santayana’s book is comparable to the Enneads of Plotinus, an ontology that serves as the backbone for meditative or mystical practices. Santayana’s own system is entirely secular and naturalistic. For him, spirituality consists in the mind’s absorption in the realm of essence—in the pure contemplation of form. Remember that, for Santayana, consciousness is entirely impotent; consciousness itself has no power to change anything, but is just a kind of byproduct of the brain. Thus all the suffering we go through in our way through the world, and all the worrying and fretting we do about ourselves, is just a waste. Santayana’s solution to this predicament has much in common with Proust’s—the appreciation of essence, stripped of all attachment to the material world—although Santayana does not consider memory vital for this task.

Here are three ways that this book can be read. Yet, though it is rich with ideas and pungent with wit, The Realms of Being is not wholly satisfying either as a metaphysical treatise, a humanistic critique, or a spiritual guide. First, Santayana is difficult to take seriously as a philosopher because he never deigns to argue: “Technical philosophy abounds in unnecessary problems, which the truly wise will not trouble about, seeing that they are insoluble or solved best by not raising them.” While I fully agree with Santayana that the disputatious tone and nit-picking arguments of philosophy can be wearisome, I also think that mere assertion is hardly less irritating. Indeed, for all his literary excellence, Santayana failed to understand the rhetorical purpose of an argument. To give reasons for an opinion is not pure quarrelsomeness. By understanding the author’s reasons for believing something and for finding it worth writing about, the reader better understands both the what and the why of the point.

Santayana seemingly wants to play an impossible double game by writing metaphysics and then disclaiming metaphysics. He scorns professional philosophers and their subject; and yet who else could be interested in this book? And what does he mean by saying that his realms of being are mere logical or moral categories? The definitions that he gives of his realms are undeniably metaphysical in the traditional sense. Thus I see no way that he can escape from the necessity of arguing his points, unless Santayana escapes into pure subjectivism, claiming only to describe his own experience of reality. But then what would be the point of the book, aside from autobiography? And as a spiritual guide, the book hardly fares better. For Santayana’s main insight—to live absorbed in the moment—is widely preached, without all of the ontological baggage Santayana attaches to it.

The Realms of Being is most successful when read as a collection of critical essays. For Santayana does bring an unusual perspective to bear on many traditional problems of philosophy—the nature of logic, truth, mind, and so on—and writes with the polished elegance that is his trademark. As I hope my updates of the book have shown, these pages brim with epigrams and ideas, touching on a vast intellectual territory.

And yet it must be said that, even here, Santayana is not beyond criticism. Bertrand Russell summed up Santayana’s defect as a writer by comparing his style to a river so wide and so placid that you cannot tell you are moving. This is to say that, when reading Santayana, it can be easy to lose track of where he is going or why he is going there. Partly because of the lack of argument, his train of thought is never obvious; and so elegant sentence follows elegant sentence without apparent direction or design. The final result is that it is easy to put the book down without being able to remember what it was about.

For these reasons I would rank this book behind Santayana’s Scepticism and Animal Faith, which was intended as a critical introduction to The Realms of Being but which adequately sums up the system as well as provides an epistemological argument. Nevertheless, I do not regret reading this book. Santayana’s writing is suffused with a kind of infectious calm, bordering on languor, as if he is an ambrosia-sipping god looking down from Olympian heights. It is invigorating to see somebody so sure of himself, so willing to think in his own terms, so careless of approval. I envy his detachment and his self-assurance even if I do not adopt his system.

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