Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." If George Santayana (1863-1952) is remembered today, it is as the fellow who coined this monumental aperçu—though often as not, he fails to get credit even for that, the attribution going instead to someone like Mencken or FDR or even Henry Kissinger. Old men forget, and the young have never heard of Santayana in the first place, or get him confused with an aging demigod of rock and roll. But no other 20th-century American thinker, perhaps no other 20th-century thinker pure and simple, better fits the description of a real philosopher than George Santayana.
Philosopher, poet, playwright, novelist, autobiographer, literary critic, cultural historian of the broadest sweep, Santayana possessed as formidable a combination of mental keenness and literary grace as any man short of Plato or Shakespeare can hope for. He thought and wrote beautifully. Anything he had to say—and he had something luminous to say about almost everything—he said with precision, subtlety, and panache. Santayana became master of a language that was not his by birth. He was born in Spain of Spanish parents and then at the age of nine, in accordance "with a sort of prenatal or pre-established destiny," was hauled off to Boston by his father. On returning to Spain after his freshman year at Harvard, he found nothing in Spanish life or literature to engage his temperament, and subsequently devoted himself to English letters in order "to say plausibly in English as many un-English things as possible." In the course of a serenely unsettled life that included 38 voyages across the North Atlantic, he never managed to shake off his predisposition to seasickness.
The Unvarnished Truth of the World
Harvard claims him as one of its own, with some pride and not without some justice. He was a philosophy student and then a colleague of the pragmatist William James and the Hegelian Josiah Royce, and among his own students were T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. But as he says in his autobiography, he never really wanted to be a teacher, only a student; and when he came into an inheritance in 1912, that was the last Harvard and America were to see of him, though he would have plenty yet to say about them in his writings. His portmanteau would bear the labels of numerous winsome stopping-places—capital cities, outposts of intellect, beauty spots—in England, France, Spain, and Italy. Great universities courted him, but he did not swerve from the life he wanted, which allowed him to read and write and think just as he pleased. With the Second World War imminent, he sought refuge in Switzerland but was denied entry; a Spanish citizen residing in Rome with American and English bank accounts, evidently he was too shady a cosmopolite even for Swiss tastes. In October 1941 the Little Company of Mary, a nursing order of Catholic nuns, gave him a room in their Rome sanatorium. Early in his stay, learned priests were enlisted to bring him around to the faith in which he had been baptized, but he knew the theological arguments better than they did, tied them in impious knots, and cleaved to his unruffled philosopher's atheism. "There is no God and Mary is his mother," he is said to have said in defense of his emphatic unbelief. Left in peace, he lived out the remaining eleven years of his life in Epicurean contentment. He was wise and lucky enough that death did not come hard.
Santayana's long lifetime of passionately dispassionate thinking left voluminous and elegant remains. His writings include Sonnets and Other Verses (1894), The Sense of Beauty (1896), Lucifer: A Theological Tragedy (1899), Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), The Life of Reason (five volumes, 1905-1906), Three Philosophical Poets (1910), Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923), Platonism and the Spiritual Life (1927), The Realms of Being (four volumes, 1927-1940), The Idea of Christ in the Gospels (1946), and Dominations and Powers (1951). His one novel, The Last Puritan (1935), and his three-volume autobiography, Persons and Places (1944-1953), were picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and made a remarkable splash. In 1936, Santayana appeared on the cover of Time, which is not known as a showcase for philosophers even when they happen to write best-selling novels.
The poem "Cape Cod" provides a point of entry to Santayana's mind, and is of interest precisely because it finds him uncharacteristically disconsolate:
The wretched stumps all charred and burned,
And the deep soft rut where the cartwheel turned,—
Why is the world so old?
The lapping wave, and the broad gray sky
Where the cawing crows and the slow gulls fly,—
Where are the dead untold?
The thin slant willows by the flooded bog,
The huge stranded hulk and the floating log,—
Sorrow with life began!
And among the dark pines, and along the flat shore
O the wind, and the wind, for evermore!
What will become of man?
