Quotes & Commentary #62: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #62: Santayana

Matters of religion should never be matters of controversy. We neither argue with a lover about his taste, nor condemn him, if we are just, for knowing so human a passion.

—George Santayana

This quote sums up the apparent futility of argument—not only about religion, but about so many things that arouse strong feeling. I have never seen, or even heard of, a discussion about religion or politics that ended with one of the participants being convinced. If anything, conversations about these topics seem only to entrench the opposing parties in their positions.

This occurrence appears common and universal; and yet its implications strike at one of the pillars of western thought—that rational arguments can be used to reach the truth and to convince others—as well as of liberal democracy, which rests on the ideal that, to paraphrase John Milton, truth emerges victorious from open encounters with untruth. If debate is really futile in matters religious (which involves our ultimate views of life and the universe) and politics (which involves our stance on society), then are we doomed to endless tribal bickering based on nothing more than group mentality?

I strongly wish that this wasn’t the case; but I admit that, judging on my actions in daily life, I have little faith in the power of reason in these matters. I tend to avoid topics like religion and politics, even among friends. Powerful emotions underpin these aspects of life; values and identity are implicated; and individual psychology—background, traumas, inadequacies—may render the action far removed from cold calculation.

To a large extent, admittedly, rationality has only a subsidiary role in decision-making. Hume was quite right, I believe, to call reason a “slave of the passions.” We are never motivated by reason alone; indeed I don’t even know what that would look like. We are motivated, instead, by desires, which are organic facts. In themselves, desires are neither rational nor irrational. Rationality only applies, first, when we are figuring our how to satisfy these desires; and, second, when multiple, conflicting desires are at play.

The desires to be skinny and to eat three pints of ice cream a day, for example, conflict with one another, and reasoning is needed to achieve a harmony between these two. A reasoner may realize that, however, delicious ice cream may be, the desire to be skinny is consonant with the strong desire to be healthy and live long, so the ice cream is reduced. Both internally, within our psyches, and externally, within society, reason is how we achieve the most satisfying balance of competing desires.

Since reason rests on a fundamentally non-rational bases—namely, desires—it may be the case that reason has no appeal. In politics, for example, somebody may crave equality, and another person freedom; and no argument could move or undermine these desires, since neither is rational in the first place. Different political orientations are rooted in different value systems; and values are nothing but orientations of desires.

But I think it is often the case that competing value systems have many points in common. Grave inequality can, for instance, curtail freedom; and enforced inequality can do the same. For either party, then, a satisfactory society cannot have absolute inequality, absolute equality, absolute freedom, or absolute slavery. These different values are therefore not totally at odds, but are merely different emphases of the same basic desires, different ways to harmonize competing pulls. And in cases like these, rational argument can help to achieve a compromise.

What about religion? Here the case seems somewhat different from politics, since religion is not just a question of values but involves a view of reality.

Admittedly, political ideologies also involve a certain view of reality. Each ideology comes with its own historical narrative. Sometimes these narratives are nothing but a tissue of lies, as with the Nazis; and even the most respectable political narrative may make some dubious assumptions. Nevertheless, the validity of political opinions is not purely a matter of the truth of their historical narrative. Somebody may genuinely desire communism even if everything they assert about the Soviet Union is wrong; and if debunking their history makes us doubtful of the possibility of satisfying their desire, it does not invalidate the desire itself.

With religion, to repeat, the case is somewhat different, since religions assert some set of facts about the universe; and without this set of facts, the religion falls to pieces. All of Marx’s theories of history may be wrong, but you can still rationally want a communist society. But a Christianity without a belief in a divine Jesus has lost its core. It is no longer a religion. In this way religion is decidedly not like falling in love, contrary to Santayana, since love, being pure desire, makes no assertion about the world.

This seems to put religions on a different footing, since they rest not only on desires, but beliefs. And if these beliefs prove incorrect or irrational, then the religion ceases to make sense. From my readings in history, science, philosophy, and theology, it seems quite clear to me that this is the case: that insofar as religious notions can be disproved, they have been; and insofar as they are unprovable, they are irrational to believe.

Indeed, I think with enough time I could explain this quite clearly to a believer. But I have never tried, since I am almost positive it wouldn’t work—that their religious beliefs would be impervious to argument. I also admit that the thought of doing so, of trying to talk someone out of a religion, makes me feel uneasy. It seems impolite and invasive to try to exert so much pressure on somebody’s fundamental beliefs. And even if I were successful, I believe I would feel somewhat guilty, like I had just told a child that Santa wasn’t real.

