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Santayana on liberalism and other matters of interest

Santayana seems to have had an ingrained suspicion of almost everything beginning with “pro”: “professors,” as we’ve seen, but also “Protestantism,” “protégés,” “prophets,” and, above all, perhaps, “progress.” “Those who speak most of progress,” he wrote, “measure it by quantity and not by quality; how many people read and write, or how many people there are, or what is the annual value of their trade; whereas true progress would rather lie in reading or writing fewer and better things, and being fewer and better men, and enjoying life more.” At a time when nearly everyone -- conservative as well as liberal -- has difficulty dissociating the ideas of “more” and “better,” Santayana’s unorthodox remarks are worth pondering.

The philosopher Frederick Olafson noted that there exists in Santayana’s thinking “a pervasive animus against democracy and liberalism.” This is true. And it must be said that about some political matters, Santayana was naïve if not obtuse. In a letter of 1920, for example, he wrote to a former Harvard colleague that “I think to be born under Bolshevism would not be worse than to be born in Boston.” (Moscow, where Stalins speak only to Lenins, and the Lenins speak only to Marx?) But in other respects, Santayana’s traditionalist temperament and passion for individual liberty made him an astute social critic. He was especially penetrating about the contradictions of liberalism. In “The Intellectual Temper of the Age,” he noted that

Liberalism had been supposed to advocate liberty; but what the advanced parties that still call themselves liberal now advocate is control, control over property, trade, wages, hours of work, meat and drink, amusements, and in a truly advanced country like France control over education and religion; and it is only on the subject of marriage . . . that liberalism is growing more and more liberal.

In an important essay called “The Irony of Liberalism,” Santayana dilates on the element of social presumption that stands behind the liberal’s habit of coercion:

No man . . . can really or ultimately desire anything but what the best people desire. This is the principle of the higher snobbery; and in fact, all earnest liberals are higher snobs. If you refuse to move in the prescribed direction, you are not simply different, you are arrested and perverse. The savage must not remain a savage, nor the nun a nun, and China must not keep its wall. If the animals remain animals it is somehow through a failure of the will in them, and very sad. Classic liberty, though only a name for stubborn independence, and obedience to one’s own nature, was too free, in one way, for the modern liberal.

Liberalism in the modern sense (and this brings us back to the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, with which I began) is deeply hostile not only to tradition -- tradition is by definition an impediment to “progress” -- but also to “the wilder instincts of man”: “the love of foraging, of hunting, of fighting, of plotting, of carousing, or of doing penance.” (The inclusion of penance is a characteristic Santayana touch.) The perfect liberal society is one that excludes initiative.

The homogenizing imperative of liberalism has a psychological correlative in abstract moralism. Santayana memorably captures this in a vignette in Persons and Places. Under the rubric “A lesson in morals,” he recalls an episode after lunch one day when he was a young boy. A single piece of cake remained on a plate. He asked his mother whether he might have it. “No,” she said. “It is for the little birds.”

Though it was by no means a fixed habit of hers, she opened the window and spread the crumbs out for the sparrows. She did not care for sparrows, she never watched them or tried to tame them; and that day, having performed her act of zoological benevolence, she closed the window at once, and went upstairs to sit as usual in her own room. . . . I am sure that in her silence she felt that she had given me a lesson in justice and in universal love. She had kept the cake from her son and given it to the sparrows. She was a liberal in politics.

One is tempted to add, after the fashion of his beloved Spinoza, Q.E.D.