Given his patent aversion to idealism and all its works, it is curious that, in “The Genteel Tradition,” Santayana should pause to caution readers that he regarded transcendentalism (a.k.a. “systematic subjectivism,” a.k.a. idealism) not only as something “unforgettable,” “the chief contribution made in modern times to speculation,” but also, considered “as a method,” “correct.” Perhaps he meant nothing more than the tautology that our experience of the world is, after all, our experience of the world. But if transcendentalism “as a method” is somehow “correct,” as a matter of substance it is something perilous indeed, for it inculcates the “the conceited notion that man, or human reason, or the human distinction between good and evil, is the center and pivot of the universe.” (It is also worth pausing over his observation that “Incapacity for education, when united with great inner vitality, is one root of idealism.”)

Santayana provides a bracing hygienic antidote to the intellectual virus of idealism. His inestimable contribution is to remind us, pace idealists of whatever stripe, that when we speak of trees, it is trees of which we speak: not “trees in the mind,” consciousness or experience of trees. In the end, his interest in philosophy was for the reality it revealed — and for the relief that it promised. In an important reply to his critics from 1940, Santayana summed up the nature of his interest in philosophy:

I have never been curious to make more accurate the rough views that common information gives us of the physical world and of human history. Increase in such world knowledge may enlarge and strengthen the mind, or may distract and confuse it. The use of philosophy . . . is to distil the wine out of those trodden grapes, in order that in whatever kind of world we may be living, we may live freely in the spirit. The relief that I find . . . does not come, as in religious faith, through trust in any higher facts. It comes through liberation from anxiety, from the need of faith, and from the very problem of knowledge. I then espouse precisely the transcendental logic that [one of Santayana’s interpreters, Antonio] Banfi recommends; only it never crosses my mind to mistake this play of ideas for knowledge, or to suppose that it miraculously reveals to me the logic of history or the necessary problems of all thought.

Santayana was a generous purveyor of that most uncommon benefice, common sense. But if in his metaphysics he was a thoroughly naturalistic thinker, he came armed with a remarkable aesthetic sensibility and native appreciation of the imaginative resources that religion offered. Religions, he insisted, “are the great fairy-tales of the conscience.” Nevertheless he also believed that religions are indispensable, not least because they nurture the emotion of piety, “Man’s reverent attachment to the sources of his being and the steadying of his life by that attachment.” Santayana was the enemy of religion considered as dogma, as a repository of moral commandments or “literal” truth. (Santayana had little time, probably too little time, for what he dismissed as “literal truth.” “My matured conclusion,” he wrote, “is that no system is to be trusted, not even science in any literal or pictorial sense.”)

But he also saw in religion an irreplaceable friend of human yearning. Its disappearance, hailed as an emancipation, actually brought forth new forms of bondage. “The absence of a positive religion,” he wrote in “A General Confession,” a late summary of his philosophy, “was very far from liberating the spirit for higher flights: on the contrary, it opened the door to the pervasive tyranny of the world over the soul.” When he looked around at the increasing secularization of the modern world, Santayana saw that the degradation of religion went hand-in-hand with the diminishment of culture. In “The Intellectual Temper of the Age,” Santayana forlornly describes the dissolution of Christianity and the rise of “an emancipated, atheistic, international democracy.”

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. Even prelates and missionaries are hardly sincere or conscious of an honest function, save as they devote themselves to social work.

It goes without saying that he did not regard this development as a sign of spiritual health.