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A Book Review… An Acute Observer Of Perennial Topics

November 23, 2013 Featured Today No Comments


Santayana, George. The Life of Reason: Reason in Society. Critical edition, co-edited by Marianne S. Wokeck and Martin A. Coleman, with an introduction by James Gouinlock. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013.

Santayana’s Life of Reason was published in five volumes (1905-1906). This is the second of the five volumes and is published as Volume VII, Book Two of The Collected Works of George Santayana. Chapter titles alone are enough to indicate the content of this volume: “Love,” “The Family,” “Industry, Government, and War,” “The Aristocratic Ideal,” “Democracy,” “Free Society,” “Patriotism,” and “Ideal Society.”
Although written more than a hundred years ago, the book is timely, given that the topics addressed are in a sense perennial. Santayana is an acute observer and his reflections command attention even when one does not give full assent.
“The family is one of nature’s masterpieces,” he writes. “It would be hard to conceive a system of instincts more nicely adjusted, where the constituents should represent and support one another better. The husband has an interest in supporting the wife, she in serving her husband. The weaker gains in authority and safety, the wilder and more unconcerned finds a helpmate at home to take thought for his daily necessities. . . . In the family the whole exists for the sake of its parts.”
As an added value, he goes on to say, “Parents lend children their experience and a vicarious memory.”
On what it means to be a father: “When the Jews had become spiritual, they gave the name Father to Jehovah. A mere source of being would not deserve to be called father, unless he shared its creatures’ nature and therefore its interests.”
The second function of the family, to rear, is higher than the generative first, he believes: “To foster and perfect a life after it has been awakened, to cooperate with a will already launched into the world, is a positive good work. . . . The father represents his children while they are under his tutelage, and afterwards they represent him, carrying on his arts and inheriting his mind. We commit the blotted manuscript of our lives more willingly to the flames, when we find the immortal text already half englossed in a fairer copy.”
In an aside, he remarks, “Little improvement is ordinarily possible in the world, and while our children may improve upon us in some respects, the devil will catch them unprepared in another quarter.”
Speaking of some of the ills he found in his day, he predicts, “If change continues in the present direction, much that is now of bad odor may come to be accepted as normal.”
In the context of his reflections on marriage and the family, he writes, “The effect of women’s liberation might well prove to be the opposite of what is intended.” Rhetorically, he asks, “How surround the natural sanctities of wedlock with wise custom and law, how to combine the maximum of spiritual freedom with the maximum of moral cohesion?”
In his discussion of democracy, Santayana makes a distinction between “social democracy” as an ideal and “democracy as a form of government” in which power lies more or less directly in the people. “Social democracy is a general ethical ideal, looking to human equality and brotherhood, and in its radical form is inconsistent with such institutions as family and heredity property.”
Democratic government, by contrast is merely a means to an end, an expedient for better and smoother government of certain states at certain junctures. Santayana insists, “A government is not made representative or just by the mechanical expedient of electing its members by universal suffrage. It becomes representative only by embodying in its policy, whether by instinct or intelligence, the people’s conscious and unconscious interests.”
The social democracy, which is the ideal of many in modern times, excludes slavery and unites whole nations and even all of mankind into a society of equals, admitting of no local or racial privileges by which a sense of fellowship maybe stimulated. “In such a society, no one would be a slave, everyone would have an elementary education and a chance to demonstrate his capacity; but he would be probably condemned to those occupations which in ancient times were assigned to slaves.”
The spirit of social democracy is deadening, Santayana maintains. “To ambition, to the love of wealth and honor, to the love of a liberty which meant opportunity for experiment and adventure, we owe whatever benefits we have derived from Greece and Rome, from Italy and England.” Civilization, he continues, has hitherto consisted in the diffusion and dilution of habits arising in privileged centers. It has not sprung from the people. To abolish a natural aristocracy would be to cut off the sources from which all culture has hitherto flowed. “The one way of defending the democratic ideal,” he concludes, “is to deny that civilization is a good.”
Santayana’s materialism does not blind him from acknowledging a natural order. When he speaks of love, marriage, and the family, one almost has the impression that he is reading a papal encyclical. So too with much of his social theory. Although baptized as a Catholic, whatever instruction Santayana received in that faith was soon trumped by his years at Harvard College if not earlier at the Boston Latin School. At some point in his education David Hume’s agnosticism took hold and remained with him throughout life in spite of the fact that Santayana considered his work to be merely a modern restatement of Aristotle.
His was a truncated Aristotle devoid of immateriality, a first efficient cause, and a self-thinking intellect. “What men attribute to God,” he writes, “is nothing but the ideal they value and grasp for in themselves, and the commandments, mythically said to come from the Most High, flow in fact from common reason and local experience.” Santayana was never a militant atheist.” Although untouched by the gift of faith, given the acuteness of his observations and his innate honesty, Santayana should have reached the plateau of Plato and Aristotle but did not.

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(Dr. Dougherty is dean emeritus of the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.)

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