The plainspoken heartbreak with which he regards a nature that seems bent on extruding man from itself, once and for all, has affinities with A.E. Housman and Thomas Hardy. The bleak plaintiveness of the abrupt lines that cap each stanza could as easily be the response of a precocious child as of an aged sage, and is the unanswered, perhaps the unanswerable, outcry of unaccommodated man in a cold dark world. One is tempted to say that this native anguish is what philosophy overcame in Santayana's temperament, but that might not be quite right. In Persons and Places he recalls the emotionally disheveled household of his Spanish boyhood, after his mother and his siblings had gone off to America without him and left him with an uncle and aunt:
That crowded, strained, disunited, and tragic family life remains for me the type of what life really is: something confused, hideous, and useless. I do not hate it or rebel against it, as people do who think they have been wronged. It caused me no suffering;...and my eyes and ears became accustomed to the unvarnished truth of the world, neither selected for my instruction nor hidden from me for my benefit.
If we are to believe him, Santayana came to see the nature of things without suffering the pangs of disillusionment; the truth was undeniable, so he never wasted his breath trying to deny it. And as the title of the final volume of his autobiography, My Host the World, suggests, he found sufficiently agreeable accommodation wherever he happened to roam.
They Had Forgotten the Greeks
Which is not to say he was ever really at home anywhere. Truly congenial minds were especially hard to find. In Persons and Places he writes, "The intellectual world of my time alienated me intellectually. It was a Babel of false principles and blind cravings...." Perhaps his greatest strength lay in identifying where other thinkers—even whole nations of them in concert—went off the rails. Egotism in German Philosophy (1915), Character and Opinion in the United States (1920), and Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (published together in 1922) are principally indictments of characteristic forms of philosophic wrongdoing, as practiced by the men generally held to be wisest in their respective homelands.
The Harvard at which Santayana studied and taught enjoys a reputation as the storied cynosure of American philosophy at the height of its glory. Santayana found it badly deficient in the speculative essentials. As he puts it in Persons and Places, "It may be conceit on my part but I think I was the only free and disinterested thinker among the Harvard philosophers." Character and Opinion in the United States is a genetic critique of American philosophy, as unflattering as Nietzsche's of Christianity, and it shows how the philosophies of thinkers as different as William James and Josiah Royce are shaped by their personal temperaments, and also how their temperaments are shaped by the pressure, all but imperceptible and all but irresistible, of the national temperament. In particular, Santayana is concerned with the way that a congenital public-spiritedness stunts the growth of the spiritual life. That is, both James and Royce felt themselves "bound by two different responsibilities, that of describing things as they are, and that of finding them propitious to certain preconceived human desires."
At the Harvard which Santayana describes, the faculty of course enjoyed freedom of thought, but the thoughts that they were free to think gave them small joy. Their speculation, nominally free to romp like the mind of God, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's phrase, chafed against a tacit moral constraint:
You might think what you liked, but you must consecrate your belief or your unbelief to the common task of encouraging everybody and helping everything on. You might almost be an atheist, if you were troubled enough about it. The atmosphere was not that of intelligence and science, it was that of duty.
Preoccupation with the general well-being virtually proscribed the disinterestedness that allows one to let a thought take him where it will. This philanthropic concern redirected wayward philosophical impulses into socially acceptable channels.
It also directed men whose inclinations were hardly philosophical into the so-called profession of philosophy. The professional disposition of most younger academic philosophers, who tend to have "the type of mind of a doctor, an engineer, or a social reformer," is one that Santayana finds distinctly ill-suited for long, solitary flights of thought:
He has no peace in himself, no window open to a calm horizon, and in his heart perhaps little taste for mere scholarship or pure speculation. Yet, like the plain soldier staggering under his clumsy equipment, he is cheerful; he keeps his faith in himself and in his allotted work, puts up with being toasted only on one side, remains open-minded, whole-hearted, appreciative, helpful, confident of the future of goodness and of science. In a word, he is a cell in that teeming democratic body; he draws from its warm, contagious activities the sanctions of his own life and, less consciously, the spirit of his philosophy.
