“To be an American,” George Santayana said, “is of itself almost a moral condition, an education, and a career.”
For Americans and non-Americans alike, the American people has seemed a recognizable and describable breed from the earliest years of the Republic down to the 21st century, despite America’s reputation as a nation hospitable to immigration and the recipient of scores of millions of immigrants over the past two centuries. Only the powerful grip habit has on human thought and imagination explains how mass immigration to the United States from the postbellum era down to the 21st century can be compatible in the popular mind with a notion of the American character as something fixed and unchanging, as if the Connecticut Yankee of the early 19th century could be essentially the same person as the American imperialist or the Populist at the turn of the 20th century, the Babbitt of the 1920’s, the Brains Trust member of the 1930’s, the booster for the American Century around the time of the Second World War, the Cold Warrior or the man in the gray flannel suit of the 1950’s, the SDS protester of the 60’s, the discouraged interventionist of the economically bleak 70’s, the morally resuscitated and ideologically revived Reaganite of the 80’s, the satisfied, optimistic dot-com investor during the two Clinton administrations, and his dissatisfied, pessimistic successor of the past 20 years—the same not only in his cultural, ethnic, and racial background but in his understanding of his country and of the world, in his religious and metaphysical assumptions, and in his mental and emotional attributes and processes as well.
Americans, who claimed from the beginning to be something new in the world, have always been nearly as interesting to other people as they have been (and still are) to themselves. The literature on America and Americans by foreign and domestic authors is vast. The earliest, most famous, and in many ways definitive study of the American character was written two centuries ago by a minor French aristocrat following the two years he spent in America in the 1820’s, but many others also exist, including far less generous and infinitely more acidulous impressions by Frances Trollope (mother of Anthony) and a scathing report by Charles Dickens published in 1842. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was published in France in the 1830’s. Eighty-some years later, in 1920, a much briefer, more impressionistic, and nowadays scarcely known work by a Spanish-born immigrant who arrived in America with his parents in 1872 and later attended Harvard College appeared. The author was George Santayana, a philosopher, poet, critic, and novelist who taught for more than two decades in the department of philosophy at his alma mater. His book, developed from a series of lectures written to explain America and the Americans to the English, was Character & Opinion in the United States. Brief as it is (144 pages in the Doubleday Anchor edition published in 1956), this little volume remains the most insightful work on the subject I know of since Democracy in America. Between Tocqueville’s visit and Santayana’s perceptive study, Americans, America, and American democracy had greatly changed, while remaining in many ways—perhaps even essentially—the same thing. Character & Opinion in the United States suggests how Americans in the early 20th century differed from their forebears in nascent Republican times, when Tocqueville observed them and the social and political institutions that had shaped them, and that they were shaping in their own day. A century after Santayana’s book, one is hard put to identify in contemporary literature the equivalent of this sensitive and imaginative sounding of the American character. America in the 21st century is an even more hyperpoliticized society than it was in Tocqueville’s day, and also in Santayana’s. Because Character & Opinion is chronologically equidistant between Democracy in America and the present moment, it makes a useful gauge to measure the changes that have occurred in both these things over a period of two full centuries.
Santayana begins by considering that part of the American mind we call the intellect. At times his remarks seem applicable to the 19th century, at others to the early 20th, but it soon becomes evident that what the author has to say applies substantially to both periods. Though he is too polite to say so directly, Santayana’s account of “polite”—that is, educated and cultivated—thought in America outlines an intellectual tradition that is fundamentally provincial, shallow, lacking in rigor, unsystematic, impatient, philistine, utilitarian, anti-intellectual, and idealistic, scornful of intellectual tradition and authority. Tocqueville, with equal delicacy, had portrayed it the same way a century before him. Americans, Santayana wrote, respected “scraps of feeling” as well as “entire systems” as they respected operas and art museums. Having found “false philosophy” at once easy to master and susceptible to simplification and forced consistency, they merged their essentially British philosophic tradition with German idealism, whose ethos and temper, though not its intellectual rigor, appealed to them. Americans, Santayana noted, refusing to cumber themselves with systems (including their own), were ready to abandon ideas by “a mere change of feeling”; “they were content to imbibe more or less of the spirit of a philosophy and to let it play on such facts as happened to attract their attention.” This left them free to renovate their beliefs without rejecting anything pertaining to them, thus sparing themselves the effort of refuting what they had previously accepted. Hence New England could “slip away” from Calvinism, and finally Christianity, “without any loss of elevation or authority.” Americans, Santayana thought, felt the world to be
a safe place, watched over by a kindly God, who exacted nothing but cheerfulness and goodwill from his children; and the American flag . . . a sort of rainbow in the sky, promising that all storms are over. Or if storms came, such as the Civil War, they would not be harder to weather than was necessary to test the national spirit and raise it to a new efficiency
—for them, the supreme test that allowed America to grow, a process that contained and summarized “all the good that had gone before, [while] adding an appropriate increment.”