But is this uneasiness justified? If religions are truly irrational, based on a mistaken picture of the world, then they can give rise to unjustifiable actions. The religiously inspired fight against gay marriage, climate change, and abortion are excellent examples of this. Furthermore, if people habitually accept an irrational picture of the world, basing beliefs on religious authority rather than reasoned arguments, then perhaps they will be more easily manipulated by unscrupulous leaders.

On the other hand, living in a liberal society requires tolerance of others’ beliefs, rational or otherwise. And living in a polite society requires that we respect even when we do not agree. So it seems that a balance must be struck between arguing against an irrational belief and keeping considerate silence.

Quotes & Commentary #60: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #60: Santayana

We read nature as the English used to read Latin, pronouncing it like English, but understanding it very well.

—George Santayana

This simile about relation between human knowledge and material fact expresses a deep truth: to understand nature we must, so to speak, translate it into human terms.

All knowledge of the world must begin with sensations. All empirical knowledge derives, ultimately, from events we perceive with our five senses. But I think it is a mistake to confuse, as the phenomenalists do, these sensations for reality itself. To the contrary, I think that human experience is of a fundamentally different sort as material reality.

The relationship between my moving finger and the movement of the string I pluck is direct: cause-and effect. The relationship that holds between the vibrations in air caused by the guitar string, and the sound we perceive of the guitar, is, however, not so direct. For conscious sensations are not physical events. You cannot, even in principle, describe the subjective sensation of guitar music using physical terms, like acceleration, mass, charge, etc.

The brain represents the physical stimulus it receives, transforming it into a sensation, much like a composer represents human emotions using notes, harmonies, and rhythms—that is, arbitrarily. There is no essential relationship between sadness and a minor melody; they are only associated through culture and habit. Likewise, the conscious perception of guitar strings is only associated with the vibrations in the air through consistent representation: every time the brain hears a guitar, it creates the same subjective sensation. But the fact remains that the vibrations and the sensation, if they could be compared, would have nothing in common, just as sadness and minor melodies have nothing in common.

I must pause here to note a partial exception. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke notoriously makes the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The latter are things like color, taste, smell, and sound, which are wholly subjective; the former are things like size, position, number, and shape: qualities that are inherent in the object and independent of the perceiving mind. Berkeley criticized this distinction; he thought that all reality was sensation, and thus there was no basis in distinguishing primary and secondary—both only exist in human experience. Kant, on the other hand, thought that reality in-itself could not, in principle, be described using any terms from human experience; and thus primary and secondary qualities were both wholly subjective.

Yet I persist in thinking that Locke was rather close to the truth. But the point must be qualified. As Einstein showed, our intuitive notions of speed, position, time, and size are only approximately correct at the human scale, and break down in situations of extreme speed or gravity. And we have had the same experience with regard to quantum physics, discovering that even our notion of location and number can be wholly inaccurate on the smallest of scales. Besides these physical consideration, any anthropologist will be full of anecdotes of cultures that conceive of space and time differently; and psychologists will note that our perception of position and shape differs markedly from that of a rat or a bat, for example.

All this being granted, I think that Locke was right in distinguishing primary from secondary qualities. Indeed, this is simply the difference between quantifiable and unquantifiable qualities. By this I mean that a person could give an abstract representation of the various sizes and locations of objects in a room; but no such abstract representation could be given of a scent. The very fact that our notions of these primary qualities could be proven wrong by physicists proves that they are categorically distinct. A person may occasionally make a mistake in identifying a color or a scent, but all of humanity could never be wrong in that way. Scientists cannot, in other words, show us what red “really looks like,” in the same way that scientists can and have shown us how space really behaves.

Nevertheless, we have discovered, through rigorous experiment and hypothesis, that even these apparently “primary qualities”—supposedly independent of the perceiving mind—are really crude notions that are only approximately correct on the scale of human life. This is no surprise. We evolved these capacities of perception to navigate the world, not to imagine black holes or understand electrons. Thus even our most accurate perceptions of the world are only quasi-correct; and there is no reason why another being, adapted to different circumstances, might represent and understand the same facts quite differently.

It seems clear from this description that our sensations have only an indicative truth, not a literal one. We can rely on our sensations to navigate the world, but that does not mean they show us the direct truth. The senses are poets, as Santayana said, and show us reality guised in allegory. We humans must use our senses, since that is all we have, but in the grand scheme of reality what can be seen, heard, or touched may be only a miniscule portion of what really exists—and, as scientists have discovered, that is actually the case.

