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 #58: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #58: Santayana

Indeed, the enlightenment common to young wits and worm-eaten old satirists, who plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion—something which the blindest half see—is not nearly enlightened enough: it points to notorious facts incompatible with religious tenets literally taken, but it leaves unexplored the habits of thought from which those tenets sprang, their original meaning, and their true function.

—George Santayana

This little passage contains multitudes. Santayana’s attitude towards religion is refreshingly balanced. An atheist himself, he nevertheless finds much to value in religion. He has the admirable ability—so rare, apparently—to balance an awareness of religion’s irrationality with its nobler impulses.

I am tempted to agree with Santayana in dismissing those who “plume themselves on detecting the scientific ineptitude of religion,” ridiculing their dogmas and disproving their tenets, such as the so-called New Atheists do. For one, it is very easy. Every shred of evidence and convincing argument is on the side of the naturalistic, scientific worldview. Indeed, no thinking person could fail to note the huge part played by hopeful emotion, unchecked by the cold light of reason, in religious belief. As Santayana goes on to say:

The only truth of religion comes from its interpretation of life, from its symbolic rendering of that aspiration which it springs out of and which it seeks to elucidate. Its falsehood comes from the insidious misunderstanding which clings to it, to the effect that these poetic conceptions are not merely poetical, but are literal information about experience or reality elsewhere—an experience and reality which, strangely enough, supply just the defects betrayed by reality and experience here.

The last remark of this passage is key to my skepticism of all religious belief. For it always seems that the promises of belief—blessings, good fortune, an afterlife—all coincidentally compensate precisely for the defects we find in our lives here and now. In other words, it is almost naked wishful thinking, thinly disguised as a supernatural promise.

In any case, the lack of logical cogency of supernatural beliefs, combined with the obvious emotional motivation of such beliefs, would seem to render it superfluous to argue with or disprove them. They fail every test of reasonable belief, and thus do not merit reasonable rejoinder. Nevertheless, the huge prevalence of such supernatural beliefs—present in the majority of our species, their absurdity apparently not “something which the blindest half can see”—and their concomitant influence on human behavior, would seem to make it necessary to lay out the case against religious belief.

Of course, such a rejoinder need not be done with vituperation and bitterness—qualities guaranteed to make any listeners unreceptive. And, in any case, explaining why religious belief is unreasonable leaves untouched the far more mysterious question: If it is manifestly unreasonable, why do so many people believe?

Theories abound. James Frazer thought that superstition and religious belief were just proto-science. Sigmund Freud thought religion an illusion motivated by psychological drives, and Emile Durkheim thought religion a tool of social cohesion. Daniel Dennett put forward the idea that religion was a kind of mental virus. Jonathan Haidt largely agrees with Durkheim, though he puts his own Darwinian twist on the idea. And this is only a small sampling.

All of these theories may have their grain of truth. But I think any explanation will be incomplete if it does not take into account what Santayana was so acutely aware of: religion’s poetry. Indeed, for Santayana religion was itself a kind of poetry:

Thus religion has the same original relation to life that poetry has . . . The poetic value of religion would initially be greater than that of poetry itself, because religion deals with higher and more vital themes, with sides of life which are in greater need of some imaginative touch and ideal interpretation than are those pleasant or pompous things which ordinary poetry dwells upon. But this initial advance is neutralised in party by the abuse to which religion is subject, whenever its symbolic rightness is taken for scientific truth.

Poetry allows us to dwell on the too often overlooked beauty of life, to savor the ironies and tragedies of the day, to pinpoint and express fleeting emotions. Religion does this, too, but on an altogether grander scale. Rather than imbuing life with a personal aesthetic sensibility, the aesthetics of a religion are impersonal, belonging to a whole community. Not only that, but the subjects that religions concern themselves with—birth, marriage, suffering, death—belong to nobody and everybody, being the most universal and critical of the human condition.

The beneficent social role that such communal poetry can play should not be underestimated. Religions allow us to see the meaning of times of crisis, prompts us to feel the significance of life’s transitions, and gives us a common emotional language that binds us together. Like any sublime poetry, religion can raise our eyes above humdrum concerns, and point our gaze to things of lasting importance.

From this description I hope you can see that I am not wholly insensitive to the value of religion. Believe me, the trivial pursuits of modern life, with all its squalid materialism and narrow selfishness, make me all the more acutely aware of the role that religion can play in a society. The prosaic world of today is in desperate need of poetry.

The problem, as Santayana points out, is that religions insist that their poetry be taken literally. And in the process, the poetry is destroyed. Religion then ceases to be a sublime poetry and becomes a vulgar superstition. And the more that these traditional beliefs clash with our scientific understanding of the world, the more it drives a wedge into the fabric of society, forcing people to choose between faith and reason. Indeed, in such circumstances religions can lose their moral superiority completely, becoming just as worldly as the rest of the world.

Is it possible to maintain the benefits of religious belief—its ability to guide us through times of crisis, its source of common values and a common language, its ability to remove us from vulgar materialism—with the benefits of rationalism? Can we have a communal poetry that we acknowledge to be poetry—not truth? Looking around the world, the answer seems to be no.