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Santayana on liberalism and other matters of interest

Looking back on his Harvard days in Character and Opinion, he spoke of the new breed of philosophy professor who was “very professional in tone and conscious of his Fach,” “open-minded, whole-hearted, appreciative,” but also -- scarifying phrase -- “toasted only on one side.” It is a devastating portrait:

His education has been more pretentious than thorough; his style is deplorable; social pressure and his own great eagerness have condemned him to overwork, committee meetings, early marriage, premature authorship, and lecturing two or three times a day under forced draught. He has no peace in himself, no window open to a calm horizon, and in his heart perhaps little taste for mere scholarship or pure speculation. Yet, like the plain soldier staggering under his clumsy equipment, he is cheerful; he keeps his faith in himself and in his allotted work, puts up with being toasted only on one side, remains open-minded, whole-hearted, appreciative, helpful, confident of the future of goodness and of science. In a word, he is a cell in that teeming democratic body; he draws from its warm, contagious activities the sanctions of his own life and, less consciously, the spirit of his philosophy.

It is sometimes suggested that William James, Santayana’s teacher and then colleague at Harvard, had been instrumental in poisoning the academic atmosphere for Santayana. This is emphatically not the case. Everyone quotes James’s description of Santayana’s early work as exhibiting a “perfection of rottenness” and “moribund Latinity.” Few supply the context: “The great event in my life recently,” James wrote to a colleague in 1900,

has been the reading of Santayana’s book [Interpretations of Poetry and Religion]. Although I absolutely reject the platonism of it, I have literally squealed with delight at the imperturbable perfection with which the position is laid down. . . . I now understand Santayana, the man. I never understood him before. But what a perfection of rottenness in a philosophy! I don’t think I ever knew the anti-realistic view to be propounded with so impudently superior an air. It is refreshing to see a representative of moribund Latinity rise up and administer such reproof to us barbarians in the hour of our triumph.

James ends by asking that his letter be passed along to Santayana, adding: “He is certainly an extraordinarily distingué writer. Thank him for existing!”

Temperamentally, the two men were complete opposites -- James bluff, hearty, the thorough New England pragmatist in manner as well as philosophical outlook: Santayana the super-refined, sonnet-writing, exquisitely disillusioned Catholic Spaniard. In many ways, Santayana was closer in spirit to William’s brother Henry. They met only once, in England, toward the end of Henry’s life. “In that one interview,” Santayana recalled -- sadly, I think -- he “made me feel more at home and better understood than his brother William ever had done in the long years of our acquaintance. Henry was calm, he liked to see things as they are, and be free afterwards to imagine how they might have been.” High praise from that apostle of clarity animated by subjunctive dispensation.

Despite their differences, however, there was no contemporary to whom Santayana owed more, intellectually, than William James, whose “sense for the immediate,” “for the unadulterated, unexplained, instant fact of experience” Santayana celebrated. The problem with Harvard was not William James but the increasing professional drift of the institution.

Santayana regularly allowed his gaze to wander toward the empyrean. But his feet, and his allegiance, he kept anchored firmly on the ground. In one sense, he was the most worldly of philosophers -- worldliness, in fact, was one part of his urbanity. By the same token, “superstition” was one of his favorite deflationary epithets. But his worldliness was highly, exquisitely cultivated. There was nothing gross, reductive, or triumphalist about it. He was vigorously, even brutally, disillusioned, yet with an irony so scrupulous that his chilliness seems Olympian, not cruel or self-serving. As Robert Dawidoff noted, he was “as detached from what he cherished as from what he criticized.”