Remembering George Santayana

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It would not surprise George Santayana (1863-1952) that his most famous aphorism is all he is remembered for, nor that it has become almost a cliché, nor that the Americans, whom he knew so well, would consider that they had heeded his lesson by their ceaseless wars upon their own past.

Santayana would have been appalled by the removal this summer, by order of the governor of the state, of the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, that most noble of Americans, from Richmond, the state capital of Virginia, that most American of states. The removal was like an Orwellian erasure, an example of what Santayana perceived as that “modern sense of maladjustment with its sweeping hatred of the past and present” coupled with, because founded upon, unrealizable dreams about the future.

By contrast, Santayana, always defended the past, not simply for the beauty and heroism it had brought to light but because it revealed the world and man’s place in it as it was and would always be. As far as the future, he had “no clear expectation of better things.” Those who believe that the past can be erased, that the present is malleable, naturally believe that all things are possible in the future. All things are not, but we can see why those who disdain learning in favor of activism think so. Marx famously rebuked philosophers, in his Theses on Feuerbach (1845), for “only interpreting the world in various ways,” when “the point was to change it.” Santayana essentially replied that the point of philosophy was to understand the world, not to interpret it, and certainly not to change it. Marx did both, and thus brought great ruin upon the world. Santayana simply practiced philosophy and, in so doing, proved himself the better philosopher, and a true prophet. 

Russell Kirk’s masterpiece, The Conservative Mind, was published in 1953. That was two years after Santayana had posthumously published his masterpiece, Dominations and Powers, one year after his death, and the same year the third book of his memoirs had been published. That helps us understand why Kirk subtitled his book “from Burke to Santayana” (subsequent editions substituted Eliot). Kirk was unerring in his selections of Anglo-American philosophers, poets, historians, and statesmen who were conservative by temperament or principle. Of the major figures surveyed, only two were neither American nor English: Tocqueville and Santayana. But Santayana was as near to being an American as a foreigner could possibly be.

Although both Santayana’s parents were Spanish, and he was born in Madrid, he grew up and matured in Boston. His mother had first married a Sturgis, whose dying wish was that their two daughters be raised in America; so when Santayana was only 10 years old, his mother brought him to Boston to join his sisters. He studied at Harvard and subsequently taught there, first as an instructor and then as a full professor, where he was part of an impressive faculty of philosophers including Josiah Royce and William James.

In 1912, Santayana left the United States and spent the rest of his life in Europe, but little of that in Spain. He spoke English without a Spanish accent and never ceased to write in English. He exemplifies the truth of Alfred Polgar’s lament, quoted in Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia: “It is the destiny of the emigrant that the foreign land does not become his homeland: his homeland becomes foreign.” Neither Polgar nor Santayana would have had any patience with the current conceit that one can choose one’s nationality simply by physically relocating and filling out some forms. That notion contains a grievous philosophical error, which Santayana’s work exposed; it is the key to understanding postmodernism and all its nasty progeny.

It is fitting that Santayana should be remembered for the prophetic aphorism quoted above because it encapsulates his political philosophy, which is grounded in historical studies. In history the nature of political man and the recurring patterns of politics are recorded and can be grasped but not created or shaped by philosophy. The idea that political history can be so shaped—that man’s nature can be liberated or transformed by liberating political action—is the error of idealism. It is the idea that man’s mental state creates reality, that man, and not God, is the creator.

Santayana was not a Christian; he was a philosophical materialist. But he early saw that idealism was a lie. He accused philosophical idealists—such as Hegel and his successors, including Marx, whose dialectical materialism was really a disguised form of idealism—of creating elaborate intellectual castles in the air, just as political idealists sought to build gleaming Towers of Babel on the earth. Both types of idealists were ultimately fantasists, but the latter were also earnest fanatics willing to kill anyone opposed to clearing the ground in order to “build back better,” to borrow the phrase currently in vogue with the Biden administration and the World Economic Forum clique.

Do such men think they are divinely inspired? Or do they think they are gods? Santayana saw them as bloody fools. He also saw them as idolaters, whose object of worship was their own ideas and projects, and ultimately their personal will disguised as a collective one, which however mutable, mistaken, or contradictory, was presupposed as the ultimate and highest law.  

In Character and Opinion in the United States (1920), a series of critical essays written just after the Great War, Santayana observed that the American “is an idealist working on matter.” He was thinking of President Wilson, who had dreamed (before he lost his mind) of remaking the world in the image of the United States, with his Fourteen Points as the new commandments for liberated man. Wilson was hardly unusual in this ambition. In some sense, Americans have been materialistic idealists from the beginning. Their experience of populating and developing a New World naturally made them so. Their mistake was in thinking that this pioneering experience could be replicated in the Old World, or even continued once their own country was populated and built.

Even worse, the decline of liberal studies, especially classical education, which had already begun during Santayana’s time at Harvard, could only reinforce the mentality of reforming idealism by inculcating a studied indifference toward the previous experience of mankind. Americans assumed that the past need not concern them either because they were too busy or because they had advanced so far beyond the past that it was now only of antiquarian interest. Thus did another American characteristic come into play, also present from the beginning because inherited from England and purposely planted on these shores: a divinely appointed national mission.