To put these discoveries to one side for a moment, there are other compelling reasons to suspect that sensations are not open windows to reality. One obvious reason is that any sensation, if too intense, becomes simply pain. Pressure, light, sound, or heat, while all separate feelings at normal intensities, all become pain when intensified beyond the tolerance of our bodies. But does anybody suspect that all reality becomes literal pain when too severe? When intensified still further, sensation ceases altogether with death. Yet are we to suppose that the stimulus of the fatal blow ceases, too, when it becomes unperceivable?

Of course, nobody makes these mistakes except phenomenologists. And when combined with other everyday experiences—such as our ability to increase our range of sight using microscopes and telescopes, the ability of dogs to hear and smells things that humans cannot—then it becomes very clear that our sensations, far from having any cosmic privilege, represent only a limited portion of the reality, and do not represent the truth literally.

What we have discovered about the world, since the scientific revolution, only confirms this notion. Our senses were shaped by evolution to allow us to navigate in a certain environment. Thus, we can see only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—a portion that strongly penetrates our atmosphere. Likewise with every other sense: it is calibrated to the sorts of intensities and stimuli that would aid us in our struggle to survive on the struggle of the earth.

There is nothing superstition, therefore, or even remarkable in believing that the building blocks of reality are invisible to human sensation. Molecules, atoms, protons, quarks—all of these are essential components of our best physical theories, and thus have as much warrant to be believed as the sun and stars. From a human scale, of course, there is a strong epistemological difference: they form components of physical theories; and these theories help us to make sense of experience, rather than constitute experience itself.

But that does not make them any less real. Indeed, our notion of an atom may be closer to nature than our visible image of an apple, since we know for sure that the actual apple is not, fundamentally, as it appears to human sight, while our idea of atoms may indeed give a literally accurate view of nature. Indeed, the view of sensations that I have put forward virtually demands that the truth of nature, whatever it is, be remote from human experience, since human experience is not a literal representation of reality.

This leads to some awkwardness. For if scientific truth is to be abstract—a theorem or an equation remote from daily reality—then what makes it any better than a religious belief? Isn’t what separates scientific knowledge from superstitious fancy the fact that the first is empirical while the latter is not?

But this difficulty is only apparent. Santayana aptly summarized the difference thus: “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.” That is to say that, though religious ideas may take their building blocks from daily life, the final product—the religious dogma—is not fundamentally about daily life; it is a more like a poem that inspires our imaginations and may influence our lives, but is not literally borne out in lived experience.

A scientific theory, on the other hand, is borne out in this way: “Science is a bridge touching experience at both ends, over which practical thought may travel from act to act, from perception to perception.” Though a physical theory, for example, is itself something that is never itself perceived—we never “see” Einstein’s relativity in itself—using it leads to perceivable predictions, such as the deviation of a planet’s orbit. This is the basis of experiment and the essence of science itself. Indeed, I think that this is an essential quality of all valid human knowledge, scientific or not: that it is borne out in experience.

Like quantum physics, superstitious notions and supernatural doctrines all concern things that are, in principle, unperceivable; but the different is that, in quantum physics, the unperceivable elements predict perceivable events with rigid certainty. Superstitious notions, though in principle they have empirical results, are usually whimsical in their operation. The devil may appear or he may not, and the theory of demonic interference does not tell us when, how, or why—which gives it no explanatory value. Supernatural notions, such as about God or angels or heaven, are either reserved for another world, or their operation on this world are too entirely vague to be confirmed or falsified.

So long as the theory touches experience at both ends, so to speak, it is valid. The theory itself is not and cannot be tangible. The fact that our most accurate knowledge involves belief in unperceivable things, in other words, does not make it either metaphysical or supernatural. As Santayana said, “if belief in the existence of hidden parts and movements in nature be metaphysics, then the kitchen-maid is a metaphysician whenever she peels a potato.”

Richard Feynman made almost the same point when he observed that our notion of “inside” is really just a way of making sense of a succession of perceptions. We never actually perceive the “inside” of an apple, for example, since by slicing it all we do is create a new surface. This surface may, for all we know, pop into existence in that moment. But by imagining that there is an “inside” to the apple, unperceived by equally real, we make sense of an otherwise confusing sequence of perceptions. Scientific theories—and all valid knowledge in general—does essentially the same thing: it organizes our experience by positing an unperceived, and unperceivable, structure to reality.

