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Truth Is So

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

The Realm of Truth. By George Santayana. New York: Charles Scrib-ner’s Sons. $2.75.

George santayana’s philosophy is still such as to permit his literary talents the greatest possible degree of freedom; in fact, those who have followed his works in the hope that certain of the immanent problems would eventually achieve treatment are apt to be a trifle disappointed in a book which is little more than a brilliant and eloquent restatement of his position as defined since 1923. The author himself does not claim to have developed a new doctrine in the present work, “The Realm of Truth”; the comments on the topic of Truth contained in his previous writings are quoted at length in the preface and subjected to a summation rather than a positive synthesis. There is some alteration of emphasis, but the luminous phraseology in which the doctrine is reset, the “music of my woven word” as he himself has called it, still cloaks the “common sense” materialism in its now familiar form.

It is a bit late in the game to spend any considerable time remarking upon Mr. Santayana’s amazing ability to handle the English language as though it were a Romance tongue. But the fact is that one cannot simply put the literary quality of the presentation to one side and pass directly to the content. It is still true that one sentence from his hand is apt to contain more ironic potence than a dozen from that of any other living writer who lays claim to the ambiguous title of “philosopher.” His extraordinary rhetorical power shows no diminution with increasing age. In “The Realm of Truth,” as in his early poems, there is a crystal brilliance of phrase above which float the ghosts of half-assimilated meanings which somehow sustain and enliven the “content.” One cannot picnic upon the grammatical or the literal level in Mr. Santayana’s writings. On the other hand, one cannot ignore the acknowledged fact that the main elements of his position are recognizable in the history of thought in independence of his peculiar mode of expression.

In view of this latter point, one often wonders whether the “music of the woven word” does not actually smother problems which might be raised by a genuinely curious reader. Of course, any particular metaphysic is simply a way of affirming that certain questions are ultimately irrelevant; but the rather “dainty” materialism (to use a phrase of the late Professor Woods) to which Mr. Santayana adheres may be conceived as side-stepping a number of issues whose ultimate triviality is extremely doubtful and should at least be demonstrated by some dialectical means if such issues are to be successfully ignored. It is the very absence of problems, the very fact that the mind is lulled into an artificial slumber from which it awakes somewhat ashamed of itself, that makes one suspicious. For though philosophy begins in wonder, must it necessarily end in the placid contemplation of essence?

For Mr. Santayana, there is no problem about Truth. Truth is “the complete ideal description of existence,” “passive” and forming “an ideal realm of being, impersonal and superexistential.” Truth is not, in the ordinary sense, “necessary”; its contingency arises from the contingency of fact, for facts are what make Truth true. It is logically prior to its expression and to its discovery: “Truth is grasped after, not imposed, by the presumptions of the intellect.” Truth is something which only mind can detach, but such detaching does not make it any truer. There is no reason why we should love Truth; actually many of us, unwittingly, hate it.

And certainly, on the other hand, there may be an indecent passion for it. In the end, the relation of Truth to man seems accidental, almost trivial.

The purpose of the book would appear, then, to be the elimination of certain confusions and superstitions concerning Truth. For it is Mr. Santayana’s peculiar talent to shear cleanly through the middle of some of the toughest philosophical tangles in a way that is little short of miraculous. But there is both a reward and a penalty for such simplification. The reward is freedom of expression, the possibility of a dramatic rather than a technical presentation of the subject matter. The penalty is that of being, as Dr. Whitehead has put it, “clearer than the truth.” “The Realm of Truth” discloses to us that “truth is so.” So what, Mr. Santayana?


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