book cover imageA response to David Dilworth.

David Dilworth’s review in the Spring 2011 University Bookman of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States (Yale UP, 2009) raises important questions about the permanent value and contemporary relevance of Santayana’sanalyses of American culture in particular and about Santayana’s philosophical standing in general. As the editor of the volume, I am proud to have Prof. Dilworth’s endorsement on the book’s back cover, and I am happy to see that in his review he praises the volume as “both a valuable primary sourcebook and a ‘companion’ book.” Prof. Dilworth’s essay, however, makes it clear that he disagrees with me and the other commentators (Wilfred McClay, John Lachs, and Roger Kimball) when we argue that Santayana’s thought offers an especially valuable counterpoint to the ideas and attitudes dominant today in the academy and in the larger culture.

According to Prof. Dilworth, Santayana, far from offering a thoughtful alternative to today’s academic trends, was himself “a forerunner of contemporary postmodernism.” In his view Santayana, failing to take “account of the teeming, buzzing booming burgeoning American continent,” had little insight into American life beyond Harvard and New England. Dilworth also criticizes Santayana’s grasp of American intellectual life, arguing that he mistakenly “downplayed the progress of its intellectual life from Puritanism through Emerson’s Transcendentalism to the leading thinkers of his own day, Charles S. Peirce, William James Josiah Royce, and John Dewey.” He denigrates the value of Santayana’s conception of “English liberty in America,” asserting that Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau surpass Santayana in political insight. Santayana’s treatment is “thoroughly unoriginal” in the light of not only Whitman and company but also the “social contract theory” of Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza.

Prof. Dilworth also criticizes Santayana’s personal opinions, quoting Wilfred McClay’s comment about Santayana’s “surprisingly benign feelings about the Mussolini regime in Italy.” Dilworth cites other evidence, including quotations from my introduction, of what he calls Santayana’s “reactionary attitudes.” In some cases Santayana surely is vulnerable to criticism. In regard to Santayana’s view of Mussolini, however, it should be noted that many figures from across the political spectrum and around the world, including Winston Churchill in Great Britain and prominent New Dealers like Rexford Tugwell and NRA administrator Hugh Johnson in the United States, are on record praising Mussolini. Santayana summed up his own attitude toward the Italian dictator in a 12/8/1950 letter to Corliss Lamont:

Of course I was never a Fascist in the sense of belonging to that Italian party, or to any nationalistic or religious party. But considered, as it is for a naturalist, a product of the generative order of society, a nationalist or religious institution will probably have its good sides, and be better perhaps than the alternative that presents itself at some moment in some place. That is what I thought, and still think, Mussolini’s dictatorship was for Italy in its home government. Compare with the disorderly socialism that preceded or the impotent party chaos that has followed it. . . . But Mussolini was personally a bad man and Italy a half-baked political unit; and the militant foreign policy adopted by Fascism was ruinous in its artificiality and folly. But internally, Italy was until the foreign militancy and mad alliances were adopted, a stronger, happier, and more united country than it is or had ever been. Dictatorships are surgical operations, but some diseases require them, only the surgeon must be an expert, not an adventurer.

Whatever one’s feelings about Santayana’s views of Mussolini, the general pointremains that the insights of philosophical or literary works are not negated because their authors could not always remain true to those insights. It could be argued, indeed, that Santayana’s appreciative analyses of American culture in Character and Opinion in the United States, including his conception of American “English liberty,” are all the more impressive because they go against his own awareness that he himself could never fit into American society, at Harvard or elsewhere. Well aware that “absolute” or “fierce” liberty was more emotionally attractive than “English liberty,” Santayana nevertheless concluded that the latter, despite his own predilections for the former, was “the best heritage of America” originating “from the temperate and manly spirit of England.”

David Dilworth is a learned scholar and a wise man, whom I am proud to call a friend. I believe, however, that his assessment of Santayana’s legacy is in large part mistaken. At least since the publication of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, whose first edition was subtitled “From Burke to Santayana,” the thought of George Santayana has been recognized for its incisive critique of what many leftists celebrate as the central American tradition, the idealist progressivism that found expression in the poetry of Walt Whitman and the pragmatisms of William James and especially John Dewey.

In The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy Santayana gives due credit to Whitman’s originality as “the one American writer who has left the genteel tradition entirely behind.” This is high praise, for Santayana’s famous essay explains that adherence to the “genteel tradition,” with its built-in contradictions, rendered significant thought or expression almost impossible. Yet Santayana, a gifted poet, novelist and literary critic as well as a great philosopher, notes that Whitman, in rejecting genteel culture rejected as well any attempt to discriminate between the better and the worse as undemocratic. In Whitman’s poetry “democracy is carried into psychology and morals,” and the result is a kind of home-grown pantheism that is “unintellectual, lazy, and self-indulgent.” Whitman was indeed a genius but “his poetic genius fell back to the lowest level, perhaps, to which it is possible for poetic genius to fall.” In an earlier essay Santayana observed that Whitman’s refusal in the name of democracy to single out particular qualities or exceptional individuals means, in practice, that his poetry does not tell the story of anybody except the poet himself: “In Whitman’s works . . . there is accordingly not a single character nor a single story. His only hero is Myself.”

