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Santayana: a prophet of our time.

AS against the many false prophets of our time, as superficial as they are vulgar, there stands out one whose analysis of the age and forecast of the way things have been and are going have been proved by events to be more correct and deeper in insight than anyone else. This is the philosopher George Santayana.

It is the less surprising in that he was a pure Spaniard, who was trained and professed philosophy for many years at Harvard -- though he preferred Oxford and to spend the rest of his life as a wandering schollar observing and diagnosing society all around Europe. So we should aling him with those independent Spanish thinkers, Unamono and Ortega y Gasset, not with Anglo-Sasons like William James or Bertrand Russell, of whom however he was a friend. Thus Santayana's view of the world, its peoples and ways, is singularly objective and ecumenical, outside of any national or sectarian prejudice. His insights are all the more penetrating. He defined intelligence as the power to see things as they are; few have it, but no one ever lived up to it more completely, or expressed it so fully in philosophic and social thought, in literature, or again on art.

Santayana was a citizen of the world, though he liked living best in Paris or Oxford, in England (except for thhe climate) or Italy. He observed national characteristics sympathetically from the outside. Though a philosopher, he regarded various peoples' philosophies as, rather, expressions of their inner characters. For example, English empiricism, American pragmatism, French rationalism, German philosophic |Idealism'. He had great respect for the Catholic tradition, and also for Indian philosophy.

What is remarkable about him is how right he was, how vorsichtig, decades before other people foresaw the dangers impending -- on Nationalism, for example. Before 1914, when there was something of a common European civilisation, Santayan diagnosed: |Nationalism has become an omnivorous, all-permeating passion. Local parliaments must be everywhere established, extinct or provincial dialects must be galvanised into national languages, religion must be fostered where it emphasises nationality'.

What he observed at the beginning of our century -- Santayan rightly calls it |this catasrophic century' -- is still more true of the end of it. Not only the assertiveness of small nationalism, but in religion the revival of Russian Othodoxy, Polish Catholicism, Islamic Fundamentalism in Iran, and elsewhere, Hindu Fundamentalism in India, Here Santayana's diagnosis was much truer to the facts than was the contemptuous refusal of Marxism to recognise nationalism in theory or practice. This was understandable in a cosmopolitan Jew like Marx, though himself an obvious expression of dual German and Jewish characteristics.

Santayana remarked that a factor in the assertieness of nationalism is that people feel it the only distinction they have left in a demotic equalising world. I have noticed something of that in the inferiority-complex of the little people pushing Cornish nationalism. On a far larger scale I remember a Czech in the dreadful 1930s observing, |Ein Deutscher ist dreimal Deutsch'.

Santayana diagnosed the essence of Deutschtum, the character of its spirit, in his remarkable book, Egotism in German Philosophy, long before its explosion, in the more appalling circumstances of a demotic age, in Nazism. He begins with a proper distinction between Egotism and Egoism. Egoism is the natural concern of every creature in and for himself or itself. Egotism is the deliberate cult of |subjectivity in philosophy and wilfulness in morals, which is the soul of German philosophy'. He follows this up with a diagnosis--simply astonishing before 1914--of what was the trouble in the German soul:

The transcedental theory of a world merely imagined by the ego,

and the will that deems itself absolute, are certainly desperate

delusions ... The thing bears all the marks of a new religion. The fact

that the established religions of Germany are still forms of Christianity

may obscure the explicit and heathen character of the new faith: it

passes for the faith of a few extremists, when in reality it dominates

the judgment and conduct of the nation. It has its prophets in the

great philophers and historians of the last century; its high priests

and pharisees in the Government and the professors; its faithful

flock in the disciplined mass of the nation; its heretics in the Socialists;

its dupes in the Catholics and the Liberals, to both of whom, if they

understood it, the national creed would be an abomination. It has its

marttyrs now by the million, for its victims, in some degree, are all


That was written amid the holocaust of the First World War, which decimated the upper classes in Britain, still more in France, devitalised by it for a whole generation. It is extraordinary that this philosophic observer should have seen through the trapping of the comparatively respectable Kaiser' Germany, if military and aggressive, to the real motor-force within, the drive to dominate Europe.

Santayana could read the purpose behind it all. Twenty years later, in September 1939, he saw, |this Second German War i expected to settle again what was supposed to be settled for ever by the first, and to settle it in exactly the same way', i.e. the German domination of Europe by force. And by the same creed as he had analysed before, only vulgarised by Hitler for a demotic society, brought out into the light of day and rendered all the more effective for the credulous masses.

There it all was, the superiority of the Herrenvolk, racialism and all. The philosophers Fichte and Hegel had told the German people modestly that they were |called by Providence to occupy the supreme place in the history of the universe'. At Christmas 1940 the Nazi leader Frank, called by Providence to exterminate Jews and Poles in Poland, broadcast the message in clearer personal terms: |God's greatest gift to man is to have been born a German'. However, though Santayana diagnosed the diabolism in their philosophy, he did not foresee -- no one could have foreseen -- the consequences in the maniac determination to exterminate a whole people, the ancient Jews of Europe.

