George Santayana on Liberalism and the Spiritual Life

By Corey, David D. | Modern Age, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

George Santayana on Liberalism and the Spiritual Life


Corey, David D., Modern Age


ANYONE WHO CONSULTS THE ARCHIVES of the late philosopher Eric Voegelin can read the surprising, and to some minds frustrating, letter that Voegelin wrote to the historian George H. Nash. Nash, who had just completed work on The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, had written to Voegelin for a photograph to include in the book. The letter Nash received in reply could not have been anticipated: "Just because I am not stupid enough to be a liberal," Voegelin responded tersely, "does not mean that I am stupid enough to be a conservative." And so the attempt to label this great contemporary defender of ordered liberty a "conservative" was frustrated. Nash nevertheless included Voegelin in his book--appropriately, it seems to me--but the use of the label had to be dropped.

The situation is similar with another important figure in the history of conservatism: the philosopher and man of letters George Santayana (1863-1952), whom Russell Kirk includes in The Conservative Mind. While in later editions Kirk's work was subtitled "From Burke to Eliot," in its first edition the subtitle read, "From Burke to Santayana." Santayana was in many ways a profoundly important American conservative, even though he was neither wholly American nor perfectly conservative. Indeed, this Spanish-born writer once described himself as "a Mephistopheles masquerading as a conservative." He defended the past because "once it had been victorious and had brought something beautiful to light;" but he was in no way wedded to the past. (1) Writing to Sidney Hook in the 1930s, Santayana claimed that

   I am not a conservative in the sense of being afraid of revolutions,
   like Hobbes, or thinking order, in the sense of peace, the highest
   good; and I am not at all attached to things as they are, or as they
   were in my youth. But I love order in the sense of organized,
   harmonious, consecrated living: and for this reason I sympathize with
   the Soviets and Fascists and the Catholics, but not at all with the
   liberals. I should sympathize with the Nazis too, if their system
   were, even in theory, founded on reality; but it is Nietzschean,
   founded on Will: and therefore a sort of romanticism gone mad, rather
   than a serious organization of material forces--which would be the
   only way, I think, of securing moral coherence.... I hope that (the
   Soviets) may succeed in establishing a great new order of society,
   definite, traditional and self-justified. (2)

These are not the words of any usual sort of conservative; but they are, as Kirk understood, the words of a certain kind of conservative. Exactly what kind of conservative was Santayana?

I

Santayana was born in Madrid to parents who separated only a few years after his birth. He spent most of his boyhood years in Spain, in the Castilian town of Avila, but at the age of nine he moved to join his mother in Boston, where he attended the Boston Latin School and Harvard College. At Harvard he studied with William James and, after a two-year hiatus in Germany, wrote a dissertation on Rudolf Lotze under the direction of the great American idealist Josiah Royce. He was thus exposed to some of the finest philosophical minds of his age--empiricists, pragmatists, idealists--though he was not especially attached to any of them. In fact, Santayana was not especially attached to anyone or any place, perhaps because of his unusual position as an outsider--a Spaniard and a lapsed (or lapsing) Catholic in a predominantly Protestant environment. His philosophical and literary style was also decidedly his own.

He describes his philosophy in various writings as a variety of materialism, but this characterization can be misleading. Materialism did not mean for Santayana that nothing exists except sensations, or that nothing exists except matter. It meant, rather, that matter is at all times the root cause of occurrences in nature and the sine qua non of all human experience. …

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