The university shaped itself to the young representatives of the world who streamed through it and whom it was supposed somehow to form. To the "intellectual innocence" of the worldly students, "the Harvard philosophers adapted their teaching and to some extent their philosophy." The teachers were there to tell the students what they already knew, to reinforce their belief in the supreme value of respectable behavior, to strengthen their adherence "to those prejudices which help us to lead what we all feel is a good life."
But what is a good life? Had William James, had the people around him, had modern philosophers anywhere, any notion of that? I cannot think so. They had much experience of personal goodness, and love of it; they had standards of character and right conduct; but as to what might render human existence good, excellent, beautiful, happy, and worth having as a whole, their notions were utterly thin and barbarous. They had forgotten the Greeks, or never known them.
Investing in futures, they had divested themselves of the incomparably rich past.
Although Santayana sees William James as belonging to a well-known tradition, that tradition is not pre-eminently an intellectual one:
[He] fell in with the hortatory tradition of college sages; he turned his psychology, whenever he could do so honestly, to purposes of edification; and his little sermons on habit, on will, on faith, and...on the latent capacities of men, were fine and stirring, and just the sermons to preach to the young Christian soldier.
In "A Brief History of My Opinions" Santayana recalls the distress that James's Pragmatism caused him: "I could not stomach that way of speaking about truth...." What makes Santayana's gorge rise is the way in which the idiom and the ethos of the marketplace, of American go-getterism, have insinuated themselves into James's discourse. Here is James's characteristic mode, in which he disowns the notion that truth is one and incontrovertible, and endorses a multiplicity of truths that remain true only so long as they prove useful: "Our account of truth is an account of truths in the plural, or processes of leading, realized in rebus, and having only this quality in common, that they pay." The proof of James's truths is their ability to deliver the goods. The American small change of unconsidered common opinion, the medium of everyday traffic, comes to pass as hard philosophical currency. The pragmatic "account of truths" underwrites the promise of a future that pays big time. Hence the hopeful ring of so much of James's prose, which anticipates the clattering avalanche of the jackpot sure to follow the next yank on the lever, or the one after that.
Discontents of a Native Son
When the most appealing homegrown wisdom that America has to offer is the refined boosterism of William James—and crassness refined is still hell on a palate of any delicacy—what hope can there be for a native son with an inchoate spiritual vocation that the world is determined to mock, tame, or throttle at every turn? The Last Puritan is the story of Oliver Alden, an intelligent, sensitive, handsome, strong, rich young man who wants to live the best life there is but has a fiendish time trying to discover what that might be; it does not help that, as with the young Jean-Jacques in Rousseau's Confessions or Saul Bellow's Augie March, virtually everyone around him thinks he knows what is good for Oliver better than Oliver knows it himself, and he cannot resist their assorted solicitations, blandishments, and strong-arm maneuvers. He takes to the life that is generally being lived as though it were the only one available,
not because [he] found their ways right or reasonable or beautiful or congenial, but just because those ways, here and now, were the ways of life and the actions afoot; and there was no real choice open to [him] to live otherwise or to live better.
Santayana's novel is his farewell testimonial to America, written some 20 years after he had left the country for good, and it is his fullest treatment of what he considers to be the ultimate question that American democracy poses: how does a man of exceptional spiritual gifts become what he ought to be in the face of forces that compel him to turn out like everybody else? The rampant philistinism that Oliver cannot fight off is only part of his problem. A thin-blooded priggishness, the spiritual vestige of the dying Puritanism that Oliver represents, is the best he can muster in resistance to the dominant new American energy; that is not good enough for the purpose, and creates difficulties all its own.