Thus humanity’s attempt to understand nature is very accurately compared to an Englishman reading Latin with a London accent. Though we muddle the form of nature through our perception and our conception, by paying attention to the regularities of experience we may learn to understand nature quite well.

Review: The Life of Reason

Review: The Life of Reason

The Life of ReasonThe 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.

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Quotes & Commentary #59: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #59: Santayana

The highest form of vanity is love of fame.

—George Santayana

This sentence, taken by itself, is somewhat ambiguous. By “highest,” Santayana means most exalted; and by “love of fame,” he is mainly thinking of posthumous fame. The rest of the passage makes this clear:

It is a passion easy to deride but hard to understand, and in men who live at all by imagination almost impossible to eradicate. The good opinion of posterity can have no possible effect on our fortunes, and the practical value which reputation may temporarily have is quite absent in posthumous fame. The direct object of this passion—that a name should survive in men’s mouths to which no adequate idea of its original can be attached—seems a thin and fantastic satisfaction, especially when we consider how little we should probably sympathise with the creatures that are to remember us.

The wish to achieve “immortality”—not literal deathlessness, but the enduring survival of one’s name and works—is one of the oldest and most grandiose human urges. We see it from Homer to Ovid to Shakespeare, in the statues of Egypt and the symphonies of Vienna. And yet, is this passion rational?

The fear of death is universal and powerful; it has dreamed up afterlifes and constructed monumental tombs. But the notion that one’s book will be read in 1,000 years is of very little consolation. Whether you are in heaven, hell, or have disappeared completely, being worshipped by posterity will not do you any good. This seems doubly true when you consider, as Santayana reminds us, that your future audience will likely have the most inaccurate and incomplete idea of who you were.

Yet I admit that the possibility—exceedingly remote, to say the least—that my writings will survive, that my name will be known by perfect strangers hundreds of years from now, that something I created will endure and become part of our heritage—this fills me with fascinated delight. And to write something so powerful that I could confidently believe in its longevity strikes me as the highest goal to which a writer can aspire.

All this sounds exceedingly quaint, even contemptible, nowadays. John McPhee, in his book on writing, shudders at the thought of “writing for the ages.” And, indeed, self-consciously writing for future generations may be a very poor compositional strategy.

Nevertheless, I think that there is a core of sense in this apparently senseless urge for immortality. The true test of any work is survival. Case after case has shown that something intensely popular in its day can quickly fade, and even become unreadable by the next generation. And, conversely, something ignored in its generation may go on to become immensely successful.

Arnold Toynbee is one such example of an intellectual who was universally respected in his lifetime, and who was confidently predicted to pass the test of time, but who is nowadays unrespected in academic circles and little read elsewhere. Born just six years earlier, Franz Kafka was almost entirely obscure during his lifetime, but subsequently went on to become one of the most influential writers of his century. Examples can be multiplied indefinitely.

Survival is the ultimate test of a piece of art because it demonstrates that its worth does not rest merely on good fortune or passing fashion. For there is a great deal of luck involved in achieving fame; and fame, once achieved, may be due to the most superficial trendiness. Provincial political considerations, a striking but facile newness, the whims of popular taste—all of these contribute to hoist some works to public knowledge, and to pass others by in silence.

Great works transcend these transitory factors of fame. They do so by touching on some enduring aspect of human experience—and giving this aspect a wholly original portrayal and interpretation. Nobody had ever so deeply considered the problems of human knowledge before Plato, and nobody’s investigations have proven so memorably unique. Nobody before Shakespeare had given such a convincing representation of the ebb and flow of human passions and the inner dialectic of thought.

Thus to strive for “immortal fame,” while irrational in itself, is rational insofar as achieving immortal fame is the test of the greatest art: art that adds to our heritage, expands our faculties, and captures some basic aspect of the human condition.

Quotes & Commentary #15: Ecclesiastes

Quotes & Commentary #15: Ecclesiastes

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

—Ecclesiastes 1:9

Today in my history class I showed my students a similar quote, this one by the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun: “The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another.”

I asked my students to tell me what this quote means. Both the language and the philosophy were a bit advanced for them, yet one student hit upon the basic idea: people are always the same. We may change our world, and we can change our behavior, but we can’t change our nature.

True, in many ways the present is manifestly different from the past. Technology has advanced, science has expanded our knowledge, and political institutions have become more democratic and fair. Trade and industry have made us so wealthy that even modest citizens can afford pleasures considered a luxury a short time ago. We live longer, wealthier, and healthier lives than ever before; and we live in a society that, however imperfectly, is more tolerant of more different types of people—atheist, gay, black—than at any other time. In short, notwithstanding our endless limitations and our serious problems, progress is possible.

