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 #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.

Quotes & Commentary #56: Santayana

Quotes & Commentary #56: Santayana

Consciousness is a born hermit.

—George Santayana

When I was very young I acutely felt the isolation of consciousness. I have always been naturally unathletic; so in gym class I tired out very quickly. Reflecting on this, I wondered if the pain and fatigue I felt were somehow more intense than that experienced by my classmates. If, somehow, the consciousness of a more athletic student were projected into my body, would they feel my pain sensations as unbearably agonizing compared with what they were used to?

Reflections like this naturally led me to other questions. My father is colorblind; what does the world look like to him? And for that matter, how can we know what the world looks like to anybody? Does the red I see look the same as the red my brother sees? Without the ability to check our experiences against each other’s, we can never know, it seems, whether our experiences are truly similar or whether we simply use the same names for things.

Thinking along these lines, I tried to imagine what it would be like for another consciousness to inhabit my body. Would they recognize the world through my sensations, or would it be entirely alien to them? More chillingly, I sometimes wondered whether other minds existed at all. Certainly I never saw any. And what of the world? If reality could look different to any perceiving mind, how did it look “in itself”? Could all of us be deeply mistaken about the world we live in?

The suspicion that our senses are limited and untrustworthy was bolstered from my early interest in science. From books I learned that the fundamental organization of matter—molecules and elements and electrons—is only intelligible on a scale far beyond the finest reaches of our eyesight. I learned that the earth and everybody on it were a mere speck in the universe, and that our vision and even our imaginations were inadequate to the task of comprehending the true scales of things, large and small.

All this adds up to Santayana’s image of consciousness as a hermit: connected to reality through our unreliable sensations, fundamentally cut off from other minds, forever at a distance and in the dark, like a goldfish in a movie theater.

It was Descartes who initiated this solipsism with his famous skeptical method. And philosophers have been struggling with this set of problems ever since.

Santayana saw no rational way out of skepticism, and instead cut the gordian knot with his notion of “animal faith,” the irresistible animal impulse to act, survive, and socialize. This impulse notwithstanding, Santayana considered our knowledge of other minds to be purely speculative—a kind of guessing game in which one person imputes their thoughts onto another, blindly trusting that their friend’s basic constitution is similar enough to make their own reactions a good guide.

Proust was even more extreme in his views. For him all human relationships were just vain illusions, a tissue of self-delusion based on mutual misunderstanding. Indeed, for him it was impossible to really understand somebody else, at least through conventional means, and the path to reality lay through introspection alone.

Nowadays I am not so inclined to see humans as so inevitably isolated. We are social creatures to our cores. As Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle persuasively argued, language—and significance more generally—is intrinsically public. For communication to be possible there must be a community of like-minded speakers.

By nature, too, we are open to the public. It takes effort to teach children to read silently; and indeed silent reading did not become habitual, historically speaking, until quite recently. This is just one example of a more general phenomenon: public behavior is the rule, private the exception.

Though it may be possible to doubt other minds in the speculative privacy of one’s study, doing so while looking into somebody’s eyes is another matter. Subtle movements of muscle—the crinkling of the eyes, the knitting of the brow, the pursing of the lips, and a thousand other things that normally escape conscious attention—tell us, immediately and exactly, how other people are feeling.

Of course it is possible to be mistaken; and of course the exact situation motivating the emotional response might be impossible to guess. But in general I think that most people, most of the time, are sufficiently aware of other people’s emotional states.

Indeed, the natural tendency to display emotions is so strong that it takes years of social training to allow citizens of dense urban civilizations to suppress these signals enough to get along in society. Our modern world, in which we must daily interact with strangers and acquaintances, requires that we leave unexpressed many passing emotions. But this situation is, evolutionarily speaking, extremely recent, and one which is not “natural” to our species.

To put this another way, I think that Santayana greatly underestimated the degree to which we are fundamentally similar, and did not fully grasp the strength of our unmediated, instinctive social behavior. This was natural for him, since Santayana was known for being himself a born hermit—aloof and solitary. So although we can never know whether another person’s experiences are the same as our own, we have good reason to believe they are not fundamentally different.

Quotes & Commentary #55: Nietzsche

Quotes & Commentary #55: Nietzsche

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried: ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers.’

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Religion has long been a source of tension for me. On the one hand I find it to be extraordinarily interesting. Religions seem to reveal so much about our separate cultures and our shared human condition. Further, tolerance is important to me—both personally and philosophically. I would never want to be a zealot who could only be friends with like-minded people; nor do I want to be dismissive or scornful of other views.

Nevertheless, while I am comfortable with religion in the abstract, when I confront religious sentiments and behavior in person I feel uneasy. I have trouble understanding or accepting why people I know and respect would choose to be religious. And my uneasiness stems from being wholly and completely unconvinced of the validity of supernatural beliefs of any kind.

In brief, my skepticism is partly evidential (I see no compelling evidence for religious claims), partly philosophical (theological arguments are fallacious, and supernatural explanations are vapid), partly anthropological (the huge abundance of difference beliefs across the world, revealing religion to be a social institution and not a divine gift), and partly historical (the clear evidence that religions changed markedly over time, and the wars and persecutions that religious beliefs have given rise to).

In short, supernatural beliefs are wholly incompatible with how I think and what I know about the world.

While many religious people in the modern world would grant all this—saying it makes perfect sense to be an atheist—they might still argue that it makes just as much sense to be religious. “Nobody knows, right?” is the classic phrase. And indeed, nobody does or can know if there is a supernatural being who created the universe. So, in the absence of knowledge, isn’t faith an acceptable response? “Maybe I can’t prove God exists,” the argument continues, “but you can’t prove that He doesn’t exist.”

