Yesterday, I mentioned that I had recently been out in Colorado chatting with some friends about the work of Michael Oakeshott. One name that keep popping up was that of George Santayana, the philosopher everyone knows from his famous saying about those not knowing history having to repeat it. The little melodrama of the week plays itself out in Washington, D.C., and those we’ve duly elected to bilk us, enrich themselves, and mishandle the nation’s business set about their daily rounds of grandstanding and vote getting, Santayana offers a welcome alternative to that noisy spectacle. I think, for example, of his observation “free government works well in proportion as government is superfluous.” Tell that to a busybody politician or government regulator (or NSA snoop).
Anyway, a year or two ago I had occasion to supply an essay for Yale’s new edition of Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States and “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy.” Looking at the display of petulance that is our political life today, I thought it might be worth posting an edited (though still longish) version of that essay, and accordingly, do so herewith.
I called the piece “Mental Hygiene and Good Manners,” implying that we could do with a bit more of both. Santayana, by and large, is a good source for those virtues, and our public life, as well as our private satisfaction, can benefit from a little more Santayana and a little less CNN, etc.
George Santayana was one of the most urbane philosophers ever to put pen to paper. He was also one of the sanest practitioners of the philosopher’s craft and (as it often is) sullen art.
Admittedly, that may not be saying a great deal. You do not have to read far in the corpus of philosophical speculation to appreciate that neither urbanity nor sanity — especially not sanity — has generally been much prized by homo philosophicus. There are exceptions, of course. Plato and Descartes were nothing if not urbane; Hume was commendably sane. But as a rule philosophers have demonstrated by their practice — if not always by their prescriptions — that they adulate other mental and moral qualities: profundity, for example, or at least the appearance thereof, as well as a certain ferocious verbal dexterity and obtuse cleverness in the juggling of concepts. (“Anyway, I’d rather be right than clever,” said a brittle English clubman. “I’d rather be both than neither,” came the withering rejoinder.)
Whether all this speaks well of philosophy is a question that we can (as the phenomenologists say) bracket. My point is only that Santayana — the Spanish-born, Boston-bred, Harvard educated cosmopolite — stands out as an unusual specimen in the philosophical fraternity. He wrote beautifully, for one thing, commanding a supple yet robust prose that was elegant but rarely precious or self-infatuated.