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Santayana as a Spirit

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

The Realm of Spirit. Book Fourth of Realms of Being. By George Santayana. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00.

For the last sixteen peculiar years George Santayana has been living in various cities in Europe rewriting his magnum opus, “The Life of Reason,” a five volume work that he wrote at Harvard in his younger days. In the earlier work he expresses himself as a psyche with moral preoccupations and flashes of intuition. He had sympathy, wit, and at times, deep insights characteristic of youth. In the books that he wrote between these two large works he showed an increasingly moving irony which the readers of “The Last Puritan,” his one and only novel, would hardly guess he possessed. In the successive volumes of “The Realms of Being,” of which we now have “The Realm of Spirit,” he is definitely above the human battle, or the successive battles with the spirit that these portray. They are hypnotic books that give the susceptible reader the sense of sharing an angel’s view of matter, essence, truth, and finally spirit itself. Santayana is the novelist’s philosopher, the Virgil who can make any hell or limbo become a world suggesting and even giving birth to stories about human beings; on the other hand, he does not seem able to put himself into the story, get his readers into the story, or even give the illusion of doing that by creating characters. It is unfair to ask this much of an author, but in this case it is Santayana’s great gifts that raise our expectations. It is not patronage to say that as a writer he is pure spirit in the sense that he writes about pure spirits and in the sense that he would say they cannot exist. He is describing what it is like to be a pure spirit distracted by things that do exist.

There are certain advantages for a philosopher to be a pure spirit, and Mr. Santayana does not miss them. For example, he can afford to be more sceptical than a Hume or a Descartes, and yet can be sure of many things that a mere man cannot be sure of. He is sure that what his intuition gives him, when his psyche sees or moves, is an essence. From this he can be calmly dogmatic about the existence of matter and he can accept what matter turns up for him to look at without very much testing or analysis. He can enjoy his own imagination and the poetry of others without even raising the question of its truth or its goodness. He can afford to drift with the universe without fearing that it will give out on him or show him mistaken. He can afford to ride the waves of human affairs because he knows by definition that spirit floats on matter; it may go out as a flame but it will come back when the occasion arises.

I do not mean to be joining the chorus of practical-minded critics of Mr. Santayana who say that he lives in an ivory tower or beyond it. Quite the contrary, spirit allows him to see and know and even will everything that happens, also to know what the good and bad of it is without rationalization or self-deception. He knows about the omnipotence of matter and its disregard for spirits, he knows how much a matter of luck it is that spirit is here or there at any time, he knows how the psyche suffers at the consequent tragedies and waste of spirit. But he also knows that spirit can do nothing about all this, and that it shouldn’t, that man mistakes himself when he tries by magic or fanaticism to harness and use his spirit. Spirit is irresponsible, or would be, if it tried to do anything about its distractions, since it would no longer be able to know and shed light on movement and good and evil. To know is to know and to know is to love; knowledge and love are the free gifts of the spirit, that for which the whole of creation groans.

But this is not a new story. The parts of man that are here made so dramatic and ironic are the parts of the soul that Plato discerned. Matter, psyche, and spirit are respectively the appetites, the spirit, and the reason in Plato’s “Republic.” Santayana has had them running in his head as long as he has been thinking and writing, and he has not kept this a secret. His conception of the philosopher, who in the modern world must also be a teacher, is one who keeps reason alive by letting it float on the winds of doctrine and recording what it sees below. The philosopher has only a secondary interest in the original insight and the novel event. Freshness and vitality should be the aim, and this is to be intelligently traditional. In this case Plato is freshened up by what Santayana once called a cold shower bath for the ideas, washing away their moral heats and corrosions. It is the human psyche that has moral occupations, not the appetites or the reason. Reason or spirit judges of these fevers in the psyche and is concerned only about their genuineness. It is necessary to make this point about Plato if he is to reflect the modern temper and to play the powerful part that his thought has played on crucial occasions in the past. There must be the appearance of the ivory tower if there is to be any recovery of height and depth in the intellectual world of the present.

As if to assure us of his good faith, Santayana connects this modern revival of Greek thought with the Christian dogmas, and for our private consumption, not for the Church, finds in the Christian myth all the important properties of the life of spirit. Liberation from distraction and union with the good come by suffering and recognition, and he even allows his trinity of realms to merge with the trinity of dogma, and wishes it might be true in his sense of truth.

Santayana is an old man, and one wonders what he would be thinking and writing if he were young now. His wit and wisdom are needed if we are to revive and live in the light of traditions that have grown since the Greeks and obscured the things he is talking about. One wishes that he might give a cold shower to some of the mediaeval ideas that have suffered heat and corrosion for the last three centuries.


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