Here was a sensitive point because national messianism does not slide into, but is a form of collective idolatry—just as it is, in a different way, the sword of idealism. A nation must be powerful and strong to think it has a divine destiny; otherwise, the claim is ridiculous. And universal ideals always require an army to install them, because they are never accepted universally. Edmund Burke said that the French Revolution was essentially “an armed doctrine.” The same was true of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and even the American intervention in the European World War I. Santayana called the Great War and its successor “adventures in enthusiastic unreason” that were “inspired by unnecessary and impracticable ambitions.” He meant the ambitions held by the Anglo-Americans, not just the Germans.

Santayana spent the war in England, at Oxford.  When it was over and he was planning to leave, he was urged to stay by Robert Bridges, the poet laureate of England, who told Santayana that he “had things to say that the English needed to hear.” Santayana was skeptical anyone would listen; he thought English reviewers did not like his Egotism in German Philosophy (1916) because the philosophical egotism he attacked “was far from being exclusively German.” Rather, it “was present in them and in the Americans whenever they turned their national ideal into something cosmic and eschatological, and felt themselves to be the chosen people,” he said. “That if they did so they were neither good philosophers nor good Christians.”

Warlike nations with a sense of destiny build empires. Santayana was no lover of them, for they are by their nature expansive and hostile “towards all dissenting forms of existence.” That includes any nation or people that obstructs their power, including the nation or people whose blood and treasure created it. Rome’s final conquest was itself.

In his postwar Dominations and Powers, Santayana prophesied the same ineluctable fate for the American nation. He foresaw because he saw already “new conquests and alliances, leaving the people who helped to obtain those advantages for its rulers neglected and absorbed into a large state where their traditions are despised and their freedoms lost.” And like the poet Juvenal, they will bemoan, “Who shall defend us against our defenders?”

As Santayana recognized, all government, especially the imperial form of government, has the tendency to become “a material formation with an origin, life, and tendency of its own.” In the end, the only thing to be done is to smash it and “call to life a wholly new government from out of the midst of the people.” Such a revolution becomes a grievous necessity, the only means to a restoration of something precious and fragile that has been lost, like good order, tranquility, and liberty. It is never a joyful leap into the future like it is for the idealist with his dreams of unlimited power over creation.

That a hundred years after the Great War, the United States, no longer united by anything but a name, could find themselves ruled by a government not only “casually oppressive, but ideally perverse” would not have surprised Santayana.

Nor would he have been surprised that after that prudential pause in immigration enacted in the 1920s, the gates would have been thrown open again, this time even wider and longer. In 1951, Santayana suspected that the proverbial “melting pot,” instead of boiling out the poisons, would concentrate them and become more like a “caldron of boiling oil.” A philosophical materialist, he insisted that nations are real things, not metaphysical constructs. They are the products of time, not of man. They cannot absorb an infinite infusion of heterogeneous elements and still remain themselves. They cannot be deconstructed and reconstructed, stripped naked and refashioned at will, just to suit the fancies of projectors or gratify the enviousness of those who hate the original divine design.

The loss of national unity, which America’s indiscriminate and continuous immigration has helped bring about, makes republican government unworkable. Without foundational agreement, there can be no agreement about anything. Elections become like high-stakes games of chance, in which everything is at stake. Rather than settling anything, they merely initiate a new struggle in which one side invokes the right of resistance and the other resorts to repression. The constant tension and continuous conflict is hardly bearable, and either the state flies apart or one side puts an end to the game.

Readers may recognize here a restatement of Michael Anton’s theory of the “Flight 93 Election.” But Santayana made exactly the same point a hundred years before, only he was forewarning us what might happen if Americans failed to accept that there were limits to how experimental the American experiment could be.

I recently had a conversation with a pastor who saw nothing to fear from bringing 70,000 unvetted Afghans into our country. It reminded me of another American characteristic that Santayana pointed to as a cause for concern: innocence. There are two forms this innocence may take. One is found among fanatical reformers whose will is self-justified and who refuse to take any responsibility for the consequences of their ruinous benevolences. The other, Santayana said, is a kind of national naïveté that sees the American flag as a “sort of rainbow in the sky promising that all storms are over,” meaning “the native good-will, complacency, thoughtlessness, and optimism.”

Santayana explained that this mentality was the product of national good fortune and a spacious and protective geography. “Great empty spaces bring a sort of freedom to both soul and body,” he wrote. “You may pitch your tent where you will.” But what happens when the two oceans no longer protect, when the empty places are filled up, and the good fortune turns bad? “Ill-will and a final meanness,” and Hobbesian war. “Liberalism has merely cleared a field in which every soul and every corporate interest may fight with every other for domination,” he wrote in Soliloquies in England (1922). The winner of this struggle will put an end to liberalism.

Santayana believed, with good reason, that chaos was the natural state of mankind, and tyranny the usual remedy. That was why “perfect order is so rare and precarious” and why the few islands of permanence and beauty that exist must be closely guarded lest they too become engulfed. Santayana tried to warn Americans of these things, but they would not listen. Their patriotism became debased and confused by being mixed up with “the pride of empire.”

That this innocence would be lost is something Santayana saw too. There comes a time in the life of peoples when “the accumulated illusion suddenly collapses, and then for the first time we rub our eyes, and notice and express literally what we see and think,” he wrote. What is that but the great reveal of the last six years in America, triggered by the Trump presidency? And what does it mean other than that a kind of spell has been broken, and the governing class stands revealed as incompetent fools who have grown rich betraying their country. Their time is passing…

above: George Santayana, American poet and philosopher, inset of photograph, c. 1950 (Scribners)

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