“In all ages of equality,” Tocqueville had written, “every man finds his beliefs within himself, and . . . all his feelings are turned in on himself.” Anticipating his later chapter on William James, Santayana emphasized the degree to which Americans in the 19th century, influenced by democratic individualism and the Reformation, had come to see God’s elect (themselves) as “tabernacle within tabernacle,” with “one’s own spirit and experience, which was the centre of everything,” occupying the Holy of Holies. In this way, he argued, they transformed psychology (“the most derivative and dubious of the sciences”) into metaphysics, tearing empiricism apart by alternately identifying experience as contact with things and with absolute feeling, and laying the foundation for the school of “psychological criticism” that equated consciousness with truth. This type of “idealism,” basically reducible to sentimentality, was facilitated by Americans’ uninterest in pure truth, together with their zealous moralism. In America “the wisest felt themselves to be apostles rather than serene philosophers.” In consequence, while most Americans had vague but conservative “sentiments” regarding politics and morals, democratic instinct and force of circumstance produced an educational system “which anticipate[d] all that the most extreme revolution would bring about; and while no one dreams of forcibly suppressing private property, religion, or the family,” American education ignores all these things and “proceeds as much as possible as if they did not exist.” So professors working at institutions rooted in Puritan culture were pinched between their intellectual duty to describe things as they are and their institutional responsibility to show how they are conformable to the progressive American agenda. “By truth,” Santayana claimed, “the pragmatist means only correctness,” while empiricism, which once meant “reliance on the past,” now looks “only to the future, since truth is said to arise by the verification of some presumption.” The New World’s effects on philosophy, he concluded, were two. First, it had hastened and “rendered fearless” the work of disintegrating conventional categories. Second, owing to the efforts of a “younger cosmopolitan generation,” it had encouraged the undiscriminating assemblage of various ideas and their collision with each other. “Never was the human mind master of so many facts and sure of so few principles.”
A brief review of those chapters in Volume II of Democracy in America where Tocqueville describes and analyzes the democratic intellect in general and the American one in particular shows that nothing Tocqueville had to say on the subject contradicts anything Santayana wrote in Character & Opinion in the United States, while everything he did write confirms it. Indeed, the later work reads very much in places like a synopsis of Tocqueville. The American intellect in 1920, it seems, was fundamentally unchanged from what it had been in the 1820’s, and in the 21st century all its earlier progressive elements remain in place and unchallenged, though certainly they have been updated and radicalized. Over two centuries, “polite thought” has held to the same philosophical assumptions, the same understanding of reality, the same intellectual agenda behind which the related political and social ones have been advanced.
Only the first two chapters of Character & Opinion, though, and the related ones on William James and Josiah Royce, deal with what Santayana called “The Moral Background” and “The Academic Environment.” In the rest of the book, he steps down from the intellectual heights to the level of quotidian American life where Tocqueville had labored so insightfully and so fruitfully.
Indeed, George Santayana’s remarks on “the American character” strikingly resemble Alexis de Tocqueville’s on the same subject. Like Tocqueville a century before him, Santayana described the American as an unprecedentedly optimistic person with “the necessary faith of the pioneer.” “The expectation of what he approves, or the approval of what he expects, makes up his optimism.” Santayana noted, too, the high degree of Americans’ self-trust or self-confidence, to which he attributed their kindness and goodwill. “Ideals clinging so close to nature are almost certain of fulfillment.” The American “feels that God and nature are working with him,” while “the moral emptiness of settlement where men and houses are easily moved, and no one, almost, lives where he was born or believes what he has been taught” encourages him to think for himself on every subject. This independence is of course a curse as well as a blessing—in fact, in the long run it has proved more curse than otherwise, as Santayana recognized in his equivocal reference to Americans’ “zeal for something radically different from the actual world and (if they only knew it) from the possible,” something that is “ideally simple, and [that] they love . . . and believe in . . . because their nature craves it.” Americans—Santayana finished here in a striking sentence that rings the more ominously in the 21st century—“think life would be set free by the destruction of all its organs.”
Like Tocqueville also, Santayana was impressed by “the spirit of free cooperation” that, often despite their physical isolation, thrived among the Americans at the local and state levels, a habit native to the England of their origins but more developed here in the New World, and less weakened by class consciousness and feudal respect. “Every man joins in and gives a helping hand, without a preconceived plan or a prior motive. Even the leader, when he is a natural leader and not a professional, has nothing up his sleeve to force on the rest.” Nor were the Americans he observed jealous of their neighbors’ and compatriots’ material success, as if one man’s good fortune precluded others from succeeding as well.
