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Santayana on liberalism and other matters of interest

Another side of Santayana’s criticism of “egotism” -- and another example of his commendable sanity -- shows itself in his discussion in the last chapter of Character and Opinion of “English Liberty in America.” Just as idealism makes extravagant but unfulfillable claims about metaphysics, so in its understanding of freedom it ups the ante but lacks currency when the bet is called. What Santayana calls “English liberty” is “vague,” “reticent,” and involves “perpetual compromise.” It recognizes that “In the end adaptation to the world at large, where so much is hidden and unintelligible, is only possible piecemeal, by groping with a genuine indetermination in one’s aims.” “Absolute liberty,” by contrast -- “a foolish challenge thrown by a new-born insect buzzing against the universe” -- is reckless, unwavering, and dangerously impatient. The partisans of absolute liberty, Santayana writes, “summoned every man to become free in exactly their own fashion, or have his head cut off.”

As a quick summary of revolutionary ambition, that would be hard to improve upon. What Santayana saw with unusual clarity was that the actual practice of “English liberty” required a widely recognized commonality of interest. “In a hearty and sound democracy,” he notes, “all questions at issue must be minor matters; fundamentals must have been silently agreed upon and taken for granted when the democracy arose.” This is, Santayana saw, an unheroic view of freedom. But it was a stock that had the advantage of offering real dividends as distinct from speculative capital appreciation. English liberty “makes impossible the sort of liberty for which the Spartans died at Thermopylae, or the Christian martyrs in the arena, or the Protestant reformers at the stake.” But then, Santayana drily notes, while martyrs may be heroic, “unless they have the nature of things on their side and their cause can be victorious, their heroism is like that of criminals and madmen, interesting dramatically but morally detestable.”

And what of Santayana’s own view of freedom and the meaning of life? Santayana was a curious hybrid. In one way, he was every bit as radical a thinker as Schopenhauer (whom he greatly admired) or Nietzsche (whom he did not). Ultimately, though, he was the cheerful, affirmative figure that Nietzsche pretended to be but wasn’t. (No one, I think, ever accused Schopenhauer of being cheerful.) What Santayana described as his “scepticism” ran very deep indeed. “The truth is a terrible thing,” he has the vicar of Iffley say in The Last Puritan. “It is much darker, much sadder, much more ignoble, much more inhuman and ironical than most of us are willing to admit, or even able to suspect.”

That is just the sort of thing one might expect to find in Nietzsche (“Truth is ugly,” he declared in The Will to Power). But where Nietzsche engaged in unending histrionics (“God is dead,” Zarathustra, the übermensch), Santayana behaved like a gentleman. Nietzsche described himself as “the Antichrist,” said he was “dynamite,” and presumed to instruct us about “how to philosophize with a hammer.” Santayana was much calmer. He sought no detonations. He wished to smash no idols. He came much closer, in fact, to being the disabused spiritual aristocrat that Nietzsche admired but sweated too much to resemble. “Criticism,” Santayana said, “must first be invited to do its worst.”

But only for the indelicate, he thought, did thoroughgoing criticism lead to nihilism or madness. Out of scepticism came faith, but it was an animal faith, modest, grateful, thoroughly materialistic: disillusioned but also at peace.

There were two interrelated sources of Santayana’s calm. One was his aestheticism. Santayana strove to regard the entire world as a thing of beauty, which is to say a source of pleasure. (In his early book The Sense of Beauty he defined beauty as “pleasure objectified”: inadequate as a definition, no doubt, but useful as a barometer of temperament.) “I can draw no distinction,” he wrote in a mature summing-up, “ -- save for academic programmes--between moral and aesthetic values: beauty being a good, is a moral good; and the practice and enjoyment of art, like all practice and all enjoyment, fall within the sphere of morals--at least if by morals we understand moral economy and not moral superstition.”