Santayana: A Prophet of Our Time

By Rowse, A. L. | Contemporary Review, June 1992 | Go to article overview

Santayana: A Prophet of Our Time


Rowse, A. L., Contemporary Review


AS against the many false prophets of our time, as superficial as they are vulgar, there stands out one whose analysis of the age and forecast of the way things have been and are going have been proved by events to be more correct and deeper in insight than anyone else. This is the philosopher George Santayana.

It is the less surprising in that he was a pure Spaniard, who was trained and professed philosophy for many years at Harvard -- though he preferred Oxford and to spend the rest of his life as a wandering schollar observing and diagnosing society all around Europe. So we should aling him with those independent Spanish thinkers, Unamono and Ortega y Gasset, not with Anglo-Sasons like William James or Bertrand Russell, of whom however he was a friend. Thus Santayana's view of the world, its peoples and ways, is singularly objective and ecumenical, outside of any national or sectarian prejudice. His insights are all the more penetrating. He defined intelligence as the power to see things as they are; few have it, but no one ever lived up to it more completely, or expressed it so fully in philosophic and social thought, in literature, or again on art.

Santayana was a citizen of the world, though he liked living best in Paris or Oxford, in England (except for thhe climate) or Italy. He observed national characteristics sympathetically from the outside. Though a philosopher, he regarded various peoples' philosophies as, rather, expressions of their inner characters. For example, English empiricism, American pragmatism, French rationalism, German philosophic |Idealism'. He had great respect for the Catholic tradition, and also for Indian philosophy.

What is remarkable about him is how right he was, how vorsichtig, decades before other people foresaw the dangers impending -- on Nationalism, for example. Before 1914, when there was something of a common European civilisation, Santayan diagnosed: |Nationalism has become an omnivorous, all-permeating passion. Local parliaments must be everywhere established, extinct or provincial dialects must be galvanised into national languages, religion must be fostered where it emphasises nationality'.

What he observed at the beginning of our century -- Santayan rightly calls it |this catasrophic century' -- is still more true of the end of it. Not only the assertiveness of small nationalism, but in religion the revival of Russian Othodoxy, Polish Catholicism, Islamic Fundamentalism in Iran, and elsewhere, Hindu Fundamentalism in India, Here Santayana's diagnosis was much truer to the facts than was the contemptuous refusal of Marxism to recognise nationalism in theory or practice. This was understandable in a cosmopolitan Jew like Marx, though himself an obvious expression of dual German and Jewish characteristics.

Santayana remarked that a factor in the assertieness of nationalism is that people feel it the only distinction they have left in a demotic equalising world. I have noticed something of that in the inferiority-complex of the little people pushing Cornish nationalism. On a far larger scale I remember a Czech in the dreadful 1930s observing, |Ein Deutscher ist dreimal Deutsch'.

Santayana diagnosed the essence of Deutschtum, the character of its spirit, in his remarkable book, Egotism in German Philosophy, long before its explosion, in the more appalling circumstances of a demotic age, in Nazism. He begins with a proper distinction between Egotism and Egoism. Egoism is the natural concern of every creature in and for himself or itself. Egotism is the deliberate cult of |subjectivity in philosophy and wilfulness in morals, which is the soul of German philosophy'. He follows this up with a diagnosis--simply astonishing before 1914--of what was the trouble in the German soul:

The transcedental theory of a world merely imagined by the ego,

and the will that deems itself absolute, are certainly desperate

delusions .

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