For Oliver needs a comprehensive explanation of the world in order to be able to live contentedly in it: "He could find no peace unless he justified his natural sympathies theoretically and turned them into moral maxims." A philosophy student of Santayana's at Harvard (Santayana is the book's narrator), Oliver never does learn to think as his teacher does, in joyful pursuit of the truth, whatever the truth might be, but goes about his thinking in the dogged and even desperate manner of someone for whom the truth is his only possible salvation. "Either the truth or nothing," he grimly avows. Earnest and dutiful to the end, he dies on the Western Front, the First World War just over, in a car wreck. Hopeless in love, lacking any true vocation, "he would have gained nothing by living to a hundred." His latent beauty is never brought anywhere near perfection.
A Golden Mediocrity
At the center of Santayana's moral philosophy is a vision of what earthly perfection might be, in which each person fully realizes his own nature and has no wish to be anything other than what he is. In this best of worlds, envy and other false longing would be eradicated, without the specious expedient, which has attracted a considerable following in modern times, of reducing humanity to a lackluster sameness. "There is no greater stupidity or meanness than to take uniformity for an ideal," Santayana writes in The Life of Reason. He never goes so far as to indicate that such a world of utterly fulfilled and singular men is possible, but he does suggest that this ideal is the one toward which every man ought to incline his heart, in the hope that some will thereby get a glimpse, or even a taste, of the happiness of attaining their truest selves.
This is a democratic ideal with aristocratic overtones: each man would enjoy all the satisfactions of his proper station, and would be exempt from any irksome yearnings for a grander fate. Santayana's ideal mediates between two democratic tendencies, each with its own characteristic distress: on the one hand, the insistence that you deserve as good as the next man has got, however superior the next man might happen to be, and on the other, the insistence that you are fine just the way you are and want to be nothing more—which tends to be a rueful means of living with the realization, half-concealed from yourself, that you really do not deserve as good as the next man or, for that matter, as legions of other men besides. To our self-actualizing age, over which the Oprahs and the Chopras exercise dominion, Santayana's prescription for happiness sounds vaguely attractive yet is ultimately uncongenial. He wants people to accept the portion that life has handed them, but he has no use for the emotional sleight-of-hand with which one secretly palms his resentment, pretends it has vanished, and triumphantly proclaims himself perfectly satisfied. To see with utter honesty what one happens to be by nature and to take pleasure in that fact is Santayana's test of human happiness. Under the current dispensation, most men need not apply.
Santayana is not without hope that ordinary unphilosophical men might enjoy a happiness greater than that afforded them by the revved-up democratic scramble; and his misgivings about democracy are founded upon a solid democratic sympathy. "But for the excellence of the typical single life, no nation deserves to be remembered more than the sands of the sea; and America will not be a success, if every American is a failure." So he writes in his remarkable essay on Dickens, whom he treasures as the poet of "a golden mediocrity," of democratic life in its peculiarly unassuming glory—not quite the same as saying, at its highest pitch. For Santayana is well aware that democracy does have its noble spirits, who stand out among the multitude; but here he, like Dickens, sees what the lordly and the lowly have in common, under the aspect of eternity:
He had a sentiment in the presence of this vast flatness of human fates, in spite of their individual pungency, which I think might well be the dominant sentiment of mankind in the future; a sense of happy freedom in littleness, an open-eyed reverence and religion without words. This universal human anonymity is like a sea, an infinitive democratic desert, chock-full and yet the very image of emptiness, with nothing in it for the mind, except, as the Moslems say, the presence of Allah. Awe is the counterpart of humility—and this is perhaps religion enough. The atom in the universal vortex ought to be humble; he ought to see that, materially, he doesn't much matter, and that morally his loves are merely his own, without authority over the universe. He can admit without obloquy that he is what he is; and he can rejoice in his own being, and in that of all other things in so far as he can share it sympathetically.
The supreme democratic artist, whom Santayana believes Dickens to be, is gifted with the sympathy that enables him to turn out uncounted human forms of the most preposterous singularity; everyone, however misshapen or odd, has his appointed place in Dickens's world, as in nature's own:
The most grotesque creatures of Dickens are not exaggerations or mockeries of something other than themselves; they arise because nature generates them, like toadstools; they exist because they can't help it, as we all do.
