The Political Thought of George Santayana

AuthorJean H. Faurot
Date01 September 1961
Published date01 September 1961
Subject MatterArticles
Sacramento State College
does not initially impress us as a likely person to turn to for
wisdom concerning the state. He resembles too much the Cyrenaic Aristip-
pus who, in Dialogues in Limbo, is heard to say: &dquo;I always dwelt in foreign
republics in order to escape the plagues of citizenship.&dquo; 1 Certainly, during his
American residence, he did not soil his hands with politics; and when his finan-
cial position permitted him to resign his Harvard professorship and leave America
for good, he adopted &dquo;the life of a wandering student, like those of the Middle
Ages,&dquo; 2 residing in England, France, and Italy, never in Spain, where his citizen-
ship remained. Ardent souls may wish that, like T. H. Green or Edward Caird
or Bernard Bosanquet, he had shown an interest in the subject by agitating for
temperance or running for the school board.3 But this would have been a con-
tradiction in Santayana. And who takes the philosophy of these men the more
seriously because they were party-workers?
In any case, our image of Santayana is likely to bring into too exclusive focus
his American years. While living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he could afford
to ignore politics, and did. This ceased to be true in Britain, where he resided
during the years of the first world war, or in Italy, where he lived much of the
remainder of his life. A passage in the first dialogue on &dquo;Self-Government,&dquo;
which appeared in the Dial, March 1925, alludes to this change. Socrates says
to the Stranger (i.e., Santayana):
Formerly, if I inquired of you concerning the affairs of your provisional world, you stinted
your answers, and changed the subject; apparently you hardly followed the events of your own
day more closely than we can follow them here by report; and you seemed to feel an indif-
ference (premature on your part) to mortal things, and an early immunity from care. But now
the wasp of actuality seems to have stung you and you bring with you a heavier scent of earth
and of new-shed blood. I am not surprised at your distress ... Let us not miss the opportunity,
then, while we are together, I to hear your tragedy, and you to ponder its moral 4
Santayana’s letters show that he was deeply shaken by the first world war
and by the events which followed. Like many another philosopher, he produced
a war book in which he tried to explain the cause of German aggression, Egotism
in German Philosophy, 1915. And it was then he began work on a volume about
politics which he decided to call Dominations and Powers.5 The work was laid
NOTE: All the works of Santayana were published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, except
as noted.

Dialogues in Limbo (1926), p. 13.
"A General Confession," in The Philosophy of George Santayana, in Paul Arthur Schilpp (ed.),
The Library of Living Philosophers (New York: Tudor, 1951), p. 12.
A. D. Lindsay, "Introduction," T. H. Green, Principles of Political Obligation (London: Long-
mans, Green, 1941), p. xii. "Their understanding of the State came from their serving it as
ordinary citizens."

Dialogues in Limbo, p. 92.
The title had already been selected. See The Letters of George Santayana, ed. Daniel Cory
(1955), pp. 164, 171, hereinafter cited Letters.

aside, to be resumed and concluded only under the impetus of the second world
war. Meanwhile, however, he wrote several articles on political questions, nota-
bly the essays on liberty in Soliloquies in England, and those on self-government
in Dialogues in Limbo.
Yet it would be a mistake to leave the impression that Santayana’s interest
in politics was an accident of his place of residence. The fact is, like the material-
ism which it represents, politics is absolutely fundamental to Santayana’s system,
and was from the beginning. His temperamental bias, to be sure, was toward
things of the spirit - toward poetry and religion, and latterly toward history,
biography, and humorous fiction. But his system, which he maintains went un-
changed even when his sentiments altered, always required that spirit be under-
girded with matter, that humanism be founded on naturalism, and that morality
be made secondary to politics.
This is illustrated by Santayana’s attitude toward Greek philosophy, which
he considered as marking out a kind of orthodoxy.6 He was willing to allow that
the Indians are &dquo;orthodox in transcendental reflection,&dquo; and that this style of
philosophizing is as right in its sphere as Greek naturalism and humanism are in
theirs. Taking the point of view of spirit, they follow it radically to its conclusions
as Western idealists are rarely willing to do. One can admire it, but whether
one can adopt it brings up the question of personal temperament.
Much as I may admire and in a measure emulate spiritual minds, I am aware of following
them non passibus aequis; and I think their ambition, though in some sense the most sublime
open to man, is a very special one, beyond the powers and contrary to the virtues possible to most
men. As for me, I frankly cleave to the Greeks and not to the Indians, and I aspire to be a ra-
tional animal rather than a pure spirit.’
But Greek thought is not all of one piece. As Santayana reads it, the pre-
Socratics, notably Democritus, laid the foundations and traced in classic fashion
the outlines of a naturalistic system which, re-established in the age of Galileo,
has become definitive to our own time. Santayana glories in this tradition. When
Ezra Pound complained that there had been no genuine philosophy in the West
since Pythagoras but &dquo;only philo-epistemologia,&dquo; Santayana replied,
That is true of English and even in part of German speculation, but not of the traditional
philosophy which has died out, in the Church and in many individuals. My friends Lucretius
and Spinoza were not especially epistemologists but had theories of the measure of things, putting
human &dquo;knowledge&dquo; in its placed
Naturalism, however, is only one side of the Greek tradition. We hear Demo-
critus complaining, in Dialogues in Limbo, that the Stranger is a disciple of Plato
as well as of himself. The Stranger replies:
Indeed I am, but without contradiction. In respect to the substance and origin of things I
profess allegiance to you only; in such matters Plato, knowing his own ignorance, was always
playful, inventing or repeating such myths as he thought edifying for children or for patriots. Yet
when he closed his eyes on this inconstant world he was a great seer. I honor and follow him
for what he then saw, which was a heaven of ideas, rich in constellations.’
"A General Confession," pp. 21 f.

Realm of Essence, in Realms of Being (one-volume edition, 1942), p. 65.
To Ezra Pound (February 7, 1950), in Letters, p. 393.

Dialogues in Limbo, p. 29.

Plato, in Santayana’s eyes, represents classic humanism, a kind of &dquo;orthodoxy
in morals&dquo; which parallels and supplements Greek naturalism, the principles of
which were laid down by Socrates, and further elaborated by Aristotle. Note,
what Santayana values in these writers is not their metaphysical notions but only
their inquiries concerning the human good. The &dquo;heaven of ideas&dquo; which Plato
saw is, according to Santayana, neither more nor less than the world of colors,
tastes, smells, figures and rhythms that are immediately given to human con-
sciousness.10 Santayana calls them &dquo;essences&dquo; -
a term broad enough to include
both sense data and intelligible notions. If the naturalistic picture of the world
a play of atoms -
were the whole story, these objects of consciousness would
be only illusions. And they are illusions in fact, according to Santayana, but im-
portant illusions, as Socrates saw. For he rightly judged that the human spirit
feels itself a stranger to the necessity which the naturalists proclaim. Preoccupied
with the good and the bad, spirit requires a different set of principles to bring
order into the matters which most concern it. Socrates applied the tool of
dialectic, developed not so much by the nature-philosophers as by their acosmic
rivals, notably Zeno, to the analysis of ends and to the definition of &dquo;the good.&dquo;
This was the beginning of moral science.
must pause to consider the place of science, indeed of all rational knowl-
edge, in the philosophy of Santayana. We have suggested above that the objects
of consciousness are illusions: but that is ambiguous. Essences are not illusions
if taken for simply what they are - they become illusions when mistaken, as
they are likely to be in the naive consciousness, for properties of things with which
in sense perception they are connected. Poetry is an example of the way mind
can attend to essences without falling...

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