George Santayana is a marvelous spiritual cicerone: calm, decorous, quietly insightful in prose that is as elegant as it is disabused. His most famous mot–that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”–seems especially pertinent at the present moment when a corrosive amnesia about the dangers of socialism is epidemic. Among his books, Soliloquies in England and Character and Opinion in the United States are among my favorites (I contribute an essay to a new edition of the latter that Yale University Press is bringing out later this year).
But among his supreme literary and intellectual achievements I would also place his letters. They have been published in eight plump volumes in the new MIT edition of his works. There are many, many gems there, but for the moment I want to share his tart characterization of liberalism in a letter to the magazine editor David Page in May 1937. “Ideas,” Santayana wrote
may be said to govern the world, when they are simply descriptions of the course which events have naturally taken; but to imagine that the world is governed, or ought to be governed, by a special prophetic system of demands, arbitrarily imposed, would be fanatical. Liberalism is still fanaticism, watered down. It hates the natural passions and spontaneous organization of mankind; hates tradition, religion, and patriotism: not because it sees the element of illusion inseparable from these things, but because it has a superficial affection for a certain type of comfortable, safe, irresponsible existence, proper to the second generation of classes enriched by commerce: and this pleasant ideal it expects to impose on all races and all ages for ever. That is an egregious silliness, which cannot be long-lived.
“Fanaticism, watered down,” which “hates tradition, religion, and patriotism,” not because such are human creations but because of its allegiance to “a certain type of comfortable, safe, irresponsible existence, proper to the second generation of classes enriched by commerce” which it proposes to universalize and impose everywhere. An “egregious silliness,” Santayana said, which will will perish soon. The year was 1937. Makes you think, doesn’t it?