The philosopher defers to the novelist when it comes to comprehending the world's variety, which sometimes moves Santayana to irrepressible laughter. In "Occam's Razor," Santayana gives thanks with a chuckle that the peopling of Creation was not conducted with philosophical rigor: "If God or nature had used Occam's razor and had hesitated to multiply beings without necessity, where should we be?"
The Failure of Liberalism
Human variety may well be the defining shibboleth of 19th and 20th century ethical and political philosophy, and of democratic public life. The epigraph from Wilhelm von Humboldt that John Stuart Mill places at the head of On Liberty reads, "The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity." Giving a nod to Mill, Walt Whitman opens Democratic Vistas with the assertion, "As the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom, the same present the greatest lessons also in New World politics and progress." Some years down the line, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 that "at the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Such brassy pronunciamentos do rally the believers, but their truth is not self-evident to all. The pertinent questions remain alive and dangerous. Can variety and freedom be ends in themselves? What limits can authority reasonably place in the name of virtue on variety and freedom?
Santayana points the way into those questions, and maybe even indicates a way out. There is at least a touch of the huckster, he discerns, in the most magniloquent promoters of liberty—for instance, William James. The problem is not so much that James's typically liberal notion of liberty is uninhibited as that it is aimless, Santayana writes in Character and Opinion:
Liberty is not an art, liberty must be used to bring some natural art to fruition. Shall it be simply eating and drinking and wondering what will happen next? If there is some deep and settled need in the heart of man, to give direction to his efforts, what else should a philosopher do but discover and announce what that need is?
What is the good of liberty if liberty gets you no nearer the good?
And about the good, liberalism cannot but be indefinite, for its guiding presupposition is that the world allows for at least as many goods as there are men. As Santayana writes in "Liberalism and Culture," one of a quartet of brilliant essays on classical and modern liberty in Later Soliloquies, the liberal ideal
implies that the ultimate environment, divine or natural, is either chaotic in itself or undiscoverable by human science, and that human nature, too, is either radically various or only determinable in a few essentials, round which individual variations play ad libitum. For this reason no normal religion, science, art, or way of happiness can be prescribed.
Such an understanding of the cosmic arrangements might seem not at all antipathetic to Santayana's temperament, and indeed he prefers this pure strain of liberalism to its unsavory adulterated version, that of the philanthropic reformer who "exerts himself to turn all men into the sort of men he likes, so as to be able to like them."
Nevertheless, even pure liberalism Santayana considers essentially a failure, linked as it is to a doctrine of unrelenting material progress that, inexorable as fate, stamps purportedly free men into shapes of a dismaying uniformity. In America particularly, the soul that insists on its distinctiveness—that cannot but insist—finds precious little to sustain it:
The luckless American who is born a conservative, or who is drawn to poetic subtlety, pious retreats, or gay passions, nevertheless has the categorical excellence of work, growth, enterprise, reform, and prosperity dinned into his ears: every door is open in this direction and shut in the other; so that he either folds up his heart and withers in a corner—in remote places you sometimes find such a solitary gaunt idealist—or else he flies to Oxford or Florence or Montmartre to save his soul—or perhaps not to save it.
Sublimities in Sensible Shoes
And there is yet another matter that chills Santayana's admiration for liberalism: he knows of something better; perhaps he even knows what is best, because it is the truth. In ancient Greek materialist philosophy, he writes in Three Philosophical Poets (they are Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe), is to be found "perhaps the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon.... It is that all we observe about us, and ourselves also, may be so many passing forms of a permanent substance." Santayana's hero Democritus divined the stuff of the universe to be matter, strictly matter, consisting of atoms and ceaselessly moving in the void. The spectacle of so much cosmic dust stirred into intermittent liveliness offers a rather dispiriting truth about the place of man in all this; "but being a truth, it satisfies and exalts the rational mind, that craves truth as truth, whether it be sad or comforting, and wishes to pursue a possible, not an impossible, happiness." Possible happiness might best be found in an appreciation for nature's show as it goes irrevocably by—in "sympathy with the movement of things, interest in the rising wave, delight at the foam it bursts into, before it sinks again." The prospect of immortality no honest naturalist can countenance; the life we have now is the only one we are going to get, and at best we might hope to draw vital energy from nature that will make our life not merely a trial to be endured but a gift to be loved. Still, nature does not parcel out her gifts equally, and there are bound to be those men who hate their own lives and who thus take no pleasure in nature. To the broken and despondent, who are not a few, Santayana can offer no consolation. The truth is what it is, and that means some people are simply out of luck.