I think this reasoning is obviously fallacious. If there is something which is completely unknown, the only logical response is to suspend judgment. Further, the inability to disprove something has no bearing on whether it should be believed. I cannot disprove that there is a French teacup on Mercury, or a magic dragon sleeping in the center of the earth, or an army of invisible and intangible spirits living in my closet—but I would be wrong to believe these things.

The question is never, “Can this be disproved?” but “Is there any evidence to support this belief?” Believing in something just because it cannot be disproved leads to absurdities.

It might be argued, however, that suspending judgment is unreasonable since all of us will die one day and we risk eternal damnation if we are wrong. Indeed, there are situations in which we are forced, from practical necessity, to act in the absence of knowledge. If a roof is collapsing and there are three doors, you must choose one even if you don’t know where it goes.

But I think that the human condition is not comparable to this situation. We have every reason to believe that consciousness ends with death. There is no evidence for intangible, immaterial souls—indeed, everything we know supports the opposite conclusion: that consciousness is inextricably tied to the material brain. The very idea of souls and the afterlife was never supported by dependable evidence in the first place—it is a traditional idea, handed down to us by people who lived in more ignorant times. Besides, the psychological roots of such an idea in our fear of death and our sorrow for lost loved ones seems remarkably obvious.

In sum, since we have good reasons for believing that consciousness ends with life, the necessity of choosing in ignorance is taken away. We can safely suspend judgment. I have thus come to the conclusion that supernatural beliefs are irrational. (This issue can clearly be debated ad infinitum but this is supposed to be a short post!)

Given this conclusion of mine, I cannot help but feel uneasy around people whose religion plays a large role in their day-to-day life. Dietary restrictions, sartorial restrictions, fasting, praying, lengthy rituals, limits on whom one can marry or even befriend—all this strikes me as a severe limitation on life, with no justification whatsoever.

Of course not all religious people—maybe not even most—have a lifestyle markedly different from my own. Indeed, there are huge numbers of “moderate” religious people who seldom or rarely go to church or pray, who do not obey the numerous traditional lifestyle restrictions, and who basically lead secular or nearly secular lives—and yet who, when pressed, still identify as religious and who profess to believe in God.

Now, you might think that I would be less bothered by this sort of moderate religiousness. But I find it just as perplexing. For if God the Creator existed, and He were really the arbiter of morals and the source of good, and if there were really a heaven and a hell that awaited us in the next life—well, how could you logically believe all this and not do everything in your power to live in accordance with your religion? By definition, religion deals with ultimate questions and the most permanent consequences; and so it boggles my mind how somebody could believe in it and yet do nothing.

How can you be a Christian, for example, and be friends with atheists or Muslims or Jews? This seems like a silly question, since inter-faith friendships are very common. But I cannot help wondering: Can someone be a sincere Christian without believing that his non-Christian friends will be denied entrance into heaven? Thus for their sake shouldn’t this Christian do his very best to evangelize his non-Christian friends? And if these questions never even occur to the Christian, does he sincerely believe in what he says he does?

Moderate religiousness bothers me because it cheapens the entire question. To be moderately religious, in other words, strikes me as inevitably hypocritical—since it means not living in accordance with one’s stated views on the ultimate questions. Indeed, I think it is this very hypocrisy which led Nietzsche to accuse his contemporaries of killing God: they professed to believe in God, but lived without Him. Identifying as religious without living in accordance with any religious tenets is like saying, “Do these questions really matter?”

And to many people, perhaps these ultimate questions of Fate, God, and the origin of the universe really do not occupy much thought-space. But for me it is deeply important to find out the truth as far as possible, and to live my life in accordance with this truth. Thus I feel equally at odds with deeply religious people (I admire their conviction, but I think they are wrong) and moderately religious people (I admire their tolerance, but I am frightened by their lack of concern with living in accordance with their stated beliefs).

Thus, when I confront religion—serious or moderate—in people I know, I cannot help feeling uneasy.

Quotes & Commentary #4: Dostoyevsky

Quotes & Commentary #4: Dostoyevsky

“Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!”

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

This short exclamation is one of my favorite quotes of Dostoyevsky, and I find myself saying it under my breath all the time. The quote is arresting because it condemns as bad something we normally think of as good: human adaptability.

This adaptability—and adaptability is closely tied with intelligence—is what has allowed us conquer nearly every corner of the world. We can fashion clothes for cold climates, accustom ourselves to new technologies, and retain a childlike ability to learn new things throughout our lives.

Like anything, however, adaptability has a darker side. I know this from my own experience. When you live in New York—or Madrid, for that matter—you quickly grow used to passing homeless people on the street. At first, something inside of you rebels against this state of affairs. It is unconscionable that we can live such a heartless society, where the poor are simply left behind.

But then your outrage turns into selfishness when you are accosted for money; and your heart hardens when you pass them day after day. Soon the homeless have been completely dehumanized in your eyes, and the situation is regarded as normal. 

I’m not proud of admitting that this happens to me, but it does. I simply get used to it. I can’t maintain outrage or compassion forever. The feelings dissipate, and numbness comes creeping in.

This is just an illustration. People have gotten used to more horrible things than homelessness. One need only read about some of the darker periods of history to see how far this process can go. Injustice and cruelty, if practiced regularly, become expected, customary, unremarkable. Humans aren’t always scoundrels, but too often are.