Santayana attempted to provide a philosophical justification for this thoroughgoing aestheticism with what he called his doctrine of “essences.” How do we know that what we believe is true is true? what we find beautiful is in fact beautiful? Are we not everywhere besieged by error and illusion? Yes, but Santayana proposes to
entertain the illusion without succumbing to it, accepting it openly as an illusion, and forbidding it to claim any sort of being but that which it obviously has; and then . . . it will not deceive me. What will remain of this non-deceptive illusion will then be a truth, and a truth the being of which requires no explanation, since it is utterly impossible that it should be otherwise.
How convincing is this? Not very. The fact that we embrace an illusion as an illusion does not automatically grant it the patent of truth. But it is worth noting that Santayana’s criterion of trustworthiness is a quality often accorded to aesthetic and religious experience, namely the conviction that contingency, if but momentarily, had been defeated. It is also worth noting that it is not an attitude peculiar to Santayana. His old student, Wallace Stevens, for example, advocated something similar when he wrote that “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and you believe in it willingly.”
There are many problems with Santayana’s (and Stevens’s) aestheticism. The chief problem is its subjectivity. By locating the criterion of morality and truth in a species of pleasurable sensation, Santayana in effect denies them any public measure. This means that — I won’t call it the validity, but the attractiveness of Santayana’s ideal depends largely on the quality of the individual espousing it. In the delicate hands of a Santayana this doctrine might provide a workable philosophy of life. Not everyone has the sensibility, the discipline, the restraint to make “all practice and all enjoyment fall within the sphere of morals.”
The relation between enjoyment and restraint brings us to the other source of Santayana’s calm, his Epicureanism. Colloquially, “epicurean” is often used to mean “devoted to sensuous pleasure.” In fact, though, Epicureanism is a deeply ascetic philosophy. It is devoted to pleasure, but pleasure understood as the absence of pain. The goal is ataraxia: privative tranquility: at peace because not disturbed by emotional tumult. Not so much happiness as invulnerability. “I have the Epicurean contentment,” Santayana wrote to one of his correspondents in 1936, “which is not far removed from asceticism.”
Santayana early on learned to regard the world as a threat that could be best countered by holding it at bay. The phrase “a detached observer” recurs frequently in his writings. It names not simply an intellectual ideal but an emotional imperative. “The moral pageantry of this world,” Santayana wrote, “is calculated wonderfully to strengthen and refine the philosophy of abstention suggested to Epicurus by the flux of material things and by the illusions of vulgar passions.”
Which passions were not vulgar? Those that did not collude to involve us emotionally–the dispassionate passions of observation, retrospection, and amused noninvolvement. In the 1890s, one of Santayana’s colleagues at Harvard noted that “Santayana impressed us as an onlooker in the world more than a sharer in its struggle.”
It was an impression that Santayana was careful to cultivate, and it nurtured the reputation he had (despite his conspicuous financial generosity) for emotional chilliness. Daniel Cory reports that in 1931 when he told Santayana about the death of his old friend Frank Russell, the philosopher “reacted not at all.” Taken aback, Cory asked: “Mr. Santayana, if I dropped dead in front of you at this moment, would you be emotionally moved at all?” To which Santayana replied: “You should not ask me personal questions.” Santayana later added that he had known Russell “long ago,” etc., but the impression of glacial noli me tangere persisted.