Santayana writes for those strong enough to accept without yelping the harsh terms that nature imposes on those it has brought into being. "There is no cure for birth or death save to enjoy the interval." The weightiest matters can be handled lightly, with a decorously murmuring quip. Santayana's demeanor here is about as far as can be from the signature lightning-grasping heroics of Nietzsche, which set the tone for a strain of bold desperation in such thinkers as Heidegger, Sartre, and Foucault. Where Nietzsche sings to the most daring souls who will brave the direst alpine perils of the spirit, Santayana generally offers sublimities that can be enjoyed in sensible shoes. Nietzsche shouts from the mountaintops, "A philosopher—is a human being who constantly experiences, sees, hears, suspects, hopes, and dreams extraordinary things...." Santayana never raises his voice, but simply thinks extraordinary things and sets them down in his calm and measured way. And yet one can see the resemblance between the two philosophers, both of whom offer instruction in how to make a fundamentally meaningless and inhospitable world feel like home.
Even when he seeks out the dangerous heights beyond good and evil, Santayana makes them seem like perfect resting places for the venturesome wanderer. In one of his most celebrated essays, "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy," originally a lecture delivered at Berkeley in 1911, he tells his audience that the antidote to the noxious philosophical presumption that "man, or human reason, or the human distinction between good and evil, is the center and pivot of the universe" can be found in "your forests and your Sierras":
In their non-human beauty and peace they stir the sub-human depths and the super-human possibilities of your own spirit. It is no transcendental logic that they teach; and they give no sign of any deliberate morality seated in the world. It is rather the vanity and superficiality of all logic, the needlessness of argument, the finitude of morals, the strength of time, the fertility of matter, the variety, the unspeakable variety, of possible life.
To contemplate in wonder the vastness and splendor of nature, Santayana suggests, is to see man's appointed place in Creation, and to recognize that the world is basically indifferent to human preference. A sense of smallness and contingency is appropriate to our lot, as is a somewhat tremulous natural piety. In Egotism in German Philosophy, Santayana pillories certain thinkers, mostly but not exclusively German, for their moral bumptiousness, which prompts them to consider themselves beings essentially of their own making, and to ascribe to their own mind and will the power of fashioning the world in their image:
It is a trap into which high speculation may easily fall, but it denies that we are created beings owing reverence to immense forces beyond ourselves, which endow us with our limited faculties and powers, govern our fortunes, and shape our very loves without our permission.
Philosophical egotists assume that nature's inexhaustible and amoral plenum reflects their superbly unrestrained human selves; genteel moralists believe that nature's sunniness and congeniality will shine brightly upon their admirable uprightness. Santayana is quite sure both are wrong. In his view, the inclination to impose one's fondest wishes upon a defiantly profligate nature poses to philosophy perhaps its most daunting challenge. Most people, deep thinkers included, want the world to fit their desires; and the world has a way of reducing such desires to hash. "The attempt to subsume the natural order under the moral is like attempts to establish a government of the parent by the child—something children are not averse to," Santayana writes in The Life of Reason. In the 1931 essay "The Genteel Tradition at Bay," he derides the "daylight religion" that, with ludicrous hopefulness, swears by an imperial anthropocentrism, as though the universe were "nothing but an enlarged edition, or an expurgated edition, of human life."