In fact no one would take notice of Santayana's precise and prophetic warnings: he tells us that this book of his was |totally neglected'. Several times, in those dreadul years of the run-up to the second German attempt, I tried to draw attention to the book as essential reading. All in vain: no one wanted to hear. In intellectual circles, as in financial and political, a definite, if bemused, pro-Germanism prevailed. A politically detached observer, Lord Clark, bears witness to it. When studying in Dresden he observed (as I did in Munich) that |the industry and docility of this marvellous people was already directed to a destructive end. Why didn't everyone recognise it?' The murder campaign of June 1934, early in Hitler's regime, should have told them its nature; |but this, and the subsequent horrors, seemed to make no impression at all on these rich, respectable men'. When Clark |ventured to mention them' to Mr. Chamberlain, |All propaganda', he replied. Neither he, nor any member of his Cabinet, had read Mein Kampf. This offered not only a guide to what Hitler intended, but may be regarded as a vulgar text by an autodidact of genius summarising the consequences of the egotistic tradition of German philosophy.

We do not need to go into the detailed philosophic tenets--Santayana does that for us. We need note only contemptuus dismissal of other peoples' thought. Locke, for example, mosot characteristic of English thinkers in his common-sense and moderation, is dimmissed by Fichte as |the worst of philosophers'. Freiheit to him meant freedom from restraint, to impose their will on others. Will is supreme; German Idealist philosophy is a transcendent inner dream of what the world is like (as in fact it is not!), which the enormous energy of that |marvellous people' then imposes upon the unfortunate external world. |And how should these fables [of racialism etc.] seem plausible unless they expressed something congruous with the people's heart?' Santayana notes, not without sympathy, the tragic element in it--in its most explicit exponent, Schopenhauer, when it breaks or when the true facts of the external universe break it (as in 1945), |he wilfully invites the Will to abolish itself and extinguish the world'. We can recognise here Hitler's abnormal will, his constant emphasis upon it; and when it fails the calling down of Gotterdammerung upon the ruins of the appalling dream.

Hitler's criminal world was some decades away from the respected (if not wholly respectable) world of Hegel, Bismarck and Treitschke, with his |hysterical hatred of England', as Santayana describes it. It was inspired of course by envy. (Alas, no reason for that today.) Fichte held that it was Germany's role to lead to world into the next age. Something in that came true--ironically, for we may say that the resort to force with their two was speeded up the processes of history and set in motion the terrorism and violence, the massacres and holocausts, that have become characteristic of the twentieth century.

Santayana regarded |democracy' as characteristic of our century. We may describe it more precisely as the coming of the massess to the forefront of society, politics, |culture', everywhere and in every field. |Our whole life and mind is saturated with the slow upward filtration of a new spirit--that of an emancipated, atheistic, international democracy.' He was writing that before 1914, when the movement may have been slow; it has become faster since: emancipation has become anarchy, for everywhere the masses are out of hand, amid social and moral breakdown. Of the early stages he says, |in vain do we deprecate it; it has possession of us already through our propensities, fashions, and language. Our very plutocrats and monarchs are at ease only when they are vulgar'.

It was odd that revolutions, |so destructive, stupid, and bloody, should be prompted by theories concerning inevitable progress in the world'. At this moment we are seeing that reflection borne out by the breakdown of the promise of |progress'--the most outrageous experiment in social engineering--announced by Lenin's Revolution of 1917. The historian may reflect how much more real progress Russia would have achieved if it had never taken place.

As for progress, Santayana diagnosed even then, |in the fine arts, in religion and philosophy, we are in full career towards disintegration'. The process has gone much further since his time. And why? |The comprehensive sort of greatness [of the Renaissance, or even of the 19th century] is impossible in an age when moral confusion is pervasive, when characters are undecided, when thought is weak and the flux of things overwhelms it.' For the artist as such he held that modernist experiments and demonstration |cannot absolve an artist from the need of having an important [we may add, significant] subject matter and a sane humanity'. This is a modest expectation when one considers the Modernist Mafia everywhere, reducing art beyond, or below, the human scale. Consider the later work of Picasso, after |Guernica', so much of contemporary American painting, let alone the express horrors of German Expressionism.

Nor had he much use for philosophy and philosophising--any more than the philosopher Wittgenstein had. Santayana regarded the real intellectual achievements of our age to be in science and in history. |Every philosopher says that he is pursuing the truth, but this is seldom the case. Those who are genuinely concerned in discovering what happens to be true are rather the men of science, the naturalists, the historians. And ordinarily they discover it, according to their lights.'

Thus it is hardly suprising that, at the end of his long wandering, Santayana thought that he might have done better to have been an historian. It is true that his philosophy has a certain historical character, and he was a great respecter of tradition--of that of the Catholic Church, for example. Hence he exonerated the Catholic tradition in Germany from the burden resting upon the specifically German creed, which he traced back to the Reformation. Nor is it surprising that he regarded the historian as a more reliable interpreter of the historical scene. For a great historian can draw lessons for the future while preserving the story of the past.
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Title Annotation:George Santayana
Author:Rowse, A. L.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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