In The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy Santayana praises William James for speaking with a candor that made “the cant of the genteel tradition . . . harder for young lips to repeat.” Santayana observes, however, that James’s sympathy for unpopular views, admirable in itself, led him to be suspicious of all attempts to distinguish between true and false, right and wrong, good and bad. As Santayana puts it in Character and Opinion in the United States, “William James shared the passions of liberalism. . . . he was one of those elder Americans still disquieted by the ghost of tyranny, social and ecclesiastical.” To conclude that some ideas are more accurate or truer than others would be undemocratic or, as we might say today, too judgmental. Santayana commented that “Experience seems to most of us to lead to conclusions, but empiricism [James’s preferred name for his outlook] has sworn never to draw them.” James’s refusal as a matter of philosophical principle to carry out what Santayana himself considered “the philosopher’s business” of making explicit his “principles of preference” did not mean that in practice he had no preferences. Like many self-proclaimed skeptics today,James had his own, unacknowledged and thus unexamined, set of values. Santayana observed in Character and Opinion that James “seems to have felt sure that certain thoughts and hopes—those familiar to a liberal Protestantism—were every man’s true friends in life.”

Santayana rejected entirely the pragmatic conception of truth that, as he puts itin Character and Opinion, “has been entangled with more or less hazardous views about truth, such as that an idea is true so long as it is believed to be true, or that it is true if it is good and useful, or that it is not true until it is verified.” For Santayana, on the other hand, “[a]n opinion is true if what it is talking about is constituted as the opinion asserts it to be constituted.” More succinctly, and more memorably, “The truth is all things seen under the form of eternity.” The notion that there is no such a thing as “truth” is, of course, one of the key shibboleths of today’s postmodernist left, whose key doctrines were anticipated by American pragmatism. The late Richard Rorty, one of the most acute thinkers on the academic left, rightly argued that the postmodernism usually associated with European figures like Foucault and Derrida was merely the Continental version of “the doctrines which were purveyed to Americans by James and Dewey.”

Santayana criticized the “genteel tradition” he found ensconced at Harvard because its prestige depended on the willingness of the would-be intellectual elite to ignore the contradictions between its two sources, Calvinism and transcendentalism. In New England before World War I Protestantism was virtually required for membership in the moral and social elite, while an understanding of transcendentalism interpreted along the lines of German idealism demonstrated one’s membership in the intellectual elite. The theology of Luther and Calvin, with its emphasis on human sinfulness, was of course directly opposed to the Emersonian belief that “In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended” and to the romantic idealism according to which God and the universe are human creations. It was considered rude, however, to point out such oppositions, since to do so would raise awkward questions about the claims of the New England elite to intellectual and moral superiority over Catholics, Bible-believing Protestants, non-believers, and anybody unsophisticated enough to believe that there are things that exist and have existed whether or not human beings pay attention to them. The adherents of the genteel tradition were much like postmodernist leftists today, whose claim to intellectual superiority is based on a universal skepticism strangely at odds with a putative moral superiority derived from unquestioning commitment to a variety of professedly moral causes, including redistribution of wealth, feminism, multiculturalism, and radical environmentalism. Contemporary “political correctness” is yesterday’s “genteel tradition” writ large.

If Santayana found much to criticize among the intellectual elite, he found much to praise in the activities of other Americans. The “genteel tradition” stifled significant achievement in academia, but “in invention and industry and social organization” Santayana found that Americans were full of “aggressive enterprise,” building skyscrapers and a new society without waiting for advice from their supposed betters. (Santayana, then, was not entirely insensitive to what Prof. Dilworth calls “the teeming, buzzing booming burgeoning” aspects of American life.) In the last chapter of Character and Opinion in America Santayana praised the “spirit of co-operation, responsibility and growth” that he described as “this liberty in democracy” or as “English liberty” because even in America it was “wholly English in its personal basis, its reserve, its tenacity, its empiricism, its public spirit, and its assurance of its own rightness.” Unlike many European intellectuals and, for that matter, Harvard academics, Santayana found the way of life of the typical American practicing English liberty superior to what any doctrine or theory could prescribe, since “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.” For Santayana “the great advantage of English liberty is that it is harmony with the nature of things.”

American freedom is thus justified without reference to abstract rights or to the social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke, or, more recently, John Rawls. Santayana goes on to distinguish “English liberty” from the “absolute liberty” that defines liberty as absolute adherence to a favored doctrine, whether proclaimed by political revolutionaries or by theocrats. Ten years after 9/11, Santayana’s warning seems prescient: “Martyrs are heroic; but 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.” Even after taking into account the valid objections raised by David Dilworth, it seems there are today more reasons than ever to agree with Russell Kirk’s characterization of Santayana sixty years ago as “nobly sane in a generation of frenzy.”  

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State University, is most recently the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States (Yale, 2009).

In this response to David Dilworth’s review of his edition of two books by Santayana, James Seaton argues that Santayana was attacking the self-contradictions of the political correctness of his day.