A Case for Morality
That would appear to be that. the life of men, one gathers, must be an insignificant accident in a universe morally frigid and barren. And yet Santayana goes on to make a case for a natural morality peculiar to man: "the universe can sanction in man the virtues proper to man without needing to imitate them on its own immeasurable scale." That is, human life has its inherent and distinctive forms of virtue, and seems to be no mere accident. Still, human virtue is underwritten only by natural authority, not by supernatural; and the question remains whether nature, which generally does not operate in accordance with morality, by that very fact endorses moral anarchy in the human sphere. Yes and no, Santayana replies. To "the absolute or monocular moralist," there is no legitimacy to a purely natural morality for men; this is the understanding, put in lapidary fashion by Dostoyevsky, that if there is no God, everything is permitted. "But for the philosopher with two eyes, the natural status of morality in the animal world does not exclude the greatest vigor in those moral judgments and moral passions which belong to his nature."
One might suspect that the two-eyed philosopher is winking with one of those eyes; moral vigor is hardly the same as truth, and Santayana has plainly stated more than once that the best life is lived with truth as its standard. Perhaps the morally vigorous life is the best for most men, but the truthful—the fully rational—life is the best for those few who can live it. Such a view is of course hardly original with Santayana: it is the foundation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and likely of Socratic wisdom as well. At most Santayana seems to be saying that if there is any basis whatsoever for morality, it can be found only in human nature; the heavens are not to be consulted on the matter. Ultimately every man must be faithful not only to human nature in general but to the singular demands of his individual nature:
No true appreciation of anything is possible without a sense of its naturalness, of the innocent necessity by which it has assumed its special and perhaps extraordinary form. In a word, the principle of morality is naturalistic. Call it humanism or not, only a morality frankly relative to man's nature is worthy of man, being at once vital and rational, martial and generous; whereas absolutism smells of fustiness as well as of faggots.
If something exists in nature, it must be natural, and its right to flourish after its own fashion cannot be gainsaid. Only the intolerant absolutists, their eyes gleaming with the festive light of autos-da-fé, are unworthy to represent humanity in its diverse splendor. Santayana thus comes out for both unbridled diversity and something like natural law. The culture wars got underway well before the 1960s, and both sides can find in Santayana the wisdom of their inmost desires, even as he stands apart from either camp.
A Reverence for Truth
Even believers in the supernatural are not left entirely without solace, however brazen in his disdain for them Santayana often appears:
If there be really a single supernatural vocation latent in all souls, I can imagine it revealed to some supreme sage in a tremendous vision, like that which came to Buddha under the Bo-Tree, or to Socrates when he heard, or dreamt that he heard, the Sibyl of Mantinaea discoursing on mortal and immortal love. There is much in any man's experience, if he reflects, to persuade him that the circumstances of this life are a strange accident to him, and that he belongs by nature to a different world.
And Santayana concedes that if the supernatural absolutists are right, then the human quality he most admires proves mere delusion:
If, for instance, the human soul were supernatural and had its proper life and perfection in another world, then indeed all the variety of human tastes, temperaments, and customs would be variety only in self-ignorance and error.
One is reminded of those medieval depictions of hell and heaven in which the damned are twisted every which way, each distinct from the others in his unique suffering, while the blessed are ceremoniously arrayed in ranks of perfect order, all thinking the same thought and feeling the same feeling. The variety that Santayana so delights in, he recognizes, might be just so many ways of being wrong.
Rarer even than the richness and subtlety of Santayana's mind is the humility which acknowledges that his most cherished thoughts might have missed the mark on the question that matters most. Having pressed reason as far as it can go, he reasonably recognizes that reason alone might be insufficient to understand the human place in the universe. Philosophical brilliance may not be the one thing needful, as ordinary men tend to realize more readily than those possessed of extraordinary intellect; not often does one find a philosopher saying, even if just in passing, that there could be human powers more crucial to understanding than those of pure mind. It is a measure of Santayana's reverence for the truth that he allows that his own thought might never have grasped it. To borrow a phrase from his favorite James brother, Henry, Santayana was one of those on whom nothing is lost; and he shows more fully than any other 20th-century philosopher what man might be, although by his own admission he may not have the last word on what man is.