To abolish millionaires would have been to dash one’s own hopes. . . . The most opposite systems of religion and education could look smilingly upon one another’s prosperity, because the country could afford these superficial luxuries, having a constitutional religion and education of its own, which everybody drank in unconsciously and which assured the moral cohesion of the people.
Perceptively, Santayana used American cooperativeness as the basis for broader and more crucial assertions about what he called “English liberty”—“an eminence in temper, goodwill, reliability, accommodation”—to which he attributed the Anglo-Saxons’ remarkable success in commerce, in government, and in empire. “To dominate the world cooperation is better than policy, and empiricism safer than inspiration.” Yet cooperation requires something prior to it, and that something, Santayana thought, is “fundamental unanimity, and all making in the same direction . . . ” And unanimity in a healthy working democracy is dependent in turn on all the fundamentals having been tacitly agreed upon at the time of its founding, so that only minor issues remained as matters for disagreement and dissent. Thus, Santayana thought, religion ought to be “broadly national and in the spirit of the times,” and “prohibitions” should be imposed only where necessary and in preference to more galling “compulsions.” Americans are docile and “not at all tyrannical,” chiefly because “Free government works well in proportion as government is superfluous,” and a superfluous government is one that, in the spirit of English liberty, is modest, prudent, compromising, commonsensical, unspeculative, and wise—“in harmony with the nature of things”—rather than speculative, passionate, fanatical. Parties and nations that, not satisfied with “English liberty,” prefer the absolute kind exhibit “a desire that is quite primitive,” while governments ambitious to centralize control (a particular danger for democracies encouraged by their own citizens, Tocqueville thought) suppress liberty, and “combative” ones exchange their own extended liberties by freedom of action abroad for those their citizens enjoy at home.
Character & Opinion in the United States reflects America in an age when, in Santayana’s words, “the pressure of business enterprise was not yet out of scale with the old life or out of key with the moral harmonies,” and signs of future restless and shortsighted materialism, in his view, had not yet become ominous. It was also a time when government, too, was not “out of scale” with society, the democratic mass with the individual, the United States of America with the rest of the world, and the demonic impulse in postclassical liberalism remained constrained, or not fully realized.
No contemporary reader of Santayana’s little book will fail to note the discrepancies between the America it describes and the America of today, when scale and measure in relation to all things has been ignored, and even the notion of scale set aside or forgotten.
Nevertheless, “polite thought” in America remains essentially as Tocqueville and Santayana described it in their day—shallow, inconsistent, restless, susceptible to novelties, materialist, nominalist, progressive, positivist, skeptical, individualist, hostile to authority and scornful of the past, and wholly oriented toward the future. By comparison, the American character and psyche are greatly altered since then. Considered as a whole, Americans are no longer optimistic, confident, self-assured, and self-reliant. They have become instead a pessimistic, timid, uncertain, dependent, resentful, unhappy, and above all an angry people. They have more or less ceased to believe that God is working with them in their collective and individual enterprises—indeed, a declining percentage of them profess any religious affiliation or formal belief. The spirit of trust, generosity, and goodwill toward their neighbors, their compatriots, and their institutions—the government in Washington especially—has largely evaporated in an age of mutual suspicion and distrust, and federal intervention at every level of society has either destroyed the habit of cooperation or made it seem unnecessary.
When one considers these two facts—the sustained continuity of the inadequate and inflexible American intellect over two centuries, and the demoralized American character today—the causal relationship between them seems obvious. Two hundred years of false philosophy, uncritically and relentlessly pursued and pitilessly applied like a monstrous leech to the political and social body, have done their worst, and that worst is the America for which Donald Trump has shown such explosive appeal: the America where, as Santayana said, “All fictions and all abstractions are now declared to be parcels of the objective world; it will suffice to live on, to live forward, in order to see everything as it really is.” Unfortunately for the long-standing progressive American regime, enough Americans have learned the hard way that “polite thought” in America is the pursuit of evil moonbeams against which they must close their mind’s eye, lest they be driven mad. More fortunately for Mr. Trump, he did not, like Tocqueville and Santayana, have to write a book to demonstrate the nature of character and opinion in the United States in 2016. He merely needed to run for president in order to make it plain.
Whatever else he may be, Donald J. Trump is hardly the proximate threat to America that progressive Americans, including those who boss the Republican Party, see in him. The immediate danger to constitutional government and a free society is rather the individualism Tocqueville said originated with democracy, and the centralization of government and society he thought democratic peoples desire. These are the things that imperil the spirit of liberty Santayana believed made England and America unique in the history of the world.