And yet every step forward is a victory over ourselves, a victory over our darker nature. Human history is an endless war of virtues against vices. Civilization is not the inevitable result of human intelligence, but a prize that countless generations have fought to achieve. Progress has been anything but linear. We have stagnated, and we have retrogressed. The same mistakes, follies, and brutalities have been repeated endlessly through time, over and over, each generation forgetting the lessons learned by the last one.

The philosopher George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But as the historian Will Durant reminds us: “History is an excellent teacher with few pupils.”

I used to think that progress was natural and inevitable. I grew up believing that racism, at least in its more brutal variety, had been largely eradicated. The emancipation of the slaves, the enfranchisement of women, and the acceptance of homosexuality seemed in retrospect like the unavoidable result of progress. It was only natural that we had become more tolerant, and the future would be even more accepting than the present.

And now? Now I see clearly that all these accomplishments, all these victories of toleration over racism, sexism, and homophobia, were hardly inevitable. Rather, they were the hard-won fruit of a bitter battle, a battle that is far from over, which in fact will never be over. The future may be different from the past, and that which shall be may be different from that which has been, but only if we fight for it. If we are complacent, if we take things for granted, then truly there will be no new thing under the sun.

Review: The Lessons of History

Review: The Lessons of History

The Lessons of HistoryThe Lessons of History by Will Durant
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m having trouble articulating the complex mix of opinions and emotions that I’ve formed around Durant. Several times I have come away from his books disappointed; and yet I continue to read them. One reason he fascinates me is that he is a species of American which is now almost entirely extinct: a product of the ‘Great Books’ paradigm in American higher education.

As far as I can tell, this paradigm in education was first popularized in 1909, when Charles W. Eliot released his Harvard Classics—the so-called Five-Foot Shelf—which consisted of 51 volumes of classic works from western history. The spirit of this idea was later epitomized in the Book-of-the-Month club, about which Bertrand Russell, writing in 1930, penned his famous line: “There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.”

It was certainly a different time. The philosopher George Santayana and the historian Arnold Toynbee were bestselling authors, both featured on the cover of Time magazine. Will Durant, whose prose style strikes the modern ear as purple and grandiloquent, created a publishing sensation with his Story of Civilization, a series which totals four million words and ten thousand pages. And the monstrously big, 54-volume Great Books of the Western World sold thousands of copies—thousands!—even though it included works of Alexandrian astronomy, Greek mathematics, and German metaphysics, among other difficult material. One suspects that the bragging motive was the operative one in the majority of these purchases.

The spirit of the ‘Great Books’ paradigm is that of idolatry towards European intellectual history. The tone of its advocates often sound ludicrously reverential, such as this excerpt from a speech delivered on the occasion of the release of the Great Books series: “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.” (I got that from Wikipedia, by the way.) As two World Wars wracked the European continent, and as the fear of communism and nuclear war covered the Western world with gloom, perhaps it is unsurprising to see American intellectuals and laypeople positioning themselves as the heirs of European civilization.

This idea held sway for a long time in American Universities, and perhaps isn’t altogether dead. The swan songs of this pedagogical philosophy can be heard in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (1994), wherein both authors lament and eulogize the disappearance of the ‘Great Books’ from American universities.

Educated at Columbia during the heyday of this phenomenon, Durant was formed by the ‘Great Books’ ethos, and perhaps was one of its most eloquent proponents. And it strikes me now that, in Durant’s writings, one finds both the virtues and the vices of the ‘Great Books’ idea illustrated with extreme precision.

Durant was broadminded and well-rounded; he could write ably about a multitude of subjects. He was tolerant, kindly, sometimes witty, with a firm belief in human progress and achievement. His prose style was superb—a model of clarity and grace—which he used in his quest to disseminate as widely as possible the fruits of “Civilization” (his all-inclusive term for everything good in the West). Neither a genius nor a scholar, Durant was an enthusiast: he was able to write so wonderfully about historical figures because he genuinely loved and revered them; in fact, he almost literally worshiped them, as he himself admitted.

But he also had many weaknesses. First, the ‘Great Books’ mindset caused Durant to concentrate his attention overmuch on the high-points in cultural achievement. One gets an extremely skewed picture of European history if one focuses solely on the greatest thinkers and artists. Of course, it’s pleasant to contemplate these individuals, which is partly why Durant’s books are so fun to read; but such exclusive concentration also produces a kind of Pollyannish attitude, where history is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and persecutions, wars, and bigotry are not given their due—and the banality of daily life is wholly sidestepped.

A related consequence of the ‘Great Books’ attitude is a somewhat reactionary mindset. Since Durant so often equates the old with the good, tradition with right, age with quality, he can be remarkably, and sometimes stupidly, conservative. For example, whenever Durant writes of sexual mores, he comes across as a moralizing Sunday-school teacher. For Durant, promiscuity is immoral, and homosexuality a sin. Long-term, faithful heterosexual marriages are the mark of ‘civilization’. Because Durant never justifies this opinion—a habit of his—I can only conclude that this was mere prejudice on his part.

Another obvious result of the ‘Great Books’ philosophy is elitism. Durant frequently mentions in this book that talent is unequally distributed; and because of this “natural inequality of man,” the stupid majority are destined forever to toil under the dominance of the intelligent minority. Now, of course I wouldn’t disagree that people are differently endowed from birth with various aptitudes. But I’m very far from believing that the inequality which we see throughout history and which persists today is simply the result of the “skill” of the wealthy and powerful. Rather, I agree with Gibbon, that “The generality of princes, if they were stripped of their purple and cast naked into the world, would immediately sink to the lowest rank of society without a hope of emerging from their obscurity.”

The ‘Great Books’ program also has the shortcoming of emphasizing breadth over depth. Durant certainly embodies this. Although he can write about many subjects, he is an expert on none of them; and this lack of serious expertise prevented him from advancing the state of knowledge in any field. Durant’s ideology also privileges the transmission of old ideas rather than the creation of new ones. After all, if one worships the past, there is little motivation to re-imagine the future. Moreover, the ‘Great Books’ doctrine stressed reputation at the expense of rigor. Ideas are praised for their lasting influence, their grandness of scope, their contribution to a long-standing debate—but not for their accuracy. In Durant, this produced a man who often cared more about whether an idea was beautiful or interesting rather than whether it was true.

Fueling this tendency is another shibboleth of the ‘Great Books’ school: that simply by reading the greatest books of the ages, one could purge oneself of all provincial prejudices and look upon history as from a timeless perspective. Durant seems to think this way, as the very title of this book shows: The Lessons of History. These conclusions are not his own theses, not his own ideas—but lessons, which Durant can gather from the fabric of history as easily as a child can infer the lesson from a fairytale. It goes without saying that this is nonsense. Durant looked at history and found his own prejudices; and this book is merely a collection of them.

I’m sure you’re wearied by this litany of accusations and complaints, so I will only mention in passing the other distinctive sins of this ‘Great Books’ mindset—namely, its glorification of Europe, and only Western Europe, at the expense of the rest of the world, as well as its underrepresentation of women and minorities. This is wonderfully illustrated in Durant’s plan of the Story of Civilization, wherein he dedicates one volume to all of Asia, and the rest of the eleven volumes to Europe (and none to South America or to Africa).

At this point you may be wondering, “If Durant has so many faults, which you are apparently so acutely aware of, why are you reading so much of him?” Well, this has to do with my own history. At the end of my time in college, vaguely feeling that the education I received wasn’t worth half of what I paid for it, I picked up Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. This book had a profound effect on me. Bloom seemed to articulate my dissatisfaction with my education, as well point me in the direction where it could be rectified. As soon as I finished, I looked up the list of the Great Books of the Western World, and dove in.

Now, despite all of the faults I listed above, I must still admit that one receives a stupendous education by reading the books recommended in the program. I read rabidly, desperately, doing my best to make up for lost time; and whatever may be my intellectual shortcomings now—and they are many—I am at least far better off than I was before I began. But of course I still haven’t read all of these hoary books—there are a lot!—and this is partly why I’m interested in Will Durant: for in him, I can see the end result of my own educational project.

Unfortunately, while Durant was truly an excellent writer, for the reasons I discussed above, he was a poor thinker. This slim volume, the fruits of a massive research project, is a collection of vague homilies, baseless theorizing, and unsupported claims. It’s incredible and a bit depressing that so much learning could produce so little insight. I still think I have much to learn from Durant and the other proponents of the ‘Great Books’ school—as well as from the books themselves, of course. But now, hopefully, after sorting through Durant’s writings, I will be better able to separate the good from the bad, the worthless from the valuable; for I do think, after all, that there is something essentially precious in the idea.

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